iPad Air hands-on review: slimmed down, powered up

The new iPad is gorgeous and powerful, but lacks that one new piece of killer functionality [UPDATE: now with video]
iPad Air hands-on review

Apple's done it again. The iPad Air is much slimmer, a whole heap lighter and comes with all the chamfered edges and curved aluminium corners that made us fall head-over-heels for the iPad Mini last year.

It's also, on paper, much more powerful than 2012's iPad 4, borrowing the 64-bit innards from the iPhone 5s to boost graphical and processing performance.

But for some reason, it leaves out a few key bits and pieces of iPhone 5s functionality, and we're a little flummoxed as to why. Here are our first impressions.

The most beautiful full-size tablet money can buy

iPad Air beauty shot
iPad Air in hand

To hold an iPad Air is to experience true gadget lust. Like the iPad Mini it takes design cues from, it's a lovely little thing - the space shaved off the bezels make it feel impressively small, and it's amazingly light. At 7.5mm it's also the exact same thickness as the new iPad Mini 2.

The finish is every bit as good as we've come to expect from Apple: all laser-cut chamfers and expertly milled holes. The space grey finish cuts a nice dash in real life, but you won't lose sleep if you get the silver one for Christmas.

By making the Air this goddamn sexy, Apple's competing with itself: we'd be amazed if this new design didn't encourage a few potential iPad Mini customers to dig a little deeper into their wallets.

Still a stunning screen

iPad Air screen
iPad Air Infinity Blade 3

It wasn't broke, Apple didn't fix it. Although on paper bested by on pixel density by the likes of the Google Nexus 10, Nexus 7 and, now, iPad Mini 2, the iPad Air's Retina Display is a display to be proud of. It's crisp, vibrant and doesn't exhibit the merest hint of ghosting in fast-moving apps such as Infinity Blade 3.

Power in spades, although you wouldn't know it

iPad Air no Touch ID

The only way we could tell the iPad Air in front of us packed a 64-bit A7 chip was the 32 recording tracks available in GarageBand. Otherwise, iOS 7 flowed just as it does on the iPad 4 - with no noticeable stutter. 

Maps is fast and fluid, demanding games make no impact, video editing in iMovie took no time to render. It'll take more 64-bit ready apps, such as the CAD one demoed in the keynote video, to really show what the A7 can do. But based on our experience of the 5s, this is a chip that can hold its own with the finest Snapdragon, Exynos and Tegra silicon.

The odd thing is that the iPhone 5s leveraged the A7 to do a few neat things besides making the experience that bit slicker. First is TouchID fingerprint scanning, which is absent in this device. The second is slow-mo video recording.

We can understand the lack of TouchID, but the lack of slow-mo seems likely to be down to a hardware limitation we're not aware of. Otherwise you just would include it, wouldn't you?

Look, don't touch

OK, I got this wrong: I predicted the iPad Air would include the TouchID tech we so enjoy on the iPhone 5s. The ability to unlock the phone and buy stuff with a touch is a genuine life enhancement (albeit a little one). We got so excited about it, we came up with 9 genius uses for the tech of our own.

But there's no TouchID here. The decision to leave it out might have been a cost-saving exercise or a space-saving exercise, but there's probably more to it than that. iPads are often family devices that you wouldn't necessarily want to lock to specific people's digits, for example.

Either way, Apple no doubt focused grouped the hell out of its usage scenarios before deciding whether to include it or not. However it came to the decision, I'd rather have it on my next iPad.

Camera: not the ideal testing environment

iPad Air camera app
iPad Air camera

You can shoot straight, square or video on the camera app: no panorama, no slow-mo (as mentioned), and the burst mode isn't anywhere near as quick as that of the 5s. This is not a big deal for us, but it is curious that Apple would leave such functionality out.

We took a few quick snaps in the dark demo environment. The 5MP BSI sensor actually put in a decent performance (at least based on what we could see on-screen), but we'll need more time (and, ideally, a nice holiday somewhere sunny) to find out what it's capable of.

The iOS 7 we know and rather like

iPad Air iOS 7 iPhoto

We're still quite taken with iOS 7, and it performs very nicely on the A7 silicon inside the iPad Air. For more info on the iOS 7 experience, click here.

Initial verdict

This is a beautiful new iPad: more desirable than any previous generation, and we've no doubt it'll sell in its quadrillions for the $499 (RM1,585) asking price (16GB Wi-Fi version).

But we think a couple of opportunities were missed. Although far from a necessary upgrade, we would have liked TouchID, and including it would have given the Air an additional point of differentiation from the Android hordes.

Nevertheless, first impressions suggest it's an iPad 4-beating device, and according to our Top 10 that makes the iPad Air the best tablet money can buy right now. Is it a must-upgrade? If you have an iPad 4, no: the experience isn't vastly different, although the hardware is dramatically smaller. If you're on an iPad 3 or earlier, you'll certainly notice the speed bump. Anything older that that and it's high time to enter the age of Retina screens (you'll get that nice skinny bezel as a bonus).

Will you be upgrading? Let us know what you think of the iPad Air below.