REVIEW: iPad Air

Impossibly thin and light, yet more powerful than ever, the iPad Air proves that Apple hasn't lost its way in the post-Jobs era.

Graph for REVIEW: iPad Air

In terms of design the iPad Air is basically an overgrown iPad mini. It seems the little iPad that Steve Jobs said we didn't need is now driving the design of its big brother. The result is an engineering marvel; a full-sized 9.7-inch iPad which you can easily forget you're holding.

Last year's 7.9-inch iPad mini crossed the threshold where the hardware is so thin and light that it becomes invisible in your hand. Sacrificing screen inches seemed like a reasonable price to pay, but the new 9.7-inch iPad Air somehow manages to perform the same feat.

iPads 2 through 4 employ rather pronounced bevelled sides, meaning they have a razor-thin edge which curves back gradually until the iPad reaches its full width. At first glance the iPad Air appears to have straight sides. Look closer and you can tell that it is still curved, to help it sit comfortably in your hand. But the curve drops away very quickly to reach the iPad's full width, similar to the iPad mini's design.

The 7.5mm thickness of the iPad Air is impressive – around 20 per cent thinner than last year's 9.7-inch iPad 4. The Air is actually just as thin as this year's iPad mini Retina, although the new Retina mini is 0.3mm thicker than last year's mini. It's an amazing transformation since the first-generation iPad, which was considered incredibly thin and light in its day.

Each generation of full-sized iPads have had a smaller footprint than the last, thanks to the shrinking bezel around the screen. The iPad Air is 16.2mm narrower and 1.2mm shorter than last year's iPad 4. That's handy but it's the weight loss which is truly astounding, shedding almost 30 per cent to get it down to 469 grams. The change makes the new iPad much more comfortable to hold in one hand for extended periods. It will also suit small children who perhaps found the bulk of the previous full-sized iPads cumbersome compared to the iPad mini.

To be honest the iPad 4 was already feeling a little heavy if you were used to using an iPad mini. The iPad Air redesign is amazing, still managing to feel elegant and sturdy rather than cheap and flimsy. The Air also adopts the iPad mini's dual speaker design, along with cosmetic changes such as separate volume buttons rather than one long rocker switch.

More than just an upgrade

Of course there's more to the iPad Air than just a slender new design. Under the bonnet it packs Apple's new A7 chip, introduced with the iPhone 5S. It's designed to support 64-bit architecture and OpenGL ES version 3.0 graphics, plus it comes with the M7 motion coprocessor for offloading accelerometer, gyroscope and compass calculations. All this makes for more than an incremental upgrade, it's a whole new platform which lays the foundation for the next generation of iDevices.

The A6X chip in the iPad 4 is no slouch but the iPad Air clearly outshines it, with a 25 per cent performance boost under Rightware Browsermark 2.0 and 70 per cent improvement under SunSpider Javascript. That extra grunt shines through when loading complicated web pages in Safari. You'll also notice that apps load faster and graphics-intensive games run a little more smoothly.

Apple's pre-installed apps have been rewritten to take advantage of the A7 chip's 64-bit architecture and a handful of third-party apps have already followed suit – helping with both performance and battery life. The difference between the iPad Air and its predecessors will become more noticeable as more third-party apps embrace 64-bit architecture.

Wireless connectivity is another area where the iPad Air is a step up from last year's offering. The iPad Air and iPhone 5S don't feature 802.11ac wi-fi, even though it's built into the latest generation of MacBooks and Airport Extreme base stations. The lack of 802.11ac is not really a surprise when you consider that iGadgets were also slower to embrace 802.11n than Apple's other gear.

Compensating for the lack of 802.11ac in the iPad Air is support for 802.11n MIMO (Multiple-In-Multiple-Out) networking, allowing for multiple connections to improve wireless performance. It supports up to 300 Mbps but of course that's a theoretical maximum and your mileage may vary. To get the best results you'll also need a router which supports at least 300 Mbps MIMO devices – the latest Airport Extreme upgraded to 450 Mbps support to cater for the latest Macs.

The iPad Air is also compatible with a wider range of LTE networks around the world, although Optus says that the Air is not compatible with its dual-band "4G Plus" network. The iPad Air can connect to Optus' 1800 MHz FD-LTE network but can't roam across to its new 2300 MHz TD-LTE network. It's also worth noting that the iPad Air now relies on a nano-SIM card like the iPhones, rather than a micro-SIM card.

Where's the killer feature?

All up it's an impressive overhaul but there's no killer feature to get excited about like a higher resolution camera, sharper screen or new fingerprint reader. There are little differences of note, such as the stereo speakers on the bottom edge of the tablet which offer slightly richer sound. The front and rear cameras also present a slightly wider field of vision with noticeably less grain and improved colours in better low-light conditions.

It's still a 5-megapixel ƒ/2.4 aperture rear camera but, as with the iPhone 5S, the camera relies on a new sensor with larger pixels to reduce image noise. The iPad Air also adds a second microphone for noise-cancelling.

So what's the verdict? There's no killer feature here. The changes really revolve around form factor and performance. But you shouldn't dismiss the iPad Air as an incremental update. The new hardware isn't just a delight to hold, it also takes the iPad to the next performance level and sets the foundation for things to come.

If you've got an iPad 3 or 4 you wouldn't dump it on the nature strip in favour of the iPad Air, not unless your old iPad is starting to weigh heavy on your wrists. But if you're still running a pre-Retina iPad which is starting to feel its age then the iPad Air is the upgrade you've been waiting for.