Thursday, November 28, 2013

iPad Air review: worth the upgrade vs old iPad models?

The iPad Air is significantly thinner than the previous iPad models and carries several upgrades and improvements compared to its predecessor, the iPad 4. This article reviews the most important features in the iPad Air which will be helpful for those considering an upgrade from a previous iPad model.

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The iPad Air (iPad 5) is the successor of the iPad 4 and was released on November 1, 2013. As with every new iPad generation, several upgrades and improvements are made, most which will be found under the hood. For the iPad Air, just as the name suggests, it is significantly thinner and lighter than the previous iPad models. However, the improvements on the hardware should not be neglected either.

For those that already own an iPad model, a clear question is if upgrading to the new iPad Air is worth it. Depending on the individual user preferences, the answer will certainly vary. This article aims to review some of the most significant upgrades and improvements made to the iPad Air that can be useful to decide if the iPad Air is worth the upgrade.

iPad Air weight and size reduced

The iPad Air carries a name with plenty of association with the Macbok Air, both which emphasizes portability. This has resulted in the, by far, lightest iPad model to date weighing in at only 469 g (1.034 lb) for the wifi model and 478 g (1.054 lb) for the wifi/cellular model. The light weight of the iPad Air is to be compared to the iPad 4 wifi at 652 g (1.4374 lb) with older iPad models weighing even more.

The reduction of the weight of the iPad Air is also reflected on its smaller size, with the iPad Air being as slim as 240 mm x 169.5 mm x 7.5 mm (9.4 in x 6.67 in x 7.5 in). The height and width remain relatively the same as the iPad 4, with the iPad Air being approximately 10% more slim in width. However, the thickness (depth) has been considerably reduced. The iPad Air is more than 20% thinner than the iPad 4, something which definitely is immediately noticeable and results in a device that is easier to handle.

The achievement by Apple to shave off almost 30% of the weight and up to 20% of the size on the iPad Air as compared to the previously lightest and most portable iPad 4 model is truly impressive. These portability improvements will without a doubt make a huge difference for those that use the iPad during extended periods of time. It is worth to remember that one of the most common complaints with the iPad is that it is too tiresome to hold it up over longer time periods due to muscle strains.

Display upgraded and more efficient on the iPad Air


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One of the heaviest and largest element in an iPad is the battery. With the reduction in weight and size of the iPad Air, the battery size has also been reduced. The iPad Air has a lithium polymer battery with a 8827 mAh (3.7 V) capacity whereas the iPad 4 has a battery capacity of 11560 mAh (3.7 V). This is almost a 25% reduction in battery capacity. Therefore, for the iPad Air to still retain its battery life, the hardware has to be more energy efficient.

Since the display on an iPad is among the most energy hungry elements, Apple has switched the display type in iPad Air to the IGZO (indium gallium zinc oxide) display. Compared to the IPS LCD display used in former iPad models, the IGZO display is extremely more energy efficient and in the best cases will draw only 10% of the power of conventional LCD displays. In addition, the IGZO display can also produce images with higher contrast (brighter and darker) and less refractions. The downside with IGZO displays is that it is at present more expensive than LCD displays, something which may not be of too high importance here.

Apple has also done a great job in retaining the image quality even though the display technology was completely altered. The iPad Air display, similar to other iPad models (iPad 3 & iPad 4) with Retina display, has a resolution of 2048 px x 1536 px with a size of 9.7 inches giving it a pixel density of 264 ppi, which is identical to the pixel density of previous iPad Retina displays.

In practice this means that those who already own an iPad with Retina display will notice a minor improvement in image quality. However, those that have an iPad 2 or iPad 1 will definitely notice huge improvements in terms of image quality.

iPad Air performance takes a big leap


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The iPad Air is powered by the A7 CPU, which is the same CPU that powers the iPhone 5S. Although the clock speed is set to 1.4 GHz, being 100 MHz faster than the A7 CPU in the iPhone 5S. In addition, the M7 motion co-processor is also included, with it running under identical specifications as in the iPhone 5S.

As shown in the graph from Geekbench, compared to previous performance gains over iPad generations, the new A7 architecture results in a huge boost in the performance. The iPad Air is 80% faster than the iPad 4 in single core workloads but similar performance boost is found for multi core workloads as well.

The performance leap by the iPad Air in itself is impressive and for now it looks like Apple has taken the right approach to stick to the dual-core architecture instead of going into the multi-core architectures found in most Android tablets. However, for the end users, even though the iPad Air is significantly faster, it is difficult to motivate an upgrade if the user already has an iPad 3 or iPad 4. The reason being simply that the apps are not computationally intensive enough for the users to notice any clear gains in user experience. At present, the computing power in the iPad 3 is far from being insufficient for the apps in the Apple App Store, and the iPad 4 will definitely be able to cope with the new apps for several more years to come.

Memory and storage remain the same on iPad Air


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In terms of memory and storage the specifications for the iPad Air remain identical as compared to iPad 4. This means that the iPad Air has 1 GB internal RAM and comes with a built-in storage of 16 GB, 32 GB, 64 GB or 128 GB.

While it makes sense to keep the 1 GB internal RAM, in the multimedia intensive society today, the 16 GB version makes little sense. With the iPad apps being of high-definition type, even simple apps can easily take more than 50 MB of storage. In addition, as the iPad is an entertainment device, 16 GB will not go very far for the majority of people who uses the iPad as a portable video player. To be quite frank, Apple should drop the 16 GB model altogether as users who end up with the 16 GB model due to lack of funds will certainly quickly experience a severe usage limitation of an otherwise splendid entertainment device.

iPad Air camera slightly upgraded

The camera on the iPad Air has been altered slightly. Just as the iPad 4, the front camera delivers 720p video while the back camera delivers 1080p video. However, new optics and imaging chips have made the cameras slightly more sensitive in low-light conditions. This is similar to the camera improvements made to the iPhone 5S.

best ipad camera review comparison upgradeFor most people, the camera feature on the iPad is really not all that important. Running FaceTime on an iPad is a fun and good experience, but the camera is seldom the bottleneck for the end user experience, instead the network bandwidth and latency are almost always the limiting factor. For the rear camera, most people would agree that using an iPad as a camera to film or photograph scenes is way to cumbersome. It just looks comical whenever someone holds up an iPad to take a picture in a public setting. Instead, the rear camera is rather an auxiliary feature which can be used to capture occasional moments.

Since many people already carry smartphones with very capable cameras, upgrading to the iPad Air to gain access to the improved camera makes very little sense.

Battery life is comparable to previous iPad models


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As described above, the iPad Air, being lighter and smaller, comes with a battery with 25% less capacity than the iPad 4. However, due to the new CPU architecture and the much more energy efficient IGZO display, Apple has managed to keep the battery life comparable to previous iPad generations. Therefore, there is no reason to upgrade to the iPad Air for the purpose of gaining additional battery time.

Of course one point to remember is that batteries ages and degrades rather rapidly. Therefore, users with very old iPads will likely still experience significantly longer battery  time than they are used to.

iPad Air connectivity


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The iPad Air supports LTE similar to the iPad 4 although the LTE support has been expanded to include more frequencies. For American users, this may not be interesting. However, for international users or users who want to use their iPad Air abroad, the extended support for LTE frequencies will definitely come in handy.

In terms of Bluetooth and wifi the iPad Air supports Bluetooth 4.0 and wifi 802.11 a/b/g/n, respectively, which is identical to the support for iPad 4.

Conclusions and summary of an upgrade to iPad Air

As seen, the iPad Air does carry several improvements over previous generations. However, for those that already have an iPad 3 or iPad 4, upgrading may only be justified if the user wants to have a lighter and more portable device. Otherwise, most of the improvements only offer negligible to none impact on the overall user experience.

For those that own an iPad 1 or iPad 2, upgrading does make a lot of sense. Primarily, an upgrade to iPad Air will provide the Retina screen, but also the computing power may be of importance, in particular for those using heavy apps, such as games.

At present, the 16 GB (not recommended) iPad Air wifi is priced at $499 with the 32 GB (recommended) iPad Air wifi priced at $599. This is certainly a lot of money. However, the iPad Air without a doubt is the best iPad model so far, and while the price can be considered steep, the new A7 CPU architecture will ensure that it will remain viable for many years to come. As an example, it is worth to remember that Apple is still selling the iPad 2, even though it was released on March 11, 2011.

The table below summarizes the most significant improvements and changes on the iPad Air as compared to the iPad 4.

SpecificationiPad AiriPad 4
Height:240 mm (9.4 in)241 mm (9.50 in)
Width:169.5 mm (6.6 in)186 mm (7.31 in)
Depth: 7.5 mm (0.26 in)9.4 mm (0.37 in)
Weight (wifi):469 g (1.03 lb)652 g (1.44 lb)
Weight (wifi+cell):478 g (1.05 lb)662 g (1.46 lb)
Display type: Retina display, 9.7" IGZO Retina display, 9.7" IPS LCD
Display specs:2048x1536 pixels @ 264 ppi2048x1536 pixels @ 264 ppi
Chip:Dual-core A7@1.4GHz & M7 coprocessorDual-core A6X@1.4 GHz
Performance (Geekbench):1465771
Camera (rear): iSight 5 MP full HDiSight 5 MP full HD
Camera (front/FaceTime):1.2 MP 720p HD1.2 MP 720p HD
Price Wifi (16/32/64/128 GB):$499 / $599 / $699 / $799Out-of-production
Price Wifi+Cell (16/32/64/128 GB):$629 / $729 / $829 / $929Out-of-production

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