Review: iPad Air gets test drive ahead of Friday's launch

iPad Air and iPad mini are worth the wait

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 October, 2013, 9:55am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 October, 2013, 4:18pm

Tim Cook, the chief executive at Apple, hit the nail on the head when he recently described the company’s outlook for the rest of this year.

“I think it’s going to be an iPad Christmas,” Cook said near the end of his conference call with analysts on Monday.

Apple will initially roll out the thinner, lighter iPad Air in about 40 markets, including Hong Kong, from Friday.

The iPad mini, which is built with Apple’s high-definition “Retina” display, will start shipping later next month.

Are they worth the wait? You bet. If you’ve been using the older, slower, thicker and heavier model of the iPad, consider that the full-sized iPad Air with 9.7-inch display is powered by a desktop computing-class processor, runs the most advanced mobile operating system, weighs just about 469 grams and is only 7.5mm thin.

Whichever you choose to buy, you win

But which one to buy? Now that is something to ponder. Not only has Apple upgraded the iPad mini’s 7.9-inch display, but this smaller device now has the same powerful chip and mobile operating system used by the larger iPad Air.

This reviewer managed to take the new iPad Air out for a spin this week, and can say with confidence that this is the best-looking and most advanced media tablet in the market today. Android tablet users may certainly have a different opinion, but that’s life.

When you first pick up and hold the device, you get a sense of why Apple added the “Air” designation to it.

Like the MacBook Air, the new tablet features an elegant unibody construction that provides higher precision, less complex design with fewer parts. This translates to exceptional durability, despite being thin and light. Its Air designation also suggests that it can be used for more productivity applications, not just consumption of media.

The Retina display on the iPad Air looks more crystal clear because of a subtle change: thinner bezels on the sides of the display. This design was first introduced on the iPad mini last year.

Apple has touted the tight integration between its iOS 7 operating software and the company-designed A7 chip to bring the best experience possible to users. This synergy is apparent every time the narrow bezel on the sides of the tablet are touched. The iPad Air instantly recognises if this reviewer is interacting with the touch screen or just resting his thumb on the display.

To video game enthusiasts, the A7 chip is supported by the M7 co-processor, which is the one measuring motion from the tablet’s built-in accelerometer, gyroscope and compass. With that coprocessor helping the main chip, the iPad Air is more power-efficient than its predecessors. It is supposed to offer 10 hours of battery life on a single charge, but this reviewer noted that the power lasted a bit more than that while browsing websites and working on documents.

This reviewer is not one to use the iPad as a camera since the iPhone is quite an efficient point-and-shoot snapper. But the 5-megapixel iSight camera on the iPad Air is much improved. It now supports so-called high dynamic range photos, which lets a user capture a series of images with every photo taken, then uses the best parts of each one to create the perfect photo. A quick swipe and a user can switch to shooting high-definition video with zoom function.

Using FaceTime on the iPad Air is also much improved. The front-facing high-definition camera has brighter backside illumination, which is great when making video calls in a low-light environment. It was bright enough that a friend clearly noticed a piece of fruit stuck between this reviewer’s front teeth during a call.

There’s less ambient noise on FaceTime, thanks to the iPad Air’s dual microphones. This setup suppresses audio from the source that a FaceTime user is not focused on

Wi-fi also seems faster when using the iPad Air, which now features two antennas that support so-called Mimo, for Multiple Input - Multiple Output, technology. Watching high-definition movie trailers at entertainment website provided this reviewer with ample opportunity to experience fast download speeds. The trailers for I, Frankenstein and Ender’s Game were viewed without the annoying stop-and-start playback experienced on older iPhones and iPads.

When the iPad mini was introduced on October 23 last year, it did not have a Retina display and was powered by the same A5 processor used on the old iPad 2. Despite those sub-par specifications, this reviewer got one and has since used it everyday for work and play. The hefty iPad was stuck in the closet.

The latest iPad mini, however, carries the same top-flight specifications as the iPad Air, which makes it much more appealing as well as convenient to carry everyday.

Even without an opportunity to test-drive the iPad mini at this time, this reviewer feels parity has been reached between the two devices. Whichever you choose to buy, you win.

Prices of the iPad Air with Wi-fi start at HK$3,888 for the 16-gigabyte model. The top-of-the-line 128-GB model with Wi-fi and 4G mobile connectivity costs HK$7,288.

The iPad mini with Wi-fi starts at HK$3,088 for the 16GB model, while its top 128GB model with Wi-fi and 4G connectivity is priced at HK$6,488.

SmarTone Telecommunications and Three Hong Kong are the first carrier-partners signed up by Apple to bring 4G mobile network support to the new 4G-ready iPad Air and iPad mini models. The two network operators will be offering a range of data plans for subscribers to connect those devices to their high-speed 4G and 3G infrastructure across the city.

Apple has sold about 170 million iPads worldwide since the company released the product’s first model on April 3, 2010. With the looks and performance of the two new models, Apple can safely bet that there are more users than before keen to get their hands on these devices as soon as possible.