Day after day, week after week for the last few months new tablets have come marching out of technology companies, holding their touchscreens high, ready to fight to find a home in your hands. Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX, Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1, Google's Nexus 7, Microsoft's Surface 2, Lenovo's Yoga, Asus Transformer Pad: the list could go on of the new tablets introduced in preparation for the big holiday season.
And today Apple's newest entry marches on out. The iPad Air hits shelves today; it's a lot thinner, lighter and faster than last year in hopes it will defend its lead and prime spot under Christmas trees, next to menorahs and on tables for those agnostic gift givers. But are Apple's hardware improvements enough to stand up to the heavy competition this year? Is it, as Tim Cook has said, really going to be an iPad Christmas?
Thinner and Lighter Than...
"Thin and light" is likely the most overused and abused term in the technology industry. Sixty-inch TVs are described as thinner and lighter, huge desktop replacement laptops get thinner and lighter (though still weigh seven or eight pounds), even routers get the "thin and light" description.
Describing what Apple has done here with those terms does the tablet no justice. The .29-inch thick device now weighs just a pound, and if you are used to using the full-size iPad 3 or 4, the difference is extremely noticeable, especially in situations such as reading in bed. In terms of the larger tablets out there, the Air is the sleekest, trimmest and lightest. Compare it to a Galaxy Note or a Surface 2, and you'll see that that's not just a lofty statement.
Apple has also rounded the back edges and slimmed down the screen bezel. Like with the Mini, the tablet is smart enough to know when your finger is resting on the frame of the screen rather than to mistake it for a swipe or zoom.
But that's not to say the tablet is as easy to manage in one hand as the iPad Mini or other 7-inch tablets like the Nexus 7. I still very much prefer the iPad Mini for reading in bed. And this year Apple has made the choice between the forthcoming Mini with Retina Display (set to arrive later this month), and the Air as simple as size.
This is the sleekest, trimmest and lightest big-screen tablet. Period.
Both the tablets have the same internals and will have the same screen resolution. The reason to opt for the Air is simply the bigger size of the still incredibly crisp and clear Retina Display. The larger screen may be better for kids, games and highly visual or graphics-heavy apps, while the smaller version may be a better choice for more personal reading and web browsing. As I say in all of my iPad reviews, though, I still do wish the screen was better for reading outdoors and in the sun. Reading on the beach with the tablet will still require a fair amount of adjustment and positioning out of the sun.
A7 and iOS 7
But the engineering feat of the Air isn't that the tablet has been cut in half, it's that the tablet is even more powerful and lasts just as long on a charge. The Air has the same A7 chip as the iPhone 5s. As I said in my review of the new iPhone, the performance increases provided by the new 64-bit processor aren't all that noticeable in regular tasks.
The improvements will be more noticeable, though, when using specific apps, especially games. Playing Infinity Blade 3 on the Air is a stunning experience, even for someone like me who doesn't have the slightest appreciation for gaming design and play. I'm disappointed, though, that Apple didn't add any of the camera performance features to the iPad as it did with the iPhone 5s. The Air doesn't have Burst Mode or Slow Mode.
Even with that boost, you can still leave your charger home for a long weekend. On my video rundown test, which loops an HD video at about 65 percent brightness while connected to WiFi, the tablet lasted 9 hours and 48 minutes. Expect to get much more juice over intermittent use.
There's no doubt that Apple's hardware prowess shines through in every breath of the Air, but the rest of the experience is what you'd expect from an iPad. While iOS 7 added a host of needed features, the upgrade for the tablet experience seems less pronounced than on the iPhone. While other tablets now have some advanced features, like Windows 8.1's ability to run apps side by side or Android's multiple user account support, iOS feels in some ways rather stagnant. (I'm still wondering why Apple didn't add its TouchID fingerprint sensor and allow users to sign in to different accounts with the tap of a finger.)
On the iPad, iOS feels stagnant
That said, when it comes to choosing a tablet based on software, the iPad is still at the top of the list. That's not because of any core improvements to the software, but rather the breadth and strong quality of iPad apps populating the App Store. Whether it is basic news reading apps, like Flipboard or Feedly, or more graphically rich apps like Barefoot Atlas or Vjay, or games like Sky Gamblers, you simply won't find that type of quality and selection from Google or Microsoft.
To top off the app offerings, the Air now comes with Apple's iLife and iWork apps for free. You've got to download them still from the store, but they're all worth making space for. The new iPhoto and iMovie apps in particular add a host of strong photo and video editing tools and does so without adding any major complications or needing any sort of tutorial to get going.
The iPad Air is very much an iPad. Yes, it is much easier to hold and much nicer to look at, but those who were hoping for a complete overhaul to the iPad experience won't find it with the Air. The software experience remains virtually the same, the screen, while still great, doesn't work any better outdoors, it doesn't have the TouchID fingerprint sensor of the iPhone 5s nor does it have that much-hoped-for keyboard cover.
But that isn't going to matter this holiday season. Apple's overhauled the hardware, there's a strong app selection, you can hold the Air with one hand while lying on the couch, and iLife and iWork are included to help you start creating content with your tablet. All those factors place the slim and svelte Air ahead of the other tablets on the battlefield. While most who have an iPad 3 or 4 won't find the Air to be a necessary upgrade, those who are first-time tablet buyers or replacing an earlier tablet shouldn't think twice about putting the Air at the top of their list.
It's going to be an iPad Christmas
And if people don't want to pay $499 or more for the full size Air, the $399 Retina Mini will make an equally good gift. And I assume most won't complain about the $299 iPad Mini without the high-resolution display.
Indeed, it's going to be an iPad Christmas.