Nov. 1, 2013 -- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.