Foremost, the iPad Air is about lightness. We tried a 128 GB iPad with 4G modem and on the scales this – the heaviest possible version of the iPad Air – does weigh just 478g, and is only 7.5mm thick. If you've used any previous full-size iPad, you'll notice immediately the transformation from that circa-650g weight.
It seems much smaller, despite the same-size screen. The iPad Air styling follows exactly the original iPad mini, with the same thinned bezel side edges with broader borders top and bottom.
The iPad Air is primarily a portrait-mode tablet in 3:4 aspect ratio, yet one that works well on its side in landscape. Contrast this with successive Google Android tablets that take a 16:9 widescreen, a shape that's better for video but when used for reading webpages or ebooks in portrait you get an overly tall narrow window.
When we first tried the new iPad Air we though it quite widescreen in appearance, not unlike a 16:9 device. The proportions didn't look right any more – by slimming the edges but not the sides, the tablet looked too tall, not so aesthetically 'right'.
The iPad Air screen is in essence unchanged since the first iPad with Retina display – a 9.7in capacitive touchscreen using IPS technology which delivers rich, faithful colours and clear viewing from any angle.
To slim the frame Apple shaved fractions of millimetres from the glass, the LCD and touch sensor. The resolution is as high as ever at 2048 x 1536, enough pixels tightly packed to become effectively invisible, no more added just for specmanship.
In general handling, the lightness remains the breakthrough, more so than the reduction in thickness. Yet we found the shape and feel much less tactile than the shape of the iPad 2, 3 and 4, with their gently curved radiuses at the rear and smooth snag-free edges around the front. The iPad Air has harder, less well finished edges which may add more purchase to the fingers but make it less satisfying to handle.
iPad Air review: specification, performance, camera
We ran some benchmark tests, with the caveat that synthetic benchmarks should always be taken with a pinch of salt. They are a general guide only. Nevertheless Geekbench 3 showed the iPad Air's processor clocked at 1.39 GHz – a tad higher than the Apple A7 in the iPhone 5s which reads 1.30 GHz – and it returned a score of 2703 points in multi-core mode; and 1487 points for a single core.
We can compare to the iPhone 5s though, which returned figures around half as much: 722 points for single-core and 1296 points multi-core. And does the iPad Air feel twice as fast as the iPhone 5S? Not at all.
In the Egypt HD graphics test the iPad Air could play at an average framerate of 48 fps, and we really can't imagine anyone being disappointed by its gaming capabilities.
A new 2x2 wireless setup means two antennae inside to improve Wi-Fi performance. In our tests we found no perceptible speed difference, since most iPad use is loading webpages where the internet connection is likely slower than Wi-Fi anyway. Range may have increased though, maintaining a usable connection further from a base station, and that is a useful bonus.
Battery life is still exemplary, with Apple assuring around 10 hours continuous use, while we found that occasional but steady use meant it could last the best part of a week between charges.
We're a little troubled by the sometimes unsmooth interface. This is a general criticism of iOS 7 but one we didn't expect to see on the latest iPad with bestest-yet graphics processor.
Most apparent with app zooming, when you open or close an app and return to the home screen, we saw jittery animations. It's not always apparent, and we suspect many people will probably not notice, let alone be troubled by it. Elsewhere in text scrolling and pinch-to-zoom actions there were no such issues, as free and fuild as ever.
Sound quality is demonstrably reduced for the iPad Air. The new iPad now has a tiny pair of speakers to play in stereo, against the former single mono speaker. It's almost as loud as iPad 3 at full volume but has a quacky coloration as well as sounding rougher, more sandpapery. There also seems less treble extension which reduces clarity.
The cameras front and back are almost the same as before, with the addition of sensor backside illumination to help in low light. And we did find night-time Skype calls were more clearly lit than before.