Apple's fifth-generation iPad is lighter, more powerful and more capable.
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Apple's iPad Air is a remarkably lovely slab of metal and glass that continues the company's tradition of excellence. It's not flawless, but most potential improvements that come to mind qualify as matters of personal preference rather than functional failings.
The biggest issue for most potential buyers almost certainly will be the price. The iPad Air starts at $499 for the 16-GB model, more than a comparably configured Nexus 10 ($399) or Sony Xperia ($449), but less than a 16-GB Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition ($549). There's no right price for everyone, but for me the iPad Air is well worth what Apple is asking.
The cost can be defrayed if you're upgrading from an older model tablet. I sold my iPad 2 through Gazelle.com for $195. Had I wanted to bother with eBay, I probably could've gotten $250.
One of the benefits of the shift toward inaccessible electronics is that sealed devices aren't as susceptible to wear and tear as open devices, with ports, compartments, and interchangeable components that can be damaged over time. As a consequence, they tend to be easier to resell.
The first thing I noticed about the iPad Air is its lightness, and other members of my family concurred. It weighs just over one pound (469 g), 28% less than its last incarnation. That's only four times more than the magnetic cover Apple sells. It feels more like a thick Conde Nast magazine than an electronic device now and it is better suited for ebook reading as a result.
One consequence of the iPad's ongoing weight loss is the reduced appeal of iPad covers. Having a cover adds significantly -- about 22% -- to the iPad's weight.
The Retina display is also noteworthy, particularly if you are accustomed to using a first- or second-generation iPad, as I was. The crispness of the text and the quality of the graphics really make a difference. Of course, most of the industry has adopted higher-resolution screens, so vivid graphics have become the standard. But the technology is still worth appreciating.
The iPad Air comes with an Apple-designed 64-bit A7 chip. It's about twice as fast as the fourth-generation iPad and about five times faster than the iPad 2, according to Primate Labs' Geekbench test. The apps I've used have been uniformly snappy.
Battery life is supposed to be unchanged. Apple says the iPad Air lasts for about 10 hours of video playback or a month on standby. This is the same as last year's model, despite the addition of a more powerful processor. Having had my iPad Air only for a day, I have yet to adequately test this out.
The iPad Air includes a 5-MP rear-facing iSight camera and a 1.2-MP front-facing FaceTime camera, which are useful for video conferencing. I still find it odd to see people holding iPads up to take pictures, but evidently many iPad users do so.
The iPad Air has stereo speakers, one on each side of the Lightning connector. Unsurprisingly, they sound better than the single speaker in the fourth-generation iPad, enough that you can play songs from your iPad Air without wishing you had a Bluetooth-enabled speaker. Dual microphones offer better sound for FaceTime calls and other recording applications.
The biggest failing of the device for me is its lack of support for SD storage cards. Moving files on and off an iPad is still too difficult (although restoring files from an iTunes Backup is a breeze). To make matters worse, Apple magnifies its hardware limitations with software limitations: Its AirDrop sharing service works well enough if you only share files among Apple devices or you want your file to travel by email or SMS.
There are cloud services like Dropbox and third-party apps that simplify cross-platform data transfers. But unconstrained file sharing is a basic function that should come standard.
When I travel, I always try to get a direct, non-stop flight. When I send my files somewhere, I also prefer to see them travel as directly as possible rather than being forced to land in some cloud fiefdom first because Apple is fanatic about border security.
I should be able to point my iPad toward someone with an Android device, flick a file, and see the intended recipient receive or reject the incoming file. Apple, Google, Microsoft, make it so.
That said, the iPad Air is an excellent tablet made better by the abundance of iOS software. If you're in the market for a tablet and near an Apple Store, stop by and hold the iPad Air in your hand.
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