Gear and Gizmos
When it originally debuted back in April of 2010, the iPad was nothing short of a revolution for travelers. Never before had we seen such a versatile, easy to use device that offered so much in such a compact package. The fact that it combined great battery life with the ability to read books, play movies, music and games while on the go, quickly made it a must-have gadget for frequent fliers. Since then, Apple’s updates to the tablet have been more evolutionary than revolutonary, adding faster processors, better cameras and an improved display. But the new iPad Air, which went on sale last week, is another tremendous leap forward, delivering a powerful, fast experience in the thinnest and lightest iPad yet.
When Apple set out to create its 5th generation iPad it is clear that they wanted to deliver something that felt new and different, yet familiar at the same time. That is clearly the case with the Air, which takes cues from last year’s iPad Mini, while giving a nod to Apple’s MacBook Air laptop as well. The outer casing of this new tablet is incredibly thin and light. At just 7.5 mm thick and one pound in weight, it s 20% thinner and nearly a half-pound lighter than the previous model. That may not seem like a lot, but trust me, when you hold the two devices in your hand, there is a substantial difference. The Air just seems more natural and comfortable, while in comparison the iPad 4 feels clunky and antiquated.
Despite slimming down and shedding weight, the Air has actually gotten much more powerful as well. Apple now uses the new A7 chip to power the device, bringing 64-bit computing to the tablet world much the way they did to smartphones with the release of the iPhone 5s back in September. This new processor is incredibly fast and as a result, iOS runs smoother than ever on the new iPad. Apple says that the A7 is nearly twice as fast as previous models and delivers two-times the graphical processing power as well. Those are impressive performance gains for sure, but the fact that the iPad has gotten so much faster, yet still manages to get 10 hours of battery life is perhaps the best news of all.
Normally you would expect that a device that has gotten so much thinner and lighter would have had to make compromises elsewhere in order to fid the design. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen to be the case with the Air, which still sports a 9.7″ Retina display that is crisp, bright and unbelievably clear. Photos and text all look sharp and colors pop off the screen, immersing the user in whatever experience they are enjoying at the time. The built-in HD camera captures solid photos and video in a pinch, but work much better for video conferencing on Facetime or Skype. The built-in speakers remain a bit of a mixed bag, providing adequate if unremarkable sound. I’ve always found that the iPad offers better audio through a pair of headphones and that remains true with the Air as well.
As you would expect, the iPad Air comes with iOS 7 installed on the device, which brings some nice updates that travelers will appreciate. For instance, the new Control Center makes it easier than ever to put your tablet into “Airplane Mode” or adjust volume and screen brightness without fumbling for the preferences app. If you have an Internet connection, Siri is more accurate and works more smoothly than ever before as well, while an improved multitasking system makes it easier to switch between apps at any given time. Even the Apple’s much-maligned Maps app has made strides since its disastrous release a year ago. While it still has some catching up to do with Google Maps, I now strust it more when navigating around a new city. iOS 7 made its debut alongside the iPhone 5s in September but it feels nicely scaled for the iPad as well, delivering a cleaner, more unified look across the platform.
The iPad Air is available in memory configurations of 16GB, 32GB, 64GB and 128GB, and comes in either WiFi only or WiFi + 4G models. Prices start at $499 and go as high as $929 for a fully equipped tablet with cellular service. I would love to see apple drop the 16GB version and start at 32GB as the standard storage, as apps have gotten more sophisticated and advanced and now take up more space then in the past. The advent of Retina-resolution graphics has resulted in larger apps as well, making it increasingly difficult to recommend the 16GB model.
Apple is also facing increased competition in this market and while I believe that the Air is the best tablet available today, there are viable options from Samsung and Google that cost less money. In my opinion, the competition doesn’t offer a device that has the same build quality as the iPad, nor do they have as cohesive of an ecosystem. But they are closing the gap rapidly and are now worthy options for those who aren’t particularly fans of Apple.
As a traveler who is constantly looking for ways to cut weight from my bags, this new thinner and lighter iPad is a welcome addition. I rarely go anywhere without bringing my tablet and Apple has made that easier than ever. When they introduced the iPad Mini last year, I was tempted by the size and weight of that device, but ultimately felt that the screen size was smaller than I would have liked. With the Air, I get closer to the size of the Mini without compromising on screen real estate. Additionally, dropping a half-pound of weight from your carry-on, while getting a substantially more powerful device, is a nice benefit for anyone who travels frequently. When you consider all of he changes, both subtle and substantial, you end up with the same iPad experience that we’ve all grown to love, just improved in about every way imaginable.