Devices iPad Air News, apple, ipad air, Reviews, tablets — November 1, 2013 12:07 — 0 Comments
iPad Air review: lighter, thinner and raising the bar for software
From the Guardian: Apple’s new tablet is lighter and faster – and by throwing in iWork and iLife for free, it has raised the bar for its rivals, says Charles Arthur
If you want a first reaction, how about that of the video producer who was an onlooker in our rough comparison of the Surface Pro and the new iPad Air? “Wow,” he said, on picking up Apple’s latest revision to the iPad. “That’s amazing, isn’t it?”
Compared with the Surface Pro – which at 903g (without keyboard) is nearly twice as heavy – the iPad Air is indeed a svelte chunk of “wow”. It makes the previous generations of iPads look a bit clunky, and heavy; their bathtub-shaped profile has been replaced with a rounded one which precisely echoes last year’s iPad mini (and this year’s catch-it-if-you-can iPad mini retina). And it’s really light. And thin. Put beside it, the Surface Pro, with its abruptly acute angles and uncompromising heft, seems like a piece of 1960s brutalist architecture.
Yet Apple doesn’t think that design is enough in tablets now. By making its creativity apps – the iLife suite (Garageband, iMovie, iPhoto) and iWork suite (the Numbers spreadsheet program, Pages document editor, Keynote presentation program) – free with each new device, and the upgrade free for those who already bought them on the iOS platform, it is raising the bar both for what tablets should look and feel like (and especially weigh), and what they should be able to do.
Plus by adding its 64-bit A7 chip into the iPad Air, it has created a device that doesn’t pause in handling pretty large spreadsheets and drawing graphs that would have other tablets lagging, in every sense.
- Screen: 9.7in 2048×1536 “retina” (264 pixels per inch)
- Processor: Apple 64-bit A7 custom ARM plus M7 coprocessor
- RAM: 1GB (reported)
- Storage: 16/32/64/128 GB SSD
- Graphics: on chip
- Operating system: iOS 7
- Connectivity: Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n), optional 4G (compatible with UK and international networks though not all simultaneously), AirPlay, Bluetooth 4.0 with BLE, AirDrop, Lightning port (connectors available to HDMI, SD cards)
- Cameras: 5MP back, 1080p HD video recording with stabilisation, face detection, 3x video zoom, 1.2MP front with 720p HD video
- Dimensions: 6.6in (169.5mm) x 9.4in (240mm) x 0.29in (7.5mm) for both Wi-Fi and LTE versions
- Weight: 469g (LTE version: 478g)
As with so much of Apple’s stuff, photos don’t really do it justice. The iPad 3 was pretty and thin; the iPad mini was thinner and much more elegant. Now the iPad Air takes its cues from the mini – a thinner bezel around the screen (but with thumb detection so you don’t accidentally activate it), an almost-vertical profile (but gently rounded), and so little weight that you might think it’s just a large mini. (Which in a sense it is, since it contains the same number of pixels and processor as the new iPad mini.)
The build quality is terrific; the screen is crisply sharp; and it leaves one wondering whether you can make a tablet any thinner and still get the same battery life.
Speaking of battery life, it’s as colossal as ever – about 10 hours, as promised. What’s noticeable is that with the M7 motion coprocessor, which detects movement (or lack of it), the standby time is greater because when the device detects that nothing’s happening – no screen input, no movement of the device – then it reduces battery use. That doesn’t mean that background tasks (such as uploading to Dropbox) stop but does mean when the cover is closed and it’s motionless, it uses almost nothing.
If you’ve already got an iOS device, you can restore it onto a new iPad. This still works better than on Android, where my experience is that certain apps won’t download when restoring a device.
Besides the huge number of apps designed for the iPad – on which those running the Android team gaze enviously, if their efforts to create a similar “designed for tablet” section in Google Play are any guide – Apple is also making its play with those free apps for people who buy a new device. (Enough people are expected to do the latter that Apple had to make some allowance in its revenues.)
The message here is that tablets aren’t just for consumption; they’re to let you do useful stuff too. Arguably, they can become a PC replacement for a lot of things. And since one of the most-used phrases whenever someone says “tablets are taking over from PCs” is “yeah, well I’ll always want a PC to run Photoshop” (in itself a daft idea, given Photoshop’s comparatively tiny user base), let’s look at iPhoto.
This has gone from being a rather clunky photo editing app on the Mac and iPad to something which you could happily use to enhance pictures at a level that’s well beyond “no more red eye”. There are tons of effects, and touch-sensitive editing controls which let you alter the colour intensity of different areas within a photo (using a neat filter set called “drama”). You can crop, rotate, erase, saturate, add filters, apply effects – and where it used to be a puzzling, mute affair, iPhoto now (at last) comes with a Help menu that actually helps.
What it really shows is that Apple has finally given some thought to how a photo-editing app ought to function on a large touchscreen device. iPhoto still has its challenges on the iPhone – principally, that that screen is too small to make sensible overview decisions – but on the iPad you can do detailed work at a fraction of the price of any big photo editing app.
Originally, iMovie was the first big desktop program that demonstrated that Apple could write software which simplified life for those who weren’t professionals but wanted to do thing. Its “big preview pane/video clip/editing area” paradigm was so good it drove Bill Gates to chew out the team on Microsoft Movie Maker because theirs wasn’t nearly as good.
Now, Apple’s doing this on the iPad. It’s the same recipe: video clips, editing area, preview pane. Split the clip? No problem. Slow it down or speed it up? Sure. Freeze frame? Duplicate? Change the audio level? Add your own audio? Can do. Add themes? Fade in or out? Rotate the clip? Zoom in? No problem. (The last two are done with your fingers.) Again, it’s a poke in the eye for anyone who insists that tablets are just for “consumption”. Moreover, the A7 chip is scarily fast. Where the first iMovie – and quite a few successors, a decade ago – needed time to render clips at different speeds, the A7 does it right away.
I know professional musicians who like to jot down ideas on Garageband (though they then use the power of something like ProTools when they get back to the studio). If making music is your thing, then there are enough drum loops and other input methods to keep you completely happy. Even though I can barely scratch the surface of Garageband, it’s evident that there are vast areas that a talented – or budding – musician could exploit, all without ever cracking open a physical keyboard.
But of course, people keep saying (in yet another of the wearying Canute-ish refrains about the iPad), iOS “isn’t a full-fat operating system. For that you need Windows.” However, as Ben Thompson puts it:
“the iPad is a truly disruptive product. It is inferior to a PC on the attributes that matter to PC-users, even as it excels on orthogonal attributes that appeal to a new type of customer. Those orthogonal attributes certainly include things like portability and battery life.”
Or as Ian Betteridge put it more succinctly, the “full-fat operating system” argument mistakes means for ends: “The answer to ‘what do you want to do with a computer?’ is not ‘run a full operating system’. It’s write/draw/paint/program/whatever.”
Talk of “needing Windows” is rubbish. What you need is a device that does the computing tasks you want to get done. Microsoft puts Microsoft Office on the Surface (at a price); now, Apple is putting its iWork suite for free on the iPad Air.
Most people don’t need the deep functionality that Excel offers. Which is fortunate, because Numbers doesn’t have that deep functionality; pivot tables aren’t catered for, though there’s a very large range of formulae available. It can open Excel spreadsheets (though some compatibility may be lost).
What I did fund was that Numbers on the iPad is as usable as its sibling on a desktop. (I use Numbers all the time for calculations and graphing of all sorts; it’s a long way ahead of Google Docs, and a lot more comprehensible than OpenOffice.) The new interactive charts are fun, certainly.
Nor does the iPad choke on workload. Given a spreadsheet containing a main workbook of 81 rows x 50 columns, with multiple interdependency in each column, and two attached workbooks, Numbers on the iPad Air scrolls through it without trouble. I tested the same spreadsheet (saved via iCloud) on an iPad 2: it had trouble keeping up with the screen fills – patches would appear where it hadn’t been able to draw the numbers quickly enough for the scrolling.
Plus the iPad Air can draw graphs on Numbers without a pause: I could pick out a multi-row 50-column set and draw a graph (including the interesting new interactive graphs, which weren’t available on previous versions) in seconds. It’s actually easier doing that on the iPad than on a laptop – the scrolling works better.
The clear space for improvement: you can’t (at present) choose a chart you’ve already created in Numbers and paste it or link to it in Keynote, the presentation program – though you can into Pages (with a static or interactive chart). The absence from Keynote feels like a silly oversight; it certainly needs to be fixed.
On the desktop, this has always been a slightly odd hybrid of desktop publishing and simple document editing, a strange fish-fowl. On the tablet, it makes more sense: it’s all your document editing functions rolled together so you don’t need separate apps. It even has change tracking. And it’s Office-compatible – at least, coming in. Once it’s in Pages format, it’s pretty much stuck there until it gets to someone with Pages on a Mac desktop, who can output it in Word format. However, before that you can share the link for collaborative editing on iCloud, and for general editing – by sending a link to someone who can then read and edit it, even if they don’t have an iCloud account, on a Windows (with IE9+ or Chrome) or Mac.
Again, Pages isn’t as powerful as Word. But then again, there are so many functions in word that that’s like comparing the Swiss army to a Swiss army knife. The latter suffices fine for most things except dealing with war.
As presentation software goes, Keynote does have the merit that it’s hard to create ugly presentations. But that aside, you have pretty much all the elements you would like: presenter notes (appear on your screen, not the presentation one), links out to web pages, “kiosk”-style presentations which work on a loop. When you’re working on a presentation, you also get dynamic lines showing whether you’ve got elements of a slide arranged correctly in relation to each other. (The picture below shows what happens when you resize an image inside a shape.)
If you’re a Powerpoint whiz (everyone thinks they are; very few are) then this won’t satisfy you. If you like to get presentations together in a handy form, it will. And yes, it does open Powerpoint files – both the .ppt and .pptx formats. You can take them direct from Dropbox (via the “Open in” menu). Or you can import them via iCloud (though that requires a desktop Mac.)
The previously-mentioned problem – you can’t copy or incorporate charts from Numbers into it – is the key one I’d point to. The big problem is that Keynote lacks a “paste” control, which is a pretty big oversight. If you want to paste an image into a presentation from Dropbox, say, you have to first save it into the onboard Photo library, and then incorporate that via Keynote’s menu. It’s a bit clunky; let’s hope this gets solved in an update.
Overall, though, Keynote on the iPad sticks two bullet-pointed fingers up at the idea that you can’t do office work on an iPad. Just make sure you’re on a good connection for moving any media around.
It’s surprising how many people you see taking pictures with an iPad. That big clunky thing? Yet you see them doing it at weddings, while touring around, in really surprising situations – the most remarkable I recall being an aid worker taking a picture of a dead animal in a drought area in Africa.
Why? Clearly, people find it useful. The new camera is just the same as the old one, at 5MP, as is the camera on the front. Apple seems as surprised as anyone that people use iPads as cameras.
Apple didn’t announce its own keyboard to do with the iPad Air; it was obvious from the moment Tim Cook said “the competition is trying to turn a laptop into a tablet, and a tablet into a laptop” that Apple wasn’t going to follow the Surface route to a keyboard. Nevertheless, there are lots of add-on Bluetooth keyboards for the iPad (Logitech has one which fits the bill excellently).
The iPad Air starts at £399/$499 for the 16GB Wi-Fi model, through £479/$599 (32GB), £559/$699 (64GB) and £639/$799 (128GB).
The 3G/LTE model starts at £499/$629 (16GB), to £579/$729 (32GB), £659/$829 (64GB), and finally £739/$929 (128GB).
Yes, that’s really a lot more than you’d pay for a Tesco Hudl. Or anArgos MyTablet. The latter, though, truly is a waste of money (in testing for our video review of the tablets, the on-screen button for the MyTablet didn’t respond to a touch in any orientation across five different takes).
In general, Android tablets are cheaper – although Apple is starting to make life harder for them, first by the pricing of last year’s iPad mini at £249/$299 for the 16GB version (and doesn’t the US price look a lot more appealing there?), secondly by adding all that extra software (eschew the fake versions you’ll see in the Google Play store, unless you like malware), and third by keeping the iPad 2 – from 2011 – on sale. (This is principally aimed at enterprises and education, but is the best-selling model.)
Apple has always been unashamed about pricing at a premium. But it also lays on free stuff; the iLife suite has come with Macs for years, and there still isn’t a comparable suite on Windows. Now it’s doing the same on the iPad. Sure, you can spend less. But you don’t get the apps. For example, Google’s own free app QuickOffice can’t edit Google Docs files. You can hunt around for Garageband-alikes on Android (Pocketband’s Uloops seems to be preferred, though it requires a fast connection, and doesn’t have the same range of instruments; it’s essentially just a sequencer). And that’s before we get on to AirPlay, which lets you play content wirelessly on a TV via an Apple TV (£99/$99).
It’s only when you get hold of an iPad Air that you realise how well Apple has crafted this device. It’s lighter and the internals are faster. Add in the free software, and it has raised the bar on what you can do out of the box with a tablet. The iPad now isn’t just something to do a few functions around and about. It’s a device to replace your computer for almost everything.
Apple hasn’t joined in the “spec wars” by upping its screen resolution beyond the “retina” level (where in theory you won’t be able to see individual pixels at typical arm’s length), even though lots of Android tablets have. But then, if your only metric is screen resolution, of course you’re going to think that’s the most important. Apple seems to think that getting things done matters more.
Cons: not the cheapest; screen PPI lower than some Android tablets; Keynote missing some functionality
Pros: very light; very thin; large screen area; powerful A7 chip deals with big spreadsheets or games easily; long battery life; great free iLife and iWork software; huge third-party app ecosystem designed for tablets.