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Apple iPad Air review: Technology on a diet, but does it deliver?

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When Apple first introduced us to the iPad Air, we have to say we genuinely weren't that fussed. Holding it in our hands, it felt like the usual 'thinner and lighter' affair we have become so used to expecting.

However after extended use of the iPad Air, we can now say that we were categorically wrong. As is usually the case with Apple products, it's the sum of its parts that makes the Air so great. Right now this is our favourite tablet on the market and here's why.

Hardware and Design

The previous iPad wasn't exactly chubby, but the Air really is as skinny as it gets. Weighing in at just 478 grams for the Wi-Fi and cellular version we tested here, it's so light that you really don't notice it in your bag.

That drop in weight also makes extend periods of handheld use possible, with it feeling roughly the same as holding a single glossy magazine. Couple this with a reduced bezel size and 7.5mm thickness and you have the equivalent of a very high-tech National Geographic in size and weight.

iPad Air

© Digital Spy

The Apple iPad Air



Ok, so we have immediately mentioned the thinner and lighter factor here. But so extreme is the drop in weight and size that the Air's user experience is drastically changed.

It reminds us of the beginnings of Ultrabooks, when it no longer became an issue to carry laptops about in your bag. The Air is the same - it has the potential to replace 7-inch form factor tablets with it, and in turn you get the benefit of a larger 9.7-inch display.

A note on the screen. It's just as impressive as the first time we set eyes on the Retina Display two generations of iPad ago. 2048 x 1536 resolution is about as good as it gets on tablets right now - Samsung's Nexus 10 is the only other device in the same league.
    iOS 7 feels perfectly suited to the tablet. It is silky smooth on the iPad Air.

Viewing angles are fantastic and virtually every single app is as pin sharp as you could possibly want it, provided of course it is an iPad-friendly version.

The real star of the show, however, is Apple's A7 chip. Just as we discovered with the iPhone 5S, it has desktop PC levels of power. Apps like Vjay coupled with the A7 chip will handle multiple 1080p video streams, while bundled software like iMovie and iPhoto zip along at an incredible rate.

Battery life is also set at around 9 hours of real world usage. That means watching movies, browsing and doing a bit of gaming. If you opt for the 4G version of the device, some users are even reporting an entire day's worth of it acting as a 4G hotspot.

The same can be said for iOS 7 itself, which is really singing on the iPad Air. For us, it's the best user experience Apple currently offers and the new operating system feels far better suited to a tablet than it does on mobile. In fact, our tech 'dream team' right now has to be an iPad Air and a Nexus 5. The two just go so well together.

Camera

Thankfully for those slightly strange people who enjoy taking photos with their tablets, the camera experience on the iPad Air has been significantly improved.

This is due to a large extent to iOS 7, which has a much improved camera user interface and photo apps. It's now possible to easily scan and share vast photo libraries between devices over iCloud, with pictures from the iPhone looking even better when shown off full screen on the iPad.

As for the cameras on the tablet themselves, they are both more than up to scratch. The front features a 720p 1.2 megapixel unit, which is perfectly adequate for video calling. It would have been nice to see full HD here though, as a lot of competing devices offer it.

iPad Air

© Digital Spy

The iSight camera on the iPad Air



On the back there is a 5-megapixel, f2.4, backside-illuminated sensor. It's one of the best cameras we have seen on a tablet and makes taking photos and 1080p videos on your iPad Air genuinely tempting, despite the fact that you end up looking rather stupid.

User interface and apps

We have already written at length about iOS 7 here, so if you fancy really knowing more about the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system, make sure you give things a read.

To us, iOS 7 feels perfectly suited to the tablet. It is silky smooth on the iPad Air, with the whole OS never once feeling like it was wanting for power.

Some aren't huge fans of the new iOS colour schemes, however we feel the muted and soft tones of the new OS perfectly suit the iPad's design.

Vimeo for iOS 7 on the iPad

© Vimeo

Vimeo for iOS 7 on the iPad



On a more practical level, the keyboard is exceptional, outperforming the likes of the Microsoft Surface and Nexus 10 by a long way. You really don't need a keyboard dock accessory to make lengthy typing on this device a possibility.

There are a few tweaks to iOS on the iPad that make it especially good. Four finger swipes quickly flick you between applications for example, which has always been one of our most used iPad shortcuts.

Then you have the ability to split the keyboard to two sides of the screen, so you can see more while you type. All logical tweaks that deliver a very slick user experience.

Included applications like the bundled iWork and iLife suite are very good. The new simpler iPhoto is a particular highlight. On the A7 chip it is absolutely rapid, and the levels of editing you can now do with photos make for a near Photoshop level of depth.

Pages and the rest of iWork are definitely good, but we have to say Microsoft's bundled Office suite with the Surface does take the win here. As broken as the user experience is on the Surface, they are industry-standard apps which are hard to beat.

'Pages' mobile app

© Apple

Pages



However, the level of iCloud integration in iWork does mean collaborative document production is possible, which means we could see ourselves replacing Google Drive as our go-to solution for working on the move.

All in all, iOS 7 coupled with the extremely thin and light iPad Air makes for one of the slickest and most polished user experiences money can buy.

Music and Movies

First up, there is now a 128 GB version of the iPad Air, which makes it an expensive albeit storage tactic solution for movies on the go. Android tablets with microSD card slots will of course offer up even more space - and for much cheaper.

We feel like the iPad movie and music experience is one of the best out there. iTunes is obviously a gargantuan service with a huge amount of choice, but other offerings like Netflix and Sky Go also plug any gaps.

The competition has however now caught up, with many Android tablets boasting just the same access to media as the iPad. Money can be saved if you just want a simple music and movies player.

iPad Air

© Digital Spy

The Apple iPad Air has a Lightning charge port.



However, if you are after the best, the combination of the iPad's screen alongside its high-quality speakers make it absolutely ideal for lap-based movie action.

The new-look music app in iOS 7 is a touch sparse compared to the old one, but the amount of content there hasn't changed. iTunes continues to offer the most complete digital download experience for music out there.

The competition

At the moment there is a vast number of Android tablets out there, but very few come close to the iPad in terms of quality.

The Surface 2 is definitely just as nicely put together but has the joys of Windows 8.1 RT to deal with, making it a no-no for all but the biggest of Microsoft fans.

Google Nexus 10

© Google

Nexus 10



Samsung's Nexus 10 is, however, a very good and viable alternative. It comes with just as high-quality a screen, more than enough power and access to plenty of music and movies. It's also cheaper.

Verdict

Summarising the competition brings us on to the only real significant flaw we can find with the iPad Air. This is a very expensive gadget. It is, especially in the higher storage forms, priced well out of the range of the average tech fan.

This is a shame, as the Air is a truly fantastic device, but £479 for 32GB of space is a lot to ask. The Nexus 10 is £389, for example.

However, if you have the money saved, go for the iPad Air. It's a bit of a game changer for Apple. Now finally you have a large-screened tablet that is so light you won't hesitate to carry it with you everywhere, yet. It offers the same power and performance of Ultrabooks from a few years back.

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