Hands on: At just 1 pound, the iPad Air is worth the weight

Trimmer, faster and noticeably lighter than its predecessor, Apple's new iPad hits the bulls-eye for portable computing

The first thing you notice when you pick up Apple's new iPad Air is the weight, or rather, the lack thereof. The newest iPad, which arrived in stores on Friday, weighs just a pound, making it almost 30% lighter than the iPad 4. It's also thinner. And faster.

A white iPad Air sitting on top of a first-generation iPad.

Apple execs unveiled the fifth-generation iPad two weeks ago, when they also announced that the next iPad mini will get a Retina display and a slightly higher price. (The new iPad mini is due out by the end of the month. Prices start at $399.)

The iPad Air moniker clearly references the device's lighter weight, and pays homage to Apple's MacBook Air, the popular laptop known for its cutting edge design. And while it has indeed slimmed down and trimmed up, the iPad Air isn't light on new features.

The Air features the now-familiar 9.7-in. Retina display surrounded by a new, narrower aluminum-and-glass enclosure that's 28% lighter and 20% thinner than last year's model. (The Wi-Fi/LTE models weigh 1.05 pounds.) The modified bezel, which is narrower on the sides than at the top and bottom, makes the iPad Air look like a grown-up iPad mini.

The Air is the first iPad to sport Apple's new A7 dual-core chip and 64-bit architecture (virtually the same chipset that powers the iPhone 5S); the M7 coprocessor (for sensing and recording activity without taxing the main processor); dual antennas and MIMO support (multiple-input, multiple-output) for better Wi-Fi throughput; and dual microphones for noise canceling. All of this packed into an enclosure that is just 7.5mm thick.

The Air comes in at the same price points as previous iPads: $499, $599, $699 and $799 for the 16GB/32GB/64B/128GB models, respectively. Add an additional $129 for the LTE models, which can be used with T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon. (Monthly data charges from the carriers are, of course, extra.)

On Friday, when the Air finally became available for purchase, buyers could order online or through the Apple Store app for same-day pick-up at Apple retail stores in the U.S. The Air was also available at other retailers, including Best Buy, Walmart, Staples, and Radio Shack, with many offering trade-ins for older, working iPads. Unlike the rollout in September of the iPhone 5S, when buyers lined up for hours or scrambled to find a 5S, iPad Air stock was plentiful at most outlets and remained so over the weekend. (If you need to check local availability, you can do so here.)

I was able to get an iPad Air on Friday by waking up at my normal time (6 a.m.) and placing an order for pick up using the Apple Store app on my iPhone before rolling out of bed. Twelve hours later, I walked out of the Apple Store at the Florida Mall with a 128GB Space Gray iPad Air with LTE.

I spent hours over the weekend using the Air, enough time to get a feel for how it stacks up to its predecessors, both in terms of performance and -- more importantly -- in terms of how well the new design works.

Quick refresher: The original iPad was released in April 2010 and weighed 1.5 pounds. The iPad 2 followed in 2011 and weighed just over 1.3 pounds (and was noticeably thinner). The iPad 3 and iPad 4, both of which were released last year, weighed more than 1.4 pounds. In other words, they got heavier. That's one reason the iPad mini, which weighs just 0.68 pounds, was a quick success after it was released a year ago. (I bought a mini and have kept it and my iPad 2 in rotation ever since.)

Three generations of iPads. The iPad Air (in Spce Gray) is on the left; an iPad 2 is on the right and the iPad mini is at the top. (Image: Michael deAgonia)

In my limited time with the device, it's already evident that the Air addresses the main issue that kept me from enjoying the previous-generation Retina display iPads: the weight. When the iPad 3 arrived early last year, I raved about the stunning display and improved performance. But I also lamented the extra weight. What I didn't realize at the time was that it would actually affect my use of the iPad 3; over time, I used it less and less. Finally, I sold it to a friend looking for a family-friendly device.

Using the iPad Air has made me realize that as much as I loved the Retina display on the iPads 3 and 4, those extra ounces were enough to make me reach for another iOS device whenever I could. Given a choice between the iPad 3 and the iPad 2, I often grabbed my old iPad 2 without even thinking about it because of the wrist fatigue I felt during extended reading and browsing sessions. (Apple still sells the iPad 2, a 16GB model that goes for $399.) Then Apple released the iPad mini; it had all of the benefits of the iPad 2 in a lighter, easier to handle form factor.

Close-up of the iPad Air (left) and the iPad 2 (right). Until the Air was released, the iPad 2 was the thinnest full-sized iPad made by Apple. (Image: Michael deAgonia)

In retrospect, it's clear that, for my needs, portability and mobility trumped screen resolution. Given the overall reaction among new iPad Air owners, clearly I'm not alone in that view. When it comes to tablets, weight really matters -- even if it's measured in ounces.

In many ways, the iPad Air -- the way it looks, the way it feels in hand -- builds on the best parts of the iPad mini. In fact, the Air feels more like a next-generation mini than an updated iPad 4. Semantics? Maybe. But when you put the two side by side, the connection is obvious.

One of the reasons the iPad 2 has remained on sale is because Apple needed a light-weight alternative to the faster, but heavier, Retina-display iPads. With the arrival of the Air, that option is no longer necessary. Now, you can get the 9.7-in. Retina display in a lightweight form factor (and with a much faster A7 processor) for just $100 more than the iPad 2.

Though I haven't had time to conduct benchmark tests of the A7 chip on the Air -- I'll have more on that in a full review later this month -- I've used the tablet enough to know that speed isn't an issue. Apps launch quickly, transitions in iOS 7 are smooth and fluid, the Air does not get hot when taxed and battery life is very, very good. Apple says the Air will go for 10 hours between charges, and I've seen nothing yet to call that estimate into question. If anything, that might be conservative.

If you're weighing pros and cons, there are a couple of things lacking. Most obvious is the fact that the Air does not have the Touch ID fingerprint reader that's been such a standout feature of the iPhone 5S. Touch ID is my favorite habit-changing feature on that device, and on more than one occasion I've picked up the Air and held my thumb on the Home button, waiting for it to unlock.

I also hope that when iPads do ship with Touch ID, we'll also get software support for multiple users. This would be a real benefit for families or offices that share devices; with any luck, Apple will have something like it when iOS 8 arrives next year.

Neither of these, however, should stop you from considering the Air if you're in the market for a new tablet. That's true even if you're upgrading from last year's model, something I rarely recommend. The Air really is that much better than the iPad 4.

I've only had a few days with the iPad Air. But I can tell you that the 64-bit power of the A7 processor and iOS 7, in concert with the Air's weight/size ratio, iTunes/App Store ecosystem and the overall ease of use, make this a compelling device.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter ( @mdeagonia).

Read more about tablets in Computerworld's Tablets Topic Center.

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