The FaceTime camera is still 1.2 megapixels, with a BSI sensor that can shoot 720p video. The spec fiends inside us would've loved to see Apple bump this up to a higher resolution, especially given the importance placed upon the company's signature video chat service, but the amount of data consumption alone is probably enough for the company to shy away from making the jump here.
As for videos, we're once again looking at the same specs as on previous iPads: the FaceTime HD module on the front of the device can record 720p footage, while the rear camera is capable of 1080p. Thanks to the dual-mic system, my voice came in loud and clear when taking videos with the front-facing camera, and the overall quality was mostly smooth, but occasionally shaky. Flipping the iPad around, the rear camera was able to take above-average videos with no problem handling fluid motion, but the mics weren't able to filter out the traffic or even a slight breeze.
Performance and battery life
In our review of the fourth-gen iPad, we mentioned that its performance went past Ludicrous speed and directly to Plaid. Cute as the comparison was, it contained one major flaw: Plaid was the fastest speed (that we know of) on the Spaceballs scale, and the Air is even faster, so we're now in a mysterious Beyond Plaid (flannel?) territory. Apple claims that the dual-core A7 chip used here delivers twice the performance and rendering speed and also cuts file-opening times by half. As we said, this is the same processor that powers the iPhone 5s, but the Air offers both cores at a slightly higher clock speed (1.4GHz, instead of the iPhone's 1.3GHz) and comes with 1GB of RAM.
We go into great detail on Apple's A7 chip in our review of the iPhone 5s, but to recap: the A7 promises to be faster, more power efficient and -- let's not forget -- compatible with 64-bit applications. That last feature has been big news for developers: Including the two new iPads, there are now three iOS devices with 64-bit support. A handful of games and apps have already made the switch, but wider proliferation of this new chip should give devs even greater incentive to update their programs, and as soon as possible.
Aside from a couple animation glitches (freeze frames) related to iOS 7, the Air runs smoothly. Apps load a little quicker than they did before, but again, the areas where you'll notice the biggest improvement involve more-intense, processor-heavy activities. Games like Infinity Blade III and apps such as Vjay, iMovie and GarageBand don't skip a beat -- or a frame, in some cases. Interestingly enough, we also noticed that the backside doesn't heat up as much as on previous models, even after we taxed the processor for an extended period of time. In terms of cold, hard numbers, we've listed a few benchmark scores in the table below.
With the exception of one outlier, the Air provided some good metrics to go along with our positive real-world experiences. In particular, we've never seen better SunSpider results on a mobile device. Every other benchmark, meanwhile, seems to indicate what we'd already suspected: This is a solid improvement over anything Apple has pushed out yet.
When it comes to battery life, Apple's sweet spot appears to be 10 hours; this is the exact amount of runtime the company has claimed for each of the full-sized iPads. Indeed, nothing's changed this time around -- except, of course, the size of the battery itself, which has shrunk to 32WHr (down from 42 in the fourth-gen iPad). So did this have an adverse effect on battery life? No. Surprisingly, it did even better. In our standard video rundown test, the Air stayed alive for a whopping 13 hours and 45 minutes. Under heavy use, the device kept us going for a little more than a day and a half (admittedly with a few hours of sleep during this time).
In terms of specific use cases, when we plugged directions into Maps, connected our unit to a Bluetooth device and took a 120-minute rush-hour joyride through Bay Area traffic, the battery sunk about 40 percent in that two-hour time period. However, much of that was affected by the screen staying on for most of the punishing experience, so we would've fared better by shutting off the display. We also used the Air as a mobile hotspot for six hours and still had over 70 percent battery remaining. All in all, we were almost always satisfied with the Air's power consumption.
While we're on the subject of navigation, the GPS signal remained strong throughout our entire drive, and it kept up with us for the full experience. The speakers also sounded about the same as the last iPad, although on the Air they're placed at the very bottom of the device, which means it's possible to muffle the sound with your hands. Even so, this likely won't be an issue for many people; most of the time we actually had to go out of our way to block the speakers to the point where the sound got lower.
As we mentioned earlier, the Air is unlocked and has LTE bands that cover most operators around the world. Our unit came with a Verizon SIM and service, and in our neck of the woods we were able to achieve downlink speeds of 23.3 Mbps and uplink speeds of 11 Mbps with three bars (balls?) of reception.
Configuration options and the competition
The iPad Air has a wide variety of configuration options, which means there are plenty of possible permutations to choose from. Your color choices include "space gray" and silver, and you can select WiFi-only or WiFi + Cellular (that combines GSM/EDGE, UMTS/DC-HSPA+, EVDO and 14-band LTE). Storage options range from 16GB to 128GB, with each tier separated by a $100 price gap. The WiFi-only models start at $499 and max out at $799, while the cellular version starts at $629 and goes up to $929. Of course, this is the retail cost; models sold through individual carriers and other stores may sell for slightly different prices. Fortunately, US users won't be restricted to a small handful of carriers, since a large number of regional networks have pledged support for the iPad Air in addition to the big four national operators.
It's also worth noting that these aren't your only iOS options: The 16GB iPad 2 is still available for $399 (WiFi-only) and $529 (WiFi + Cellular). The original 16GB iPad mini can be yours for $299 (WiFi) and $429 (WiFi + Cellular), and later in November, the iPad mini with Retina display will be available starting at $399 (WiFi) and $529 (WiFi + Cellular). There, too, the price will go up by $100 for every storage option.
On the Android side, you have a plethora of options in the 10-inch category, so we'll offer up just a few notable examples. The Nexus 10 makes for a solid iPad alternative, as it offers a higher pixel count for less money ($399 with 16GB of storage). Unfortunately, however, it doesn't have any cellular connectivity, which might be a bummer for some. Meanwhile, Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 edition features the same resolution as the Nexus 10 and starts at $550. Toshiba also has the Excite Pro, which offers that same resolution for $500 (and that's with 32GB of storage). Finally, the ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity TF700 begins at $499.
Lastly, let's briefly examine the Windows competition. The Surface 2 starts at $449 with 32GB of built-in storage and battery life that blows away even the iPad Air. Additionally, Nokia recently announced its Lumia 2520 Windows RT flagship with LTE and Full HD display. That will be available for $499 sometime before the end of the year.
Surprise: the iPad Air is the best iPad we've reviewed. In addition, though, it's also the most comfortable 10-inch tablet we've ever tested. Not every manufacturer can produce a thin and light device without also making it feel cheap or flimsy, but Apple nailed it. Factor in a sizable boost in performance and battery life, and the Air is even more compelling. The last two iPads served up relatively few improvements, but the Air provides people with more of a reason to upgrade or even buy a tablet for the first time.
If you thought you had a tough choice last year, the iPad Air faces even tougher competition in 2013 -- and it's likely to get yet more fierce over the coming year. Though the Air will continue to be a solid option thanks to its size, weight, performance and battery life, the Nexus 10 offers a great experience at a lower price (although its lack of cellular connectivity is a potential con). And if you want the absolute best components, you might be just as happy with other flagship tablets.
Additionally, the Air may lose a few potential buyers to the iPad mini with Retina display, which will essentially be the Air in a smaller size. The features, specs and performance should be roughly the same, so if you've been holding out for a more petite iOS tablet with a great screen, you'll want to hang tight a bit longer. We don't envy the decision you have to make, but it's hard to go wrong with the Air if you're in need of as much screen space as possible.
Edgar Alvarez contributed to this review.