Walt Mossberg

Speed and Power Packed Into a Thin iPad Air

One reason for the phenomenal success of the iPad has been Apple’s ability to pack speed and versatility into a thin, light body with long battery life. It doesn’t do everything a laptop does, but for many common scenarios, it has replaced the laptop as its owners’ go-to device. That’s why the company has sold 170 million iPads in just 3½ years.

Now, Apple is raising the bar. On Friday, it plans to start selling its fifth-generation full-size model, called the iPad Air, and this one significantly extends the iPad’s advantages, at the same $499 base price of its predecessor. In a feat of design and engineering, Apple has slashed the iPad’s weight by 28 percent, made it 20 percent thinner and 9 percent narrower, while increasing its speed and retaining the brilliant, 9.7-inch Retina display.

The new iPad weighs just 1 pound, down from 1.4 pounds for the previous top-of-the-line model, the iPad 4, which is being discontinued.

And it has done all this while maintaining the iPad’s industry-leading battery life. In my tests, the iPad Air far exceeded Apple’s claim of 10 hours of battery life. For more than 12 hours, it played high-definition videos, nonstop, with the screen at 75 percent brightness, with Wi-Fi on and emails pouring in. That’s the best battery life I’ve ever recorded for any tablet.

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The iPad Air, right, is 0.29 inch thick, compared with the iPad 4, left, which is 0.37 inch thick.

I’ve been testing the iPad Air for about a week and found it a pleasure to use. This new iPad isn’t a radical rethinking of what a tablet can be, but it’s a major improvement on a successful product. It is the best tablet I’ve ever reviewed.

That isn’t just because of its slimmer, lighter design, but because Apple boasts 475,000 apps optimized for tablet use — far more than any other tablet platform. (The iPad also can run all of the million or so apps available for the iPhone.) By contrast, the vast majority of apps available for rival Android tablets are just stretched versions of phone apps.

In addition to the new iPad Air, in late November Apple will introduce a new version of its popular smaller tablet, the iPad mini. This second version of the mini will gain the ultrasharp Retina display, with the same number of pixels as its big brother, packed into its smaller, 7.9-inch screen. It is slightly thicker and heavier than the first mini and its base price will rise to $399 from $329. It runs all the same apps as the iPad Air.

I was only able to use the upcoming mini briefly, at Apple’s launch event, and found that, like its predecessor, I was able to jam it into the back pocket of my jeans securely. It isn’t as easy to carry as competing Android models with 7-inch screens, but it works fine one-handed and Apple claims it has up to 40 percent more screen real estate.

These latest iPads do have some downsides. They are pricier than many competitors. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 can be bought starting at $360. Dell has just introduced a new small tablet, the Venue 7, for $150.

And iPads can get even more costly once you start adding features, because Apple charges hefty prices for extras like cellular connectivity and more storage. A fully tricked-out iPad Air, with both Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity and the maximum 128 gigabytes of storage (up from 16 gigabytes in the base model) will set you back $929.

But Apple has taken some steps to offer iPads for less than in the past. It is continuing to offer the original iPad mini at a reduced base price of $299. And it will sell the 2011-vintage iPad 2 at a base of $399. These models have non-Retina displays and older processors.

Also, unlike some of its competitors, Apple isn’t introducing official accessories to the iPad to enhance productivity and creativity. Unlike Microsoft’s Surface tablets, the iPad lacks a manufacturer-made snap-on keyboard. And unlike Samsung’s Galaxy Note tablets, it doesn’t come with a stylus or built-in apps that can use it.

Apple says it opted not to add these things because many third-party hardware makers produce keyboards, keyboard cases and styli for the iPad. And the company did take steps to enhance productivity and creativity via software by making redesigned versions of its iWork office suite and its iLife creativity suite free with newly purchased iPads.

I found the iPad Air to be much more comfortable to hold for long periods than the last two, heavier models. And I found it to be noticeably faster than prior iPads. Apple claims it offers up to twice the speed of past models. It attributes that to a new processor, of its own design, called the A7, which also will be in the new Mini. This processor, like most PC processors, is what’s called a 64-bit chip, which means it can handle data in bigger chunks.

Wi-Fi is improved with two antennas instead of one. The iPad Air repeatedly recorded higher Internet speeds than its predecessors, essentially matching the Internet speed of my laptops.

Smaller improvements have been made to the cameras, especially the front camera most commonly used for video chats. And the iPad now has two microphones instead of one.

The battery performance of the iPad Air simply blew me away. In my tough tablet battery test, where I disable automatic screen dimming and other power-saving features, and combine video playback from the device’s memory with leaving Wi-Fi on and email working at normal settings, the iPad has almost always met its claims and beat competitors by a wide margin.

But this new iPad Air just kept going, clocking a battery life of 12 hours and 13 minutes, which exceeded Apple’s claim by more than 20 percent. The company says its A7 chip, combined with the fact it controls its own operating system, gives the new iPad the ability to tailor under-the-hood processes so unneeded drains on the battery can be minimized.

Bottom line: If you can afford it, the new iPad Air is the tablet I recommend, hands down.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.


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