This will certainly not be the be-all-end-all iPad Air review. There are other very good places you go for that. However, I do want to weigh in with my thoughts from use over the last few days.
I have had a couple iPads, but none of them have been of the retina screened variety. I started with an iPad 2, and traded that in for an iPad mini more recently. While I have really enjoyed the retina screen on my iPhone since they debuted on the iPhone 4, I haven’t had the pleasure on the iPad.
Having the clarity is a really nice perk. The place I notice it most is on video. The only way I can get through my gym treadmill sessions is by watching HBO or Netflix. The quality boost is really appreciated.
That brings up to the screen size. Whatever benefit I had from switching to the smaller form factor with the mini, was negated by the smaller screen. Sure, carrying it around all day, and holding it up while reclined on the couch or in bed was nice. But I read a lot of magazines, websites, and books on my iPad. With the mini, the text was often small enough, especially in Newsstand Apps or on websites, that I would have to double tap to zoom in. This was tiring to zoom in, read a bit, zoom out to navigate, switch pages, repeat.
With the traditionally sized larger iPad, this is not an issue. Especially with the retina screen. Perhaps the retina mini will solve this too, but I still think the font will be too tiny generally.
So the screen size situation is preferred on the Air. The other half of that equation was the heft of the devices. The mini, as I stated above was so much nicer to tote around. Lighter, easy to hold in one hand, etc. However, the Air has solved this problem. The iPad sheds half a pound in the transition from the 4 to the appropriately named Air. In fact, it is only .4 pounds heavier than the mini. It is really quite astonishing how light it is. It reminds me of moving from the iPhone 4/4s to the 5 and how people kept commenting “this is as light as a carrier dummy plastic fake phone”.
Part of the reason the iPad Air weighs so much less is that the form factor has shrunk. In order to get that smaller size, Apple has shed some of the battery. The battery is actually smaller than the one in the iPad 3 and 4. Normally, this would mean shorter device life between charges, but the Battery life has actually stayed the same or increased, thanks to Apple engineering some power efficiencies (supposedly in a more efficiently lit screen).
The neat benefit of this smaller battery, beyond the lighter weight, is that the device charges quicker! The iPad Air seems to fully charge from zero in about 2 hours less time than the iPad 4. Awesome.
One of the few problems I did have with the device, is not something with the iPad itself – but with Apple’s Smart Covers. Previously, the Smart Covers had 4 “panels” that you folded together to use it as a stand. With the mini, Apple switched to 3 panels, presumably because of the smaller size. The problem I had with the mini Smart Cover is that the way it folded together, the panels stopped overlapping. You can see the comparison in this picture from Ars Technica.
Note how the cover on the left, the new version, doesn’t overlap, but the older style on the right has two panels overlap. While in this upright orientation, it doesn’t matter – when you lay the iPad in the horizontal position, I’ve found that sometimes a press on the screen is too hard and causes the Smart cover to collapse. This never happened with my iPad 2 on the older style Smart Cover. It happened often enough on the Mini to be annoying, and while I have only encountered it once on the Air, I’m concerned it will keep happenings as the cover ages and weakens.
I am very happy with my iPad Air purchase. If you are deciding between the Mini and the Air, it really comes down to two factors. Size and Cost. The internals are the same, and the retina screen appears on both sizes of iPad now. If you watch video or read long form, you might like the Air more. If you carry it all the time, or want it to fit in a purse, the Mini might be better. Also, the mini does save you $100 at each price point.
T-Mobile, Free Data and Financing of iPads
As a bonus discussion, I wanted to discuss T-Mobile and their announcements around the iPad Air launch and my experience. This was the first time T-mobile was carrying the iPad. As they tend to do when they get new devices, they try to shake up the industry a bit by playing their “uncarrier” role and doing something neat with pricing and plans.
Their big announcement was two fold. First, they offered the iPad on a financing deal. With good credit, you could put $0 down and pay around $26 per month for 24 months until you paid off the iPad. The final tally of all the payments equals $630, which is actually the retail price of the 16 GB iPad with LTE. Essentially, its an interest free loan. As any economist will tell you, that is a good deal. With time-factor of money and inflation, this might even work in your favor.
The second announcement was that T-Mobile was offering 200MB of free data for any LTE tablets. Basically you sign up for a T-Mobile SIM card, with no monthly cost, as an on-demand data plan. So, you get 200MB free, when you run out, your data cuts off. If you decide you want more data, you just purchase a set amount – say $15 for 1GB. Not a bad plan if you just want the option of having data away from WiFi, but don’t want to commit to a data plan. This is a great deal if you just have an LTE enabled tablet and you don’t use it often or are already on a plan with a competitor.
Now, it came out recently, that T-Mobile has decided if you finance your device on a payment plan, you don’t get the free data without buying a traditional data plan. However, as I suspected, T-Mobile didn’t exactly properly explain to their stores about this. With a bit of finagling and some helpful store staff, I was able to walk out of my local T-Mobile with an iPad Air, putting zero down, and no data plan, but 200MB free per month.
I am extremely happy. In fact, as I suspect is the business motivation behind T-Mobile’s free data plan, I might even switch my cell phone plan to T-Mobile. The LTE coverage here in LA is pretty great, and their plans are really affordable. The main knock against T-Mobile has always been “spotty coverage”. But so far, this iPad is proving that might be outdated assumptions.