As you may remember, I’ve left the New York Times to start a new consumer-tech site at Yahoo. We’ll open for business in a few weeks; in the meantime, I’ll continue to post my weekly columns—right here on Tumblr.
It’s October, and you know what that means: leaves are changing color, families are carving pumpkins, and Apple is offering a new iPad.
This year, the big iPad news is how small it is. The screen hasn’t changed—it’s still 9.7 inches diagonal—but the margins on each side are skinnier, and the components inside have been shrunken.
As a result, the whole thing is 10 percent narrower, 20 percent thinner, and, at 1 pound, 25 percent lighter now than before.
All of this is enough, Apple thinks, to justify a new name for the thing: the iPad Air ($500 and up). It becomes available on Friday, in white or black.
Somehow, Apple was able to put the iPad on such a radical diet without sacrificing any of its features. The battery is smaller, but Apple says it still gets least ten hours on a charge. The screen is still incredibly sharp—264 tiny pixels per inch. The back is still made of classy-looking aluminum (silver on the white iPad, metallic gray on the black one), not plastic like most rival tablets.
There are useful changes inside, too. The iPad Air is powered by the same new chip (called the A7) that makes the iPhone 5s so fast. And it’s a 64-bit chip, which, according to Apple, means smoother animation in 3-D games. All told, Apple says that the new iPad is up to twice as fast as the last one, but the key words are “up to”; in practice, the speedup is slight.
Besides, that’s always been a weird statistic; who complained about the speed of the previous iPad? Still, speed is like money, friends, or Nutella: more is always welcome.
The iPad Air contains two WiFi antennas instead of one—a setup known as MIMO (Multiple In/Multiple Out). It means stronger WiFi signals at greater distances—if you also have a MIMO WiFi base station.
The main camera, on the back, is the same as on the last iPad (although iOS 7 adds some great features. But the front camera, for video chats, is vastly improved, especially in low light.
Like the iPhone 5s, this iPad also contains a helper chip, the M7, that’s designed to monitor movement information from the tablet’s motion sensors; it saves battery power by taking those burdens off the main chip. The key beneficiaries are certain fitness apps—but who takes the iPad jogging?
A microphone now sits on the back of the iPad, for assistance in canceling background noise when you’re making a video or audio call with the screen facing you.
As a nice bonus, all of Apple’s excellent tablet apps—iMovie, iPhoto, GarageBand, Pages, Numbers, Keynote—are free with a new iPad. Since they’re usually $5 or $10 each, that’s a sweet bundle.
And that’s what’s new in the iPad Air.
This time around, there’s no gotta-have new feature—nothing on the level of the Retina screen, Siri voice recognition, or even a fingerprint reader (like the one on the iPhone 5s).
That big public yawn must drive Apple’s engineers crazy. The thing is, making the iPad smaller, lighter, and faster without sacrificing battery life or beauty is a tremendous achievement.
This isn’t a device that sits or hangs in one place its whole life. It’s not a microwave or a TV. You have to hold this thing while you’re using it, and carry it around when you’re not. So size and weight matter a lot.
Still, at $500, an iPad probably doesn’t need replacing every year or even every other year; if you have a 2012 or 2013 model, stick with what you’ve got.
On the other hand, you’ll find the Air a fantastic leap into the future if you’re upgrading from an original iPad, or if you’ve never owned a tablet before.
If you’re in that category, the next question is: iPad Air, iPad Mini, Android tablet, or Kindle Fire?
* iPad Mini 2 ($400). Comes out next month with many of the exact same specs as the Air: super-sharp Retina screen (at last), 10-hour battery life, black or white body, A7 and M7 chips inside. The screen measures 7.9 inches, but displays precisely the same number of dots as the big iPad; they’re just smaller.
In many ways, the Mini is a more attractive prospect. At only three-quarters of a pound (and 5.3 by 7.8 inches), it’s a much more compact companion; it’s like owning a cocker spaniel instead of a Saint Bernard.
Now, some activities demand the bigger screen—like typing on the on-screen keyboard and watching movies (remember that you’ll have black bars above and below the picture). But if you’ll mostly read, play games, look at photos, and surf the Web, portable—purseable and coat-pocketable—may be preferable.
* Android tablets. The closest competitor to the iPad Air is probably Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10.1. It has a pen and much better stereo speakers. But like all Android tablets, it’s deeply app-impaired. Android tablets offer nothing like the quantity or quality of those available for the iPad (425,000 iPad-specific apps, plus 700,000 or so phone apps).
In phones, you could argue for either Android or iPhone. But in tablets, no; iPad still takes it.
* Kindle Fire. These tablets cost much less than iPads. They’re available in small sizes ($140 and $230 for last year’s and this year’s models) and large ($230 and $380). They’re fantastic for consumption: watching TV and movies, reading, surfing. But they wouldn’t be able to pull off creative work of the Pages/Numbers/GarageBand/iMovie kind. You need a real tablet for doing real work.
So that’s the iPad Air for you: No longer alone in the marketplace, no longer the only right choice, no breakthrough new features. But it’s smaller, lighter, and faster than ever, with a much bigger catalog of apps—and much better ones—than the competition. If you want a big tablet, this is the one that will make you happiest.
Put another way, there really is something in the Air.