iPad mini

iPad Air: Nice, but necessary?

November 6, 2013: 10:43 AM ET

Apple's latest full-sized iPad is lighter and faster. Is that enough?

Source: JP Mangalindan/Fortune.com

Source: JP Mangalindan/Fortune.com

FORTUNE -- If you're the undisputed tablet market leader, how do you one-up yourself? Redesign your bestselling product so that it's faster, thinner, and lighter and give it a name that screams "change."

That's what Apple (AAPL) did with the iPad Air. The 9.7-inch tablet, which began shipping late last week, now weighs 1 lb and is just 0.29 inches thick -- almost half a pound lighter and 20% thinner than last year's model. Pricing starts at $499 for the 16-gigabyte Wi-Fi version and $629 for the 16 GB version with 4G cellular network connectivity, going all the way up to $929 for a 128 GB version with 4G cellular network capability.

Over the years, Apple's industrial designers have approached the iPad somewhat gingerly, with some minor nips and tucks: a slightly thinner body here or flatter back there. The Air closely resembles the 7-inch iPad mini now, down to the diamond-cut chamfered edges -- and that's a good thing. Not only does this give the product line a more uniform look, it also takes care of minor design quibbles. The thick borders on either side of the screen are slimmer, for one.

The Air's new weight brings it within spitting distance of the iPad Mini's 0.75 lb. featherweight status, and the change is immediately noticeable. Although users are still likely to prop it in their laps or on a surface close to them, it also means holding it for long periods is much less of an issue.

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Inside, the Air uses an A7 processor, the same chip found in the iPhone 5s. With 64-bit architecture, Apple says users can expect improvements in overall performance, but huge performance gains will become noticeable as more developers code apps specifically for it. While the previous iPad was no slouch with its brisk A6X processor, now everything on iOS 7, including the popular virtual brawler Infinity Blade III, hums along. For instance, all those whiz-bang animations, which make older model iPhones 4 and 4s struggle, are buttery-smooth here. Apps launch faster, and switching among them is lag-free. The faster performance doesn't come at the expense of battery life: I used the Air for several days and scored 10.5 hours of use between charges.

Still, given how competitive the market has become -- including incumbents like Apple's own iPad Mini -- the Air isn't the surefire purchase it would have been just two years ago. Depending on users' needs and preferences, a smaller tablet like the Mini might be a better fit. And Amazon's (AMZN) aggressively updated Kindle Fire line finally offers a viable cheaper alternative that weds capable, if somewhat less-polished software, with blazing fast hardware -- and at a cheaper price point than Apple, too.

That doesn't mean Air users will at be disappointed with their new, chamfered purchase. Likely far from it. But there are more solid tablet options for shoppers to consider before they spend the cash.

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