iPad Air: The Zen Device of Choice

I originally thought of the iPad as a kind of novelty; a neat toy for someone who can afford to have a frivolous third (or fourth) device between a smartphone and a laptop, with a Kindle thrown in for good measure. Nifty, but unnecessary. And probably not that useful, overall. I changed my tune when I better understood where an iPad really does fit into the life of someone who already fills his or her day with computer gadgets. Allow me to greatly generalize with enormously broad strokes.

The PC (meaning your Mac or Windows machine, laptop or desktop) is your headquarters, where you must do your intensive work, likely for your job. A PC is for the times you must be at a PC. (I know that this is an obvious and seemingly redundant statement, but bear with me.) The smartphone is a talisman of freedom, your remote access to computing, be it for work or day-to-day life. Though it, like a PC, can be used for fun, its existence is justified by its necessity. A smartphone is for when you must have a smartphone. (I promise this will make sense.)

The tablet, the iPad, however, is quite different. Maybe it's the touch interface on a wide plane, maybe it's a shape reminiscent of a magazine, and maybe it's because of all it can't do as much as what it can. Whatever the reason, the iPad is something you choose to use. (I'm generalizing, as I said. Obviously many professions now require their use, but we're talking about the mainstream computer-using consumer.) At the moment you're using your iPad, you don't need to be at your "truck," your workhorse machine. You don't need to be accessing highly-specific bits of data while in transit or away from the PC. You're using the iPad because, at that moment, you want to. The iPad is your escape from those devices of requirement. It is the zen device. The iPad is for when you don't need to be using anything else, including an iPad.

To be less flowery about it, here's Nate Anderson:

I find using the tablet a more soothing experience. This is unlikely to be a universal feeling, but as someone who spends my entire day at a computer using a mouse-and-keyboard, my hands welcome a chance to do something different and my back welcomes a chance to recline on the couch. But there's a mental component, too. Cracking open my laptop in the evening presents me with windows holding to-do lists, open browser tabs for in-progress stories, instant messages, e-mail, and book projects. In short, I feel like I've just returned to the office. Using a tablet feels, however illogically, like being at home.

Given the iPad's role as described here, its hardware design takes on enormous importance. If it's something you're supposed to want to use, as opposed to something you are mandated to use, its form needs to fit into your life in a personal way. It needs to suit you habitually and physically. It needs to answer in the affirmative to really simple questions like, “is it easily accessible in my home?” “Is it easy to bring with me when I'm not?” “Is it comfortable?” “Are its displayed contents entirely legible?” It needs to answer in the negative queries such as, “is it too heavy? Too hot? Too ugly or visually distracting?” Etcetera.

I don't really think earlier versions of the iPad answered all these questions to my satisfaction, though it got closer every time.

Remember when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad at one of his signature keynote events? I watched it again recently, and it was clear to me that the in-house audience, while excited, didn't quite know what to make of it. So it's a big iPod Touch? That's cool, I guess! Yeah, a big iPod Touch!

But what I also remember sticking out to me was how kind of, well, puffy the first iPad seemed. There was Steve, peace be upon him, gripping this new category of device on stage with both of his hands, and I remember thinking that it looked like it was a bit much. Steve was rather thin at the time, surely, but nonetheless, it looked rather awkwardly wide and thick to me.

When I finally got to play with one in my own home, thanks to relatives who'd bought one but had frankly no idea what to do with it, it confirmed my feelings. Not just about the size of the thing, but the relative usefulness of it. It was lovely, no doubt, and it was great, as Steve said, to "hold the Internet in your hands," as web browsing was rather nice with it. But it wasn't amazingly nice, not drop-$500-nice. Soon, Apple would release iPhone 4 with its breathtakingly crisp Retina display, and it would only serve to make me less interested in the iPad. Too big, too heavy, not useful enough, and with what I now deemed a sub-standard display -- particularly for long-form reading, as I also had a second or third generation Kindle, which was far nicer for that purpose than an iPad of the time.

But like a Medieval English commoner who had been transformed into a newt by a sorceress, it got better. iPad 2 brought a slimmer form, though no change in width, and no improvement in resolution. Still no deal, though meanwhile the iPad was proving itself to the rest of the world to be more than a cute web browser for the rich, but rather a surprisingly useful tool for creation and work. I finally bit with the third generation iPad with its Retina display, and though I did feel I was getting a lot of joy and functionality out of it, I was more and more dismayed by its weight and its output of heat, both of which simply made it uncomfortable to use in the way I wanted to use it.

This led me ever-briefly into the Android universe, as I indulged in a dalliance with a first generation Nexus 7. The weight was certainly an improvement, and it didn't get quite as hot, but the display was only so-so, its functionality minimal (as Android has yet to mature as a tablet platform), and dammit, I missed not just that Retina display, but the screen real estate of the full size iPad.

So I got a chance to play with an iPad mini for an extended time at home, which I thought might be a good compromise. I was wrong. The lower-resolution display was simply a no-go, and I still longed for the breathing room my eyes got from the iPad-proper. Back I went. While I now more firmly embraced everything the full iPad was, both its vast array of positives as well as its drawbacks, the original reservations remained.

Last month, Apple announced its new iPad line, with a Retina iPad mini (not yet available) and a new version of its full-size iPad, the iPad Air, so called for obvious reasons: significant reductions in weight and footprint. I got one of the latter (and it took considerable concessions from me to my wife, the terms of which I may or may not ever reveal, but believe me when I say they are serious terms).

The iPad Air is, quite simply, about as close to the realization of the platonic ideal of an iPad as I can imagine is technologically feasible today. Design-wise, it borrows from the build language of the iPad mini, and to good effect. It looks gorgeous and sleek (especially the “space gray” version which I have, which is something considering I've been lately biased toward white iDevices), and like the mini, very inviting for holding. (More on the mini similarity in a minute.)

At first glance, there is the improvement of how much physical space the damn thing takes up. Unlike the shiny black cushiony thing wielded by The Steve on stage in 2010, this immediately looks, well, correct. There is only as much bezel as seems absolutely necessary, and with the significant reduction in width, it no longer seems like a big legal pad in terms of size, but something of a size all its own. It's hard to describe it any other way than "iPad size."

In terms of thickness, to recall Monty Python again, it's wafer-thin. Indeed, it feels like it's so thin that it can't possibly have any structural integrity, it must be doomed to snap in half at any moment. Of course it's not, but it's a remarkable feat that this could be one's impression of a freaking computer.

The weight is the big deal, of course. And it really is frighteningly light. Compare it to an iPad 3 or 4 and it's night and day. The older models were never “heavy” in the sense of being unwieldy, but they certainly had heft, and you didn't need to have used an iPad mini to notice this. For wee folks like me, those iPads required at least a little effort to hold up for periods of time, one-handed use being extremely rare.

The heft is no more. Again, it seems like it might be too light, that a stiff breeze or an oscillating fan pointing in my direction might spirit it away. It's a revelation for a device that plays the role I've assigned it, the zen device.

But while the Air is light, for sure, it is not weightless. One-handed use is now an entirely viable option, but it's not optimal. Though, I never found it to be optimal even on the small tablets like the 7 and the mini, as I'm kind of small myself and have RSI problems with my hands and wrists. iPad Air is heavier than these tablets, but its toll on my own hands and wrists is comparable to those devices. And relating to its similarity in build to the mini, the very far edges of the device are ever so slightly sharp, where the front plate ends and the back chassis begins. Since the Air is not weightless, it can sometimes feel like the edges are digging into my hand in certain one-handed holding positions. It's not bad, but an occasional annoyance.

For one-handed use, I'd say the couch or a chair, in general seated positions, are better than reclined positions, or when laying down, for that's when gravity will start to pull the thing toward your head. But don't be sidetracked by an acknowledgement of the fact that this object has mass like any object in this universe. Compared to previous incarnations, it's a dream to hold.

As I mentioned, heat was a big concern for me. I found iPad 3 and 4 both to put out an uncomfortable amount of heat where my left hand held the back, and I would find myself turning it upside down or putting it into a case in certain scenarios (I found I had to do this with the Nexus 7 as well). Writing his review, Tim Stevens said that while the Air is cooler -- and I asked him to clarify this on Twitter -- it still gets quite warm with little difference from the 3 or 4.

This has not been my experience. Doing all the same things on this iPad that I did on the last, it does warm up somewhat, but not at all uncomfortably. I'm delighted by this, and to me it's a major improvement.

I wonder if it's the new top-of-the-line processor in the iPad Air that makes it not need to run as hot as previous models. Either way, the A7 chip is supposed to run circles around its predecessor, and while I have no reason to doubt it, thus far I've not noticed much in the way of performance boost, though I don't play graphically intense games or things like that. I will say, however, that choosing new wallpapers no longer suffers from the multi-second lag that the previous iPad did. So I guess that's something.

Speaking of the software, while this is not a review of iOS 7 by any means (see here for initial thoughts on that), it's worth pointing out that the A7 chip does not change my perception that iOS 7 on the iPad still feels about three-quarters baked. The bits of the OS that seemed to hesitate and hiccup on iPad 3 and 4 still do on the iPad Air for the most part.

Here's a couple of smaller things.

I am typing this on the iPad Air right now, and I do most of my personal blogging on iPad (you see, my personal blogging is the thing I choose to do, and the iPad is the device I choose to use, etc.). There's no change in the execution of the soft keyboard in this generation of the iPad, but there is one difference only perhaps worth noting: the sound of typing. It used to be that finger taps on the iPad, pre-Air, went "tupp-tupp-tuh-tupp-tupp,” and maybe even “tpp.” Muted, dampened. On the Air, the sound is much different, more like, “pap-pap-ba-dap,” more resonant into the body of the device, and also simply louder. This almost entirely doesn't matter, except that sometimes I'll have the iPad in bed, want to jot something down or tweet something, but I'm cognizant that my poor wife is asleep next to me, and while with previous iPads I had no fear she'd hear any taps, now I worry. So far, so good though.

And there's the new Smart Covers, again, following the style of the iPad mini, with no metal hinge, which is fine, and three panels that fold rather than four. How can I put this? While still quite attractive, light, and unobtrusive (I got the pretty red one), overall, it stinks. Again, I am typing this on the Air, and the damn Smart Cover keeps unfolding and flopping on my lap, worse than even previous versions ever did, which was a lot. I'll likely return it, and get something more like the STM Cape, which firmly holds the iPad in a typing position.

So, should you get an iPad Air? Christ, I don't know. Who the hell am I? But since you asked. Let's say for the sake of argument you're in the market for a tablet, and can manage the funds to be so (not at all to be taken lightly, as I can attest). Let's say you're also sane, so you're already probably going to get an iPad. I wouldn't think you were weird if you wanted, say, a Nexus 7-mark-2 or a Kindle Fire HDX, but nor would I think you were terribly serious about tablet computing beyond consumption. Which would be unfair, I realize. But I digress. If you already own an iPad 1 or 2, do what you must, sell blood, sperm, or eggs, but get the iPad Air. If you have a 3 or a 4 it's tougher, and it comes down to the value you place on its physical form. If your iPad 3/4 is a work machine mainly, meh, don't worry. But if it's your zen machine, well, if you can square it, give it a look.

So, there it is. I got the iPad Air the day it was available, and I'm delighted with it. I have no fear that the Retina iPad mini would have been a better pick, as I'm still in love with the larger display (and correspondingly larger touch targets). Could it be lighter? I suppose that'd be nice, but physics are now being challenged. If it were any lighter, frankly, I don't know that I'd feel secure with it--it might not really feel like it's there. As it is, this is iPad as it ought to be. I know many people feel that way about the now-Retina mini, but I say that the iPad, which for me is my escape-device of choice, serves best when its display is more of an immersive feast for the eyes, not less.

Update: I was reminded that I had not mentioned what storage capacity I opted for, and whether I got an LTE model. The answer is 32GB, Wi-Fi only.

I travel a few times a year, and when I do it's nice to pack a couple movies onto an iPad. But I realized that with a 16GB model, you're lucky if you can fit even one HD movie rented from iTunes. I always wound up deleting apps and other things to make room, and it just started to seem silly. As a something that's not just a toy, but a tool I make heavy use of, spending the extra $100 made sense. Apple overcharges per gigabyte on their storage scale, say I, but I chalk it up to an extra 16GB, or $100, worth of sanity.

Now, what was much tougher was LTE vs. Wi-Fi. With T-Mobile's entrance into the iPad line, and their devices coming with a free 200MB per month of data, an LTE version was more compelling than ever -- even if you never pay for cellular data, just having that extra cushion of connectivity in a pinch makes the extra $130 seem like a much, much better deal.

If money were less of an object, I'd get it no question, and so should you. But if money is an object for you as it is for me, it's a tougher call. As I discussed in a previous post, these devices are maturing to the point that they need not be replaced as frequently as they once did, or as often as you (really "I") might feel inclined. So in that sense the iPad is more of a long term investment, and getting the most functional one you can afford seems like a good rule. Get the LTE one now, and even if you don't use it much this year, for example, you've future-proofed yourself a bit for the years ahead. I simply didn't have the extra $130, so I'm reluctantly going without. If someone wants to hand me $130, however, with no strings or questions asked, I'll happily go and swap this thing, like, right how. Like, I'll leave now.

So, 32, Wi-Fi, space gray. But you should get all the bells and whistles you can afford, and therefore be happy with your new device for longer.