After getting my hands on the iPad Air, my initial impressions led me to see what 30 days of heavy use would be like. What would it be like to offload as many of my daily tasks as possible to an iPad rather than a laptop or PC? Would I be surprised at how easy it’d be, or would limitations of a tablet stop it dead in its tracks?
First, a little background for context. I’ve been primarily an Android user since the Droid 1, and I’ve admined every Android phone I’ve had except the Galaxy S4. The only Apple device I’ve ever previously owned was an iPod Video 30GB years ago in college. Continuing to use a Galaxy S4 as my phone would provide constant comparison between each OS, which I figured would be good fodder for this article.
There’s a lot to cover, so I’ll try to balance concise info with enough detail to be useful.
Battery Life and Charging
The battery life is great, simple as that. People talked about the 10 hour battery life, which seemed impressive and plenty long enough for a day on the go with frequent use. I should note that in my experience 10 hours seems like a conservative estimate that assumes a mix of games, movies, and other heavy media use.
On days that consisted mostly of email, web browsing, Facebook, and writing in the Pages app, I could go an entire day and still be at 70% battery. A few times I made it through an entire second day on one charge. Compared to my laptop, which even with light web use and word processing would only last 2.5 hours at best on battery, this was a huge improvement.
With the 2.1 amp charger provided, the iPad seems to charge in about 3 hours from a low battery point. Definitely slower than my Galaxy S4, but that’s to be expected with a much larger battery being charged from the same amperage as the phone. And since the battery life is ample, it’s generally easy to plan charging at convenient times.
1GB RAM – Does This Affect Performance?
This was a question I had before getting the iPad Air. Competing Android phones and tablets commonly have 2GB or even 3GB, so I was unsure whether this would be a drawback of an iPad. Most forums I’d read the users said that no, the OS is optimized for it and so are the apps made for iOS. It made sense, and given that many benchmarks show that Apple’s CPUs are notably more powerful than ones used in Android (namely because of using a 64-bit architecture) I assumed it would compensate.
For any singular application I can attest that the 1GB RAM limit doesn’t seem to detract from performance. In games and movies the iPad definitely runs smoother than other devices I’ve used, even my laptop in some cases. Apps and such do indeed seem to be well optimized for 1GB RAM limit. The powerful CPU and graphics chip Apple use definitely shine here.
Keeping A Lot of Apps Open
However, the amount of RAM any device has is as much for running simultaneous applications as it is for one large one at a time. This is where I felt a difference. With my Galaxy S4 I’d gotten in the habit of having Facebook, Google Hangouts, Twitter, Gmail, Chrome, etc. open at once all the time. Only occasionally did I notice where switching back to one of these apps needed a reload of the content. This happens when the OS had to free up RAM from idle apps for ones currently being used. Because this rarely happened in the S4, obviously the 2GB RAM was generally enough for a multitasked day where few apps had to “borrow RAM” from others.
On the iPad Air, having that many apps open at once caused fairly consistent reloading of data. In other words, returning to the browser reloads the page I was on, returning to Facebook completely reloads the news feed, and when returning to Gmail it sometimes has to sign back in and reload the inbox. Another good example is the Steam app (a gaming platform for those unfamiliar). The app allows you to chat with friends from any device. When I signed into Steam on the iPad and kept it in the background while I juggled other tasks, my friends told me later that I showed as offline for them. When I went back into the Steam app it had to reload everything, including signing me back in.
This never happened while keeping Steam in the background of my Galaxy S4.
It only takes a few seconds, but I found that, as my wife advised, I needed to get in the habit of double tapping the home button and clearing out apps I’m not actively using to prevent this. Not a huge detractor, as it’s the active tasks I’m doing that matter most, but it is worth mentioning as a comparison. When Apple releases the next iPad hopefully it will come with a RAM improvement.
Wi-Fi and Browsing Speed
The iPad Air pulls up web pages pretty quickly. Occasionally websites take several seconds to begin actually rendering, but I suspect that’s a DNS issue and not the device. Page loading is generally slightly faster than my Galaxy S4, but it’s not a big difference as both are pretty quick. One area where the iPad pulls significantly ahead is in scrolling around a web page with a lot of media on it. The iPad’s CPU seems to muscle through it well while the S4 varies from a slight stutter to an occasional significant frame rate drop.
The iPad Air’s Wi-Fi range is also superior. While in my office the S4 has 3/4 Wi-Fi bars, where the iPad has all four. Even my laptop has 3/4 bars in my office. In my back yard the S4 loses signal completely about half way into the yard, where the iPad continues to hold 2/4 bars at the very back of the yard (furthest from the house). This isn’t a big deal in the context of the yard itself — though cookouts and such in warm weather will be nicer with Pandora/Spotify access everywhere. But we can glean from this that if you’re out and about looking for Wi-Fi the iPad Air has a quality antenna that does a great job of pulling in a usable signal.
Web Browsing and WordPress
I read a lot of articles and spend a lot of time working in WordPress, so one of my early experiments was to see how both of these tasks felt.
As you’d expect with any tablet, browsing websites and reading articles is comfortable, smooth, and much easier to see than on a smartphone. The iPad’s powerful CPU leads to smooth scrolling and zooming, and enabling full screen video is actually smoother and less laggy than my Dell Latitude. Text is easy to read on most sites, even many that are not mobile-friendly. Moving around the pages is clear and responsive even with a lot of graphics.
WordPress and General Writing
Even in landscape mode the WordPress interface has to visually compress a bit, but other than the page text area being thinner than usual everything else looks and works about the same. Paired with a Bluetooth keyboard, it’s pretty comfortable to write an article with the iPad propped up by the smart case. Highlighting text to make it bold or apply a header tag to it is a little troublesome, though. Highlighting text in iOS and Android can be a little clunky, and sometimes when you touch the screen to scroll up it counts it as a click, which de-selects your text. For things like this, there’s no substitution for a mouse and keyboard. (Highlighting with the Bluetooth keyboard holding shift and arrow keys is much easier.)
Writing in the Pages app is easy, which is great for meeting notes because I can easily email everyone the notes afterward and no one has to decipher my handwriting. I’ve also written longer pieces in Pages and found it decent with the screen keyboard and great with the Bluetooth one.
Safari and Forced Default
Safari as a browser seems solid, but it’s unfortunate that iOS requires other browsers to act only as a shell over top Safari (iOS only allows Webkit rendering). Wouldn’t be a big deal if you could still set Chrome or Firefox as the default browser like you can in Android, but the default is always Safari in iOS. If you’re used to syncing your bookmarks in Chrome or Firefox between devices, this means you either can’t do it on iPad or it will be inconvenient, since clicking links will not open with Chrome or Firefox by default.
Portability and General Use
The iPad is excellent for casual browsing and reading from a couch or coffee shop. From a handheld distance the screen is large enough to be easy to read and appreciate the detail in the Retina display. I wouldn’t personally go smaller than this given my usage habits (so no iPad Mini for this guy). But the iPad Air seems to strike nice balance between being big enough to use well but compact enough for easy carrying.
With a smart cover the iPad Air tucks easily into almost any bag. Even with the Bluetooth keyboard and charger in my bag it’s still far lighter (and takes up less space) than a laptop. This is a major plus for me, as a day out and about lugging around a laptop bag is hard on the shoulder, not to mention challenging to fit other non-laptop things in the bag.
Kindle Book Reading
I’ve had the Kindle app on my Galaxy S4 since I’ve had the phone, but have only used it once or twice. It’s a cool idea in concept, but I find it uncomfortable to read at length on a 5 inch screen. On the iPad Air, however, reading is very comfortable in both portrait and landscape modes. In landscape mode it actually lays the content out in two columns like holding open a paper book, which is cool. I’ve read 2 full length 400 page novels on it so far and pieces of a half a dozen others, which has been a productive way to spend time in the evenings or to pass time while at the mechanic.
General Impressions and iOS
The iOS interface is pretty straightforward, as are the settings. I did watch a few quick videos (see end of article) on Youtube and have the Apple users in my life point some things out to me, but it was easy to pick up. I don’t use Siri as often as some, but I do find it handy for small tasks like setting reminders, timers, or checking the weather.
As a friend pointed out to me, some of the niceties of iOS are best experienced if you have multiple Apple devices. If you have an iMac, iPad, and iPhone like he does, the device syncing brings awesome continuity to your life. In my case with an iPad and an Android phone, you can’t really sync much that isn’t handled by a cloud service. Luckily my email, calendar, and Drive are all synced through Google on each device, so at least in this way changes made on one echo to the other.
As far as Drive goes, the iPad can open documents and spreadsheets within the Drive app (as well as pictures). This is a handy way to expand storage and keep cross-platform devices a bit more on the same page.
One of my main contentions is the lack of removable storage and fact that it generally costs an additional $100 for each step up in storage. This means +$100 to go from 16GB to 32GB, and +$200 for 64GB. When you buy your own expansion card it’s only an extra $10 for another 16GB (giving you 32GB) or $35-50 for a massive 64GB card. Even if you couldn’t put apps on it, on my Galaxy S4 it’s a great way to store a lot of music.
Since my music is on my phone the smaller storage capacity of my iPad (16GB) hasn’t been a big deal yet, though. I’ve added a lot of useful apps and even 4-5 games and still have over 8GB left. Installing large games (I’ve seen a couple that were 1-2GB) or storing large amounts of music or photos would definitely make more storage attractive, but it does very well as an all-around computing device.
Size and Versatility
Its 1 pound weight obviously makes it way easier to carry around and hold than a laptop. This is true for any tablet, and the iPad Air succeeds at combining a large screen with some powerful hardware in a very usable package. The ability to fluidly shift from work-related apps or web browsing to games, Youtube, or books allows you to be productive almost anywhere yet enjoy your downtime and even message people from one device.
Sound quality from the headphone jack is good, and the dual speakers get a lot louder than listening to games, music, or movies on a phone. That’s a nice touch for Netflix and Pandora alike.
When I first got the iPad I figured I’d either think it was okay and use it for certain things or that I’d like it and I’d be chomping at the bit for an iPhone. My experience in 30 days has produced a different effect I’d not expected.
While I do enjoy it a lot overall, I find it matters to me less now what phone I have. I mostly use my Galaxy S4 as just a phone now, with occasional email or Facebook while I’m out somewhere without Wi-Fi. The iPad makes virtually all other smartphone-related things I would’ve done on the S4 easier and better, so I’ve found I use it almost exclusively. That being the case, I’d probably have a similar experience with an iPhone.
The iPad Air does a great job when used as sort of a “laptop-lite”. Most web and writing tasks are viable using the screen keyboard, or a Bluetooth one that makes it feel more like a laptop functionally. Reading, social media, and videos are very comfortable.
For people that really only check email, browse websites, and update Facebook you could easily run your whole life through an iPad. I still prefer to sit at a desk with a full sized keyboard for general writing at home, but that’s an ergonomics thing. About the only thing that seems out of the question is working in spreadsheets (maddening), but if you have another computer that’s easily relegated to that.
The takeaway: The iPad Air is equally useful as a light entertainment device as it is doing heavy lifting, and has a lot of potential even if you’re an Android phone user with a Windows PC. But if you have other Apple devices, it’s integration is powerful.