Ever since the iPad was first launched, Microsoft and other PC manufacturers have dismissed it as a little more than a toy for entertainment, arguing that it simply isn’t capable of running productivity software such as Microsoft Office. Despite this – and with a little help from BYOD – the iPad has proved popular with many business users, while Windows tablets such as Microsoft’s own Surface struggle to catch up. The new fifth-generation iPad Air may not be quite as revolutionary as Apple claims, but it does refine the device’s already attractive design and should ensure its continued popularity with consumers and businesses alike.

Walking On Thin Air

The most obvious feature of the iPad Air is, of course, its new slimline design. The iPad Air measures just 7.5mm thick, compared to 9.4mm for last year’s fourth-generation model, while the weight of the 4G/LTE model drops from 662g to 478g, and an even lighter 469g for the Wi-Fi-only model that we tested for this review. It’s narrower too, as Apple has trimmed a full 16mm off the bezels that run around the edge of the screen. And instead of simple black and white, you can now choose it in either ‘space grey’ or ‘silver’.

The end result is quite noticeably slimmer and lighter than its predecessor, and holding the iPad Air in your hand feels as natural and as comfortable as holding a small paper notebook. The sheer precision and elegance of the iPad Air’s design is also in a different league to many of its plastic-clad Android and Windows rivals and remains a key part of its appeal.

And, unusually for Apple, the new design doesn’t bring a price increase. The iPad Air still starts at £399 (inc. VAT) for the basic 16GB model that we review here, and then steps up to £479 for 32GB, £559 for 64GB, and £639 with 128GB (all prices include VAT). Those prices are for Wi-Fi-only models, so you need to add another £100 (inc. VAT) if you want 4G/LTE for mobile broadband.

Apple is often criticised for its high prices, but the iPad is still quite competitive when compared to Android tablets with a similar specification. It’s also cheaper than many Windows tablets because of the high hardware specification needed to run the full version of Windows 8.

Retina Delight

Despite the more compact design, Apple has kept the same 9.7-inch Retina Display, which is based on a high-quality IPS panel that boasts 2048 x 1536 resolution. The screen is in a class of its own, producing a bright, colourful image that is ideal for Web browsing, reading e-books, or watching streaming video. It’s worth mentioning that Apple has also updated the smaller 7-inch iPad mini with a similar Retina Display.

The high-resolution Retina Display has its appeal for business users too, especially for creative users who work with the many graphics and photography apps that are available for the iPad. It’s also very useful for mobile presentations using either Apple’s own Keynote program or the recently released Office Mobile from Microsoft.

However, this is where you run up against one of the more annoying aspects of the iPad’s design. Its connectivity features are quite limited, and there’s no HDMI port that would allow you to connect it to a larger screen for your presentations. Apple sells an HDMI adaptor for older iPad models, but hasn’t updated it for the new ‘Lightning’ connector used on the iPad Air, so your only option is to locate a third-party HDMI adaptor or buy the AppleTV set-top box that will allow you to stream video to an HD TV.

There are no USB ports or memory card slots available either, so you don’t have the option of adding extra storage or manually transferring files between devices. And, like most Apple products, the iPad Air is a completely sealed unit that prevents user upgrades or repairs.

Power Play

The other big change with this version of the iPad is the addition of the new Apple-designed A7 processor that is also used in the new iPhone 5s. This is a 64-bit processor that Apple claims is twice as powerful as the A6 processor used in the last version of the iPad.

That’s a difficult claim to measure accurately, but the iPad Air certainly felt quicker during our tests, responding to the touch-controls and switching between multiple open apps very quickly. You also notice the improved performance when using graphically intensive apps such as Keynote, with its animated effects and transitions (and, yes, it’s good for playing games too).

The A7 seems to help with battery life too. Apple claims that the iPad Air should provide about 10 hours of battery life, but we got closer to 11 hours of continual use even when using Wi-Fi to stream video off the BBC iPlayer for several hours at a time. If you’re travelling a lot then the battery life of the iPad is a real asset, whether you’re working on a presentation or just watching a film on a long plane flight.

Mobile Productivity

Apple seems to have been stung by Microsoft’s recent criticisms – from none other than Bill Gates himself – that the iPad is really just an entertainment device and is of no real use for running productivity software such as Microsoft Office.

That, of course, overlooks the fact that Microsoft recently released its own Office Mobile apps for iOS devices, but it also prompted Apple to announce that it would now be including its iWork suite of productivity apps for free with all new iPads and other iOS devices. Apple also made a pointed contrast between its free iWork apps and the need to have an annual subscription to Microsoft’s Office 365 before you can use the Office Mobile suite for iOS.

The three iWork apps – Pages for wordprocessing, Keynote for presentations, and the Numbers spreadsheet – are of limited use on the smaller screen of an iPhone, but they really come into their own on the larger, high-res display of the iPad Air. Keynote, in particular, outshines the mobile version of PowerPoint, making it easy to create and edit very slick presentations on the move.

The iWork apps are also capable of importing and exporting files using Microsoft Office formats. The problem here, as we’ve mentioned, is the iPad’s poor connectivity. The lack of USB ports makes manual file transfers difficult, so you have to rely either on Apple’s iCloud service to sync files between devices – which works well on Mac computers, but less so on Windows PCs – or transfer files via the iCloud Web site.

Nonetheless, the iWork apps prove that the iPad is perfectly capable of running ‘serious’ productivity software, and provide a degree of compatibility for business users who work in a predominantly Windows-based environment.

A Bit Of Hot Air?

Apple has always said that the iPad isn’t intended to replace a laptop, and if you need to run the full version of Microsoft Office then there are many Windows laptops, as well as tablets such as the Microsoft Surface, that will be more suitable. However, the arrival of Apple’s iWork and Microsoft Office Mobile proves that the iPad Air can certainly handle productivity software when it needs to. Its limited connectivity remains a disadvantage, but if you simply need a lightweight mobile device with good battery life for e-mail and Web browsing, as well as occasional use of MS Office documents then the iPad Air is hard to beat. [4.5/5]