NEW YORK - The Earth isn't about to shake with the arrival of Apple's thin new iPad Air that goes on sale Friday. iPad Air breaks no major ground. You use it like you always have with an iPad: around the house, in the office, on the bus, or up at 40,000 feet. We're talking about a mature fifth generation tablet after all.
Biggest news: a name change.
As it happens, though, this latest full-size Apple tablet is the most tempting iPad yet, better than its already best of breed predecessors, superior still to each and every rival big screen slate that I've tested. Apple dominates the tablet apps ecosystem. Its tablet remains the easiest to use.
But rivals are closing the gap with clever features that I wish Apple would adopt. And even for Apple aficionados, the iPad Air isn't a must-do upgrade.
Apple announced the iPad Air in San Francisco last week at an event that also showcased the new OS X Mavericks operating system for Macs, which I plan to review in a future column. Apple also applies the Air name to describe its thinnest and lightest MacBook laptops (which is why some have speculated that there could be an iPad Pro in Apple's future).
The thinner and lighter design on this latest iPad is the chief reason to cheer the new model. It measures 9.4 x 6.6 x 0.29 inches and is 20% thinner than its immediate predecessor. And you really feel the difference in weight, which is down to 1 pound for the Air, vs. 1.4 pounds on the fourth generation iPad.
Apple shaved the bezels flanking the beautiful 9.7-inch Retina display that has been a hallmark feature on recent iPads, and which is also about to land on the not-yet-released iPad mini. Despite the skinnier proportions of the iPad Air, I expect some consumers to be lured by the mini's even smaller stature, especially with the Retina display.
Apple refreshed internal components of the iPad Air as well. Wi-Fi gets a technological boost. Apple beefed up the processor with its own A7 chip, doubling the processing power, it says, compared to the prior generation. A motion co-processor was also added.
In a side-by-side comparison against its immediate predecessor, the new iPad indeed opened apps more quickly and booted up and shut down slightly faster, though not to such a degree that I expect most people to notice.
The company did all this while holding serve on the battery life, up to 10 hours in Apple's claims. However, in my extremely harsh test - in which I crank up the brightness all the way while streaming a movie over Wi-Fi - I got just 5 1/2 hours. That's worse than the near seven hours I got recently on a similar test of Microsoft's Surface 2. Expect to do better in normal mixed use.
So should you upgrade if you already own, say, a third or fourth generation iPad? There's no overarching reason to spend the $499 on up for a Wi-Fi only model, or $629 on up for a model that adds cellular. Your current iPad runs all 475,000-plus apps in the App Store that have been especially produced for Apple's tablets. It also runs iOS 7 like the Air, assuming you upgraded.
In other words, your existing iPad can pretty much do everything that the iPad Air can do. That said, if you're new to iPad or are in the market to buy a tablet anyway, I expect you'll be more than thrilled with an Air.
Apple points out that some games and other apps have been enhanced to take advantage of the A7 chip and the 64-bit desktop computer architecture upon which it is based, so some apps may run faster or smoother. And Apple's own series of apps - the Pages word processor, Numbers spreadsheet, Keynote presentation app, as well as iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand - can all exploit 64-bit computing. Even better, those apps are now all free to anyone who purchases a new iOS7-capable device such as the iPad Air.
I do retain an iPad wish list. Start with the Touch ID fingerprint scanner that Apple recently introduced on the iPhone 5S, which permits you to use your fingerprint in lieu of a passcode to unlock the machine or authenticate iTunes transactions.
I don't shoot many pictures with my iPad, but I'd have also appreciated seeing a few of the 5S camera features - slow-motion video for one.
Apple could even stand to borrow a feature or two from rivals. I wish Apple would supplement the parental controls in iOS7 with the kind of time limits Amazon has on its Kindle Fire HDX tablets.
I'd even have loved to see a kickstand like what Microsoft has on Surface, though the Surface slates are considerably heavier and larger than the iPad Air. Apple is all too happy to sell you a colorful new Smart Case or Smart Cover.
Some folks - and Microsoft's ads - also bemoan the continued lack of a USB port on the iPad, though I've yet to come across a compelling need for one in my everyday use.
In sticking close to the status quo, the iPad Air won't have the seismic impact of the original iPad. But the thin design only enhances what is already the best and most successful tablet on the market.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Apple iPad Air
$499, $599, $699, $799 for Wi-Fi only with 16GB, 32GB, 64GB or 128GB.
$629, $729, $829, $929 for Wi-Fi + Cellular models.
Pro: Thin and light design. 64-bit A7 processing power. 475,000+ apps. Retina display.
Con: Lacks certain features found on rival devices.