The San Francisco Apple Store at 5:00 am

The San Francisco Apple Store at 5:00 am

I was 15th in line when I arrived this morning to pick up my iPad Air.

Photo by Wade Roush

Opening Bell

Opening Bell

Apple employees accompanied iPad buyers into the store with the usual fanfare.

Photo by Wade Roush

Unboxing the iPad Air

Unboxing the iPad Air

After repairing to a local Starbucks to refuel, I fired up the new device and began copying the data and settings over from my old iPad.

Photo by Wade Roush

New and Old

New and Old

Top: the iPad Air. Bottom: the third-generation iPad.

Photo by Wade Roush

Slimmer Profile

Slimmer Profile

In this shot, the new iPad Air is sitting on top of the third-generation device. The Air is 170 mm wide, compared to 186 mm for its predecessor.

Photo by Wade Roush

Coming out on Top

Coming out on Top

The iPad air is just 7.5 mm thick, compared to 9.4 mm for the third-generation iPad.

Photo by Wade Roush

Dog-Approved

Dog-Approved

Thanks to its reduced weight, holding the iPad Air is much easier on your wrist and fingers.

Photo by Wade Roush

iPad Air

iPad Air

iPad Air. Image courtesy of Apple.

Apple sent review units of its new iPad Air tablet to select journalists earlier this week. I was not one of them, perhaps because of stories like this one. But I was near the front of the line at the Apple Store in downtown San Francisco at 5:00 this morning, eager to plunk down my plastic for the new new iPad, which has the same 9.7-inch screen as its predecessors but has been described as more slender, lithe, and capable in every other way.

After spending a few hours with the device, I’m in agreement with those reports, and thrilled with my purchase. This is the device the iPad was always meant to be.

Previous generations of Apple tablets boasted big, beautiful touchscreens, but were a little too heavy to hold comfortably for extended periods (as you do if you’re reading a book or magazine). The iPad Air is light. All of the reviewers have said this, of course, but it’s worth repeating. The 181 grams that Apple has shaved off, compared to the third- and fourth-generation devices, makes all the difference.

My old third-generation iPad, at 650 grams (1.43 lbs), feels like a brick. The Air, at 469 grams (1.03 lbs), feels more like a book. Actually, it’s quite a bit lighter than most hardcover books. Holding my old iPad in my hand for more than a few minutes gave me an aching wrist and a sore pinkie. I can already tell that the Air is going to be much gentler on both body parts.

Here’s the other big thing that jumps out at me about the Air: the sound from the internal speakers is vastly better. For the first time in an Apple tablet, the iPad Air has a pair of speakers, which means you finally get stereo. Even though the speakers are close together on one side of the device, the difference in sound quality is obvious and dramatic.

The Air’s performance is zippy so far, exhibiting none of the awkward pauses and stutters that I started to notice after upgrading my third-generation iPad to iOS 7. This latest iteration of Apple’s mobile operating system came with graphical features, like layers, blur, transparency, and parallax, that put a big strain on the processor. The A7 chip inside the iPad Air (the same one that’s inside the new iPhone 5S and 5C) is up to the task, while the the A5X inside my third-generation iPad clearly struggles.

The iPad Air has the same 5-megapixel camera as my third-generation iPad, but it has a 3.3-mm lens that gives it a slightly wider field of view. The front-facing camera is where the real imaging improvements have been made. It’s a 1.2-megapixel sensor, compared to a grainy 0.3 megapixels on the third-generation iPad. So self-portraits and video calls will come across much more sharply.

I haven’t had time to check out how individual applications perform on the iPad Air. My expectation is that they’ll all run faster.

But that’s not why I wanted the newest iPad enough to get up early to buy one today. I wanted one because it was clear last year, when Apple came out with the first-generation iPad mini, that the company had achieved a breakthrough in slim, lightweight design. The mini was fantastically easy to hold. Unfortunately, it had key drawbacks that kept me from falling in love with it—its screen felt too small, and it lacked sufficient resolution for reading. (By that time I’d gotten accustomed to the 2,048-by-1,536-pixel Retina screen on my third-generation iPad). But I knew it was only a matter of time before Apple figured out how to put a Retina screen into the mini (which they’re doing, in an edition expected to appear later this month) and apply the same design innovations to the full-size iPad.

The iPad Air a worthy upgrade, even if you’ve already got a third- or fourth-generation iPad. And if you’ve never owned a tablet, it’s a great place to start. Sometimes, less is just less. But this time, it’s more.

The Author

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com.