Apple iPad Air

Teardown: Apple iPad Air

Small is beautiful and profitable, but is less really more? We delve inside Apple’s latest iPad product to find out.

The poet Robert Browning gave us the phrase, “Less is more”, but it was the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who popularised it as a mantra for minimalism in design. Apple’s iPad Air is very much a “less is more” product - and in more ways than the typical consumer might think.

At 7.5mm depth, it is 20 per cent thinner than the previous generation iPad in its basic Wi-Fi-only configuration. At 469g - just one imperial pound - it is also 28 per cent lighter.

However, much else has stayed the same. The iPad Air still has the same retina resolution (2,048x1,536 at 264ppi), although the display has also shrunk. The battery now has a 32.4Whr life in a two-cell configuration, against 43Whr but tests suggest that actual battery life has been retained at around 9-10 hours.

The key to that last point is that Apple has brought across the more efficient 64-bit ARM-based A7 processor also now in the flagship iPhone 5S.

But if we really want to talk “less is more”, we have to look at the bill of materials.

According to an analysis by IHS iSuppli, the iPad Air has a $304 (£189) component cost against $325 for the third generation iPad introduced in 2012 (the 16GB version with mobile data). For a 16GB Wi-Fi-only model, the difference is greater still: $274 (£170) for the Air against $316 for the iPad 3.

The retail price on the Air product (excluding 20 per cent UK VAT) is £333. Some components do cost more. The slimmed-down display - supplied by LG in the model analysed by iFixit/ChipWorks - comes in at around the $90 mark, one-third of the cost of the basic device.

Apple has also added a microphone - one functions to capture the audio and a second for noise cancellation - and switched to stereo speakers.

Also notably, the iPad Air supports all the LTE cellular bands in those configurations, pushing up radio costs significantly.

However, economies of scale and Moore’s Law have driven down the cost of other parts to a greater degree. In short, the iPad Air brings together the reductionist design instincts of Sir Jony Ive and the widely recognised supply chain savvy of CEO Tim Cook in a very powerful and profitable way.

The A7 processor is a big part of the story. As used on the iPhone 5S, it undoubtedly makes the phone powerful. But it will now come into its own in rendering more graphics-heavy iPad apps, both those developed for 32bit architectures and those that will undoubtedly follow exploiting 64bit. At the very least, this is an extremely powerful gaming tablet.

A downside here is that by seeding 64bit development for tablet-sized screens, Apple may get some complaints about battery life as the iPad Air matures as a product. These new apps will be more of a drain.

However, it is almost certainly a price worth paying, given that most consumers will put the quality of the experience above battery life for those kinds of program. Nevertheless, the design does take into account the heavier load that is likely to fall upon the A7.

According to IHS, the Air-housed A7 has an additional metal top to act as a heat sink and Apple appears to have specified different, more advanced power management chips from those in the iPhone 5S. The power management devices themselves are from Dialog Semiconductor, though numbered as Apple parts.

So, the iPad Air - it’s all good...? Well, not quite.

The iFixit teardown’s focus on the repairability of devices, a long-standing bugbear with Apple owners. Here, they rate the iPad Air at a measly 2 out of 10. A large part of that comes down to some shenanigans with the two-cell battery.

This is clamped to the logic board by two spring contacts that make levering it out a very tricky task.

“This battery creaks worse than the door to a haunted mansion as we ease it out of the case,” the iFixit team noted. “In the process, the battery warps to a state resembling the Grim Reaper’s scythe. Warped batteries scare the living daylights out of us. Bad things happen when batteries get punctured.”

It would appear that less is also more difficult. *

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