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Originally published November 10, 2013 at 8:07 PM | Page modified November 11, 2013 at 9:25 AM

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Tablet options, steep price are hurdles for iPad Air

The iPad Air is a lovely device, but the price — from $500 to $930 — is getting harder to swallow with the proliferation of decent tablets in the $200 to $400 range.


Seattle Times technology columnist

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Perhaps I should have listened to the friendly clerk at Walgreens.

After using the sleek and pricey new iPad Air, I began wondering if people could get by with one of those cheap Android tablets that cost about as much as an iPad cover.

Not because I dislike the iPad Air. It’s a lovely device that’s easy to hold for an extended period in one hand. It has a great display and a surprisingly fast-charging and long-lasting battery.

But the Air’s price — from $500 to $930, depending on storage and wireless capabilities — is getting harder to swallow with the proliferation of decent tablets in the $200 to $400 range.

Then there are the sub-$200 Android tablets, like the one I bought at Walgreens to compare with Apple’s latest and greatest. The clerk didn’t dissuade me, but mentioned that he had done a similar apples-to-oranges comparison and ended up buying an iPad.

Lots of people will be looking for tablets in the coming months, but instead of assuming they’ll buy an iPad, they’ll be wondering if Apple’s products are worth two or three times the price of other models.

Either way, people expect to spend a third of their holiday gift budget on electronic devices, and tablets top adults’ wish lists, according to research by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA).

Teens would rather get a game console such as the Sony PlayStation 4 coming out this week or the Xbox One, which arrives Nov. 22. Next on their wish list is a smartphone or laptop, with tablets following in fourth place, according to CEA.

Those adults probably want an iPad, but most will end up with an Android tablet.

Apple still has cachet and the biggest variety of apps, but it now sells fewer tablets than lesser brands and held just 30 percent of the market share last quarter, according to IDC research.

My take is that most people who can really afford an iPad already own one. They’ll probably upgrade to an iPad Air sooner or later and be happy with its lighter weight and increased horsepower. But the Air doesn’t advance the category enough to be a mandatory upgrade for the upper class of gadget users.

Those making a financial stretch for an iPad continue to have the option of buying an iPad 2, which is thicker and has a lower-resolution screen and lesser camera. But it’s still a very nice tablet and starts at $400.

Another option is to move down from the iPad’s 9.7-inch display to a smaller model, such as 7.9-inch iPad Mini, which starts at $300.

The $300 price range is especially hot this fall. It includes new 8-inch Windows tablets from companies such as Dell and premium Android tablets from Sony, Lenovo and Amazon.com.

Bargain hunters looking on the lower shelf will find last year’s 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD for about $220 and a hodgepodge of Android tablets for even less.

Keep in mind that tablets are mostly used around the house on Wi-Fi for browsing and running media apps such as Netflix. Some people use them as cameras, though smartphones generally have better cameras and are easier to handle.

At Target, a clerk told me he’s getting by just fine with one of the 9-inch Nook HD Android tablets, which are on clearance for about $140. An Office Depot clerk told me he’s using a single-core, $100 Android tablet that works OK with Netflix and other cloud content but is slow running some apps he downloaded and runs locally.

Finally, I ended up at a Walgreens. I asked the clerk if he used one of the tablets the store sold. He started with an off-brand tablet running an outdated version of Android, then upgraded to an early Kindle Fire. But it lacked a camera so he finally took the plunge on an iPad.

I was undeterred, and bought the $139 Polaroid A8 dual-core, dual-camera tablet to compare with the iPad Air. It was a bad move.

Like the Air, the A8 came charged up and ready to go, in a nice white box. But the Polaroid’s interface was terrible, its controls were sometimes nonresponsive and its browser was slower than a slug on a hot sidewalk. It maddeningly funnels users toward a proprietary app store with a limited selection.

I would rather walk to a library and wait for a public computer. Or sell blood until I could afford a better tablet — that would be less painful than trying to sort out the A8.

Fortunately I kept the receipt, and Apple had loaned me the iPad Air.

The Air is the Corvette of tablets: fast, lightweight and with power to spare, but relatively conservative in its design.

Toting the Air around for a week, I found it a pleasure to use and light enough for browsing while walking, if you’re so inclined.

In a home full of gadgets, I would look first for the Air when trying to check something online. But I find it subpar for getting work done because I’m a heavy-duty user of Microsoft Word, which isn’t yet available on iPads.

Apple offers its iWork productivity suite free, to better compete with the version of Office that Microsoft includes with its Surface tablets and the free productivity software available from Google.

I tried doing my job with iWork “Pages” on the Air but missed controls that Office includes and disliked its auto-correct feature.

Having recently used Microsoft’s Surface 2, I also missed the ability to split the screen and keep my email inbox open while writing or browsing. I ended up using my phone to check mail while using the iPad to take notes. That worked until I spent too long reading email and the iPad went to sleep, requiring me to re-enter the password to resume note taking.

The Air also has an improved camera — up to 5 megapixels — and somewhat improved Wi-Fi. Apple added “Mimo” Wi-Fi antenna capability, matching the Kindle Fire, but oddly declined to make the Air work with 802.11ac, the latest, fastest flavor of Wi-Fi.

Most noticeable is the Air’s narrower bezel. It now looks more like a huge smartphone and less like a digital notepad.

Apple thinned the Air down to 0.29 inch thick, compared with the 0.37 inch thickness of last year’s model. The difference in thickness is negligible to me because I like to keep these expensive slabs in a protective case.

I also found the iPad Air could be flexed, unlike my rigid, fourth-generation iPad. The screen didn’t crack when I torqued it, and it resisted pawing by an exuberant puppy.

But I still wonder if the Air will be more likely to get crushed on a sofa or bed, where tablets like to hide under pillows and blankets.

In which case I’ll probably end up back in the electronics section of Walgreens.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com



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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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