iPad Air and Mini: Hands-on

October 22, 2013, 9:15 PM UTC
The new iPad Mini with Retina Display and iPad Air, side-by-side. Source: JP Mangalindan/Fortune.com

FORTUNE — If you’re the undisputed tablet market leader, how do you one-up yourself? Simple. With serious upgrades to the full-sized iPad and iPad Mini.

This Tuesday, Apple (AAPL) introduced the iPad Air, a redesigned full-sized tablet with 9.7-inch display that takes design cues from the iPad Mini, including diamond-cut chamfered edges and thinner vertical borders. The “Air” moniker refers to the tablet’s newfound lightness: at 1 lb., it weighs 0.4 lbs less than its predecessor. (It’s also 20% thinner overall.) The iPad Air begins shipping on Nov. 1, starting at $499 for the 16-gigabyte WiFi version and $629 for the 16 GB version with 4G cellular network connectivity and going all the way up to $929 for a 128 GB version with 4G cellular network capability.

Up close, it looks how you’d expect: like the iPad Mini, only, well, bigger. But the lighter weight is immediately noticeable and welcome, bringing it within spitting distance of the iPad Mini’s 0.75 lb featherweight status. So users keen on this larger model will find it’s easier to hold for longer stints.

MORE: Apple shows off new computers and iPads

The Air houses the A7 processor, the same chip found in the iPhone 5s, launched this September. With 64-bit architecture, Apple says iPad Air users can expect faster overall performance, but huge performance gains will become noticeable as more developers code apps specifically for it. Truth be told, the previous iPad, with its swift A6X processor, was no slouch, but everything on iOS 7 runs a tad smoother. Certainly, during my hands-on with the tablet, apps — with the sole exception of Facebook — launched faster.

Side-by-side, the new iPad Air and iPad Mini with Retina Display are just as thin. (Check out those chamfered edges.) Source: JP Mangalindan/Fortune.com

The award for “most improved” ought to go to this year’s iPad Mini, which ships in late November, beginning at $399 for the new iPad Mini with 16 GB and $529 for the iPad Mini 16 GB with 4G. Having spent months with a first-gen model, I found much to like. (Indeed, 7 inches to me feels like the ideal tablet size.)  But the Mini’s Achilles Heel was a low-resolution 1,024 by 768 display. On its own, the screen was adequate, but compared with recent iPhones, MacBook Pros, and the full-sized iPad, text and media appeared inferior and pixellated.

That’s no longer the case. Now it sports the same resolution as its larger sibling, but actually benefits from its smaller size. (If you found it hard to pick out pixels on the regular iPad, it should be even harder on the Mini, thanks to a higher pixel density.) In practice, everything appears just as you would expect: sharper, clearer, and brighter.

If there was one surprise, it’s that Apple didn’t carry on the tradition of using last year’s parts in this year’s model. The Mini runs off the same A7 processor as the iPad Air and iPhone 5s. This translates to processor performance up to four times faster and graphics eight times as fast as last year’s model, according to Apple. And while we didn’t have enough time alone with a Mini to verify the veracity of the company’s claims, everything appeared to zip along just as quickly as the Air.

For more, look for my full in-depth reviews of the iPad Air and iPad Mini next month. But don’t let that stop you from weighing in now. What did you think, Fortune readers? Did Apple meet your tech spec checklist, or did they miss something? Weigh in with comments below.