(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.

(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.

SAN FRANCISCO Apple calls the latest version of its full-sized tablet the iPad Air, which is a better name than "iPad Semi Mini."

But that might be a more apt description of the new iPad, whose thinness and feather weight evoke its smaller sibling, the iPad mini.

I've been using the iPad Air, which goes on sale Friday, for a week now, and it's hands-down the best tablet on the market. Apple has recrafted the hardware and packed in new software and services that make it more useful for creating content, not just consuming it.

Of course, it needs to deliver a lot to justify its premium price. The Air starts at $499 for a model with 16 gigabytes of storage and a Wi-Fi-only Internet connection; from there, it escalates in a vast array of configurations, finally topping out at $929 for 128 GB and 4G LTE service.

Compared with the model it replaces, the most obvious changes are physical. The screen is the same 9.7 inches, but at just one pound, the Air is 28 percent lighter. In fact, it's now just five ounces more than the latest iPad mini, which grew marginally heavier to accommodate a bigger battery. (I'll look at the mini in a later column.)

The Air is also slimmer, both side-to-side the bezels have been sliced by about a third of an inch each and front- to-back. It's now a mere .29 inches thick, a little more than three nickels. Yet its aluminum-and-glass construction makes it feel far more solid than competing devices from Samsung, for instance.

Apple says the Air is the lightest full-size tablet on the market, but that depends on your definition of "full-size." Amazon.com immediately disputed the claim, though its Kindle Fire HDX has a considerably smaller screen.

Suffice it to say that the iPad, which had grown relatively portly compared to newer Android offerings like Sony's Xperia Tablet Z, is now fully competitive, and then some.

Meanwhile, the Air maintains its wide lead in both the number of tablet-specific apps available 475,000 and in their quality. And Apple is upping the iPad's value proposition by making its iWorks productivity and iLife creativity apps free to purchasers of new devices.

The touch-screen-optimized productivity apps, which include a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software, are a shot across the bow of Microsoft. The company has been working on an iPad version of its Office software but has so far released only a limited, disappointing iPhone app.

The Apple apps work the way Office should. Using Pages, the equivalent of Microsoft Word, I was able to create and edit a document that I saved to Apple's iCloud service and opened on a Mac.

I also shared it with a non-Apple-using colleague. By clicking on a link, he opened the document in his browser, using a Web-based version of Pages to make changes I could immediately see on the iPad.

You can do stuff like this on Microsoft-powered devices too but it costs you $100 a year for the subscription version of Office. Here, it's free, as are the latest versions of iPhoto and iMovie.

The brain of the iPad Air is the same Apple-designed 64-bit A7 chip that made its debut on the iPhone 5s. As on the 5s, there aren't many apps beyond a few games that tap into that increased processing power, though that may change over time.

Users who connect over Wi-Fi, on the other hand, will see an immediate impact from the Air's dual antennas and updated wireless technology.

In side-by-side tests over the same Wi-Fi network with a third-generation iPad, the Air was faster at downloading and rendering pages, every time. It was also consistently faster than Microsoft's new Surface 2, the Kindle Fire HDX and Google's Nexus 7.

Apple says the A7 chip and a new motion-detecting coprocessor also help the Air last for 10 hours between charges, the same as its predecessor, despite having a smaller battery. My experience suggests the claim is, if anything, conservative.

I actually grew impatient trying to exhaust the battery in my tests; you should get a lot more than a full day of normal use on a charge.

The iPad Air retains the same 2,048-by-1,536 pixel Retina display of previous models. On a strictly by-the-numbers basis, the display so dazzling when it debuted has been passed by the likes of Google and Samsung. Since the human eye can't really distinguish between 264 pixels per inch and 300, you're not likely to have any complaints about the screen.

One thing that's not here that should be is Touch ID, the fingerprint sensor on the latest iPhone. Apple won't say why it was left out, but it's arguably even more important on a larger device, which may be used to access more sensitive personal information. I expect to see it on future iPads, and will be glad when it shows up.

Not that long ago, the iPad so dominated the tablet market that it would have been unthinkable to buy something else. With the rise of quality tablets from Google, Amazon and others, it's no longer the only choice. But it's still the best choice.

bc-tech-review (TPN)