The iPad stands on its own as a platform, it’s very branding synonymous with “tablet” – a Xerox or Kleenex of the consumer electronics world. Apple’s latest iteration is the iPad Air 2 (from $499 for 16GB, a revised and slightly-more-slender version of last year’s major revamp; and the world’s new thinnest tablet.
When Apple launched the original iPad, it faced virtually no competition. Now, fierce rivalry abounds from the likes of Samsung, Microsoft and Amazon – does Apple’s latest aluminium and glass creation live up to expectations?
Introducing the iPad Air 2
On the surface, the iPad Air 2 is a minor upgrade that adds a few features not found on last year’s model and the yearly refresh in terms of under-the-hood hardware. The tablet was arguably engineered to be released for maximum consumer impact, dropping a few months before the Christmas rush – but that doesn’t necessarily mean Apple rushed this update out of the door.
Peer a little deeper and you’ll see that Apple has in fact been quite busy refining the original iPad Air, with an even lower profile and processor upgrade to bring Apple’s tablet range up to the same high standards set by the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus earlier this year. Though Apple’s release cycles seem to be getting shorter, this is in-line with previous upgrades which traditionally skip one processor iteration (this time the A8).
In the box you’ll find an iPad, a lightning cable and USB wall charger, along with the usual quick start guide. You won’t need anything else – when you turn on the unit you’ll be guided through the setup process.
If you own a relatively recent iOS device you’ll see little more than performance increases from the iPad Air 2, and in fact that are virtually no new features introduced on this tablet that we haven’t seen the iPhone flaunt already.
The original iPad made its debut in 2010, and nothing really came close to emulating the 9″ touchscreen web browsing experience. Apple didn’t so much as invent the tablet computer as refine it, creating a neat consumer-friendly package that exuded the same allure Apple liberally applied to the iPod and iPhone.
Fast forward to 2014, and everyone makes a tablet, but Apple’s ecosystem sets them apart from the rest. Not only is it quite difficult to leave (but not impossible), it’s also incredibly easy to submit to Cupertino’s will and have all your devices play nicely together.
If you have an iPhone or a Mac, choosing an iPad means you won’t have a hard time adjusting to new software or transferring the boring stuff like contacts and reminders. iCloud stores your files, Photos ensures that new pictures are downloaded to your devices, Continuity allows you to pick up where you left off.
Those of you without a compelling, Apple-branded reason to continue the collection may be swayed by the likes of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S 10.5 (from $499) which is arguably the iPad’s closest equivalent tablet running the Android operating system. In a similar vein Amazon’s Kindle Fire HDX also runs Android, but targets a lower price range starting at $379.
Microsoft is another competitor, with its Surface 2 Windows RT-enabled tablet starting at a mere $299 for the 32GB model – though it’s not a real laptop replacement. If you’re looking for one of them, the Surface Pro 3 (from $799) is far closer in terms of price, though Microsoft seems hell-bent on pitting the Surface Pro 3 against the MacBook Air (in advertising, at least).
The Thinnest iPad Ever (Again)
One of the most noticeable changes (and honestly, it might only be noticeable because I happen to own last year’s revision) is the new model’s reduced thickness. The iPad Air 2 is 18% thinner than last years model, coming in at 6.1mm at 437g, compared to the previous model’s 7.5mm at 478g. It’s probably worth pointing out here that fluctuations in weight occur based on the colour of iPad you choose (yes really).
Not only has Apple made the chassis smaller, it has also reduced the distance between your fingertip and the screen’s surface. Unlike the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the iPad’s camera sits flush with the unit rather than protruding from the back.
The chassis is virtually identical in design to the past model, with a beautifully thin bezel and svelte rounded corners. That means it’s made from the same soft aluminium that will bend, scratch and generally show wear much quicker than your old (stainless steel) iPhone 4 or 4S would. You’ll definitely want an all-over case if you’re looking at the iPad for outdoor or travel use.
In an interesting move, Apple has chosen to omit the mute toggle on the side of the device, opting for elongated iPhone 6-styled volume controls instead. The mute button is now found in Control Centre, accessed by swiping up from the bottom edge of the iPad. Mute functionality means you can do things like watch YouTube videos or enjoy game audio without being disturbed by incoming notification sounds, and the omission of a hardware button is genuinely frustrating if you’re used to it.
Despite this, the end result is a tablet computer that feels incredibly thin, light and pleasant to wield. Reading a magazine on the iPad Air 2 feels better in the hand than the publication’s paper counterpart, and the unit is masterfully weighted in that it doesn’t feel clumsy or particularly top-heavy (something the iPhone 6 Plus suffers from).
With iOS 8
Apple’s mobile operating system, simply known as iOS, has entered its eighth iteration. It powers both the iPad and iPhone, allowing you to run any iPhone app on an iPad (though the same isn’t necessarily true in reverse). When you fire up your iPad for the first time, iOS is what you’ll see.
Despite causing a bit of slowdown for those using older iOS devices, iOS 8 is a solid and reliable operating system that has seen a number of updates since first introduced last October. As you would expect, the new iPad is beautifully responsive in use – we wouldn’t expect anything less, at this stage.
Love it or hate it, the Apple ecosystem comes with a few useful caveats if you’re the owner of more than one iOS device or a Mac. Using the power of iCloud, photos will automatically show up on all your devices under a new consolidated photo library, regardless of where you took them. Contacts from your iPhone will magically appear on your iPad once you’ve set it up, and if you happen to lose your iPad then you can use your iPhone to track it down again. Furthermore, Continuity features recently introduced in OS X Yosemite make working remotely even easier.
Many apps are universal, which means if you buy the iPhone version you’ll get a version you can run on your iPad too – look for the plus icon in the app description on iTunes (screenshot below). Indeed, if you have an iPhone already the iPad is a compelling purchase if you want a tablet that slots right into the ecosystem you’re currently used to.
Apple’s App Store has the richest selection of tablet apps in the world, with surprisingly high standards of quality across the board. If you’re buying a tablet for its software selection, the iPad is a good choice. This is especially true when it comes to specialised areas, like the creative arts.
Take the bustling iOS music scene for example, which sees big name hardware manufacturers like KORG and Moog release like-for-like software versions of their finest hardware. There are apps like Loopy and Figure [No Longer Available] ($0.99), which make it incredibly easy for anyone to have a go. And when you want to get really creative, download AudioBus and record straight into a studio-level software in the form of Cubasis for iPad ($50).
This is further bolstered by a range of hardware accessories that simply work with a whole range of existing apps. Guitar and stereo interfaces allow you to connect instruments and microphones, and provided you have ample power and the Camera Connection Kit, most MIDI keyboards will work too. Like to draw? The iPad is the only tablet to have third-party styluses designed specifically for it, like the Adonit Jot Touch we reviewed last month.
Upgrades, Performance & Other Changes
So what’s really “new” about the new iPad? Here’s a run-down of the major changes.
The new A8X chip promises a 40% increase in performance over A7 found in the the original iPad Air. This is probably one of the hardest improvements to quantify, mainly because the old iPad Air is still a highly capable machine. It’s also a boring topic of conversation you shouldn’t get too hung up on – the A8X is plenty fast enough for the most demanding tasks you can throw at your iPad, and will remain so for a couple of years yet.
Video performance has been improved across the board, with “double” the graphics performance of the previous iteration according to Apple. This difference is noticeable through the smoothness of the UI animations, which don’t stutter quite as much as my old model. Transitioning between apps is buttery smooth, as is swiping to reveal Notification Centre or Control Centre. Everything feels more responsive.
This is the first iPad built with Metal in mind – Apple’s new “console-level” graphical technology that promises to take gaming performance to the next level. As you would expect, everything from Modern Combat to SimCity BuildIt is silky smooth. Like the previous model (and in stark contrast to the older, fatter iPads) heat buildup remained perfectly acceptable despite intensive use.
But the best hardware decision Apple made this time round was to include double the amount of RAM this time round. The previous model only came with 1GB of memory, and as a result tabs seemed to fall out of memory too quickly when switching between webpages and multitasking beyond two or three apps is a chore. Performance is noticeably better in the new model, and as a result I’m hoping Apple pushes the boat out even further by going for 4GB of RAM in the next upgrade.
The iPad has always had a suitably impressive battery life, and the iPad Air 2 keeps this tradition alive. Despite having slimmed down the chassis, battery life is unchanged from the previous model. That means the boffins in Cupertino are somehow squeezing more juice out of smaller cells, though improvements in component efficiency (Wi-Fi chips, 4G radios and the like) play their part too.
Despite this impressive achievement, I was left wondering whether the original iPad Air was thin enough for most people and just what sort of battery life the iPad could have had using a slightly larger housing with a bigger battery.
The words “best iPad camera yet” probably don’t mean a lot to you, especially if you lament the sight of someone taking a picture using their tablet. That’s a fair point, but it’s also true that the best camera is the one you have on you – and in the iPad’s case, it’s had a complete overhaul.
The tablet packs in a brand new 8 megapixel rear-facing iSight camera, which captures images at 3664×2448 resolution and takes advantage of the image signal processor found on the new A8X chip (technology also found in Apple’s latest round of smartphones). Better hardware means the inclusion of burst mode, absent on the past model. There’s even 120fps slow-motion video at 1080p, though 240fps as seen on the iPhone 6 would have been nice.
From a videography standpoint, the new iPad’s improved image quality and added processing power makes it a compelling and connected run-and-gun mobile recording or streaming rig, particularly with a few aftermarket accessories like a tripod mount and condenser microphone.
Also of note is the front-facing camera, which has been updated with a higher aperture of f/2.2. This allows more light in, resulting in a cleaner image – whether you’re just taking a selfie or are making a video call.
In order to achieve impressively-thin form factor with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, Apple had to redesign the way their IPS panels are manufactured. They have applied the same technology here, and as a result it provides the same contrast ratio boosts seen in the iPhone 6 display technology.
But in all honesty, and after studying many of my own and other people’s photos on both screens, there isn’t a huge visible difference between the two panels. Sure, the iPad Air 2 wins on constrast ratio in a few instances, but this isn’t a compelling reason to upgrade your tablet.
By making the screen thinner, however, Apple has managed to reduce the space between your fingertip and the panel, providing a more immersive and hands-on experience. It’s subtle, but it does make a noticeable difference. It’s simply nicer to tap an awkward link on a webpage than it is on the older model, though again it’s not really a raison d’upgrade.
Wireless standards are constantly evolving, and this upgrade sees even more connectivity options for the cellular models. The model we’re reviewing here only has Wi-Fi, so we can’t really comment on the 150Mbps speeds Apple is promising on supported LTE networks.
Nor can we really speculate about the Apple SIM, a preinstalled SIM card that allows you to change service carrier at the drop of a hat. The technology certainly looks exciting and promises a mobile tablet experience that’s free of lock-in contracts and painful roaming charges.
One thing of note: despite the new iPad Air 2 including support for Apple Pay, there is no NFC chip on-board. That means you can only use Apple Pay in supported stores (like Apple retail stores) rather than on point of sale terminals, as you can with the iPhone 6.
Should You Upgrade?
The original iPad Air offered the older iPad owner some compelling reasons to upgrade. Obvious hardware improvements aside, a smaller bezel and lightweight design offered tangible benefits – but this time the benefits aren’t so clear cut.
If your current iPad predates the iPad Air and you’re looking for an upgrade, this is a great choice. It’s everything the iPad Air should have been the first time round and it really does feel like Apple “fixed” many of the shortcomings – noticeably the lack of RAM and fingerprint scanner. Don’t feel put off by the seemingly minor upgrade, if your iPad is feeling a little crusty, you can do much worse than an iPad Air 2.
If you currently own an iPad Air, one might question your priorities if you already feel the need to upgrade your year-old tablet merely because Apple has release another one. Even if you are upgrade-obsessed, there doesn’t feel like a big enough leap this time round to justify the expenditure of a brand new iPad.
Yes, a fingerprint scanner is nice, and boy do I wish my iPad Air’s cameras were better (not that I use them very often), but these aren’t gamechangers. The iPad Air is only a year old, it doesn’t struggle to render web pages and can run multiple resource-intensive apps at a time with no problems.
This isn’t to say the iPad Air 2 isn’t a compelling tablet, it is; but last year’s model shouldn’t be written off yet.
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