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iPad Air 2 REVIEW: The Best iPad, But the Best Tablet?

by Brandon Russell | November 6, 2014November 6, 2014 1:25 pm PDT

Not as many people are buying iPads anymore. For the past few quarters now, the company has faced a noticeable decline in sales, highlighting a worrying trend for a device that was once ubiquitous with the tablet market. More affordable Android competitors have nudged in and, let’s be honest, the iPad has more and less remained the same since day one.

But don’t mistake falling sales for a decline in iPad quality. Last year’s iPad Air was the best tablet Apple has ever produced, and this year’s update raises the bar even higher.

The problem for Apple is that each year the iPad is so good it doesn’t need to be upgraded in twelve months, or even twenty-four months. That is to say, if you purchased one in the past year or two, it probably still works just fine. Tim Cook knows and understands this. During Apple’s most recent earnings call, Cook admitted that iPad owners hold onto to the slate longer than they would a phone. “We don’t know what the upgrade cycle will be for people,” Cook concluded.

Apple still managed to sell 12.3 million tablets over the summer, which is certainly no small number. Now it’s just a matter of Apple figuring out how to convince consumers that upgrading more frequently is worth it.

This year, the iPad Air 2 is (again) the best iPad Apple has ever made. You always expect the march of technology to churn out progressively better devices. We see it with phones all the time. The Air 2 is thinner, sports Touch ID, has an improved camera and is more powerful than any other tablet out there. It can also be argued that it’s very similar to the iPad Apple released last year, and the year before that, and so on.

But that’s what makes it so great. The iPad is one of the most reliable toys in technology, and it should come as no surprise that the newest one is the model you should buy (except if you own the iPad Air).

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iPad Air 2 Video Review

Design and Display

The iPad has always been the best-looking tablet on the market, and it has only gotten better with age. The emphasis this year is squarely on thinness, to which the iPad Air 2 is just 6.1mm, 18-percent thinner than the previous model (7.5mm). That doesn’t immediately jump out as a significant difference, but the change is definitely noticeable when you pick the iPad Air 2 up.

Now you ask yourself: how thin do gadgets need to be? Apple has always emphasized thin; we’ve seen just about every product category in the company’s stable shed some inches in one way other another. The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, as an example, are among the thinnest phones you can buy at the moment, and Apple is once again making the iPad Air 2’s svelte profile a headlining feature to attract new buyers.

Previous iPads used three separate components for the display, but this year Apple has combined them to eliminate gaps between layers (something that’s been present in iPhones and other competing tablets); a more succinct way to describe the change is to call it a “fully laminated display” which, in addition to thinness, also promises to reduce glare from bright sunlight (it does) and provide richer colors.

And since the LCD layer is closer to your eyeballs, touching the screen is actually a slightly different (and improved) experience. Apple devices have always been responsive, but the Air 2 is better at providing the illusion that you’re touching and manipulating the content onscreen. In turn, it’s a bit more immersive; depending on what you’re doing, you feel more connected to the device, which is a feeling few companies are capable of achieving.

Apple iPad Air 2-2

Apple iPad Air 2 vs iPad Air-3

Apple iPad Air 2-14

The screen size (9.7-inch) and resolution (2048 x 1536) are still the same when compared to what was introduced with the first Retina iPad, but the laminated display really does make touching and seeing those 3.1 million pixels a more enjoyable experience. It’s not the best tablet display around—that honor goes to the Galaxy Tab S—but it’s still beautiful after all these years. It’s worth noting, however, that we did notice a slightly pinker tint (especially noticeable when viewing websites and pictures with a lot of white). It’s unclear if that’s a widespread issue, but it’s by no means a reason to fret.

Beyond a thinner profile and better display, the iPad Air 2 is largely similar to last year’s model. Same chamfered edges, same bezel and screen size, same button/port/speaker layout, and there’s still a home button, which now has the benefit of TouchID. TouchID, by the way, works just as well as it does on the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. There are a few subtle differences, however. For one, Apple has eliminated the rotation lock/mute switch from the side, instead forcing folks to change these settings through Control Center. It’s an odd choice, but ultimately one Apple made for aesthetic reasons.

When you hold and use the iPad Air 2, you slowly begin to realize that making it thinner really does make a tangible difference; the marketing hype is backed up by real-world results. And, don’t worry, the device is incredibly durable and strong, so you won’t have to worry about the device bending (unless you purposely try to). Even with a thinner and lighter frame, the Air 2 is rigid and sturdy, never for a second sacrificing its premium feel.

It’s easier to hold, for one (even one-handed), meaning you can use it longer in bed, on the couch, etc. without experiencing fatigue. That means longer Netflix sessions, more Goat Simulator and time spent editing photos and video.

Performance

While a lot of people will take notice of the iPad Air 2’s outward changes, the most significant improvements are actually under the hood. The tablet comes with a new A8X chip (built on second-generation 64-bit architecture), which is actually an update over Apple’s A8 chip introduced with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.

Apple says the new processor is 40-percent faster in terms of CPU performance compared to the previous Air; GPU performance, meanwhile, is up to 180x faster compared to the first-generation iPad (or 2.5x faster than the first Air’s A7 chip). The Air 2 also sports 2GB of RAM (a first for the iPad).

We performed a Geekbench 3 multicore score to see just how much faster the new A8X chip is over the Air’s A7, and the results are pretty surprising. The Air 2’s A8X processor clocked in at 4,489, which is up from the A7’s 2,600—that’s a pretty significant difference, and is proof positive that Apple’s rebuilt processor is incredibly powerful.

In day-to-day-use, you’ll especially notice a boost in performance if you own an iPad that’s a few generations old. An older iPad is still more than capable of playing games and firing up processor-intensive apps, but it’ll more likely than take its sweet time, like it’s in no particular hurry. The iPad Air 2 is finely tuned, an immaculate dragster that opens apps in an instant. Overall, it’s just a more capable machine thanks to its powerful guts. Games run fantastically well, while you can do even more with cool apps like Pixelmator, which was demonstrated onstage during the iPad Air 2 event.

Basically, whatever purpose you need the Air 2 to serve, it will more than get the job done. Simple tasks like browsing the Web and checking email is slick and fluid, while streaming movies and playing games is smoother than ever. The idea of completely replacing a laptop with just an iPad is still not something I’d recommend to most folks, but the iPad Air 2 is certainly capable of being your only productivity machine. There are more tablet-optimized apps than there were a year ago, too, and Apple’s own suite of apps (Pages, Numbers, iMovie, etc.) are free, so you’ll have plenty at your disposal.

Apple iPad Air 2-15

Apple iPad Air 2-14

Apple iPad Air 2-16

I have very basic tablet needs. I watch YouTube, Netflix, browse the Web, and that’s really about it. If you’re like me, the Air 2’s A8X chip is definitely overkill. But don’t let that stop you from picking one up if you’re looking to get your first iPad. Apple’s newest slate is poised to last a few years, easy, so you should feel good about your purchase if the iPad is your preferred tablet of choice. I’m excited to see how app developers (especially games) take advantage of the new A8X; already there’s a noticeable difference with how smooth games (Five Nights At Freddy’s!) play.

Here’s where it does get a little murky, however. Since the iPad Air 2 is thinner than the previous model, it in turn sports a smaller battery; it’s not significantly smaller, though we would have preferred Apple give up its pursuit of thinness and instead use larger batteries. That’s not to say the iPad Air 2 doesn’t have good battery life, because it does. Coupled with the power efficient A8X chip, the Air 2 got over 10 hours of battery with heavy use; the first generation Air, however, lasted an hour longer under similar conditions, so there is a slight downgrade.

Still, you can expect to go a full heavy day of apps, games, browsing, etc., and still have some battery to spare, which is all you can really ask of a tablet this powerful.

Camera

Do you need a camera on your tablet? Apparently so. The trend of tablet photography isn’t going away anytime soon, and Apple has embraced this fact of life by including a new 8-megapixel sensor in the iPad Air 2—an upgrade from the 5-megapixel shooter in last year’s model. There are a ton of great smartphones out there with amazing cameras, so you’re still be better off with what’s in your pocket. Still, if you insist on using a tablet, the Air 2 sure isn’t bad.

The UI experience is essentially what you’d get on an iPhone, just bigger—swipe left and right to switch between different shooting modes, press the big red button to snap a photo and record video. You get shooting modes like Time-lapse, Burst Mode, Timer Mode, Panorama and even 120-fps slo-mo, which isn’t quite as fun as the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus’s 240-fps slo-mo. It takes pictures quickly, and focusing is actually pretty accurate and fast.

Pictures are decent enough, both in low light and outdoors (of course, outdoors will always be more consistent). Let’s be honest, you’ll be sharing these photos on Facebook and other social networks that don’t demand the highest of quality anyway. So, if you really must take your iPad on vacation to snap photos of the Grand Canyon, you should expect some good photos. Not great, but good. If anything, the iPad Air 2 will make a good backup should your phone run out of battery.

Shortcomings

When you buy an iPad, you already know what you’re getting into. You’ll get top notch hardware, slick software, and have access to a tremendous ecosystem. But it’s becoming more and more clear that consumers are no longer buying into the small iterative improvements Apple makes year after year. Yes, this is by far Apple’s best iPad. But it’s time Apple did something more (rumors suggest the company might).

The overall experience of the Air 2 is essentially the same as any previous models, just faster. We wish Apple would tweak the experience of iOS to take advantage of that raw power. I mean, this thing has laptop-level guts, yet the experience is vastly inferior to what you’d get on a Macbook Air. After all these years, iOS on an iPad still hasn’t really been built to take advantage of the extra screen space or power. Where are the tablet-specific features? It seems Apple is relying too heavily on app developers to create those flagship experiences.

Families typically share an iPad, yet iPads still lack multi-user support, or even a guest mode—features available in Android 5.0 Lollipop. It’s little things like this that would improve the experience by a lot, yet Apple has yet to address these omissions. Multi-user support would be a great feature for kids in particular—just give them their own profile with Netflix and a bunch of age-appropriate apps. Family Sharing in iOS 8 is a good start, but that assumes every family member owns an iOS device. That’s not always feasible—or affordable.

And with a device like the iPhone 6 Plus now on the market, I’m guessing many of those users will no longer have the need or desire to pick up the iPad. You essentially get the same experience, but with the iPhone you get a better camera and superior portability. Sure, the iPad’s screen is larger, but I’m going to take a wild guess and say the iPhone 6 Plus’s 5.5-inch screen is plenty for watching video and playing games.

Apple iPad Air 2 vs iPad Air-10

BUY

The iPad Air 2 is the best iPad you can buy, but we still wish it would break away from the familiar iPad formula.

During our Air review last year, we challenged Apple to give us more.

It’s time the company began to Think Different, or at least hint at more to come. If the iPad is to keep its distance out front, it needs to start exploring new territory, which others, such as Microsoft’s Surface lineup, have already started to do […] Apple has an opportunity to release the device Microsoft is so desperately trying to get right. Maybe the iPad isn’t destined to fulfill that tablet/laptop hybrid. But there’s no denying that opportunity exists. You get the sense that it’s definitely on the minds of Apple executives, it’s just a matter of the company breaking from its predictable formula and executing something new.

The iPad Air 2 isn’t really new, nor does it break away from its usual formula. But it’s still the best tablet on the market. Some Android devices come really close, but none can match Apple’s overall quality, and there’s still no beating the iOS ecosystem. There are some obvious areas Apple can make improvements, but you still won’t find a better experience anywhere.

If you’re set on buying an iPad, the Air 2 is a terrific choice. It has the best hardware of the bunch, Touch ID, a good camera, and has more power than some older laptops. Is it worthy of an upgrade over the iPad Air? No, probably not. And that’s currently Apple’s biggest problem. The company needs to find a better solution to its upgrade dilemma aside from just making its hardware thinner.

Jon used the iPad Air 2 for seven days before filming his review. Brandon drafted his review based on notes written by Jon, and also used the tablet over a four-day period. The iPad Air 2 was purchased by TechnoBuffalo.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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