Each year it gets harder to say something fascinating and clever about the iPad. No, it's not a dull or unremarkable product, rather it's such a well-known quantity (heck, even the Queen of England is tweeting from an iPad) and it evolves methodically. Or rather, it follows an every other year something important happens pattern. Last year's iPad Air was big news because it was literally so small--it lost a half pound and nearly half its thickness from the previous version. The iPad Air 2 is one of those smaller updates. So we won't bore you by covering every pore and factoid; instead we'll focus on what's changed from the iPad Air and the iPad 4 (aka Retina iPad).
The iPad Air 2 is yet again thinner and lighter than its predecessor, but not by as much as the Air was to the iPad 4. That's because, given the limits of technology and materials used (glass and metal), you can only shave off so much at this point. The iPad Air 2 weighs just 0.96 lbs. for the WiFi model, compared to 1.03 lbs. for the iPad Air and 1.44 lbs. for the iPad 4. The Air 2 is just 0.24" (6.1mm) thin while the iPad 4 was 0.37" and the Air is 0.29" (7.5mm). If the already very thin and light original iPad Air sounds good enough for you, you're in luck: Apple will continue to sell it for $100 less than the iPad Air 2. Speaking of price, the iPad Air 2 as ever with Apple's 9.7" tablet line starts at $499 for the WiFi only model and $629 for the WiFi + 4G LTE model with 16 gigs of storage. Each storage increment increase adds $100 to the price tag.
Storage is another thing that's changed. Like the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, the iPad Air 2 is available in 16, 64 and 128 gig storage capacities. Gone is the 32 gig middle model, happily replaced by the 64 gig version. That makes it even more of a no-brainer to let Apple upsell you to the $599/$729 64 gig model since you get so much more storage. These days, iOS tablet 3D games weigh in at 1 to 3 gigs apiece, leaving you little room for all that great 1080p footage you're going to shoot with the improved 8 megapixel rear camera or movies you might want to store locally rather than stream.
Though some make jest of using a 10" tablet as a camera, folks do it and have found great uses like sports coaching. Thus Apple has improved the camera in terms of resolution and features. It gets the same slow motion and time lapse video features as the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, and more megapixels than older iPads. The 8 megapixel camera is excellent by tablet standards, but it's clearly not the same hardware as the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Photos and video taken with those phones are superb, while the iPad Air 2 rates as pretty good (and competitive with the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5). The front camera is a 1.2MP FaceTime camera that can shoot 720p video. It has a fast lens, face detection and backside illumination. The back camera has an f/2.4 five element lens. It can shoot HDR, 1080p video and it adds burst mode (handy for sports and energetic children and pets).
You can Never be too Fast
I can't say I've heard folks complain that their iPad Air is slow. Older generation iPads updated to the latest iOS 8 maybe (just maybe). Nonetheless, Apple's in the specs race with Android and even Windows tablets, so they've fitted the iPad Air 2 with their new 1.5GHz Apple A8x CPU, a faster version of the A8 used in the latest generation iPhones. According to Geekbench 3 (a cross-platform benchmark and informational tool), Apple has moved to 3 cores for the first time with the A8x. In AnTuTu, a benchmark long popular on Android that's made its way to iOS, the iPad Air 2 scores 33% faster than the fastest Android tablets and phones we've tested. Though Apple didn't make a huge deal of the new processor, it benchmarks much faster than the iPad Air's A7 (and runs circles around older iPad models). You might not appreciate it now, but iOS app developers always find ways to put those CPU cycles to good use, from more cinematic and realistic games to more advanced video editors like Apple's own iMovie and the fun Replay app. The A8x is apparently very power efficient since battery capacity has dropped from the last gen Air to 27.3 wHr without reducing runtimes (we get an average of 10 hours actual use time with brightness at 50% on our WiFi model).
Apple has increased RAM to 2 gigs, so those of you who have many Safari tabs open won't see page reloads as often when you switch tabs. It also improves multitasking speed. Speaking of multi-tasking, Apple hasn't done anything with iOS 8 to make multitasking more PC-like despite the fact that the iPad Air 2 benchmarks as fast as a 3 year old MacBook Air. We really enjoy Samsung's Multi Window multitasking that now includes floating, resizable app windows just like a Mac or Windows PC, and would love to see Apple make multitasking something more than one full screen app at a time.
Instead, Apple's focused on Continuity and Handoff. These are indeed lovely features if you own more than one Apple product--say an iPad or iPhone and a Mac. Whether it's a Safari web page or a Keynote (PowerPoint compatible presentation app) presentation you're working on, when the devices are in Bluetooth range, you can pick up your work on the second device. Start an email on the iPad and finish it off on your Mac. It works easily and well enough, as does iCloud storage for your centralized photo, video and document storage. Cellular phone calls can even hand off, though the iPad Air 2's mics require that you speak in close distance to the tablet, or better yet put on a headset.
Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 vs. iPad Air 2 Comparison Smackdown
Use the iPad 4G LTE Model with Any Carrier
The iPad Air with 4G is sold unlocked, so you can use any carrier's SIM card and there's no contract. Rather than make different models or SKUs, Apple simply sells one US model that supports 20 LTE bands--it will work on all major US carriers and overseas. Apple's including their new carrier agnostic nano SIM, which means you can activate it on AT&T, Sprint or T-Mobile here in the US (Verizon isn't participating and will give you a SIM card to replace Apple's). Apparently, if you activate the iPad on AT&T, the SIM will be locked to AT&T, but that's not the case with Sprint and T-Mobile. Should you wish to switch to another carrier from AT&T, you can get a replacement SIM card from Apple or your new carrier.
Less Glare on this Retina Display
Apple has shifted to using bonded glass, reducing the air gap between the LCD and glass on top. This means you'll get the same painted on look that you do with iPhones, since they used the same technology. Icons indeed look literally touchable rather than buried under a layer of glass and viewing angles are very wide (great for sharing videos, poor for privacy). The iPad Air 2 adds an anti-glare coating that does reduce reflectance, but it's still a gloss display, so glare is by no means eliminated. It is reduced such that I don't find myself distracted by reflections and the iPad Air 2 is less of a functional mirror when turned off than is the first gen model. Resolution remains the same "Retina" 2048 x 1536 with 264 PPI pixel density. It has the same wide color gamut as previous Retina 9.7" models and sufficient brightness (in combination with reduced glare) to be easily visible outdoors. It's one of the best 10" tablet displays on the market, though some may prefer the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5's even wider color gamut and near infinite contrast (though the Tab S isn't as easy to see outdoors).
iPad Air 2 vs. the Competition
Is the iPad Air 2 one of the best tablets on the market? Certainly it is. Is it the very best? That in part depends on your needs. The iPad has by far the largest ecosystem of tablet apps (675,000 as of this writing), and overall they tend to be higher quality in terms of design, attention to detail and features. The software experience can make or break a tech product, and the iPad is the big winner here. But for those who want a more PC-like experience, including access to the file system via a file manager, expandable storage and even multi-window multitasking, the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro and Galaxy Tab S models could be a better fit. You do get an even higher resolution display with wildly vibrant colors with those Samsung models too. And for those who truly want a PC, there are 10 to 12 inch Windows 8 tablets ranging in price from $500 to $1000, depending on CPU and configuration. Windows 8's Live Tile (aka Metro) app selection isn't impressive, but these tablets are great for those who mostly want to work in the Windows desktop environment with familiar PC programs like MS Office 2013 and Adobe Photoshop. If you just want to play games, surf the web and watch videos, the iPad Air 2 would be a better choice since it's completely optimized for touch and is nearly zero maintenance, unlike Windows. I've noticed that folks with young children gravitate toward the iPad, and it's worth noting that the selection of kids' content is superb--interactive books, fun and educational games and art/coloring apps abound.
The iPad Air 2 is Apple's best tablet yet--of course, we'd be shocked if they released a next generation product that wasn't improved, but that sometimes happens: the iPad mini 3 is one of the few that disappoints thanks to lacks of improvements. The Air 2 is thinner and prettier than ever, and it's so light by today's standards that you might mistake it for a dummy display unit. Inside it's all smarts though, with an extremely fast A8x CPU, 2 gigs of RAM and more storage for the middle configuration. If you're hankering for an iPad and want the best Apple has to offer, this is it and it's a sweet tablet. If you currently own an iPad Air, it's probably not worth the upgrade to the Air 2 unless you can't live without the gold color or Touch ID. If you're upgrading from older iPad models, you'll be in heaven.
Display: 9.7” LED blacklit IPS with multi-touch, bonded glass, anti-reflective coating on glossy display. 2048 x 1536 resolution (264 ppi). Fingerprint resistant coating. Has an accelerometer, ambient light sensor and 3-axis gyroscopic sensor.
Processor: 1.5 GHz Apple A8x CPU with M8 motion co-processor. 2 gigs RAM.
Network: Wi-Fi model: Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac with MIMO; AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon models add 3G and 4G LTE for data. All models have Bluetooth 4.0 and use Apple's new Lightning 8 pin connector for USB.
GPS: Cellular models have GPS with GLONASS as well as digital compass. WiFi models use WiFi-based location triangulation.
Cameras: Front and rear cameras. Back 8MP camera can record up to 1080p video and front 1.2MP camera can record 720p video. Both cameras have a BSI and face detection. Rear camera has HDR for photos.
Storage: 16GB, 64GB or 128 gigs internal flash storage.
Audio: Built-in mic and stereo speakers, 3.5mm stereo headphone jack. Audio formats supported: HE-AAC (V1), AAC (16 to 320 Kbps), Protected AAC (from iTunes Store), MP3 (16 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 2, 3, and 4), Apple Lossless, AIFF, and WAV.
Size: 9.4 x 6.6 x 0.24 inches. Weight: 0.96 pounds (437 grams).
Battery: Rechargeable 27.3-watt-hour rechargeable lithium-polymer battery. Not user replaceable. Claimed usage time: Up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video, or listening to music; Up to 9 hours of surfing the web using 3G/4G data network. Ships with 10 watt charger.