The iPad is thinner, faster and better than before, maintaining Apple’s lead at the top of the tablet tree.
A bigger screen? Nope. A lower price? Nah. How about a bit more storage in the base model? You must be joking. So what is the headline feature of the iPad Air 2? It’s thinner, because that’s exactly the feature everyone had been clamouring for. “You know that iPad Air? I love it, but it’s just too fat.”
In fairness, although it was the iPad Air 2’s thinness that Apple focused on at the tablet’s official unveiling, there are other changes to discover. Aside from a slimmer 6.1mm chassis (the iPad Air was 7.4mm thick), and a lighter 437g weight (down from 469g), the iPad Air 2’s buttons have been redesigned to match those on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus; the speaker grille on the bottom edge is now a single row of larger perforations, not two; and the mute switch has been removed.
Some will mourn the loss of the latter, but we suspect most will move on quickly. It is, after all, still possible to silence the tablet by holding the Volume Down key.
The only other visual change is of the most superficial kind: for those with a penchant for bling, there’s now a gold version. If this sounds like a terrible idea, never fear; the Air 2 will still be available in silver and grey versions, too.
You have to look pretty hard to see most of the functional differences between this year’s Air and the last, but one of the more obvious is the introduction of Apple’s Touch ID sensor, which looks and works exactly as it does on the company’s smartphones. To initially register a fingerprint, you repeatedly tap your finger to the sensor in various orientations, after which the iPad can be unlocked by simply holding a finger to the sensor.
You can also use the sensor to authorise any purchases made through the App Store or iTunes, and now that iOS 8 has opened the system up to third parties, you’ll soon be able to use it with other apps too. Evernote is among the early adopters – you can already use your fingerprint to sign in to the app – and we expect plenty of other developers to weigh in.
While Touch ID brings the iPad and iPhone closer together, it’s worth noting that the iPad lacks near-field communication (NFC) hardware, so there’s no support for touch-based payment. This is hardly a great loss, though; we can’t imagine that paying via an iPad, even one as slim and light as this, would be particularly convenient.
The screen was great, and its vital statistics haven’t changed. It still measures 9.7in across the diagonal, and the Retina resolution of 1,536 x 2,048 delivers an identical pixel density of 264ppi. The quality remains excellent: we measured maximum brightness at 401cd/m2, contrast at 1,019:1, with last year’s Air attaining an almost identical 410cd/m2 and 1,000:1. Colour accuracy is excellent, too, with an average Delta E of 1.82, and the screen is capable of covering 93.3% of the sRGB gamut. It’s a superb tablet panel.
One subtle difference between the old Air and the new is the iPad Air 2’s anti-reflective coating, which gives reflections a less harsh appearance: where a light might look white when reflected in the iPad Air’s screen, it looks blue here – a little like looking through a pair of sunglasses.
The LCD screen is also now fully laminated to the glass above it, just as it is on Apple’s latest phones. This makes a noticeable difference both to the immediacy of the image and to perceived contrast. Graphics, text and photographs all look closer, more real on this display. Apple has also upgraded the chip that processes touch input; it’s difficult to say definitively whether or not this has made an improvement, but tasks such as scrubbing accurately through a video timeline did appear to be easier.
The trend for using the iPad for photos and video doesn’t seem to be going away, so Apple has finally caved in and brought the iPad’s camera into line with its iPhones, at least in terms of resolution. There’s no flash to match the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus’ True Tone flash, though, nor the superfast phase-detect autofocus.
The camera is an 8-megapixel unit, with an aperture of f/2.4 and a pixel size of 1.12 microns. It produces more detailed images than its predecessor, but a close analysis of our test shots and video doesn’t reveal a huge difference in quality; images are just as clean in good light, and still look a touch grainy in low light. The main and only noticable difference is a tendency for the iPad Air 2 to overexpose images.
The Air 2’s camera app does boast one significant feature that the original Air lacks: a 120fps slow-motion mode. The effect isn’t quite as dramatic as it is on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, which have a 240fps mode, but it’s fun to play with nonetheless. The front-facing camera has also seen an upgrade: it keeps the same resolution, but has a wider aperture than before. Images captured with it look just as detailed, but less bleached out.
Internally, the iPad Air 2 brings a number of upgrades, not least a move from 1GB of RAM to 2GB. The A8X processor is new, too: it runs at up to 1.5GHz, has three physical cores and, according to Apple, is 40% faster than the A7. Meanwhile, the quad-core GPU offers a claimed 2.5x improvement in graphics speed; in our own Geekbench test,we saw a single-core score of 1,683 – a 14% improvement over the iPad Air – and a multi-core score of 4,078, 52% faster than the iPad Air.
In the real world, this makes a big difference to compute-intensive tasks. We rendered a short iMovie project out to the Camera Roll on each device at 1080p; on the iPad Air 2 it took 12 seconds, versus 17 seconds on the Air – a considerable time saving of 29%.
It should also make a difference to how much detail games developers can pack in per frame. At the time of writing, our usual GFXBench test wasn’t working correctly with the Air 2, so we ran 3DMark instead. In the Ultimate test, the Air 2 returned 128fps, while the Air achieved 77fps. The Air 2’s overall score of 21,741 was 40% better than the Air’s 15,516.
Wireless speeds have also been boosted: the Air 2 has dual-stream 866Mbits/sec 802.11ac. 4G speeds are faster, too, at up to 150Mbits/sec for downloads, and the 4G versions will come with an Apple SIM preinstalled, allowing users to (eventually) swap and change their carriers.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this hugely accomplished tablet is that, despite the extra power, and a smaller battery inside, battery life has not been adversely affected. In our video-playback test, the Air 2 lasted 2hrs 46mins before expiring, a mere nine minutes short of the result the iPad Air achieved last year, and it’s just as good at retaining its charge while not in use. Leave it in standby overnight and it will lose barely any battery capacity.
The iPad Air 2 refines what was hitherto the best tablet on the market. It’s slightly thinner and lighter, with a better camera and a fingerprint reader for more convenient unlocking and app payments. It’s much faster, too, and the screen is subtly improved.
Comparing specifications for available models, the original Air’s 32GB option has been withdrawn: the iPad Air is now available only in 16GB, 64GB and 128GB Wi-Fi and 4G variants. We’d prefer to have seen the back of the 16GB model – it really isn’t enough capacity for a tablet that has no expansion potential – but the move does mean that the 64GB and 128GB versions are now cheaper.
The iPad Air 2 is definitively the best tablet on the market right now, and rightfully replaces its predecessor on our A-List. But with prices as they are, it isn’t the best value: that title goes to the original iPad Air, which Apple is now offering in its 32GB guise for only $549.