But is this the next major step in the iPad story or just a thinner, sharper pencil?
Apple iPad Air 2 review – Design: “It’s only wafer thin”
I’m certain the design team spent a lot of time scratching their heads before setting to work on creating the body of the iPad Air 2. The original Air was an excellent distillation of Apple’s tablet experience, giving you just the right amount of bezel either side of the screen for grip, the right weight so your wrists wouldn’t tire too frequently and impeccable thickness and build quality for some classic Apple panache.
Face-on the dimensions remain identical with all the key components and features where you’d expect to find them, the main difference being the Air 2’s even slimmer waistline. At just 6.1mm it’s the world’s second slimmest tablet (playing second fiddle only to Dell’s Venue 8 7000, which is 0.1mm thinner). Whilst this is clearly an impressive feat of engineering, it wasn’t exactly something the iPad was screaming for. Smaller bezels above and below the display would have perhaps been nicer.
The slimmer body means the silence/auto-rotation toggle has gone, leaving just the hardware volume controls on the right-hand side. It’s a small annoyance, but to make up for it there’s a level of added convenience associated with the inclusion of the new Touch ID home button, which like and iPhone, can be used to unlock the Air 2 and confirm app purchases.
The only other new addition is a third colour option. A pale ‘coppery’ gold body, which serves as a marmite choice for potential Air 2 buyers. We’re not adverse to a touch of bling, but we would have liked a cleaner plastic covering for the cellular components at the tablet’s top; the white panel Apple has used just looks a little naff.
Apple iPad Air 2 review – Screen: No air, no air (gap)
We loved the iPad Air’s Retina display and although there’s been no bump in size or resolution (9.7-inches and 2048×1536 respectively), the Air 2’s screen is ever so slightly superior to its predecessor.
Apple’s eliminated the miniscule air gap that used to sit between the IPS LCD panel, the touch layer and the surface glass through an optical bonding process – making the whole thing essentially a single component. On paper this should reduce internal reflections and reflectivity as a whole, but in addition there’s an anti-glare coating that’s been applied to the glass too.
In reality all we can really discern is that this is an exceptional piece of display technology. Iconography, images and text look sharp, colours are vivid and accurate and viewing angles are wonderfully clear. It’s one of the tablet’s biggest strengths and a fundamental part of what makes Apple’s iPads so good as a whole.
Apple iPad Air 2 review – OS: Old, new stuff
As existing iOS users will know, the Air 2 comes running the latest version of Apple’s rejuvenated mobile operating system: iOS 8.1.
There are a ton of features that you’ll find on both the company’s new slate and the recently released iPhones too (here are the highlights), but there are a few extra benefits to the experience on the Air 2, mainly the two-column view that appears in apps like Mail and Messages. Oddly enough the additional cut, copy and paste keys iPhone 6 Plus users see when using their devices in landscape aren’t available on the Air 2’s keyboard, even though there’s plenty of space.
All the latest iOS tricks come built into this new iPad as well; including Continuity, Handoff, a revised messaging experience that supports voice and video clips, not to mention support for the new iCloud Drive file management system and a more customisable notifications panel. That said none of this feels particularly revolutionary on its own.
iOS is still as easy to use, attractive and clean as ever, but unless you’ve bought into the Apple ecosystem elsewhere it offers little in the way of new functionality.
Apple iPad Air 2 review – Performance: Better processor, same result
Aside from the Touch ID sensor, the other key hardware upgrade comes in the form of the new A8X chip at the heart of the Air 2. Its biggest promise is significantly greater graphics performance over last year’s Air and the fact that it’s twinned to 2GB of RAM should ensure that it delivers buttery smooth operation across the board.
Whilst we can’t fault the Air 2’s general operability, the power of the A8X, particularly with gaming isn’t really apparent yet. Even intense 3D games like Asphalt 8 and the Zen Garden tech demo (built using Apple’s Metal graphical language) already ran buttery smooth on the last iPad and we can’t pick out any criticisms here either. It’s easily one of the slickest tablets around in look and feel and what’s more it can last too.
One strange observation would be that the thin bodywork vibrates heavily as a result of the inbuilt speaker, it’s a disconcerting little quirk and just something to note if you plan on picking one up.
Despite the thinner body sporting a smaller battery than its predecessor, the Air 2 boasts the same great longevity, lasting through two days of what amounted to extensive video streaming and web browsing most of the time with juice to spare.
On the connectivity front things are a little different too. You still have the option of a WiFi-only or a 4G-capable device, but the latter now comes with a pre-loaded SIM from Apple, the idea being that you simply reassign the card to whichever provider you fancy. In the UK you’re currently limited to EE, but that’s no bad thing, all this method does is make it trickier should you want to dress another 4G-capable tablet in mobile connectivity, assuming you tire of iPads at some point.
Storage is as ever a premium with the Air 2. The unusual jump from 16GB straight to 64GB forces your hand based on cost to the larger capacity, but we’d wave you away from the smallest option anyway based on the size of app and movies nowadays. Those with a ton of content should of course check out the top 128GB models, as removable storage still isn’t and option and likely won’t ever be.
Apple iPad Air 2 review – Camera: It’s all about the big picture
Contrary to personal feelings on the matter, Apple’s Phil Schiller assured us all that people love taking pictures on their iPads, primarily because of its huge viewfinder. Whilst that reasoning may be sound, we’d still pick the phone out of our pockets to grab a snap, rather than man handle a tablet to get the same result.
Apple has actually upped the ante with the Air 2’s camera. You can finally say “hello” to an iPad with a fully-fledged 8-megapixel sensor, similar to the iPhone. Although you shouldn’t expect quite the same level of clarity as the 6 or 6 Plus, the Air 2’s rear camera actually delivers good snaps. Fine detail isn’t fantastic, particularly in low light, but it copes in most other situations and thanks to iOS 8 has learnt a few new tricks too.
As well as Full HD recording, additional video modes like time-lapse and slow motion are now on hand along with a range of photo filters and more advanced editing tools built right into the imaging experience. You won’t find the 240fps slow-capture mode that the company’s phones offer, but you’ll still be able to film some impressive action shots – provided you can bare to be seen shooting on a tablet.
Video quality is a little underwhelming, particularly in the more specialised modes, but they get the point across. As ever the iPad is best suited for Skype or FaceTime if you plan on using the cameras at all.
Apple iPad Air 2 review – Verdict: Balancing act
Every year Apple has to tread a fine line, by trying to offer consumers enough of an upgrade over last year’s product without over-promising one year only to under deliver the next. The 4th generation iPad was a misstep in this regards and the Air 2 is sort of in the same boat.
Don’t misinterpret what we’re saying here, the iPad Air 2 is one of the best tablets on the market right now; sure it’s expensive but consumers are well versed in the ways of Apple product pricing. If you’re an iPad 4 or Air owner, there is little to no reason for you to consider the Air 2. The performance gains aren’t big enough and unless the desire for a fingerprint sensor or gold bodywork keep you awake at night you money would be better spent on pretty much anything else.
If you’re outside the world of Apple tablets looking for a way in, we’d recommend the 64GB WiFi-only Air 2 without hesitation. The company proves that it’s still the king of a market segment that it really made its own to begin with.