Review: iPad Air 2

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Gizmag reviews Apple's latest

Gizmag reviews Apple's latest "best tablet," the iPad Air 2 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com). View gallery (20 images)

You could say that the 2013 iPad Air was the first mature tablet. So how is Apple going to sell a new model when the last one left no big gaps to fill? Join Gizmag, as we review Apple's bigger-than-you-might-think update, the iPad Air 2.

Going by the standards of two or three years ago, the iPad Air 2 is an incremental update. Back then tablets were slow and bulky, with pixelated screens, so you expected some big improvements every year. Under that light, this year's update is nothing to get excited about.

But under the light of late 2014, when high-end smartphones and tablets have reached maturity in the most important areas, the iPad Air 2 is a significant update.

It starts with its 19 percent thinner build. Just let that sink in for a second. Last year, we were all amazed at how light and thin the first iPad Air was. And now, some 365 days later, we're looking at a model that shaves off a fifth of its depth and 7 percent of its weight. Not too shabby, eh?

The iPad Air 2 is a piece of cake to hold in one hand – even in landscape mode. Apple's edge touch rejection, which lets you grip the side of the tablet without registering accidental touches, is an oft-ignored part of that equation (I missed this when using Samsung's Galaxy Tab S). Narrow bezels aren't such a great thing if you have to constantly worry about sliding your finger onto the screen.

What it boils down to is the iPad Air 2 is a full-sized tablet that's as easy and fun to hold as a miniature tablet. Even more so than its predecessor was.

The second big change is Touch ID. Apple's fingerprint sensor is the best in the business (it's as dead-simple as resting your finger on the home button for a brief moment) and the easiest way to secure your device. And it's finally on the iPad, with both the iPad Air 2 and the iPad mini 3.

If you use password manager apps, Touch ID can combine with iOS 8's app extensions to make your life a whole lot easier. Now when I want to, say, check on a PayPal transaction in Safari, I just tap the 1Password extension shortcut, rest my finger on the Touch ID sensor and watch as my login automatically fills. It's now easier to securely log into apps and websites on the iPad than it is on a laptop.

At 9.7 inches, the iPad Air 2's screen size is unchanged from any other full-sized iPad. Apple is advertising higher contrast and more vivid colors in the new screen, and my eyes can indeed notice a difference: content pops a bit more. Make no mistake: the better display alone isn't reason enough to upgrade, but it is a nice bonus.

The Air 2 also has an anti-reflective coating on its screen that Apple says can reduce glare by 56 percent. I used it in direct sunlight next to other mobile devices, and I found the iPad Air 2 to be easier to read. Even with the bright New Mexico sun beating directly down onto it, I could easily read text and browse photos.

The performance in most modern smartphones and tablets is past the point of concern, but the iPad Air 2 is unusually fast and smooth. Its 64-bit A8X system-on-a-chip is a variant of the A8 that you'll find in the latest iPhones, and it's an absolute beast.

In popular benchmark app Geekbench 3, the iPad Air 2 scored 1813 (single core) and 4496 (multi-core). For some perspective, my late 2013 Retina MacBook Pro – a high-end laptop aimed at professionals – scored only 39 percent higher in multi-core. This is a consumer-level tablet, for crying out loud, and it's inching towards a pro-laptop level of raw power!

The speed and fluidity is wonderful, but the new iPad's 2 GB of RAM might be even more important. I couldn't do much work on last year's iPad Air. When editing a Gizmag post, I'd too often switch to another browser tab only to return and find that all my changes were lost. I've been working some on the iPad Air 2, and I've yet to run into any of those problems.

Grab a quality keyboard cover, and the iPad Air 2 can double as a fairly powerful faux laptop. And depending on what you use a laptop for, this could potentially be all the laptop you need.

The iPad Air 2 has a smaller battery that holds 17 percent less juice than the iPad Air's does. Is this any cause for concern?

During regular use, I don't notice much of a difference between it and last year's Air. But in our battery benchmark, where we stream video over Wi-Fi with brightness set at 75 percent, the iPad Air 2 dropped about 14 percentage points per hour. Last year's iPad Air dropped about 12 percent per hour. So it looks like uptimes did take a minor hit with the Air 2's smaller battery.

The iPad Air 2 has the best rear camera of any iPad to date, with photo quality that's moving a bit closer to that of the iPhone (it also shoots in the same 8 MP). The iPhone's excellent slow-motion video mode even makes its way to the Air 2. The iPad's shots look grainier to me than iPhone shots do, though, so the Air 2 is still playing catchup. It also doesn't have a flash.

If you're like me, tablet photography is what happens when your dog does something funny when your iPad is already in your hands. But, for what it's worth, the iPad Air 2 plays that niche role better than older iPads did.

If you're using a non-Air (pre-2013) 9.7-in iPad, then upgrading to one of the iPad Airs is a no-brainer. They're both going to be much faster, lighter and thinner than what you have right now. Startlingly so.

But which one do you go with? Well, that's a tougher call. The iPad Air 1 is hanging around at US$400 ($100 cheaper than the iPad Air 2), and I think it's still worth a look. You just have to ask yourself whether an even lighter and thinner build, anti-glare screen and Touch ID sensor are worth $100. I think they are – but if you're trying to keep the price down, know that you'll still get a terrific tablet in last year's Air.

If you already own that 2013 iPad Air, then most reviewers will tell you not to bother upgrading. And I won't argue with that ... but I do think the new model's upgrades are bigger than you might think. As a regular user of password manager apps, I'd say Touch ID alone can add at least $50 worth of convenience.

The iPad has stiffer competition than ever this year (especially from Samsung) and the iPad isn't the no-brainer buy that it once was. And though it isn't dramatically better than last year's Air, I'd still brand the iPad Air 2 as the best iPad – and the best tablet, period – you can buy today. It had a tough act to follow, but it still manages to steal the show.

The iPad Air 2 is available now, starting at $500 for the 16 GB Wi-Fi only model.

Product page: Apple

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