REVIEW: Apple iPad Air 2

Ludicrously thin and ridiculously powerful, Apple's latest tablet is a worthy successor to the original iPad Air and more of a leap forward than you would expect.

Another year, another iPad. It's easy to get blasé about these things, but the boffins at Apple certainly aren't resting on their laurels. Last year's dramatic iPad Air overhaul is a tough act to follow, but they've honed the design of this year's iPad to deliver a tablet that is even thinner, lighter and more powerful – while sporting an improved screen and few extra features to catch your eye.

Small packages

The iPad Air 2 starts at $619 for the 16GB wi-fi model, with the option to upgrade to 64GB or 128GB of onboard storage. It's worth noting that Apple still sells last year's iPad Air, which starts at $499 with the option of 32GB but no high-end 64GB or 128GB model.

While it retains the same footprint, the new iPad Air 2 is 30 grams lighter than the first-generation Air – which honestly isn't very noticeable when you hold one in each hand. More striking is that the new iPad is 1.4 millimetres thinner – now measuring a breathtaking 6.1mm.

That's actually thinner than the iPhone 6 and the iPad Mini 3, which is an amazing feat of engineering, but when was the last time you heard someone complain that their iPad Air was too thick? As with the new iPhones, surely there must come a time when Apple concedes than thin enough is good enough and puts a higher premium on battery life.

As you might expect, the price for the Air 2's thinner design is a lower-capacity battery. The performance gains of the new A8x processor ensures that the promised battery life remains the same at around 10 hours. Put to the test both models tend to make it past the 10-hour mark, but the iPad Air 2 struggles to reach 11 hours while the original iPad Air can soldier on to 12. To be fair most people won't notice the difference if they never stray far from a powerpoint, but if you regularly find yourself running on fumes then the iPad Air 2 is a little more likely to leave you in the lurch.

Packs a punch

Last year's model saw the iPad Air make the leap to 64-bit processing with the A7 chip, laying the groundwork for a new generation of devices with support for OpenGL ES version 3.0 graphics and the M7 motion coprocessor for offloading accelerometer, gyroscope and compass calculations. You could be forgiven for thinking the iPad Air 2's  A8x powerplant would only offer an incremental improvement, but Apple hasn't held back.

The new iPad Air 2 thumps the original Air in the benchmarks almost as hard as the original Air thumped its predecessor. Last year's Air saw a whopping 70 per cent improvement under SunSpider Javascript, and this year's Air 2 raises the stakes with a further 60 percent increase. It's a similar story with other benchmarks, with the iPad Air 2 offering more improvement gains than you might expect.

The secret to its success isn't just a faster CPU, it's that the iPad Air 2 is the first iOS device to pack 2GB of RAM – doubling the memory available in the iPad Air. As with a desktop memory upgrade, the extra RAM in the Air 2 shines through in all kinds of places, not just graphics-intensive games. Apps launch more quickly and complicated websites load significantly faster.

Apple's new Metal games development platform is designed to make the most of iOS8 and all the grunt you can throw at it, with the performance boost of the iPad Air 2 apparent in the handful of Metal-capable games such as Asphalt 8. The Air 2 also sports the new M8 motion coprocessor, offering improved power efficiency while letting apps take advantage of new sensors such as a barometer.

Look your best

The iPad Air 2's 9.7-inch display retains the razor-sharp 2048x1536 resolution, but Apple has made more subtle improvements to the screen to enhance the image quality.

The thinner body is in part due to the fact that the LCD screen and the touch sensor are now fused to the glass. The picture improvement isn't striking, but the closer you look the more you appreciate the difference. With the original Air it feels like images are under the glass, but with the Air 2 it feels like they're etched into the glass. I'm the first to admit that this sounds like marketing BS and I was sceptical of Apple's claims, but when you look closely it's true and once you see it the original Air will never look the same.

The new screen offers slightly more vivid colours, greater contrast and whiter whites than its predecessor, but the jump isn't as noticeable as the jump between the iPhone 5 and iPhone 6. Viewing angles benefit more from the new screen design.

Eliminating the small gaps between the layers has also helped reduce internal reflections, plus the Air 2 features a new anti-glare coating. You can certainly see the difference when you step outside – it can't work miracles if the sun is shining directly on the screen but it certainly helps reduce glare and reflections of the sky.

Of course the downside of this improved picture quality is that the new fused screen will be more expensive to repair or replace if you crack it.

Features

Like the new iPhones, the iPad Air 2 has made the leap to 802.11ac wi-fi, doubling its potential download speeds to a theoretical 886 Mbps. It features multiple antennas to improve throughput when talking to a compatible wi-fi router and, even on the end of a slow DSL connection, it managed to download files from the internet faster than the original iPad Air when talking to the Apple's latest Airport Extreme base station. Once you walk out the front door you'll find support for LTE 150 Mbps.
 Apple has also overhauled the front and rear cameras. The rear iSight camera has received a resolution boost up to 8-megapixels. There's also support for slow motion video capture, plus both cameras offer improved low-light performance.

The other significant addition is the TouchID fingerprint reader built into the home button. The Air 2 also features an NFC chip, according to teardowns, but it's not enabled. The new iPad supports Apple Pay within apps but the fact NFC is disabled means you can't swipe the iPad at the counter like a contactless credit card. Of course this is all academic if you're in Australia because but there's still no word as to when we might see Apple Pay support from the local banks.

So what's the verdict?

The iPad Air is a tough act to follow and Apple could have been forgiven for holding back, but the iPad Air 2 offers a significant performance boost and packs enough improvements and extra features to make it a worthy upgrade.

That said, last year's model is no slouch and if the original Air is still meeting your needs then there's no compelling reason to upgrade unless you have a specific need for TouchID. If you're happy to stick with the original iPad Air for now, don't look too closely at the screen on the Air 2 or you might find yourself pining for an upgrade.

Related Articles