iPad Air 2 Review: Still the King of Tablets

iPad Air 2 Review: Still the King of Tablets

This year, unlike the iPhones that went through a plethora of changes in design, the world's most popular line of tablet computers - iPad Air - only received an incremental facelift. The latest iPad now features Apple's proprietary Touch ID fingerprint sensor on the home button which was introduced with the iPhone 5s. Otherwise, the design language remains almost untouched save for a few changes.

While not much has changed in the overall appearance of the iPad Air 2, it is now just 6.1mm thin; this actually makes it 1.4mm slimmer than its predecessor, and more importantly it also undercuts the thickness of both the iPhone 6 (Review | Pictures) and the iPhone 6 Plus (Review | Pictures). We'll let you take a moment for that to sink in. One of the reasons this is possible is that Apple's engineers have managed to reduce the gap between the protective glass, touch sensor and the actual LCD. This 'no-gap display' has been carried over from the iPhones.

The internal specifications have gone through an upheaval of sorts; the iPad Air 2 has a more capable primary camera, powerful new A8X processor, and M8 motion co-processor that has the ability to continuously measures data from the newly-added barometer. Moreover, Apple has removed the 32GB storage capacity variant. The iPad Air 2 is now available in a gold colour option.

Should you upgrade to the iPad Air 2 if you already own the iPad Air? Is the iPad Air 2 the best tablet in the world? Will the iPad Air 2 manage to rekindle an interest in Apple's tablets after recent reports about a slump in sales? Answers to these questions and more follow in our review.

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Design and display
The iPad Air 2 is shockingly thin. Its slimness combined with its weight of 437g makes it easy to hold with one hand. The ergonomics hit a really sweet spot and we could feel the difference the moment we switched to an iPad Air 2. While people may argue whether there was any need to slim down the iPad Air in the first place, we aren't complaining. Even a bit.

As before, the edges are chamfered, which gives the iPad Air 2 a premium look. The height and width are the same as the previous version. The Home button, which now has Touch ID, is smooth to the touch and the tactile feedback is also pretty good. The front-facing camera lies on top of the display. The lightning port lies at the bottom and flanking it are the stereo speaker grilles. There is only a single row of holes now instead of two, like on the iPad Air. The power button and the 3.5mm audio jack are on top. In an effort to make a super-slim iPad, Apple has gone ahead and removed the mute/orientation lock switch from the right edge. A microphone takes its place instead and of course there are two volume buttons as well. Bang in the center on the rear lies the Apple logo made of glass. In the top left corner of the rear lies the upgraded camera and another microphone.

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The 9.7-inch display has a resolution of 1536x2048 which translates to a pixel density of 264ppi. Apple still calls it a Retina display and it has been using this screen resolution since the iPad 3. This may sound like a downer for some people but quite frankly the iPad Air 2's display is still one of the best around. The display has natural colour reproduction, accurate colour saturation and great viewing angles. It sprung to life each time we woke up the iPad Air 2. In addition to this, Apple claims there is a custom-designed anti-reflective coating on the screen and which results in less reflection overall. We found this to be true especially when placed beside its predecessor in direct sunlight; the iPad Air 2's screen was generally less reflective and as a result the readability was much better. Moreover, now that the protective glass, touch sensor and the actual LCD are very close to each other, it did actually feel like we were touching the pixels. Apple wasn't being hyperbolic when it unveiled the iPad Air 2 on October 16.

Specifications and software
The iPad Air 2 has a variant of the A8 processor found on the iPhone 6. Called A8X, it is tweaked to perform better. The A8X has a triple-core processor clocked at 1.5GHz per core, compared to the dual-core A8. The A8X also includes a customised version of the PowerVRGX6450 GPU. Reputed tech publications around the world are calling it the PowerVRGX6850 for the sake of simplicity. Obviously, the PowerVRGX6850 is more powerful than the PowerVRGX6450 but we shall confirm by how much in the performance section. The iPad Air 2 also packs 2GB of RAM inside. Additionally, Apple has upgraded the motion co-processor. The new M8 coprocessor claims to continuously measures data from the accelerometer, compass, gyroscope and the new barometer.

The iPad Air 2 has an 8-megapixel primary camera with auto-focus and f/2.4 aperture. There is no flash. The front camera is the same 1.2-megapixel FaceTime HD shooter with a few tweaks for better performance. It is available in 16/64/128GB storage options. With respect to connectivity, the iPad Air 2 can connect to Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac. There is also a 4G LTE variant if you wish to have connectivity on the go. It can connect to any 4G band in the world and as a result it should ideally be able to connect to 4G networks in India as well. Bluetooth v4.0 is also present. The presence of NFC inside the iPad Air 2 (or not) is a bit of a contentious topic at the moment, with an iFixit teardown revealing that there is indeed a chip inside the tablet for NFC. Apple hasn't acknowledged it, at least at the moment. Will the iPad Air 2 support Apple Pay in the future using this mystery NFC chip? We'll have to wait patiently to find out.

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Apple ships the iPad Air 2 with iOS 8.1 by default, which adds the cool Continuity feature. Essentially if you have Continuity switched on, when your iPhone gets a call or a message, it shows up immediately on your Mac or/and iPad as well. And, you can choose to respond or cancel it from there. Of course, all this is possible presuming you have an iPhone. This is how we always imagined devices would communicate with each other. At least for us, it feels like the future. Touch ID is very easy to set up and works like a charm.

The Notification Centre now has support for third-party widgets. It is great for consuming small bytes of information without actually opening the app. We don't have to remind our readers how Apple has a great ecosystem of mobile apps, available through the App Store. Apps like Health, Passbook, Stocks and Weather, which are present on the iPhone by default, are missing from the iPad.

It might look like we are all praise for iOS but one cannot deny that Apple is not doing much to use all the screen space that an iPad provides. There is no multi-window option yet nor can you use more than one app at a time. 

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Camera
It is unusual for us to feature a tablet's camera as a separate section considering how much we scoff at people who use one for capturing photographs. However, after using the improved camera on the iPad Air 2, we can understand the why people are inclined to do so. Although, let it be made clear we still that it looks pretty odd, especially in a crowd of people.

In good lighting conditions, the details captured by the 8-megapixel camera are almost as good as what we saw in the sample shots by cameras inside the iPhone 6/iPhone 6 Plus. The colours were close to accurate and the sample images had a generally warm tone to them. We didn't notice any barrel distortion at all. The images didn't lose fidelity even when zoomed in. The comparatively small f/2.4 aperture is probably the reason why the iPad Air 2's camera doesn't perform as well as we expected to in low light. Especially areas where it was darker than usual, we saw a lot of noise creeping in. Bear in mind that we are talking about a camera inside a tablet; people don't expect it to be exceptional in the first place.

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(Click for full size)

One of the major advantages of shooting using an iPad is that it provides the best possible frame for a shot. Thanks to the powerful processor inside, there is bare minimum lag on screen when it is being moved - which is quite close to the experience one can expect from an actual viewfinder.

As usual, Apple's Panorama mode (pictured below) does the best job of stitching images together provided you can hold it firm. The captured 1080p (FHD) video was of superior quality as well. The iPad Air 2 can also capture 120 fps slow-motion and Time-lapse videos, which may not be as exciting as the 240fps option available on the iPhones, it is still very pretty to look at.

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(Click for full size)

Performance
The iPad Air 2 is a performance beast. With respect to the graphics performance on a mobile device, the GPU inside the iPad Air 2 is the fastest we've used till date. Apparently, it is more powerful than the Tegra K1, which actually makes it the fastest GPU inside a mobile device. We'll let the numbers (and comparisons with other iOS devices) speak for themselves.

In our GFXBench test, the iPad Air 2 scored 52.3fps whereas the iPad Air and the iPhone 6 Plus scored 40.9fps. The iPad Air 2 maxed out 3D Mark Ice Storm and Ice Storm Extreme tests and in the more intensive Ice Storm Unlimited test it scored 21,576. In comparison, the iPad Air scored just 14,979. In SunSpider and Mozilla Kraken, the iPad Air 2 scored 286.3 and 4060.5, the lowest we've ever seen (lower is better).

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All this graphical performance is put to great use by Apple's proprietary Metal framework which is available to developers who can use it to maximise the graphics and compute potential of the device. For easier understanding - we saw more glorious crash effects and lens flare in Asphalt 8, which has been reworked to optimise the potential of the Metal framework. The same effects are also present on the iPad Air, but we noticed that it couldn't render it at the same smooth frame-rate as the iPad Air 2. In short, the iPad Air 2 is probably your best alternative to a dedicated portable gaming console.

Apple devices have a restricted number of video formats that are supported by default but we managed to test all our test videos using a third-party application and it worked. At full volume, the sound blaring from the speakers causes the iPad Air 2 to reverberate, which may be because of its extremely thin body. While the sound quality is decent overall, we noticed a little bit of crackling at maximum volume. Apple doesn't bundle the EarPods in the box but we tested a reference pair of headphones and they sounded great.

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In our battery test, we tested a 720p .mp4 (x264) sample video on loop. The battery inside lasted 11 hours and 36 minutes before it needed to be charged again. Quite clearly there are other tablets and laptops that can last equally long, if not longer. However, note that this is still really good battery backup and if you are someone who uses the tablet sparingly every day it should last you at least a week before it needs a charge.

Verdict
We are not the first ones to say this, and probably not the last either, but the Apple's latest iPad is its best yet. Yes, we know it sounds like a real cliche but the iPad Air 2 is indeed leaner, faster and meaner than all its predecessors and the crowd of Android tablets. Despite our observation that iOS could be little bit more refined to allow features that are suited for the iPad Air 2's screen, it is still more than adequate for most tasks. Not to forget, the excellent apps ecosystem that iOS provides. From making music using Garageband to creating documents on Pages, the iPad Air 2 can do much more than an Android tablet can. Android is still lagging behind in terms of tablet-optimised apps that can pack a punch. For folks who care about a camera on the tablet, it has the best shooter of all tablets.

For first time iPad buyers, the iPad Air 2 is the best bet but we'd suggest skipping the 16GB storage variant of the iPad Air 2, since it is quite possible to run out of space soon. If you own an iPad Air, we don't see a reason for you to pick one up just yet. Although, if you are an owner of anything before the iPad Air, we think that if you upgrade, the performance boost will shock you.


Apple iPad Air 2 in pictures

  • Design
  • Display
  • Software
  • Performance
  • Battery life
  • Camera
  • Value for money
  • Good
  • Brilliant new design
  • Great for gaming
  • Best camera on a tablet
  • Continuity on iOS
  • Bad
  • No multi-window
  • No split-screen
  • Maximum volume causes reverberation

Display

9.70-inch

Processor

1.5GHz

Front Camera

 1.2-megapixel

Resolution

 1536x2048 pixels

RAM

 2GB

OS

 iOS 8.1

Storage

16GB

Rear Camera

8-megapixel

Battery capacity

 

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