iPad Air 2 Review: The Absolute BEST Tablet Money Can Buy

Reviews Richard Goodwin 13:35, 1 Jun 2015

Apple’s iPad Air 2 sees key new additions in lots of important areas, so do not be fooled by its familiar exterior

Rating: 
4.5
Typical Price: 
£399.99
Pros: 
Excellent Display; Masses of power; Gorgeous design, Lightweight; Vast ecosystem; Improved Imaging; More memory
Cons: 
No NFC; Battery is smaller than previous generation (not that you'll notice)
Verdict: 
The iPad Air was one of our favourite tablets of 2013 and its follow-up, the iPad Air 2, is even better. However, if you're an iPad Air user and happy, we don't really see too much point in updating just yet. This is for those that have never owned an iPad and those using older iPad hardware like the iPad 4 or iPad 2.

The iPad. Everyone knows what an iPad is, the term has become synonymous with tablets as the dominant product in the market. For some tablets and iPads are as inseperable as vaccum cleaners and Hoovers, and adhesive tape with Sellotape. The brand, it seems, has stuck.

How did this happen? It's fair to say that the iPad was definitely not the first tablet to market, however, it was pretty much the first to offer a cohesive, consumer-orientated (as opposed to business) experience, and with a massive marketing machine behind it, powered by plenty of consumer enthusiasm for Apple's existing portfolio of "cool" products.

Apple was the first company to make a viable mass-consumer-market tablet with the iPad brand, and it had one hell of a headstart in doing so. With the iPad virtually creating the consumer tablet market from nothing in 2010, the iPad was not only the only tablet anyone knew about, it was also the only tablet worth bothering with. Rival manufacturers took forever to catch up, and initial rushed offerings were pretty abysmal, cementing Apple's dominance in the space it had created. The market literally exploded, and in subsequent years rivals such as Google, Samsung, and Sony, have made considerable headway with products that have been refined over time to be more competetive.

From around 2012 onwards units from Samsung, Sony and Google were quickly matching the iPad with respect to usability, ecosystem and functionality. Though, arguably, the Nexus 7 was the first to give Apple’s cage a thorough rattling. 

Cheaper and constantly improving tablets from Google’s Android hardware partners have consistently driven the price of tablets down across the board. The Google Nexus 7 and original Amazon Kindle Fire started this and since then every OEM worth their salt has waded in with a cheap-as-chips tablet aimed squarely at the masses. The knock on affect of all this is simple: a lot of people that want to save some cash go elsewhere when buying a tablet. But just as it is in the smartphone space, plenty of tablet users are dedicated to Apple’s way of doing things. And with offerings like iPad Air 2 around this is not going to change any time soon. 

In order to ensure you get the absolute most from your iPad Air 2, you’ll need to stock up on applications and games. Fortunately, KYM has put together a long and discerning list of all the best iPad applications currently available. We didn’t include the likes of Facebook and Twitter because, well, everybody already knows about them; no, this list is all about the applications and content you might not have heard about. Hopefully you’ll find plenty of stuff to keep you occupied. 

In 2013, Apple introduced the iPad Air, a re-branded version of the 9.7in iPad tablet which had been shaved, slimmed, and refined into the most advanced slate we'd seen so far. I gave the iPad Air full marks in our review last year –– that was a first. We seldom give out five star reviews on KYM, simply because 5-out-of-5 means the product is perfect or cannot be improved upon. And whether you love or hate Apple, most would agree the iPad Air was about as good as it gets when it comes to a tablet, having excellent design, excellent performance, excellent battery life, and a superb ecosystem. How can you improve upon perfection? It's an interesting question and one we're eager to address in our review of the iPad Air 2. Read on to find out how it stacks up.

iPad Air 2 Review: Design

One obvious way is to make it thinner, and that’s exactly what Apple did; the iPad Air 2 is 17% thinner than its predecessor. Now, you might be saying, HEY, that’s not all that much. And it isn’t really, but that’s not the point. The iPad Air was a huge step forward from the iPad 4 in this regard, so much so you could almost use the Air, thanks to its new design, single-handedly.

The jump with the iPad Air 2 is nowhere near as extreme, but it is still a welcome, noteworthy tweak to the world of tablets. The iPad Air 2 is 32g lighter than its predecessor and is just 6.1mm thick, making it thinner than both the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, as well as 2013’s iPad Air. It does look identical to the iPad Air, however, because Apple has wisely left the macro-design of the product well alone and instead focused on refining what came before. 

All the buttons and keys are in the same place, and Apple has even left the iPad Air’s beautiful chamfered edges just as they were before –– something I do really miss on 2014’s iPhones. Beyond this it is pretty much business as usual. The iPad Air 2 is essentially the iPad Air, just thinner and lighter. Oh, and it is now available in gold too, because, you know, everything looks better in gold! Just ask anybody that owns an establishment in Las Vegas.

iPad Air 2 Review: Display 

As noted above, the iPad Air 2’s display is exactly the same size as its predecessor –– and the iPad 3 and iPad 4 before it –– at 9.7in. It’s still an IPS LCD screen with a resolution of 2048 x 1536 pixels and the pixel density remains unchanged, meaning no pixilation, excellent contrast and expansive viewing angles. Again, pretty much what everyone and their dog expected. 

Apple has refined the display somewhat on the iPad Air 2, just not in a way you’d expect. We touched on this earlier, but now we’ll take a closer look at how Apple refined its production process to make the iPad Air 2’s display thinner, and attempt to convey what, if any, difference this makes to the end-user experience.

Not all displays are made equally. But all are constructed using multiple layers placed on top of one another to create the final panel. And it is here where you start to get problems because air, that pesky thing that keeps us alive, gets in between these layers and makes the overall panel slightly thicker than it needs to be. Apple has eradicated this, however, by fusing the iPad Air 2’s panels together, which results in an overall thinner finished product.

Another thing Apple has changed, and this IS something you’ll notice, is the inclusion of an anti-glare coating, which it claims reduces reflections by 55%. Now, I have no way of measuring whether that figure is true or not. But what I will say is this: it’s bloody noticeable when you place the iPad Air and the iPad Air 2 next to one another under over head lights. You can see everything, making it even better for web browsing, reading and watching videos during the evening when you have lights and lamps switched on.

Apple says it has also improved black levels, contrast, and has also made the touchscreen more responsive. To be honest, contrast and touchscreen responsiveness have always been great on Apple’s tablet, so this isn’t all that noticeable, unless you have both the iPad Air and the iPad Air 2 side by side –– and even then it’s hard to spot. The improved black levels are easier to spot, especially when viewing video content or playing games, but, again, if you’re an iPad Air user already, hardly a big enough reason to upgrade just yet. 

For me, the biggest improvement to the iPad Air 2 –– pretty much across the board –– is the anti-glare thing. It’s a small change, but it really does pay dividends in all kinds of settings, especially if, like me, you watch a lot of TV shows and films while travelling on trains and planes. BUT, it’s not a deal-breaker and is certainly not a good enough reason by itself to upgrade your year-old iPad Air, which, generally speaking, still has one of the best displays in the business. 

I get the impression the iPad Air 2 is aimed at new customers more than old, sort of like those attractive deals your bank offers everybody else but you.

iPad Air 2 Review: Hardware, CPU, Storage & Connectivity 

A8X Chipset & RAM

Apple switched to 64-bit chipsets in 2013 with the release of the iPhone 5s and the release of its A7 chipset. The move took everybody –– even Qualcomm –– by surprise, proving just how hush-hush Apple’s operations are. How Apple managed to sneak this chipset under the noses of every major player in technology beggar’s belief. No one knew Apple was planning to switch to 64-bit, and no one knew it could be done so quickly. 

And, now, here we are in late 2014, with two new iPads and two new iPhones. All of Apple’s 2014 line up run the company’s A8 chipset, but the iPad Air 2 has a special A8X chipset inside it, just as the previous iPad Air has an "X" variant SoC. The chip, which consists of a tri-core 1.5GHz CPU coupled with a quad-core GPU, is designed to handle heavier, more intensive workloads. Apple wants you to create more than ever on the iPad, and it’s upped the power (as well as included 2GB of RAM) so you can create and manipulate things like HD video and photos – all within the confines of iOS. 

And even if you don’t want to do any of that the benefits will still be felt throughout the slate; gaming (especially “Metal” developed content) benefits, animations and transitions are slicker, and touch feels more responsive. The added grunt is designed specifically for intensive tasks and, like a turbo charger in a car, it’s designed to be there if you need it. In a side-by-side comparison between the Air and the Air 2, apps like Garage Band and iMovie were noticeably quicker at handling tasks on the Air 2, for instance. A lot of reviewers have even gone as far to compare the iPad Air 2’s power to that of a PC. As I said: this thing can move.

And if you’re a numbers guy, here’s a breakdown of how the iPad Air 2 compared to the NVIDIA Tegra K1-powerd Tegra Shield. In our GeekBench tests, the iPad Air 2 scored 4507 –– the highest we’ve ever recorded, and around 70% faster than 2013’s iPad Air. Prior to testing the iPad Air 2, the Tegra Shield was by far and away the most powerful slate we’d tested to date with a very respectable score of 3200 on the button, which pretty much shows just how powerful the A8X chipset is inside this thing. 

Connectivity

Aside from TouchID and the inclusion of support for 20 LTE bands, connectivity aboard the iPad Air 2 is much the same as it was on last year’s model, with a Lightning connector on the bottom, Bluetooth 4.0, AirDrop and AirPlay-support, as well as 3.5mm port along the top edge for your headphones.

It does, however, have a new Wi-Fi setup (there’s now two antennae vs. the one in the iPad Air). It also takes advantage of the 802.11ac standard and this, when compared with the new antennas, results in faster, more consistent Wi-Fi speeds and connections.   

The iPad Air 2 –– like the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus –– is available in three storage types: 16GB, 64GB and 128GB. Although it is worth noting that iOS 8 takes up 5GB of space, so should you go for the entry-level model you’ll only have 11GB of space to play with, which isn’t a great deal. Our advice? Save up a few extra pennies for the 64GB model or, alternatively, bump up your iCloud storage (you can get an extra 20GB for £0.79 a month). 

iPad Air 2 Review: Camera 

People use their tablets to take pictures. And while to many this may seem like some form of heresy akin to bathing full-dressed, Apple has clearly spotted the trend and responded accordingly, upping both the iSight and FaceTime camera specs aboard the iPad Air 2. It’s now an 8MP setup on the rear, which, on paper, sounds remarkably similar to the iPhone 6’s new imaging unit. But paper lies and there two are actually pretty different in practice, with the iPhone 6’s being vastly superior in nearly all areas.

Still, the 8MP shooter aboard the iPad Air 2 is a HUGE update on last year’s model’s 5MP camera. Images are now a lot more detailed with better colour reproduction and contrast. The iPad Air 2 also features previously iPhone-only features like Slo-Motion video and Burst Mode. The UX is exactly the same as before, but the added screen real estate does make editing and touching up images a lot easier than it is on the iPhone, so maybe there is method in Apple’s madness? 

The iSight camera on the front remains the same as before, although Apple has done some back-end tinkering and has managed to improved low-light performance substantially –– switch it on in a dark room and you’ll see what I mean. My only question here is: why couldn’t Apple have done this first time around?   

iPad Air 2 Review: Battery 

THIS is where it gets interesting: the iPad Air 2, rather controversially, has a smaller battery than its predecessor (8600 mAh vs. 7340 mAh). Now, Apple claims this makes no difference to the iPad Air 2’s performance, claiming it is just as good and users will notice ZERO drop in battery life. Still, that’s a quite a big cut, whichever way you look at –– so, is Apple telling porkies?

Yes –– but not by much. In our Django Test, where we play the entirety of Django Unchained with everything, screen and LTE and all, switched on, the iPad Air 2 finished up with a very respectable score of 76%. Not bad. The iPad Air in a similar test, however, managed to go – literally – one better with 77%. So, yes, the iPad Air is better –– just not by much.

With everyday use the difference is even less significant; the iPad Air lasted a good 10 hours with normal usage and so too does the iPad Air 2. Gaming and video are still the worst offenders for draining the battery, but that’s always going to be the case. I don’t use tablets heavily in my day-to-day and managed to eke out nearly a week of moderate-to-low usage before it required a recharge.

The iPad Air 2, like the iPad Air before it, offers solid, reliable battery performance. You can take it away for the weekend and, providing you aren’t using it for hours on end, it’ll likely last the duration of your stay away from home. It’s just not quite as good as the original, as we’ve already established. But the fact it only lost out by 1% in our Django Test, given the differences in battery size, is pretty bloody impressive in and of itself.

iPad Air 2 Review: Verdict

The iPad Air 2 really is a very impressive piece of kit that brings together everything that made the iPad Air great and adds in a raft of refinements designed to further improve the general user experience. The end result of all this is a fantastic tablet that is arguably the best money can currently buy. It won’t suit all users, however, and as I said earlier: if you’re an iPad Air user already, you might want to hold on to your still excellent device for another year before upgrading. There are a lot of updates inside the iPad Air 2, just not enough to justify ditching your year-old iPad Air.

The iPad Air 2 is designed, I think, with two people in mind: those with old iPads and those that don’t yet have iPads. And for this demographic it is perfect, offering up excellent design, insane processing power and one of the best tablet ecosystems around. So, yeah, if you’re looking for a tablet and don’t own the iPad Air, then this is basically what you’ve been waiting for. 

Later on this year Apple is expected to add yet another addition to its iPad stable, with the launch of the hotly rumoured iPad Pro –– a 12.2in iPad aimed squarely at enterprise and professional users. The iPad Pro is expected to ship with a lot of RAM –– around 3GB, apparently –– and a QHD display. Expect Apple to market this tablet to photography and video professionals, the guys that bought the 5K iMac, basically, as an on-the-move solution for all their productivity needs. 

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