iPad Air 2 review

Tweaked, polished and overhauled – a simply stunning tablet

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For

  • Upgraded screen
  • Slimmer design
  • Super speedy processor

Against

  • 16GB is a little low on space
  • No mute switch

Apple needed to improve on perfection, and somehow it managed to do just that with its new ultra-thin iPad Air sequel.

The Apple iPad Air was as close to tablet perfection as we thought it was possible to be. How was Apple going to top that?

Well, clearly Sir Ive and co sat down, presumably on white, ergonomic bean bags, took a sip of coffee made from sparrow nests in Peru, and said 'what if we just improve it everywhere?'

That might sound a little over the top, but considering the Air seemed to be right on the edge of engineering, what Apple has created in the Air 2 is pretty remarkable. An 18% thinner frame (taking it down to just 6.1mm thick), a 467g weight, an all-new screen, Touch ID and a new chipset that makes it the most powerful tablet on the market.

And the iPad Air 2 had to be all this: Sony, Samsung and now HTC have been hard at work making very strong tablets, so Apple needed to keep up the relentless pace just to hold position at the head of the pack.

Touch ID and Apple Pay

One of the things that Tim Cook made a huge deal of when announcing the new iPad was the addition of Touch ID - and while it's good that it's finally turned up (for the sake of consistency across Apple's range if nothing else) there's not a huge amount to be gained from it right now.

Obviously if you're a little worried about what's on your tablet being viewed by prying eyes, it's one of the best ways to secure your device.

The only problem is that, whereas on the phone the thumb fallseasily onto the home key, on a tablet it's less ergonomic. We even toyed with turning the feature off, although being able to code in both thumbs as unlocking mechanisms does help.

Other apps, such as Evernote, can now make use of the fingerprint scanner thanks to Apple finally opening up the software kit, and we'll likely see some advances there in the near future as apps become more secure in a variety of ways.

The main reason Apple has put it on there though is for Apple Pay, and for the UK dwellers this currently isn't that much of a draw. With no NFC on board, you won't be able to tap your tablet and pay for goods when walking around (which is a good thing, as you'd look rather odd doing so) so you're confined to just doing it online.

While the number of retailers and services allowing you to pay using Apple's mechanism will likely proliferate quickly, there's no word on when the service will be rolled out to the UK and with whom, so you'd very much be buying this tablet with hope rather than confidence.

Thankfully, unlike the iPad mini 3, there's a glut of other great technology on board to make it a worthwhile purchase.

A8X chip

Woohoo! Apple has returned to its old ways: bringing out a powerful chip in the iPhone, and then just a few weeks later making it that much more awesome with an 'X' version - so behold the A8X chip.

This little engine allows graphics to be 40% faster than last year, the power to be 2.5x greater, and improve the general function of the tablet. Performance-wise, in will be a struggle for anything on the market to beat the iPad Air 2 in the foreseeable future - even the ultra powerful Nexus 9 from HTC and Google is only 75% as capable as this beast, according to our GeekBench tests.

The little engine at the heart isn't perfect when it comes to battery efficiency - it's more juice-hungry than its mini counterparts at the same task - but for sheer grunt when video editing or handling multiple audio streams on your DJ app, it's virtually flawless.

Design

There comes a point when things can just be too thin, and engineering exceeds function. But that's not the case with the iPad Air 2, despite us initially thinking that there was no point in going thinner than last year's model.

The bezel holding the 9.7-inch Retina display is as thin as can be too - it's still thicker than on a smartphone, of course, but that's mostly because you need to grip the thing. If you're only going to use the new iPad on a sofa though, it's the perfect device as it's light enough to not cause wrist-ache, yet still stable enough to feel like a sturdy device that's worth spending a good portion of your monthly salary on.

Here's hoping the thing doesn't bend, right?

The other big design change - and you might want to sit down for this one - is that the silencing switch above the volume buttons has gone to the big Apple design scrapheap in the sky. The reasoning behind this is twofold: many people are just using the on-screen Control Center and the need for less thickness called for its removal.

We'll miss being able to just easily flick the switch without having to open the iPad when it's beeping in the middle of the night, but if its departure enables the lower weight and size, we can live without it.

Screen

Apple's been hard at work on the screen too - yes, it's still a Retina display, which means it's the same 2048x1536 resolution we saw in 2012 - but that's no bad thing as it's still very much comparable to the competition at 264 PPI. Samsung's Galaxy Tab S is 288PPI and Sony's Z2 Tablet is 224PPI - slightly better in some cases, but nothing massive.

And what Apple's done is improve the quality of display instead: removing the air and laminating all the components of the screen together means there's less reflection and colours pop much more, creating a deep and rich image no matter what you're using it for.

We'll always clamour for better when it comes to the screen on our tablets - after all, it's the thing we look at more than anything else, unless you really like looking at the mirrored Apple logo on the back - and Apple will need to up the resolution soon.

But the quality of this screen is excellent, and compared to the previous iPads the colour reproduction is on another level. We'd almost say it's an admission that Samsung's Super AMOLED technology is the way to go, but surely they wouldn't do that at Cupertino... would they?

Battery

The battery on this tablet is the same as the previous model, and considering there's less space in the chassis, that's no mean feat.

At 10 hours of multimedia use (read: web browsing and video watching) that's not a bad number, and more importantly when the tablet is turned off it consumes very little power. We think that battery life isn't as much of a worry on a slate like this, as it can last days at a go before needing to be reconnected to the wall, and the iPad Air is very much acceptable on this front.

That said, the Sony Z2 Tablet and Galaxy Tab S from Samsung will both outlast the iPad Air 2 - as will the iPad mini 3. When it comes to gaming or streaming video, things can get a little dicey as the power runs out rather quickly, but it's not the same as we've seen on smartphones.

Just be ready to get your charger out if you spend four hours straight playing Real Racing.

Camera

Apple's proud of the iPad Air 2's camera, with the upgraded 8MP sensor bringing with it more features to play with. The upgrade in resolution is great if you're one of those who likes to take a picture with an iPad - although many people wish you wouldn't, especially when it spoils their view.

But the upgraded sensor is at least in the same bracket as the iPhone range now, which is something we've been after for years. It can now finally take slow motion video as well, although only at 120 frames per second, which is half that of the silky smooth abilities of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.

You can also set the tablet to create time lapse videos, and use the slate to capture high megapixel panoramas too - all great in theory, but something that should really be confined to the smartphone.

The performance of the camera is pretty good though, as it's got good low light capabilities for indoor shots, and while the snaps aren't that much better than those we've seen from the last iPad Air (apart from being a little bit sharper) one of the best things is the post processing.

The Photos app is now much enhanced with iOS 8.1, meaning you can easily edit on the fly and really bring your photos to life. And with iPhoto now included free with your Apple tablet, it's a cinch to get creative with your photos.

Verdict

The iPad Air 2 is the best tablet ever created - and that's not us getting excited over an Apple product for the sake of it.

From the amazing engineering that got this thing so thin and yet still feeling so premium, to the A8X chip which has given the tablet more grunt than anything else out there, we just love playing with this tablet.

With iOS 8.1 on board, some of the bugs with the new OS have been fixed (although the odd crash does creep in now and then) and the ability to reply to messages within other apps is a real boon.

The battery life is more than acceptable, the camera has been upgraded, and the screen upgrades genuinely make viewing web pages or videos on the go a joy.

The price is even comparable to the rest of the market, meaning that while it's expensive, it's still right in line with similar options from Samsung or Sony. The only gripe we have really is that while the middle option has doubled from 32GB last year to 64GB at the same price point this year, the entry-level model remains 16GB. We'd advise you pay a little more so you can squish all your apps on there with comfort.

But make no mistake: Apple has created a masterpiece in the tablet market here. Once again, we're struggling to work out how it's going to better itself next time around.

Best crack out those beanbags soon, Jony...

iPad Air 2 release date: 24 October 2014

iPad Air 2 price: 16GB, £399 / 64GB, £479 / 128GB, £559 (Wi-Fi only)

16GB, £499 / 64GB, £579 / 128GB, £659 (Wi-Fi and 4G)