Pros: A thinner, slightly lighter version of Apple’s 9.7” iPad, which was already impressively thin and light in last year’s iPad Air. New 8MP rear iSight camera also adds burst mode shooting and slo-mo video recording. New display with anti-reflective coating improves off-angle and outdoor viewing. Louder and better stereo speakers improve upon those in iPad Air. A more powerful processor becomes obvious during startup, loading of larger apps, and improved smoothness in games. Recharges faster than prior models. Modern 802.11ac now offers higher-speed wireless connectivity. Higher-capacity 64GB and 128GB models sell for $100 less than prior iPads. Apple SIM card included with Wi-Fi + Cellular versions gives some users greater choice between data plans.

Cons: Smaller battery causes a significant drop in battery life, falling hours behind the previous iPad Air (and earlier iPads) in certain tests. Rear camera, though improved, lags behind iPhone 6/6 Plus. Though thinner, the footprint may still feel too large for some users. Claimed screen color and sharpness improvements are questionable at best.

Apple has firmly established the iPad Air 2 ($499-$829) as the definitive flagship of its tablet line. Last year, there was ambiguity — some were justifiably willing to sacrifice screen size and color accuracy for comfort in the iPad mini with Retina display — but the introduction of the newest iPads has made it clear. The iPad mini 3 received scant upgrades, little more than a new gold color option and Touch ID. By comparison, the iPad Air 2 has a thinner body, better display, improved cameras, and faster processor compared to its predecessor, among other upgrades. Even with a larger “iPad Pro” believed to be arriving sometime in 2015, it’s obvious that Apple is setting up iPad Air 2 as its “main” iPad now.

Apple has firmly established the iPad Air 2 ($499-$829) as the definitive flagship of its tablet line. Last year, there was ambiguity — some were justifiably willing to sacrifice screen size and color accuracy for comfort in the iPad mini with Retina display — but the introduction of the newest iPads has made it clear. The iPad mini 3 received scant upgrades, little more than a new gold color option and Touch ID. By comparison, the iPad Air 2 has a thinner body, better display, improved cameras, and faster processor compared to its predecessor, among other upgrades. Even with a larger “iPad Pro” believed to be arriving sometime in 2015, it’s obvious that Apple is setting up iPad Air 2 as its “main” iPad now.


Following the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, Apple has removed the 32GB capacity option for the iPad Air 2. As before, the entry-level Wi-Fi 16GB option sells for $499. After that, it’s 64GB for $599 and 128GB for $699 — both capacities $100 cheaper than they were for the iPad Air upon its release last year. While some have questioned the necessity of the Wi-Fi + Cellular versions of the iPads, they’re still around at a $130 premium, selling for $629 (16GB), $729 (64GB), and $829 (128GB).


In the following pages, we take a closer look at the new features of the iPad Air 2: the new body, cameras, processor, and display. We also conducted battery tests to see just how much of a difference the iPad Air 2’s smaller battery makes when compared to its larger predecessor—and there are major changes. Will the new features represent a definitive upgrade over the prior iPad Air? Are there any unforeseen drawbacks? Read on for the answers to these and many more questions.

iPad Air 2: A New Look

Apple has been obsessed with thinness for years. For some, it’s been pushed to the point of parody, but there’s a real reason for it: if the same performance can be delivered in a smaller, lighter package, why not do it? That’s progress. It may not be true “innovation” — another word that comes up a lot when discussing Apple these days — but it is improvement.

The iPad Air 2 is now .24” (6.1 mm) thick, as compared to the already svelte .29” (7.5 mm) thickness of the iPad Air. While that may not seem like much, the thinner body is as immediately noticeable as the change from the fourth-generation iPad to the iPad Air: you can feel it right away. While we never had a major problem holding the iPad Air, any full-sized iPad is still a large device, and if Apple can’t reduce the screen size or the bezel, shaving thickness from the body certainly makes an iPad more comfortable to hold. The iPad Air 2 is the most comfortable full-sized iPad yet for extended use.


Below the screen, the iPad Air 2 has picked up Touch ID. In our tests, it works as well as it has for any other Touch ID-enabled device, albeit without vibration hardware to confirm finger scans during the setup process. We don’t see Touch ID as a killer feature that would warrant a premium price — see our iPad mini 3 review for more on that — but it’s a nice feature that adds security and convenience. Touch ID can be used to unlock your device, make purchases in the App Store, and now, make purchases with Apple Pay. Unlike the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, iPad Air 2 can only use Apple Pay for online purchases through participating apps — you could make an Apple Pay advance payment through the Panera Bread app if you have an Internet connection, for instance, but you can’t bring your iPad to the register at a physical retail location. It’s an annoyance, and a somewhat surprising one, that an iPad’s Touch ID and Apple Pay data can’t be linked to an iPhone’s in any way; if you have registered a bunch of cards for Apple Pay on your iPhone, you’ll have to re-register them on the iPad, repeating the process every time you wipe the device or turn off fingerprint protection.


There are four other notable physical changes on the new iPad. The two microphone holes have moved from the middle and top of the device to the back and side of the tablet, just above the volume controls and beside the rear camera. Hey, where’d the side switch go? It has been removed entirely on the iPad Air 2: users can now toggle mute and rotation lock simultaneously through a set of always-present buttons in Control Center; the two button design (rather than one at a time) is currently exclusive to iPad Air 2. For us, the side switch isn’t really missed, though users who relied on it all the time might feel otherwise.


You may also notice that each of the two speaker grilles has been cut down to one line of 14 holes, rather than two lines of 20 holes per side. But the holes are larger than before, and the speakers more powerful, as well. Finally, the iPad Air 2 comes in a gold color option with a white face, to match both recent iPhones and the new iPad mini. It’s not a gawdy gold tone, but there’s obviously a lot more gold metal here than in the iPhones, so it makes more of a visual impression.

iPad Air 2: A8X + Audio

iPad Air 2 has taken a step up in speed with its A8X chip and M8 motion coprocessor — an advancement over the prior iPad Air’s A7 chip with M7 motion coprocessor. It’s also an upgrade —albeit a smaller one — from the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, which offer the A8 chip; early reports suggest that the chip uses three cores (up from two) to achieve higher speeds, particularly for processor-intensive tasks. An added barometer enables the M8 to measure elevation, which is planned to be helpful for iPad mapping apps.



Again, the iPad Air wasn’t really a slouch when it came to speed, so the extra boost in power may not be noticeable at first. There’s little to no difference during normal UI use, and some users may not be able to tell much of anything has changed. However, users of bigger, graphic-heavy apps, such as graphically intense games or imaging software like the new Pixelmator for iPad, will certainly notice a difference. iPad Air 2 more quickly loads large apps, and even if you might not sense increased speed in a game, you’ll still see quicker loading times. The differences feel as significant in the iPad Air 2 as they did when comparing the iPad Air to the fourth-generation iPad — Apple’s claims of 40 percent to 250 percent improvements are reasonable. Geekbench scores show a 24 percent increase in single-core performance, and a sizable 71 percent boost in multi-core performance.


We previously mentioned the change to the speaker grilles in the iPad Air 2, and there’s a difference in the new speakers, as well. Though Apple makes no mention of changes in the iPad Air 2’s built-in speakers, an iFixit teardown revealed “tiny, new speaker units.” We found the iPad Air 2 speakers were obviously louder than those found in the iPad Air, and also delivered fuller sound. As has been the case before, you shouldn’t expect high-quality audio — there’s still some distortion with loud music at the highest level — but it’s still a welcome improvement. On the other hand, we found no significant changes in audio quality between the iPad Air and iPad Air 2 headphone ports when testing high-end headphones.

iPad Air 2: Two New Cameras

The iPad’s cameras have long been taken for granted by many people — for some, they have gone largely unused. If you’ve seen people taking pictures with their iPads, you know that it’s not the coolest thing. But some people love taking pictures with their iPads, and Apple has upgraded the tablet’s cameras this time out, one more obviously than the other.


First, the front-facing FaceTime HD camera has been given a new sensor and lens combination, though Apple’s spec sheets don’t universally highlight the differences with the prior iPad Air’s front camera. Apple has shifted from an f/2.4 lens to a f/2.2 lens, claiming that it lets in “81 percent more light,” and is using larger pixels to help in low light. The difference may be tough to ascertain with most photos and video calls in regular light. However, in low light, it’s clear the iPad Air 2 comes out ahead. In a barely lit room, we found the iPad Air camera showed only a vague form in darkness, while the iPad Air 2 camera obviously showed the subject. If you’re the kind of person who moves around a lot while on FaceTime — popping in and out of different rooms — you’ll see the difference more frequently.

The bigger jump is in the rear iSight camera, which has made a long-delayed transition from 5 Megapixels to 8 Megapixels. Other new additions to the rear camera include the ability to shoot in burst mode and record slo-mo video. While taking similar shots with the iPad Air 2 and iPad Air, the image improvement becomes evident in a hurry: iPad Air 2 takes better pictures — the edges of objects are sharper, and images are a bit clearer overall. In low light, the difference is also pronounced. Above, you can see the iPad Air 2 on the left, and the iPad Air on the right. Regardless of how much you use an iPad’s camera today, you’ll have more of a reason to do so with the iPad Air 2.

That said, the differences between the iPad Air 2 camera and the cameras found in the new iPhones are also distinct. Though all the cameras are 8 Megapixels, it’s clear that the iPhone cameras are superior. Check out the difference, for instance, in these shots: from left to right using iPhone 6 Plus, iPad Air 2, and iPad Air. The image gradually loses sharpness as we move along, especially in the details — note the lines on Toy Story’s Woody. Apple also gave the new iPhones better autofocus capabilities and image stabilization that the iPad Air 2 lacks. Consequently, the new tablet is a couple of steps behind the curve in rear camera performance.

iPad Air 2: The Screen

Although the specs in the iPad Air 2 display haven’t changed from the first Air — 2048×1536 resolution at 264 pixels per inch — the display is now manufactured differently. The new display combines cover glass, the touch sensor and the LCD into one layer. Apple has also added an anti-reflective coating to reduce glare.


Apple claims, among other things, that the new display makes colors “richer,” and images “sharper and more vivid.” We found the accuracy of these claims to be unclear, even after extended testing. At full brightness, we found the colors to be virtually the same between the iPad Air and iPad Air 2 — there was little difference between the two, but if anything, the original iPad Air’s colors looked a tiny bit more saturated, with a hint of added brightness. Under most circumstances, no one would notice these differences.

However, we noticed something a little strange when comparing different iPad Air 2s to different iPad Airs. One of our editors saw what appeared to be a sharper display in the iPad Air 2 than the iPad Air — sharper words underneath the Home Screen icons, and a slightly higher contrast between dark and light colors. Another editor saw no difference in sharpness. We believe that the difference comes from Apple’s use of two different types of screens in the original iPad Air, some IGZO and some not; the iPad Air 2’s screen will therefore look a little “different” compared to some Airs, but not others.

Apple’s other claims about the screen were more quantifiable across devices. We found that glare is in fact reduced, and the bonded screen enables better off-angle viewing: when tilting the iPad Air 2 away from your direct view, it’s easier to read than the first Air. However, when the Air 2’s screen is off, the new coating adds a slightly purple tinge that wasn’t obvious in prior models; it is also not obvious when the screen is on.

iPad Air 2: Battery + Cellular Testing

Notably, instead of shipping the iPad Air 2 with a 12-Watt/2.4-Amp power adapter, Apple has packed in the same lower-capacity 10-Watt/2.1 Amp adapter found in the iPad mini 3 package. Considering the smaller size of the battery — 27.62Wh compared to iPad Air’s 32.9Wh capacity — we would hope that the iPad Air 2 would be able to complete a full charge in the same amount of time that a 12W adapter did for the iPad Air, or less. That is the case here: with the included 10W adapter, the iPad Air 2 got a full recharge in 3 hours and 41 minutes, which was so nearly identical to the 12W adapter (3 hours and 36 minutes) that there’s no obvious reason to prefer the older adapter. It’s possible that the iPad Air 2 doesn’t support 12-Watt charging at all, and that the difference we saw was just due to background app activity or regular variance between charges.

Apple is still claiming 10 hours of Wi-Fi browsing time while running the iPad at 50 percent brightness. iPad Air was a standout, registering 11 hours and 34 minutes during our testing, a wonderful result. This is why we were stunned by the 8 hours and 40 minutes we got while testing iPad Air 2 using the same web sites. We expected the smaller battery to fall short, but that’s extreme — easily the worst result we’ve ever seen for Wi-Fi browsing on an iPad, and well below Apple’s claims.

Just to be sure there wasn’t a one-time aberration, we ran the same test a second time and ended up with an even worse result. Perhaps other factors were in play, but the fact of the matter is, Wi-Fi times are way down — and our general-purpose tests reflected a battery shortfall as well, with run times at least an hour or two below the original iPad Air. We suspect that there may be something going on with iOS 8 that is contributing to increased battery drain, and solvable via settings tweaks or another software improvement. It’s worth a brief note that the iPad Air 2 adds 802.11ac wireless connectivity, which may under some circumstances deliver faster Wi-Fi connectivity when used with compatible routers, though we do not believe that this played any role in the battery results we saw.

As we did for the first iPad Air, we ran the demanding Infinity Blade III at 50 percent speaker volume and 50 percent brightness until the battery was drained. Results here were more respectable and expected — the iPad Air 2 clocked in at 6 hours and 39 minutes, compared to the first iPad Air’s 7 hours and 23 minute run time. It’s a step back, but not a major step — more reasonable given the reduction in battery size.

Oddly, iPad Air 2 performed very well during its cellular test. Using T-Mobile LTE, the device ran for 11 hours straight. It’s notable that for the first time, Apple is including its own SIM card with the new WiFi + Cellular edition iPads. Users can switch between AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile — Verizon is not participating. However, users who select AT&T will find that SIM card is then locked to AT&T’s network. A new Apple SIM card must be purchased to access another network. Sprint and T-Mobile allow switching between networks.

Conclusions

Unlike the barely-upgraded iPad mini 3, iPad Air 2 adds a number of new features and improvements. Apple’s flagship tablet is now firmly at the head of the iOS device lineup in power, and runs the most current software — iOS 8.1 — so it will likely remain in the lineup for years. There’s a lot to like here, even if some of the changes may initially feel minor. The tablet is faster, though the extent to which you’ll see it will depend on the apps you use. Similarly, the display is slightly nicer, with clear improvements in reflectivity and other changes you may or may not see. The cameras are better, with more options and much-improved low-light performance, and the speakers are a bit louder and clearer, too. Like the thinness, which looks like a tiny tweak on paper but really feels different in your hand, the small changes all add up. And considering that there are lower prices for higher capacity models — we recommend that most people buy either the 64GB or 128GB version — there’s even more to like. We didn’t even mind the removal of the long-included side switch, as the functionality is replaced via iOS 8.1’s Control Center.



The battery life is a definite downgrade, however, and that’s a potentially big issue, as the iPad’s battery life has long been a great selling point. It’s nice to have a device you can pick up for multiple days in a row without worrying about plugging it in. If you switch between different Apple devices or don’t mind recharging more frequently, you might barely notice the changes — after all, we imagine few people are often on their iPads for six hours a day, the point at which you’d likely feel like plugging the iPad Air 2 in “just in case.” But longtime iPad users will notice a difference, and they might be bothered by the more frequent trips to an outlet.




Keep in mind, though, that the sacrifice in longevity comes with a real plus: a thinner device that’s nicer to hold for long periods of time. As unfortunate as the battery life loss may be for some, iPad Air 2 proves much nicer to use while you’re actually holding it. It’s a trade-off. Less battery life for a slightly thinner tablet. Is it worth it?


For most users, we think the answer will be yes. And when paired with all of the other improvements, iPad Air 2 sets a new standard for the iPad. It’s easy to tell prior iPad Air users not to bother upgrading to this version, but our editors are really enjoying using it, even moreso than with the original iPad Air. Despite the drop in battery life, it’s our favorite version of Apple’s tablet yet, and comes highly recommended.

Our Rating

A-
Highly Recommended

Company and Price

Company: Apple

Model: iPad Air 2

Price: $499-$829