iPad Air 2: Overkill and underwhelming

Apple's newest tablet is their thinnest and most powerful yet. So why am I disappointed?
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
They've reduced the form factor and it's faster!

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I sold my original iPad Air back to Amazon, and ordered the new iPad Air 2. 

I knew at the time that it was going to be thinner and the processor would be more powerful and have more memory.

It has the Touch ID and the anti-reflective coating. It has new cameras.

All of this is great, right? Well, mostly, I guess.

It's not like the original iPad Air was a slow tablet or not thin enough. Frankly, the Air was already too thin for my tastes, if they had stuck with the thickness of the iPad 4, the tablet could have accommodated a much larger battery. 

My only major complaint about the iPad and the iPhone is that the designs are overall too fragile and require highly protective cases to prevent them from being damaged with regular use. But this is true of most tablet and smartphone designs, including Android ones, although Apple products are particularly susceptible to damage.

When friends and family have asked me about which iPad they should buy -- the Air 2 or the original Air, I ask them about what they actually do with the things. Many, if not all of them answer "Use email, Facebook, browse websites, play casual games and watch Netflix."

My answer is almost always "You don't even need an iPad for that." But if they press, I tell them they could probably get a nice deal on a previous generation device at Apple Outlet. If you are in the market for an iPad (or even a Mac) but don't need the latest and greatest, you can buy certified and refurbished stuff there that is good as new.

So what has my practical experience with the Air 2 been like? Well, first of all, before I even opened the packaging I did a Dremel job on a hard shell Trident Aegis iPad Air case, along with some cardboard for padding, to protect the new device until I could get one of the current generation hard shell cases in.

The volume controls don't work because their position has been moved and the mute button is now gone (I have it pre-set to an acceptable volume) and the camera is out of alignment and partially blocked. But the power button works ok and I have access to the charger port and with the Dremel job, the Touch ID.  

That's not a major complaint though. I understand why Apple changes designs. And there's a whole accessories industry to keep alive.

The endless pursuit of thinness though is becoming a bit ridiculous. And it has had a detrimental effect on battery life, never mind the need to produce thicker and tougher case accessories.

I used to be able to get a solid 10 hours of use on an iPad Air. Now, I'm maybe getting eight, best case scenario. Other reviewers have reported they used to get around 12, but now get get 10.

The variation has to do likely with how bright you set the display (I like mine brighter than most) and how CPU and graphics-intensive the apps you use are. But the general consensus is that the iPad Air 2 has a worse battery life than its predecessor.

It's true that the CPU is faster. There is some improvement in how the Safari web browser responds and how fast pages load, and in the performance of a number of apps. However, it isn't like the performance of the previous generation was bad. It was excellent.

So while the Air 2 is faster, it doesn't feel so much faster that most people will notice a difference with the mix of apps they normally use.

What is worth mentioning, however, is that there are only a scant few apps for iPad that can actually fully exploit the power of the Air 2. There are some games I play that are probably the most graphically and CPU intensive you can find on the iOS platform, such as Real Racing 3, Asphalt 8, X-Plane 9, Infinity Blade 2, and Godus.  

Most iPad games I play, though, are not super CPU or graphics intensive. Boom Beach, which is one of the highest grossing games on the platform, plays just as well on an Air, or an iPad 4th Generation. You could say the same for This is War! which is similar "attack the base" sort of isometric game.

Of all of those, only Asphalt 8 is iOS 8 "Metal" enhanced, and there are only 7 Metal-enhanced games for iPad in the App Store today. So if you have an iPad Air 2, chances are, there are only few apps that can actually take advantage of the thing. I expect this to change over time, but right now, most of the horsepower of the Air 2 (and even the iPad Air, for that matter) is wasted.

By far the most popular apps on the iOS platform do not require an iPad Air 2, or even an iPad Air to run well, and that's because of the very modest memory capabilities of the earlier devices the developers have to shoot for.

Don't get me wrong, it's nice to have the additional RAM, the 2GB on the Air 2 versus the 1GB on the original Air. There's less chance of stuff crashing, particularly with more resource-intensive games like Godus or Real Racing 3, should you have other processes running in the background.

What about the faster networking, the 802.11ac MIMO? Well, I have a 3000 square-foot, 5 bedroom home. I never had serious reception issues using 5Ghz bands on the previous model.

Although 802.11ac MIMO is a nice to have, and I have an 802.11ac router here, it's not like I can exceed the throughput of my broadband connection anyway, which is 50Mbps. 

Even the previous Air was able to push it to near-wireline speeds on a good day. So unless Google Fiber comes to town, I'm probably not taking full advantage of that either. However, if an Apple TV 4th-Generation makes an appearance that permits the Air 2 and iPhone 6 to do AirPlay and screen mirroring at those speeds, that's another story.

Am I disappointed that I upgraded? For the time being, yes.

I'm sure that at some point, we'll see some apps that can actually put this device through its paces. But for now, until those apps materialize, I'm underwhelmed by the iPad Air 2, and I'm convinced the product is overkill for most folks who would be better served by previous generation devices, especially if they haven't done an upgrade in several years.

What do you think of your iPad Air 2? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Editorial standards