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Apple iPad Air 2 review: Slimmer and faster, but a smaller battery
The iPad Air 2's performance enhancements will appeal to those who run graphically demanding apps, although Apple's quest for thinness comes at the cost of reduced battery capacity. Last year's iPad Air remains a good option, but the Air 2 will be the power user's choice.
Smartphone and tablet vendors seem to be locked in an arms race to build the thinnest possible devices at the moment, with the current thinnest smartphone — the Oppo R5 — being so skeletal at 4.85mm that it can't even accommodate a 3.5mm audio jack. Apple hasn't gone quite that far with the new iPad Air 2, but at 6.1mm it's (almost literally) a hair's breadth from being the world's thinnest tablet (that accolade is held, for now, by the 6mm-thick Dell Venue 8 7000). Perhaps the iPad Air 2's closest competitor is arch-rival Samsung's 6.6mm-thin Android-based Galaxy Tab S 10.5, which is available in two 16GB models — wi-fi-only for £399 (inc. VAT, £332.50 ex. VAT) or wi-fi-plus-LTE for £479 (inc.VAT, £399.17 ex. VAT).
Prices for the iPad Air 2 range from £399 (inc. VAT, £332.50 ex. VAT) for the entry-level 16GB wi-fi-only model — the same price as the Galaxy Tab S 10.5 — to £659 (inc. VAT, £549.17 ex. VAT) for the top-end 128GB wi-fi-plus-LTE model. Apple needs to provide more internal storage options (16GB, 64GB and 128GB) because, unlike Samsung, it doesn't support storage expansion via MicroSD cards.
Last year's excellent iPad Air is still available, at the reduced price of £319 (inc. VAT, £265.83 ex. VAT) for the 16GB model. So the question for potential iPad buyers is: do the improvements in this year's Air 2 — thinner, lighter, improved display, Touch ID, faster processor, better cameras — justify the extra outlay?
The 9.7-inch iPad Air 2, which is available in Apple's silver, gold and space grey liveries, has exactly the same 169.5mm-by-240mm footprint as its 2013 predecessor, but at 6.1mm is 1.4mm thinner. It's also slightly lighter, although the iPad Air was hardly a heavyweight: the wi-fi-only Air 2 weighs 437g, 32g lighter than the equivalent Air, while the wi-fi-plus-LTE models tips the scales at 444g — a difference of 34g over the previous LTE model.
By way of comparison, Samsung's 10.5-inch Galaxy Tab S 10.5 sits between the two iPad Airs, with a 177.3mm-by-247.3mm footprint (slightly bigger because of the larger screen), 6.6mm thickness and weights of 465g (wi-fi only) and 467g (wi-fi plus LTE). All three are slim, lightweight tablets, but if you prefer metal to plastic, you'll lean towards Apple's aluminium unibody devices.
Although the 2014 and 2013 iPad Airs look very similar, there are a few differences. For example, the right-hand side is now devoid of a physical mute/lock rotation button, these functions now being available only via the iOS 8.1 control panel (accessed by sweeping up from the bottom of the screen). The dual microphones have also migrated: previously they were central, on the top edge and at the back, but are now next to the rear iSight camera and in the position where the mute/hold switch used to be. Another minor difference is the speaker grilles: they're still located on the bottom edge on either side of the Lightning connector, but now comprise a single row of large holes rather than two rows of small holes.
The most welcome improvement is the upgrade of the home button to support Touch ID fingerprint recognition, which works just as well as it does on the iPhone 5s, 6 and 6 Plus. As well as unlocking the tablet, you'll be able to approve iTunes, iBooks and App Store purchases with your fingerprint and (in the US) use online stores that support Apple Pay in the same way. However, there's no NFC support on the iPad Air 2, so you won't be able to wave your tablet over an Apple Pay-compliant checkout terminal to pay for goods in a physical store, as you can (again in the US) with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.
The 9.7-inch Retina display has the same resolution (2,048 by 1,536 pixels) and therefore pixel density (264ppi) as the iPad Air, but its fabrication has been tweaked. The three display components — cover glass, touch sensor and (IPS) LCD panel — are now fully laminated, creating a thinner display and eliminating air gaps that previously caused internal reflection and refraction. The result is better image contrast and, thanks to multiple layers of anti-reflective coating, a claimed 54 percent reduction in reflectivity — something that's definitely noticeable when you place the Air 2 and its predecessor side by side.
The iPad Air 2 is powered by the latest-generation 64-bit, 20nm, Apple A8X processor, backed up by an M8 motion coprocessor that handles processing relating to sensor data (accelerometer, compass, gyroscope and barometer) for improved power efficiency. Compared to the A8 chip used in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the A8X differs in the following ways: it has three cores rather than two; it runs at 1.5GHz rather than 1.4GHz; it has a more powerful GPU to drive the larger screen; it has a heatsink; and it uses an external 2GB RAM module rather than 1GB of 'package-on-package' RAM. The 2013 iPad Air, meanwhile, used a 28nm, dual-core A7 processor running at 1.3GHz or 1.4GHz with 1GB of RAM. According to Apple, the A8X delivers 40 percent faster CPU performance and 2.5 times the graphics performance of the A7 (see benchmarks below).
Both the rear iSight and front FaceTime HD cameras have been upgraded. The iSight camera now has 8-megapixel resolution (up from 5Mpixels in the iPad Air), as in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, although there's no Focus Pixels-enhanced autofocus, flash unit or optical image stabilisation for video recording. New iSight features include burst-mode (10fps) photos and slow-motion (720p@120fps) video, in addition to existing 1080p video, time-lapse video and 43-megapixel panoramas.
These are welcome developments, especially for photographers who value the iPad's large-screen viewfinder. These users will also appreciate the iPad Air 2's improved CPU/GPU muscle and extra 1GB of RAM.
We tend to use the iPad's 1.2-megapixel FaceTime HD camera more than the iSight, so the improvements here are particularly relevant: a new sensor with better low-light performance, a burst mode, plus HDR stills and (720p@30fps) video.
Connectivity is improved, with support for 802.11ac wi-fi at a theoretical maximum speed of 866Mbps and 20-band LTE at (again theoretically) up to 150Mbps. These upgrades are nice to have, and some international business travellers will particularly value the six extra LTE frequency bands that open up mobile broadband connections in China. Bluetooth remains the same at version 4.0.
Performance & battery life
As mentioned above, Apple claims that the iPad Air 2's A8X processor delivers 40 percent faster CPU performance and 2.5 times the graphics performance of the A7 in last year's iPad Air.
On the Geekbench 3 CPU test, the 3-core 1.5GHz A8X in the iPad Air 2 outstrips the 2-core 1.4GHz A7 in the iPad Air by an impressive 69 percent on multi-core performance, and delivers 24 percent better single-core speed for good measure. (The difference in clock speed, incidentally, is only 7.1 percent.) Samsung's Galaxy Tab S 10.5, which runs a 1.9GHz Exynos 5 Octa 5420 processor, just beats the iPad Air on multi-core performance, but lags behind both 64-bit Apple tablets on the single-core test.
To compare graphics performance, we used Futuremark's 3DMark suite — specifically, the Ice Storm Unlimited benchmark. Overall, the iPad Air 2's score is 39 percent better than the iPad Air's, with a bigger margin (56%) in the subsidiary Graphics test than in the Physics test (19%). Both iPads beat the Galaxy Tab S 10.5 overall, although Samsung's tablet is the winner on the Physics component.
Not all users will need the iPad Air 2's increased performance, although gamers and creative professionals will undoubtedly appreciate it. However, everyone appreciates more battery life, all other things being equal. Apple makes the same 10-hour battery life claim for both iPad Airs when "surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video or listening to music", despite the fact that teardown analysis reveals the iPad Air 2 to have a smaller 27.62Wh battery than its predecessor, which was powered by a 32.9Wh unit. That's a 19 percent reduction in battery capacity, which means that the iPad Air 2, with its faster processor and more memory, is going to have consume less power in normal operation just to deliver the same battery life.
We're still conducting our battery tests, but what we've seen so far is that power consumption when surfing on wi-fi is broadly similar for the two models, which means that you're likely to notice a slight reduction in battery life with the iPad Air 2. The more demanding the applications you run, and the higher the screen brightness setting, the bigger the impact you're likely to see on battery life.
So, if you're in the market for an iPad, should you buy the Air or the Air 2? The answer largely depends on how much you value the latest model's 6.1mm thinness, how much you need the A8X's extra processing and graphics speed and extra 1GB of RAM, whether you're a photographer or other creative user who values the camera and display improvements, and how much you're hankering after Touch ID for unlocking your tablet and authorising payments. Many will find these enhancements persuasive, but the reduced-price 2013 iPad Air is still worth considering — especially if you need to maximise your iPad's battery life.
If you're an Android fan, there are plenty of alternative tablets to choose from. Prominent among these are Samsung's excellent Super-AMOLED-equipped Galaxy Tab S 10.5 (which also comes in an 8.4-inch model), and Sony's slimline (6.4mm) 10.1-inch Xperia Z2 Tablet (which is also waterproof to IP58 standard). Due shortly are Google's HTC-made Nexus 9 and Dell's super-thin (6mm) Venue 8 7000. And if you need a larger screen plus stylus support, then Samsung's extensive portfolio includes the impressive Galaxy NotePRO 12.2.
Finally, if you need to run Windows applications on a hybrid tablet, then your shortlist should include the ASUS Transformer Book T100, Dell's Venue 11 Pro and — if your budget runs to it — Microsoft's Surface Pro 3.
There's never been more choice in the tablet market, and the new iPad Air 2 is right up there with the best of them.