The original iPad Air is a fantastic tablet. Perfect for the home, upon its launch in 2013 it shared the stage with the more portable iPad mini with Retina display, offering equal power in different sized packages.
One year on and it's the turn of the iPad Air 2 to take the stage, but this time around it pushes ahead in the power stakes, trumping the quietly announced iPad mini 3 and making clear it is Apple's flagship product.
It's thinner and lighter than before, making it one of the slimmest tablets on the market. Impressed as we were by last year's model, is the iPad Air 2 a worthy successor and the new best tablet in town?
Dressed to impress
Now available in gold, alongside the space grey and silver finish versions, the new iPad Air 2 takes its namesake to even greater extremes. It's thinner than a standard pencil, as the advert likes to show off, measuring just 6.1mm thick, making it among the thinnest tablets you can buy.
It's thinner than the iPhone 6, but solid and well made (no #bendgate here). The exact measurements are 240 x 169.5 x 6.1mm, and with a weight of 444g for the Wi-Fi + Cellular model it shaves some 34g off its predecessor too. The new slimness certainly makes a difference too, given it's around 18.5 per cent slimmer than its 7.5mm predecessor. That makes the iPad Air 2 feel even more paper thin than before, and it's noticeable.
READ: Apple iPhone 6 review
For the most part the design otherwise carries through from the original iPad Air, albeit with a few tweaks and changes that will be seen by many as enhancements rather than annoyances. Like before, the rear casing is made from Apple's favoured material - anodised aluminium - which is only interrupted by the white or grey plastic casing at the top for the cellular signal to break through.
As we've come to expect from Apple, the shell is void of most buttons, but even more so this time around. Apple has added TouchID - its fingerprint identification system - but lost the mute/rotation lock switch, presumably because of the ability to do it quickly via the Control Centre in iOS on screen. Those that have used it previously will moan about its absence, whereas newcomers will be none the wiser.
The rest of the design is very familiar and very Apple. There's a Lightning cable socket surrounded by speakers at the bottom, power switch and headphones socket at the top. The edges are chamfered like the Air and the iPhone 5S. Sadly the iPad Air 2 doesn't get the curved glass as found on the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. Now that would have been nice.
For original Air users looking to upgrade, the design isn't going to be enough to make you uncontrollably drop everything and upgrade after just a year. For owners of one of the first four generations of iPad, the Air 2's size and shape will certainly appeal. The design aesthetics are much same, but it makes the older models (aside from the Air) look somewhat antiquated.
Apple pointed it out at its press conference, but the fact you can stack two iPad Air 2s on top of each other and combined they'll still be thinner than an original 2010 iPad goes to show how fast things progress. It's impressive.
An anti-glare screen with more contrast
The iPad Air 2 has a 9.7-inches screen size, sporting a resolution of 2048 x 1536 pixels - the same resolution as its predecessor. It's might not be the most resolute on the market, but it looks great, helped along by some new technologies.
First up, the Air 2 now features a new anti-reflective screen that Apple claims reduces the glare from the screen by around 56 per cent compared to the previous model. It really does make a difference - we've sat both models side-by-side.
But that's not all. Apple has also pimped the contrast and colour thanks to a technology process that allows Apple to fuse the screen components - the glass, touch sensor, and LCD panel - in order to remove the gap between them. It is a technique that has been adopted by the TV industry for years and cuts out the air gap between the layers. The upshot of this - other than the thinner design - is greater contrast and colour reproduction, something that is visually noticeable. Apple also says that it also makes the screen more responsive, but we've yet to notice the difference.
What we have noticed is that anti-reflective screen. Whether using it outside in the sun, or as has been more the case for us, in the house with down-lighters, the glare is noticeably reduced compared to before. That's handy if you are playing games, watching movies in bed with the bedside lamp still on, or reading - basically for all situations.
Getting touchy feely with TouchID
The iPad Air 2 debuts Apple's TouchID to the iPad line-up for the first time (alongside the iPad mini 3). Rather than tapping in a code to gain access to your tablet, for example, you can instead use a registered fingerprint (or thumb, even a toe if you want).
We can't tell you how many time we've stared at our iPad mini expecting something to happen only to realise that it doesn't have TouchID like our iPhone. D'oh. With the iPad Air 2 that's a problem of the past. The TouchID is the same as found in the iPhone 6 and the new tech combined with tweaks in iOS 8 has meant it's more responsive than when TouchID was first introduced on the iPhone 5S.
However, if the iPad Air 2 is going to be a family device, kicking around the living room, then TouchID isn't so important. That said you will be able to use it to unlock certain files (with apps like Dropbox), or if you are in the USA, pay for things online and in-app with Apple Pay (which will only be arriving in the UK from next year).
The A8X processor and more power
The iPad Air 2 is powerful. You probably expected us to say that, but it really is. Apple has introduced a new processor this time around: the A8X. In numbers Apple claims the new A8X chip delivers 40 per cent faster CPU performance than the previous A7 chip and 2.5x the graphics power of the previous generation.
We've done our best to test it to the max, with some video editing and playing high-performance games like Asphalt 8: Airborne, the latter of which utilises Apple's new Metal gaming language. Metal is optimised to allow the CPU and GPU in the A8X chip to work together to deliver detailed graphics and complex visual effects. As a result Asphalt 8 is very pretty.
It's not just the processor that gets upgraded. The Air 2 features the same new M8 motion co-processor with barometer, as found in the iPhone 6 range, and new wireless and LTE chipsets that offer faster speed possibilities.
The battery, on the other hand, shrinks - both in physical size and capacity terms. However, depending on what you do with it, we still found the iPad Air 2's battery to last around 10 hours per charge - which is no discernible difference to before, and we've had no issues in our week of use.
There are some missing wants, of course. There's still no wireless charging, no NFC chip to pay in store or open your hotel room (when that service goes live in W Hotels in 2015), or waterproofing like the Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet.
Much to the annoyance of some, more and more people are using their tablets to take pictures. So Apple has bumped the spec of both the rear and front-facing cameras on the Air 2.
The back camera gets what we believe is the same sensor as the iPhone 5S (8 megapixel), and the ability to do new things like panoramic photos, slow-motion video (720p at 120fps - not 240fps like the iPhone 6), and Time Lapse. The autofocus speed has been improved too. Videographers should note you get 1080p HD video recording.
On the front you get Apple's new 1.2-megapixel FaceTime camera which is much better for FaceTime calls with the family than the iPad 4 was - especially in poorly lit environments. You can record 720p video footage, in addition to a front-facing burst mode.
The quality is much better than its predecessor in all regards, and while we still find ourselves frustrated by the idea of people taking a picture with an iPad or any tablet at a tourist attraction, it does mean that you can now take a decent picture at least.
Of course the camera upgrade isn't aimed at tourists, although they will benefit, but at businesses that have been starting to use the iPad as an analytical tool to monitor things like golf swings. Bottom line, the camera is good, but not as good as the iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus.
iOS 8.1 at launch
When the iPad Air 2 debuts it will come with iOS 8.1 already installed. Apple's iOS 8.1 offers a number of new features above and beyond what was available in iOS 7 including cool new features like Continuity which blurs the lines between sharing content between your iPhone and Mac - if you have an Apple desktop of laptop.
That combined with enhancements with the Notification Centre, third party keyboard support, and (eventually) Homekit will all work to improve the experience. Likewise the seamlessness of sharing photos between Apple devices is a huge plus, especially for those that like to show off their efforts with others thanks to that brilliant screen.
iPad Air 2 vs iPad mini 3
When the iPad Air was launched alongside the iPad mini Retina they sported identical specs apart from different screen sizes and physical size. For the second-generation Air things are more cut and dry. Apple has boosted the specs of the iPad Air 2, while keeping the mini much the same (albeit with TouchID).
If you want the new screen tech, more power, the new wireless capabilities, improved camera, and the slimmer build then you have to opt for the Air 2. Aside from TouchID the iPad mini with Retina, now dubbed the iPad mini 3, gets none of it. Which puts a much bigger gap between the two.
Using both in the office we've found that the Air 2's new design puts it ahead. That thin design really does make a difference because the Air 2 feels a lot more portable than the previous version; it feels a lot more chuck-in-your-bag than before, and certainly around the home the benefit of the better screen and more powerful specs will shine through.
Original or second-gen?
But there's that other question: is it worth getting the iPad Air 2 at all if you own the original? Like we said in our original iPad Air review, the problem (if it can be called that) is that "in creating something so desirable we suspect that if you buy this model you won't need or want to upgrade it for a long, long time".
READ: Apple iPad Air review
So which to get? This really comes down to what you want it for. The iPad Air is a cracking tablet and nothing that has been introduced in the iPad Air 2 takes away from that. Some may even prefer the inclusion of the physical rotation/lock switch in the old model.
The Air 2 isn't a ditch-everything-old-and-buy-new without question, it's not the jump from iPhone 5S to iPhone 6 that we've seen this year. Instead, the move to the newer design and new specs is a more subtle one and most will still be able to go on enjoying what they've already got.
Apple has once again created a fantastic tablet in the iPad Air 2, ideal for those at the top-end of the market looking for the best on offer. It's faster, lighter, thinner - just all-round better than before.
Will devices like the budget Tesco Hudl 2 or the Nexus 9 challenge it? Of course, as technology ebbs into the more affordable end of the market. But Apple consistently shows that what it has works and works well, and the iPad Air 2 is a premium device that delivers that in abundance. If you're part of the Apple ecosystem then iOS 8.1 pushes that even further thanks to Continuity too.
In the bigger picture, the market shows us that the appetite for the iPad range is slowing, either as Apple runs out of customers to sell to, or because the technological leaps that we see in phones aren't in demand in devices that most use to do fairly little: surf the web or watch TV. Some just won't need all that power, unless you're looking to dabble in some video editing and top-tier gaming on the go. That will determine what your stance on the iPad Air 2 is.
Whether you've yet to take the plunge into the tablet world, have got fed up with your current tablet, or are just looking to upgrade from an earlier generation model, the iPad Air 2 is an amazing tablet and one that you won't be disappointed with. Irrelevant of the market slowing, the products continue to get better, and the iPad Air 2 is the best yet.
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