After spending a week with the Apple iPad Air 2, I'm mostly pleased with the updated slate. It has several key benefits over the iPad Air, but they're probably noticeable only to power users. Though it adds just enough new features to keep it at the top of the tablet hill, Apple's best tablet could be better.
Making a case for upgrading tablets every year is tough. Tablets don't undergo as much abuse as smartphones do. While phones are often jammed in pockets, people who carry tablets typically tote them in backpacks, briefcases, or purses. Many tablets, in fact, rarely leave the safety of a coffee table.
My point is that there's nothing wrong with the iPad Air I bought last year. It still functions perfectly, despite the fact that I've carried it all over the world and use it every single day. So what's there to like about the iPad Air 2? Here are the pros and cons as I see them.
Hardware: No other manufacturer makes a tablet that's as classy as the iPad. The aluminum materials, quality of manufacturing, and overall design are truly impressive. The Air 2 is 18% thinner than the iPad Air, and it's easy to notice this difference when the two tablets are side-by-side. The Air 2 is also lighter than its predecessor, but the difference in weight is imperceptible. The Air 2, in short, is a pleasure to use.
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Screen: The iPad continues to have one of the best displays available on a tablet. It maintains the same 9.7-inch dimension and 2,048 x 1,536 pixel resolution of last year's tablet. That's not as many pixels as Samsung's latest tablets, but Apple applied a non-reflective coating to the Air 2 that makes it much easier to see in a wide variety of lighting. For example, I had no problem reading the AIr 2 while sitting on a bus in the middle of the day. In contrast, the iPad Air had reflections all over the screen, forcing me to find a better viewing angle. It's a minor improvement, but a welcome one.
Cameras: Taking photos with a tablet may still be somewhat taboo, but if you have to do it, you may as well do it with the Air 2. The 8-megapixel sensor is far superior to the iPad Air's camera. Focus is sharper, and it shows dramatic improvement in low-light photos. I can't say I really condone serious tablet photography, but few tablets match the photo quality produced by the Air 2.
Performance: The Air 2 features a tri-core A8x processor with M8 coprocessor, a dynamic duo that destroys the iPad Air's A7/M7 combo. In real-world tasks such as photo and video manipulation, the Air 2 was appreciably quicker. Intensive apps such as GarageBand and iPhoto responded without hesitation. And don't even get me started on games. The Air 2 is the best gaming tablet on the market, hands down.
Touch ID: I didn't think I'd care much about a fingerprint sensor on my tablet, but it turns out I do. I find it much more convenient for authenticating iTunes purchases than typing in my password. It helps that Apple has improved the Touch ID -- it is much faster and more accurate than the sensor on last year's iPhone 5s.
Continuity: One of the key features of iOS 8 is continuity. It allows you to send iMessages and answer calls directly on your iPad rather than having to use your phone. There were several occasions during the week when it was more convenient to answer a call on the iPad rather than dig the iPhone out of my pocket.
Battery: Apple claims the Air 2 provides the same 10 hours of battery life of the iPad Air. That's true for general usage such as surfing the Web, browsing social networks, or creating documents. I noticed a decrease in battery life, however, when watching HD video. The Air 2's smaller power cell comes up short, in my opinion. Further, I think it's fair to ding Apple for failing to improve battery life. Why is 10 hours the gold standard? Why not push it to 12 hours?
Multitasking: Apple can't claim the iPad is the best working tablet available if it can't truly multitask. Both Android and Windows tablets can run two apps at the same time, allowing users to move content between them easily. The iPad cannot do that. It's long past time Apple allowed the iPad to run multiple apps together, especially if it wants to sell the tablet to business users.
Storage: The iPad Air 2 is available in 16-, 64-, and 128-GB variants. It does not support removable memory cards. The issue here is pricing. Tablets should no longer be limited to 16 GBs at the low end. High-def movies, music, apps, and photos consume a lot of storage. The 16-GB Air 2 may seem like a bargain at $499, but it isn't going to match most users' storage needs. Apple should offer a 32-GB option at $499, but instead, the company clearly expects customers to spend an extra $100 for the 64-GB model. Padding profits much?
Speakers: I really enjoy watching video on the Air 2. It's a rotten shame, then, that the tablet doesn't include stereo speakers. Many of today's high-end tablets (think Nexus 9) do offer stereo speakers, which vastly improve the experience. If you want a stereo experience on the iPad, you'll need to plug in headphones. It's not necessarily a deal breaker, but it would enhance casual video consumption.
Multiple Accounts: Tablets are for sharing, but not everything should be shared with all users. The Air 2 does not support multiple users, which means parents need to be careful of what they consume on the Air 2. Though parental controls are available, it would be much better if the Air 2 supported a Kid Mode or Guest Mode that allowed the main users to log out and offer restricted access to the tablet. It's long past time Apple resolved this.
In sum, I like the iPad Air 2 and will keep it because I value the improvements Apple made to the tablet. However, it's hard to say the improvements are truly worth the $500 upgrade price over last year's iPad. If you're still using a 2nd-, 3rd-, or 4th-generation iPad, the Air 2 is definitely worth the upgrade. But if you're already using an iPad Air, it's probably not worth the upgrade unless you plan to sell your existing tablet to make up for the cost of the new one.
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