By Jason Snell
November 19, 2014 4:54 PM PT
iPad Air 2 review
Apple released a new iPad this fall. Maybe you’ve heard about it? It’s the iPad Air 2, and of course it’s the best iPad ever, because the new iPad is always the best iPad ever. But the iPad Air 2 is better in ways other than the usual thinner-and-lighter metrics: In some unexpected ways, the iPad Air points toward a future of iOS power and productivity that hasn’t existed up until now.
Put away your lasers
Yes, Apple has shaved 1.4 millimeters off the thickness of the original iPad Air, and roughly 33 grams off the weight. There’s a nice commercial where a laser beam cuts off part of that pencil from the original iPad Air commercial, because the iPad Air 2 is thinner than a pencil, you see.
Forget all that. Apple’s continual quest for thinness remains intact1, but the biggest improvements on this device come courtesy of features any old-school computer nerd could love, namely fast chips and more RAM.
Let’s take the processor first. Unlike the original iPad Air, which was powered by more or less the same A7 processor as the iPhone 5S, the iPad Air 2’s processor is the A8X, a step up from the already impressive 64-bit A8 that powers the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.
And the step up from the iPhone isn’t just a slight clock-speed boost: This thing’s got an extra processor core. That’s right, this is a tri-core processor. The graphics hardware has also been upgraded. This is the fastest iOS device ever made—and by a long shot.
Even more significantly, the iPad Air 2’s got 2 GB of onboard RAM, up from the 1 GB that’s been a standard on iOS devices since the iPad 3 and iPhone 5. Device memory is a funny thing. It’s one of the hardest computer specifications to contextualize. Processors and GPUs are easy to communicate—they make your device run faster or draw things on the screen faster. Storage2 lets you keep stuff on your device.
So what about RAM? On modern computers, you want more RAM because it’s fast, because otherwise your computer has to swap out memory to disk, which is always going to be slower than keeping it in speedy RAM. This means your computer runs faster—but only in certain specific circumstances. And some users might never experience those circumstances.
iOS devices, though, have much less RAM than their Mac counterparts. When an iOS device gets low on memory, it gets aggressive about freeing some back up. This all happens automatically, in the background, and it’s a little like a magic trick—it’s designed so you won’t really notice. But have you ever noticed that sometimes when you open or switch to an app you’ve run recently, it resumes as if it were already open, and other times there’s a splash screen and a few seconds of setup? That’s the magic trick—that app was purged to free up memory for something else. The price you paid for running some other app is that you’ve got to wait while this app gets back in running order, ready to use.
Or consider Safari. Let’s say you’ve got a few tabs open on your iPad, to a few favorite sites. Sometimes when you tap on a tab, it opens immediately. Other times, it’s a blank page and you have to wait while Safari loads and renders the page again. That’s the same story—that page was purged from memory because the system needed the space for something else. Such is life on a device with very little RAM.
The iPad Air 2 has twice as much RAM as any other recent iOS device. And while the effects are subtle, they’re profound. Safari tabs just stay loaded most of the time. Apps that you used recently-ish snap open immediately rather than doing a bunch of housekeeping. Switching directly between apps feels vastly better, because it’s all instantaneous. More RAM lets the entire system breathe.
Even people who have never really noticed this sort of behavior will benefit from it, if for no other reason than the iPad Air 2 will make them wait less. It might be an indefinable smoothness or speediness to them, but it’s still a real benefit. And if you’re someone who switches among lots of apps or Safari tabs when you use your iPad, you will absolutely notice.
Upgrades from near and far
Something we’ve learned over the past four years is that people may hold on to their iPads longer than they hold on to their iPhones. It’s not a subsidized device like the iPhone is, and so users tend to hold on to them longer than two years. I’d imagine that the biggest audience for the iPad Air 2 might actually be from users of the iPad 2. Maybe the iPad 3. It’s certainly not last year’s iPad Air, which is still for sale. And yet we all do tend to compare this year’s model (of anything) to last year’s model.
For what it’s worth, in addition to the iPad Air 2 being thinner and lighter than its predecessor, the display has gotten an upgrade. The old air gap between display and glass has been eliminated. Like the iPhone, this is a laminated display, meaning that the glass and display are all sandwiched together into a single unit. The net effect is that the screen of the iPad Air 2 feels closer to the surface of the device. It’s subtle but noticeable. The screen is big and bright and beautiful, as you might expect. It’s a clear upgrade from the previous model Air, let alone the original iPad line. (It’s also got an anti-reflective coating which makes it less glarey than other iOS devices. I can confirm that’s true, but I still would prefer a Kindle to an iPad Air 2 for beach reading. I’d love to see Apple continue to improve anti-glare features on all iOS devices in the future.)
Another change is the introduction of Touch ID to the iPad line. Touch ID seems to me to be somewhat less needed on an iPad than an iPhone—I take my iPhone out of the house all the time, while my iPad tends to stay close to home. But Apple keeps introducing features that either require or strongly encourage locking your device, and once you’re using a passcode on your iPad it’s nice to have Touch ID.
I found that Touch ID worked well on the iPad Air 2, even though (unlike my iPhone) I tend to unlock my iPad in both portrait and landscape orientations. The iPad Air 2 read my finger properly regardless of orientation.
With this generation of iPad, Apple has eliminated the hardware toggle switch that could be used to mute the device or as an orientation lock. I know some people are sad about this, but I find it to be not that big a deal. Both orientation lock and device mute are available as buttons in Control Center, and I never used the switch on any of my previous iPads. I won’t miss it. It was always kind of weird that the iPad had that switch, which always made more sense on the iPhone.
Embrace the iPad camera
Here’s what Apple’s initial feelings about using the iPad as a camera were: The original iPad didn’t have one. Not on the front, not on the back, nothing. Once the iPad did get a rudimentary camera, plenty of people pointed and laughed (or at least were mystified) by the fact that people held their giant iPads up and used them to take pictures. And yet, all the awkwardness in the world didn’t stop people from wanting to use their iPads as cameras.
Apple seems to have gotten over it. The iPad Air 2 has an 8 megapixel camera. It’s good. Not quite as good as the iPhone 6, but better than previous iPad models. We’ve come to the point where Apple considers the iPad’s camera a selling point. We’ve come a long way. Shoot on, iPadographers. Shine on, you crazy diamonds.
So. Many. iPads.
Those interested in color choices will be excited that the iPad now offers three of them: black front with “space gray” back, white front with silver back, and white front with gold back. Apple’s color choices now match across its product line, which is a good thing. It does, however, mean that there are 18 different versions of the iPad Air 2: cellular/wi-fi, gray/silver/gold, and 16GB/64GB/128GB storage. That’s a lot of iPad Air 2 models, and Apple’s also selling the iPad Air, iPad mini 3, iPad mini 2, and iPad mini.
With so many iPads out there, which one’s the best to buy?3 I’m an iPad mini 2 user, and I think the iPad mini 2 is a better deal than the iPad mini 3.
Switching from the iPad mini 2 to the iPad Air 2 for a couple of weeks was a fascinating experiment. The screen is huge and beautiful, though everything’s just bigger on it—the iPad mini 2 has the same number of pixels. Using the iPad Air 2 to read comics was fantastic for that very reason—everything was just that much bigger and brighter. However, there’s still a lot to like about the mini’s small size, and I prefer typing on the mini (which I can do with my thumbs while holding it) to the Air (which I really need to set on my lap or hold in portrait orientation to type effectively.)
As I said at the start of this review, the most impressive thing about the iPad Air 2 is not its screen or its thinness or its camera, though those are all quite lovely. It’s the speed, and the extra RAM. Using the iPad Air 2 while flipping around from app to app feels like an entirely upgraded experience from performing the same tasks on my iPad mini 2. You learn to blot out the time you spend waiting for apps to open and Safari tabs to reload, but once you spend time on a device that doesn’t need to take those pauses, they become obvious. Painfully obvious.
I wish the iPad mini 3 featured all these same improvements, but it doesn’t. It’s got Touch ID, a gold color option, and that’s about it. Maybe next year? In the meantime, if you want to buy a new iPad and don’t want any compromises, the iPad Air 2 is the right one to buy. But at $200 less, that iPad mini 2 is still a pretty good deal too.
What’s an iPad for?
There’s a lot of existential angst swirling around the iPad these days. iPad sales are flat, not growing. Now, when the iPad debuted in 2010 nobody had any idea how the product would do—I couldn’t decide whether it would sell a million, or 10 million. It sold more than 14 million in 2010, and the bullish tablet market was born. People began counting the days until the Mac and PC faded away, replaced by iPads.
These days, as iPad sales have flattened, we’re all left wondering what’s going to happen next. Will tablets like the iPad begin to grow again? Will they tail off to nothing, replaced by giant phones? Is the answer to growth in this market a larger iPad, or a convertible device like Microsoft’s Surface? (Given Surface’s sales numbers, the convertible tablet/PC hybrid does not seem to be setting the world on fire.)
Apple, to its credit, has shifted gears on this question. The company would, of course, like you to buy as many of its products as you need. But it’s okay if you buy a Mac instead of an iPad. It’s all good for Apple.
“It’s not an either/or,” Phil Schiller told me in January. “It’s a world where you’re going to have a phone, a tablet, a computer, you don’t have to choose. And so what’s more important is how you seamlessly move between them all…. It’s not like this is a laptop person and that’s a tablet person. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
The iPad is a piece of the puzzle. For someone like Federico Viticci, it’s a productivity tool that can be used to do all the work that a Mac or PC can do. For my son, it’s a game machine. For me, it’s the device that I use to read Twitter and email in bed or on the couch or in the kitchen while I’m making tea. It’s what you make it.
However, when I look at the power that Apple’s dropped into the iPad Air 2, I’m convinced that the use of iPads as everyday tools will just keep on growing. These devices are in their infancy; the iPad has existed for less than five years, and is now on its sixth generation. They’ve come a long way, and in some ways the software hasn’t really kept up with the hardware.
A device this powerful deserves software that takes advantage of it, and every time I try to use a professional tool with my iPad I end up getting frustrated at how much slower the touch interactions are than just using an old-fashioned keyboard and mouse on my Mac. For the iPad to truly be a productivity tool, it needs to allow me to be roughly as productive as I can be on my Mac—and right now for most of my uses it’s just not. The hardware is willing, but the software is (in many cases) still too weak.
Still, as Schiller said, it’s not an either/or. I wouldn’t give up my iPad for anything—but there’s still a whole lot of untapped potential there.
When will Apple’s quest for thinness end? Presumably somewhere before you can get a paper cut from an iPad. I have some thoughts on this subject that I will save for a later (and hopefully shorter?) story.↩
Often called “memory” by less technical people—“How much memory should I get on my iPad?” is a question I hear a lot. Full credit to Apple for never talking about how much RAM an iOS device has—it just confuses people who aren’t tech geeks. ↩
Yet another article I should write at an undetermined future time.↩
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