iPad Air 2 review, one year on: Still the best mid-size tablet
Welcome to our iPad Air 2 review, last updated back in January 2016. Please note that (as of 21 March 2017) the Air 2 is no longer on sale on Apple's online store (you'll still be able to find it on some reseller websites and through Apple's education sales scheme). Since we first wrote this article Apple has launched two more 9.7-inch iPads: the iPad Pro 9.7in, a more expensive and better-specced alternative, and the cheaper iPad 2017, which finally replaced the Air 2.
The iPad Air 2 is Apple's key iPad tablet: before the iPad Pro arrived this was the top-end, flagship tablet device (and pound-for-pound it's still the one to get). Launched in October 2014, the iPad Air 2 (unlike its more cautious little brother, the iPad mini 3, which came out at the same time and has since been overtaken by the mini 4) came with an impressive stack of enhancements and new features.
Over a year later, the device itself is obviously unchanged, remaining fast, thin and quite beautiful to look at. But since then the iPad Pro has been released, with even more new features (including accessories such as the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard) and the iPhone 6s has introduced 3D Touch. These newer offerings reveal gaps in the iPad Air 2's portfolio, and may offer hints as to the future direction of the iPad Air 3 (expected later this year).
Like everybody, we reviewed the iPad Air 2 when it launched, but it's impossible so soon after a product emerges to review its long-term user experience and the problems and benefits that will emerge after months of use. We updated our iPad Air 2 review - which includes speed tests, camera tests and our detailed analysis of the iPad Air 2's features, design and build quality, and specs - in February 2015 to take account of four months of everyday use. Now we're looking at it in 21 January 2016, a year later.
iPad Air 2: Design and build quality
We'll begin our iPad Air 2 review by looking at the most tangible aspect of the tablet: its physical design, build quality and all-round robustness. How does the iPad Air 2's physical chassis compare to that of the famously slimline iPad Air 1?
The answer is that the iPad Air 2 takes the waif-like and renders it wafer-like. Take a look at the iPad Air 1 (left) compared to the iPad Air 2:
In a year of near-everyday use, the iPad Air 1 never once struck us as too fat or too heavy, but Apple nevertheless sliced 6 percent off its weight and nearly 19 percent off its depth. The Air 2 is just 6.1mm thick (down from 7.5mm) and weighs 437g (for the Wi-Fi version) or 444g (with 3G) - that's down from 469g/478. You feel like you could slide the iPad 2 under someone's hotel room door now.
(We actually tried this. The iPad Air 2 does indeed slip under the door to the Macworld photography studio, whereas the iPad Air 1 cannot.)
The iPad Air 2 is crazy-slim. And we mean that not entirely in a positive sense; shaving further millimetres off an already whisper-light chassis seems like an extravagance (a charming one, granted, but one that surely wasn't a priority), and was presumably achieved at some cost - to battery size, certainly (but not, admittedly, to battery life - see dedicated section below), and potentially to physical robustness.
Being so thin, the iPad Air 2 feels more fragile than its predecessor, and a little (very cautious!) flexing showed that there is more give than on the iPad Air 1. We assumed that some strong-fingered publicity-seeker would manage to bend one on camera within weeks of launch, and sure enough, somebody called 'Marvin from Germany' - in a video that has since been set to private - did exactly that.
Then again, we've been using the Air 2 every day for well over a year and it hasn't bent, buckled or snapped, or indeed sustained any physical damage or noticeable wear and tear at all. And of course, the fact that somebody who was trying their best to bend an iPad Air 2 managed to do so doesn't mean these devices are likely to bend or break by accident. We think the iPad Air 2, while less physically robust than the iPad Air 1, is still robust enough for the average user to have no problems.
Aside from being slimmer, the physical design is otherwise very similar to the iPad Air 1. The back edges are rounded, and there's a brushed-metal effect across the back panel. The front edge has a sharp chamfer and a mirror finish, and looks very smart indeed.
The headphone socket and power-off button remain on the top of the device (unlike on the iPhone 6-series handsets, which saw the power button moved round to the righthand side), the volume buttons are still on the upper right (but they're fractionally further apart, and therefore a touch easier to tell apart with a blind finger) and the SIM tray is still in roughly the same spot at the lower-right.
The microphone holes have moved (they're either side of the camera aperture now), the speaker grille along the bottom is now a single row of larger holes rather than a double row of smaller ones - these are stereo speakers, as far as we can tell, but audio quality remains a weak point, as we shall discuss later - and the mute/orientation lock switch has disappeared entirely, for reasons that elude us.
Regular iPad reviewers can get blasé about this, so let's take a moment to reiterate a final key point before we finish this section. The iPad Air 2 is a beautiful object that has been crafted to the very highest of manufacturing standards.
Here's a video of the iPad Air 2 in action:
iPad Air 2 review: Interface
The iPad Air 2 runs Apple's familiar iOS software, of course, and at present comes with iOS 9. As well as the various apps bundled with iOS 9, there are thousands of apps available on the Apple App Store for you to download. Here are the 10 best apps for your new iPad or iPhone to get you started.
We've written extensively about iOS 9 elsewhere, and won't repeat ourselves here, other than to broadly say that it's a highly optimised, user-friendly system that beginners find easy to grasp but offers a deep feature set for power users.
Our subjective experience with the interface suggests that it's faster on the Air 2 than on the iPad Air 1. (One would always expect a brand-new device to run quicker than one bogged down with a year's worth of software, but in this case we had restored the iPad Air 2 from the iPad Air 1 backup to keep things as fair as possible.) Flipping from screen to screen, and within apps, seems near-instantaneous.
More importantly, it's not noticably slower than the iPad Pro with its newer A9X processor. It may be that iOS 9 is optimised for both devices, and over time the iPad Air 2, with its one-year headstart on the race to obsolescence, will surely age faster than the iPad Pro. But for now, both seem on a par.
Part of this may be down to a highly responsive screen found in both iPads, which we will discuss next.
Read next: iPad Air 2 vs new 12-inch MacBook comparison
iPad Air 2 review: Screen
In many respects the iPad Air 2 features the same screen that we saw in the iPad Air 1 (and, with some minor variations, in several previous iPads). It measures 9.7 inches (diagonally, corner to corner), and has a resolution of 2048 x 1536 and a pixel density of 264 pixels per inch. That's the standard iPad Retina pixel density, and very sharp to look at.
But there are a couple of differences from last season's screen. One is in terms of the iPad's overall design: by compressing everything into a smaller form, Apple found itself obliged to take out what it calls the 'air gaps' between different elements of the screen.
However accurate a description that is, it has translated into a screen that is firmer to the touch, and has, unlike the device as a whole, less flex. (One of our very few dislikes when reviewing the iPad Air 1 was the way the display yielded to a finger tap a tiny but appreciable amount. That's gone now.)
The second is the addition of an anti-reflective coating. We were sceptical, but this turns out to be pretty great, darkening and minimising the distracting reflections that appear when using an iPad under electronic lighting. My own reflection with the screen switched off was darker (and bluer) and considerably easier to ignore, and strip lighting and other reflections were reduced across the board.
Finally, the screen appears to be more responsive to the touch. (Apple says it has improved touch tracking on the display. Swiping is "incredibly responsive", and Apple also claims "more fluid responses" for finger painting.)
It's possible that the compressed design means that the touch-responsive elements are simply closer to the surface of the glass than before, creating the illusion that your fingers are actually touching and moving the visual elements displayed. Or this could be the effect of the new, more powerful processor and its superb graphical muscle. Either way, the iPad Air 2 is a pleasure to use.
Only the iPad Pro has a faster screen, but it only speeds up when the Apple Pencil is brought close to it. For the rest of the time the two screens operate in a similar manner.
Read next: How to set up a new iPad
iPad Air 2 review: Speed tests
As we mentioned just now, the iPad Air 2 contains the A8X processor, a souped-up version of the A8 that made its first appearance in the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus the month before the iPad Air 2 appeared.
Apple told us that 2013's A7 chip was a departure from the norm - normally Apple makes specific 'x' chip for iPad. Because of the scale with 64bit Apple was able to use the A7 chips in the iPads last year, but in 2014 Apple gave the iPad Air 2 a new processor: the A8X. This chip offers a 64-bit desktop-class architecture and 3 billion transistors. It is the only iPad - indeed, the only iOS device full stop - to use this processor. Apple says the CPU performance is 12x faster than the original iPad.
Thanks to this chip the iPad Air 2 is 40 percent faster than the previous generation, according to Apple. Even more impressive is the graphical side of things: Apple claims that users will see 2.5 times the graphics performance. That's great news for gamers, but video- and photo-editing apps will also benefit from the enhanced graphics performance.
The iPad Air 2 also gains the M8 motion co-processor.
The A8X was absolute overkill for virtually all apps currently available at launch, but it's proving its worth over time. Cutting-edge games and photo- and video-editing apps released in 2015 were designed to take advantage of the A8X's processing muscle, and as we move into 2016 we're seeing appreciable speed gains when switching from iPad Air 1 to iPad Air 2.
Of course, the inevitable march of progress means the iPad Air 2 must in turn start to suffer unflattering comparisons with the iPad Pro, and the iPad Air 3 when it comes out. At present the Air 2 is holding its own with the Pro, but this won't last forever.
We put a range of iPads through the latest Geekbench speed tests.
As you can see, the iPad Air 2 and iPad Pro crush every other model in multi-core mode, and are much faster even in single-core. Both models are significantly faster than the iPad Air 1 and before, but although the iPad Pro is slightly faster, it isn't much faster than the iPad Air 2.
All of this remains mostly a theoretical advantage, as very few current apps are as demanding this speed. Remember that the iPad Pro has twice as much RAM (4GB) as the iPad Air 2, which will provide additional power moving forward.
The real-world difference in speed between the iPad Air 1 and iPad Air 2 is minor at best. We tried booting up some of our more demanding games - Space Hulk, for instance - and found that the iPad Air 2 got them running a second or two quicker. The camera is ready to shoot a little earlier, too. This is all nice enough, but more a sign of greater potential gains in future than a massive benefit right now.
Moving around the screen seems more responsive, too, as we mentioned in the interface section.
Again, the iPad Air 2 was streets ahead of the other iPads available when it launched, but here the differences between the iPad Air 2 and iPad Pro is more pronouned. However, we would suggest that with a score of 287ms it's going to thrash pretty any much any mobile hardware you compare it to - and some laptops, too.
iPad Air 2 review: Camera
The third in the iPad Air's trio of headline enhancements (after the slimmed-down body and pumped-up processor) is the rear-facing camera, which has been boosted from 5 to 8 megapixels.
Our tests suggest this isn't a huge leap forward in visual fidelity: we shot various scenes with the iPad Air 1 and Air 2, and while the latter generally showed more detail, there were some where it was hard to tell which was which. Your experience is likely to vary depending on the shooting conditions, and there will be areas where the iPad Air 2 demonstrates its superiority, but don't expect a quantum leap forward.
Here are some comparison shots taken on the iPad Air 1 and iPad Air 2:
Our overall feeling is that there are certain shooting conditions in which the iPad Air 2 demonstrates its superiority - particularly close-up detail under studio lighting, and low-light conditions. More generic daylight shots were hard to tell apart.
We compare the cameras on the iPad Air 1 and iPad Air 2 in more detail in a separate article: iPad Air 1 vs iPad Air 2: Camera comparisons
More appealing than the increase of megapixel rating, however, may be the new camera features that have been added. The iPad Air 2 gets slow-mo and time-lapse video modes, as well as burst mode and a timer. And panoramas: the iPad Air 1 already had these, but they're now allowed to go all the way up to 43 megapixels.
Apple has also improved the FaceTime camera; it's now a FaceTime HD camera, the same as in the iPhone 6, and letting in 81 percent more light. Perfect for low-light use.
Talk of iPad photography always leads to discussion of whether people should be using their tablets as super-size cameras. But the evidence is in, and it shows that they don't care what you think, and are going to keep doing it anyway.
While some of us might laugh at tourists taking pictures with an iPad, and decry iPad photographers at concerts, iPad photography isn't going anywhere. As Apple put it, the iPad makes an excellent view finder, and we can admit to seeing the appeal (to a certain extent). Whatever your feelings about taking photos with the iPad, there is no doubt that it is a popular camera.
For these reasons the iPad Air 2's improved capabilities as a camera will be much appreciated.
iPad Air 2 review: Touch ID and Apple Pay
Less important than the big three improvements, but likely to intensely please a select few Touch ID addicts, is the addition of Apple's fingerprint scanner to the iPad line for the first time. (It simultaneously made an appearance in the iPad mini 3.)
Touch ID on the iPad is as straightforward and fast to use as it is on the iPhones. You can use Touch ID to unlock your iPad Air 2, to unlock various apps, and to verify purchases on the App Store. (There are checks and balances, however - the first time you unlock the iPad after a power-down, you'll need to input the passcode; ditto the first time you verify a purchase after setting up Touch ID.)
You can also use Touch ID to do your online shopping, as long as those sites and/or apps have Apple Pay implemented.
Apple appears to have concluded that people are unlikely to take their iPad shopping in the real world so the most famous aspect of Apple Pay and Touch ID - the one where you touch your device on a sensor in a shop to pay for goods, as seen in the iPhone 6/6s and Apple Watch - is disabled on the iPad Air 2.
We had thought that Apple had simply chosen not to equip the new iPads with the NFC antenna required for in-store Apple Pay, but a teardown by iFixit has found otherwise. Which means that, in theory, Apple could activate the feature in future. It's perhaps more plausible, however, that the NFC module has been included as a future-proofing feature that can be used for smart home controls, device-to-device money transfers and other as-yet unrevealed functions some way down the line.
(The iPad mini 3 also gains Touch ID, and the same limited form of Apple Pay as the iPad Air 2: read more about the new iPad mini here.) The iPad Pro also has Touch ID, but a gain: no Apple Pay support.
iPad Air 2 review: Specs
- A8X processor chip with 64-bit architecture; M8 motion coprocessor
- 2GB RAM
- 16GB, 64GB or 128GB storage
- 9.7-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit widescreen Multi-Touch display with IPS technology; 2048x1536-pixel resolution at 264 ppi; Fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating; Fully laminated display; Anti-reflective coating
- Rear-facing iSight Camera: 8Mp still photos; Autofocus; ƒ/2.4 aperture; Five-element lens; Hybrid IR filter; Backside illumination; Face detection; Exposure control; Panorama (up to 43Mp); Burst mode; Tap to focus; Photo geotagging; Timer mode; 1080p HD video recording (30 fps); Slo-mo (120 fps); Time-lapse video; Video image stabilisation; 3x video zoom; Video geotagging
- Front-facing FaceTime HD Camera: 1.2Mp still photos; ƒ/2.2 aperture; 720p HD video recording; Backside illumination; Auto HDR photos and videos; Face detection; Burst mode; Exposure control; Timer mode
- Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n/ac); dual channel (2.4GHz and 5GHz); HT80 with MIMO; Bluetooth 4.0 technology
- Audio Playback: Frequency response: 20Hz to 20,000Hz; Audio formats supported: AAC (8 to 320 Kbps), Protected AAC (from iTunes Store), HE-AAC, MP3 (8 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 2, 3, 4, Audible Enhanced Audio, AAX and AAX+), Apple Lossless, AIFF and WAV; User-configurable maximum volume limit
- Video formats supported: H.264 video up to 1080p, 60 frames per second, High Profile level 5.0 with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4 and .mov file formats; MPEG-4 video up to 2.5 Mbps, 640x480 pixels, 30 frames per second, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps per channel, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4 and .mov file formats; Motion JPEG (M-JPEG) up to 35 Mbps, 1280x720 pixels, 30 frames per second, audio in ulaw, PCM stereo audio in .avi file format
- Built-in 27.3-watt-hour rechargeable lithium-polymer battery; Up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video or listening to music (Apple's claimed figures)
- Touch ID fingerprint scanner
- Three-axis gyro
- Ambient light sensor
- Lightning connector
- Height: 240mm; Width: 169.5mm; Depth: 6.1mm; Weight: 437g (Wi-Fi model), 444g (Wi-Fi plus cellular model)
iPad Air 2 review: Graphics testing
Another benefit of the A8X is that it uses quad-core graphics; the A8 in the iPhone 6 or Plus doesn't.
Apple says the graphics are 2.5x faster than the iPad Air graphics were. Apple says that this iPad is capable of the kind of graphics "once possible only on desktop computers and gaming consoles".
It has to be said that, even a year on, there still aren't all that many games we've seen that really demand (or even convincingly exploit) the iPad Air 2's undoubted processing capabilities, but we remain optimistic that patience will be rewarded. Most developers create games that cater to all currently available devices, and as time moves on more powerful games become available. While there is a significant portion of the iPad gamer market sitting on devices with older processors, the average game developer will want to play it safe: it makes sense to appeal to as large a market as possible. But those gamers on iPad 2, iPad 3 and iPad 4 devices will upgrade in time.
To test its potential power for gaming, we put the iPad Air 2 - along with all the other currently available iPads - through our usual graphical speed benchmarking test, GFXBench. As expected, the iPad Air 2 was streets ahead of the pack, recording a playable framerate of 24.6 frames per second (fps) on the exceptionally tough onscreen Manhattan portion of the test - on which the other devices (or rather, the other devices that were capable of completing it - the iPad mini 1 couldn't cope) were clustered around 9fps.
GFXBench graphics speed tests
Looking for more analysis? Here's the Macworld team discussing the pros and cons of the iPad Air 2 (and Apple's other new launches):
iPad Air 2 review: Speakers and sound quality
The iPad Air 2 gets a stereo speaker setup, like the iPad mini lineup before it. (At least, we're pretty sure it does - there's still some debate about this, and Apple's own specs only call them speakers.) About time, some audiophiles might say: yet the truth is that it might as well still be mono.
The iPad Air 2's stereo speaker grilles are right next to each other, on the same edge of the device. (The lower edge, either side of the Lightning port.) It's therefore almost impossible to create a situation in which the two sound sources can be heard separately. If you pop the iPad on its side and watch a movie with amazing sound design, prepare for disappointment: both speakers will be on the left (or the right) of the screen, and their output will be mashed together.
We put our noses up against the Lightning port and were able to persuade (fool?) ourselves into thinking we were listening to music in glorious stereo. There was an audible separation between left and right channels. But this obviously isn't the way any sane person listens to the content on their tablet.
This stands in stark contrast to the iPad Pro, which has four speakers (one on each corner) with a recessed sound chamber. The audio quality of the iPad Pro is astonishing compared to the iPad Air 2, and we expect future iPad Air models to have vastly improved audio quality.
Moving away from the mono/stereo issue (and it is frustrating to have stereo speakers but not be able to listen to them in a way that is conducive to stereo sound), the iPad Air 2 produces sound that isn't bad, but isn't great either. It can manage quite a decent volume without quality degrading, but while you get a nice solid snap out of snare drums and similar, bass isn't much to write home about. It's quite a 'thin' sound, too - not something you'd call warm.
If audio is a priority for you, it's worth thinking about a separate wireless speaker.
iPad Air 2 review: Battery life testing
Despite all the speed increases, and the fact that it comes with a lower-capacity battery unit (27.3 Wh compared to 32.4 Wh in the Air 1), Apple claims the iPad Air 2 offers the same 10-hour battery life as its predecessor. That's 10 hours of what is usually termed 'typical use', which in this case encompasses web browsing, video and music.
The Air 2 manages this feat because of the increased power efficiency of the A8X chip, the company says, as well as improvements to the efficiency of the battery itself.
Macworld technical editor Andrew Harrison put these claims to the test in our labs. We set the Air 2 a more stressful test than normal browsing, using looped gameplay from the GFXBench graphics test discussed above. Our established battery test requires a device to play the GFXBench T-Rex sequence 30 times, which in this case gave an estimated total runtime of 3 hour and 53 minutes.
We stress here that this isn't the indictment of Apple's claims that it might sound like, because our battery test is far more strenuous than typical use - you'd never expect a device to record the same battery life here as in everyday use. For reference, we tried the same test on a year-old iPad Air 1 (with both tablets on the same build of the current latest iOS 8.1 software) and the first Air posted an estimated total runtime of 4 hour 6 min.
But beyond this it's important to also look at the performance of each product. Over the length of the test, the iPad Air 1 could plough through gaming visuals at an average framerate of 22.9 fps; meanwhile, the Air 2 played at more than twice that speed, recording 48.3 fps.
iPad Air 2 review : Other features
iPad Air 2 review: Connectivity
The new iPad Air 2 also offers better Wi-Fi connectivity than the last generation, thanks to the inclusion of the latest 802.11ac technology. The iPad mini 3 doesn’t gain this new Wi-Fi technology which seems like a strange omission as Apple told us that the new Wi-Fi technology will be great for AirDrop.
Another new area of connectivity is the addition of Apple's own SIM - a removable SIM for the UK and US markets. This SIM is designed to be "as flexible as possible", according to Apple. It will only work in the latest iPads, though.
iPad Air 2 review: Storage capacity
As it did with the iPhone 6 line up, Apple has dropped the 32GB capacity option from the iPad Air 2 line up. Apple told us that this was a strategy to bring the higher capacities down to a lower price point making it more affordable in that category.
When we asked why they kept the 16GB model on (rather than replacing that with the 32GB model) Apple told us that 16GB has always been popular (due to the lower price we are sure). Unfortunately all those people with 16GB devices are the ones who’ve failed to install iOS 9…
You will be able to buy a 32GB iPad Air 2, however.
Read about why it's not a good idea to buy the 16GB version: The problem with Apple's 16GB iPhones and iPads
iPad Air 2 review: Availability
The iPad Air 2 is widely available and there are no problems securing a device, having started shipping on 17 October 2014. Interestingly enough (at least to Apple geeks like us), the company didn't really promote the launch date in the same way as it does for the iPhone - units just started arriving in stores with little to no fanfare.
iPad Air 2 review: UK price
The price of the iPad Air 2 starts at £399 for the 16GB Wi-Fi version, rising to £499 if you add cellular connectivity.
As with the iPhone 6, there is no 32GB iPad Air 2: instead, you jump straight to 64GB for £479 (£579 for cellular).
The top-of-the-range 128GB iPad Air 2 costs £559 (£659 if you want to add 3G/cellular).
This compares pretty favourably with the original launch prices of the iPad Air, which started at £399 for the 16GB Wi-Fi model, and rose to a whopping £739 for the 128GB cellular version.
The iPad Air (or iPad Air 1, as we're likely to call it from now on) remains on sale, and has dropped in price. Now it costs £319 for the 16GB or £359 for the 32GB versions. In both cases add £100 on to the price for the cellular model.
There is now a grand total of five different iPads to choose from - not counting the different capacities, 3G option and colour variants, which add up to a worrying 56 configurations. To wade through the options and get the right iPad for you, read our iPad buying guide: Which iPad should I buy?
If you'd prefer your iPad buying advice in video form, take a look at this:
iPad Air 2 review: Photos
We've posted some photos of the beautiful iPad Air 2 throughout this review, but you're probably keen to see more. Feast your eyes:
iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3. Here they are again:
Above: side view of the iPad Air 2 in its three colour options, illustrating how magnificently thin it is. Note the strategic lighting, however
Above: a still from Apple's 'Change is in the Air' advert for the iPad Air 2, which illustrates some of the ways Apple fans use their iPads. Here's another:
That concludes our iPad Air 2 review for the time being, although we'll continually update this article as we collect more testing data and spend more time with the device.
However, if you turn to the next page you can read our original preview of the iPad Air 2, which was based on our best guesses of what could be expected from the new iPad. See for yourself how much we - and the rest of the tech media - got right about the iPad Air 2, and how much we got wrong!