iPad Air 2 review, one year on: Still the best mid-size tablet

In our iPad 6 preview, we discuss the iPad 6's likely UK launch date (nearly nailed on now, thanks to the arrival of invitations to a press launch event on 16 October), new features and design updates, its possible names - iPad 6, iPad Air 2, New iPad Air, iPad Pro - and look ahead to its unveiling later this autumn. Bookmark this page for our full UK-specific iPad 6 review when the device is launched; in the meantime, we speculate on what you can expect from the new iPad for autumn 2014.

Read more about Apple's autumn launches: iPhone 6 review | iPhone 6 Plus review | Apple Watch review | iPad mini 3 preview | iPad Pro (or iPad Plus) preview

iPad 6 preview: UK launch date

First up, when do we expect the new iPad Air to launch?

We're pretty sure the iPad 6/iPad Air 2/New iPad Air will be unveiled on Thursday 16 October. Apple sent invitations out to press outlets yesterday (8 October), summoning select journalists to events in Cupertino and Berlin on the 16th. Macworld's editor and technical editor will be in Berlin, and you can expect thorough coverage on Macworld starting at 6pm UK time. (That's 10am Pacific Time, for our US readers.)

This all fits in with expectations, and with past behaviour. In previous years, of course, Apple has separated its autumn releases into two events: an iPhone launch in September, and then an iPad event in October. After the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus made an appearance in September, we're almost certain that the iPads will get their turn at this event on 16 October.

They might not be the only thing to be unveiled, mind you. Mac OS X Yosemite could be launched to the public at the same time (or 25 minutes later, to avoid making Craig Federighi's hair turn white) and there are persistent rumours of a Retina iMac.

Decide for yourself: here's the mysterious invitation:

iPad 6 press event invitation

As for the iPad Air 2/iPad 6's UK availability: expect to wait a week to 10 days after the unveiling before units hit UK shops, assuming manufacturing issues aren't a problem: Friday 24 October is a likely date. But as ever, expect shortages and long queues: preordering is a good idea.

iPad 6 preview: Name

Apple can be a bit inconsistent with its naming conventions: sometimes calling a new product the same name as the one before (or with 'New' tagged on), sometimes using version numbers (although that's mainly confined to the iPhones), and sometimes coming up with totally new brands.

Apple fans widely refer to the next iPad as the iPad 6, for the endearingly straightforward reason that it's the sixth full-size iPad (to watch the evolution of Apple's five iPads so far, watch our comparison video). Ha ha ha! The fools. If only it were that sensible. (Mind you, to keep things comprehensible I too will be calling the new full-size iPad for autumn 2014 the iPad 6 for the duration of this article. Otherwise it'll just get too confusing.)

My personal prediction is that the new iPad will be called simply 'iPad Air' (or even possibly 'New iPad Air', even though that policy was roundly mocked when the New iPad - the iPad 3 - came out) and have it replace the previous model entirely. (The new iPad Air would then sit alongside the iPad 4 - sorry, the 'iPad with Retina display' - as the two full-size iPad offerings until the iPad Pro launches later this year or in 2015.) This is the most likely outcome if we're looking at a relatively minor update: a new iPad with the same chassis and screen, but a new processor and similar incremental updates. The same thing happened when Apple went from the iPad 3 to the highly similar iPad 4 - officially they were both called iPad, or slight variations on that.

It's possible, too, that Apple will go for the name 'iPad Air 2', although it doesn't sound great - and, as we mentioned, Apple tends to steer clear of version numbers for iPads, with the exception of the iPad 2. Or if there was a single major upgrade that Apple wanted to highlight, it could call it 'iPad Air with [name of feature]', just as it did with the iPad mini with Retina display. But if there's a single major upgrade of that sort in the iPad 6, Apple's managed to keep it quiet so far.

Also in the running: using the branding system from another line of Apple products. In other words, the iPad Pro. But we think that name will be saved for a bigger-screen iPad for later in the year.

iPad Air 2 review

The iPad Air: expect the iPad 6 (or iPad Air 2) to look pretty similar

iPad 6 preview: Design

There have been relatively few leaks of the iPad 6 - a lot less than of the iPhone 6, although that may be down to the greater headline-grabbing abilities of Apple's smartphone. Still, we've got a few ideas of what the sequel to the iPad Air will look like.

Here are some leaked dummy models that, if genuine, may give an idea of the iPad 6's approximate physical design:

iPad 6 review: Leaked photo

Photos - allegedly showing a dummy iPad 6 - posted on the Chinese microblogging service Weibo, by the accessory maker Yi Lin (which placed those watermarks on the images above) and then picked up by macotakara and nowhereelse.fr.

The speaker grille appears to have been redesigned, with noticeably larger holes in a single rather than double row; the microphone has been moved next to the rear-facing camera aperture; the volume buttons don't sit as clear of the chassis; and there doesn't seem to anywhere for the mute/screen orientation lock switch to sit.

The following photos, again showing what is claimed is a dummy iPad 6 unit, were unearthed by Phone Arena.

iPad 6 review

Note the giveaway ring of a Touch ID fingerprint scanner around the Home button

iPad 6 review

Redesigned speaker grille

iPad 6 review

Where's the screen orientation lock button?

iPad 6 preview: New features

We're expecting this refresh to be a relatively minor one, with some upgraded components and few new features. Going by the rumours, however, there could be any number of thrilling new features... Take these with a pinch of salt, we'd suggest.

For one thing, the iPhone 5s's Touch ID fingerprint scanner is likely to be added.

And there's some speculation that the iPad 6 may get split screen multitasking. Cult of Mac has suggested that the increased allocation of RAM - 2GB - in the new iPad Air could be designed for split-screen multitasking (such a feature could well require more RAM in order to run smoothly), and reports that an app developer has discovered a 'main-screen-canvas-size' option hidden in the iOS 8 beta code.

Some Apple pundits have predicted that the iPad 6 will offer voice calling, mainly because Android tablets already offer this, and a report from IDC says these tablets are popular in Asia. We'd be surprised, to be honest, but it's an interesting idea!

Other than that, most of the new features you'll be enjoying a few months from now are likely to be thanks to iOS 8, the iPad 6's updated software. We discuss that further in a later section.

iPad 6 preview: Screen

Fans are keen for Apple to launch a bigger-screen iPad in the near future, but such a product would surely deserve its own launch event - Apple is much too canny to let the huge headlines of the iPhone 6 and an 'iPad Pro' trample all over each other.

We therefore expect the iPad 6 to have the same screen size - 9.7 inches, measured diagonally - as the iPad Air. A 12-inches-plus iPad may well be in the pipeline, but that's a topic for another day. (Probably a day in October, although we may have to wait until 2015.)

iPad 6 preview: Camera

We've not heard any rumours related to the iPad 6's camera, although upping the megapixel count is always a crowd-pleaser. Perhaps a more useful addition would be a flash, such as the True Tone LED model in the iPhone 5s.

We'll test out the iPad 6's camera as soon as review samples are available.

iPad 6 review

iPad 6 preview: Other specs

We'll post detailed specs for the iPad 6 as soon as Apple unveils them! In the meantime, here's a rough idea of what we're expecting:

  • A8 processor - could be as much as twice the speed of the iPad Air's A7 chip on paper, although such gains wouldn't be apparent until apps are written to take advantage of the A8's power
  • 2GB RAM
  • 16GB, 32GB, 64GB or 128GB of storage
  • Forward-facing camera: 1.2Mp still photos and 720p video
  • Rear-facing camera: 5Mp still photos and 1080p video
  • 9.7-inch LED-backlit Multi?Touch display; 2048 x 1536 resolution at 264 pixels per inch
  • Lightning connector

iPad 6 review

iPad 6 preview: Battery life

Expect the iPad 6 to run with a similar battery life to the iPad Air: around 10 hours of typical use. That's a figure that crops up again and again with Apple products, making us believe that someone high up in the Apple hierarchy thinks it's a sweet spot for customers. (One recent exception, however, is the iPhone 6 Plus, which apparently runs 12 hours under standard testing conditions.) And besides, our prediction is that the iPad 6 will have the same screen and largely similar components to the iPad Air, which would mean a similar battery life in any case.

We'll confirm the iPad 6's battery life, however, as soon as we're able to get some quality testing with review samples.

iPad 6 preview: Software

I've argued several times in the past that free software updates are just as important as expensive hardware ones when it comes to the evolution of iOS device user experience. We don't expect the iPad 6 to be physically very different from the iPad Air; but on the bright side, it will come with iOS 8 preinstalled, and iOS 8 has lots of intriguing new abilities. (Admittedly, earlier iPads - from the iPad 2 onwards - also get access to iOS 8. But some will get an incomplete set of features, and the newer your device, the longer you can expect to enjoy iOS updates.)

We've looked at iOS 8 in frankly punishing detail in a number of articles:

iOS 8 beta review
iOS 8 vs iOS 7 comparison review
Everything you need to know about the iOS 8 beta versions
What's new in Calendar in iOS 8 & Yosemite
Using QuickType & Swype keyboards in iOS 8
Alternative keyboards in iOS 8
iOS 8 extensions wishlist
How to join the iOS 8 beta
The best of iOS 8
iOS 8 FAQ
Will my iPad or iPhone be able to run iOS 8?
10 cool new features in Photos for iOS 8 & Yosemite 

iPad 6 review: iOS 8

iPad 6 preview: UK price

We'd expect the iPad 6 to cost pretty much the same as the iPad Air does now: in other words, starting at £399 for the 16GB, WiFi-only model and topping out at £739 for 128GB of storage and cellular capabilities.

Read our full first look review of the Apple Watch, including UK pricing information

OUR VERDICT

At first, we were a tiny bit concerned about how much physical punishment this slender creature would stand up to. But after well over a year of everyday use, our iPad Air 2 remains physically unharmed; and if you're throwing your iPad around the place (or deliberately bending it) then you should probably expect to come unstuck anyway.

Other than that, this is a lovely update of an already lovely device, with an improved camera compared to the Air 1, a considerably faster processor, a slimmer, more portable body and Touch ID. Newer Apple devices have better features, though: such as the Apple Pencil from the iPad Pro or 3D Touch on the new iPhone 6s. We expect one, or both, of these features to make it into future generations of iPad Air. And the Air 2's audio is a bit of a weakness; the iPad Pro has wonderful sound quality, which will surely work its way into the iPad Air 3.

The iPad Air 2 represents good value for money compared to the very expensive iPad Pro, and at present offers the same real-world speed, despite featuring a processor that is slower on paper. With the iPad Air 3 not expected until around September 2016, we would cautiously argue that this is the best iPad model to buy right now - but be warned that Apple has sprung surprises before, and that there remains a slim possibility that the Air 3 could turn up as early as spring of 2016.

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