The iPad Air 2 is thinner, faster, better—but does that matter?

Also, if you're on the hunt for an iPad Mini and don't need Touch ID, save $100 by choosing the Mini 2

Published: October 24, 2014 04:45 PM
Apple iPad Air 2: The thinnest tablet, by a hair

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The new Apple iPad Air 2 looks as stunning as you’d expect a new iPad to look. But if you’re considering an upgrade from an older iPad, you’ll want to know if the changes are more than cosmetic. In brief, the answer is yes: This is a faster machine with a better display. Does it do anything radically better than its predecessor? Not really.

The new look

Place an iPad Air 2 next to the first iPad Air, and you’ll notice some striking cosmetic changes. It’s immediately apparent that the new tablet is thinner. At 0.24 inches, it’s literally a hair more svelte than Sony’s 0.25-inch Xperia Z2 Tablet, the skinniest tablet to this point. Apple shaved the iPad Air 2 down by, among other things, eliminating the air between the three layers of the iPad display, fusing the screen into just one layer. (In fact, the Air 2 is so thin that you can depress the screen from the back of the device. You know how poking an LCD with a fingertip produces a temporary distortion, a small puddle of color? The same thing happens on the Air 2 if you press it from behind—there's no reason to think this will damage the device.)

The Home button, which is also the Touch ID fingerprint reader, is stainless steel-rimmed and as a result it looks a tad more sophisticated. And there’s no longer a lock switch; that function is now handled in Control Center. You can now buy a gold-colored version of the tablet, in addition to the familiar gray and silver ones.

A faster processor

Apple says the new A8X processor in the iPad Air 2 is 40 percent faster than the processor in the iPad Air. When we ran the 3D Mark benchmark on both, the Air 2 was about 50 percent faster. In practice, this may not radically enhance the user's experience, since the Air is plenty fast enough to run the games and other apps we've tried.

An anti-reflective screen

In bright light, the Air 2 is much more readable than the Air. That’s because of a new anti-reflective coating Apple added to the display. In fact, the Air 2 is the best tablet we’ve viewed in bright light. This may be the most significant improvement to the device for most users, though the Air 2 is still not as good under those conditions as an e-book reader. The new display also makes the blacks look deeper, so if you’re watching a movie with a lot of dark scenes, for example, details won’t get as washed out in a normally lit room.

Touch ID

The Touch ID system familiar to owners of newer iPhones has finally come to the company's tablets. You can now use a fingerprint to unlock your iPad. You can also use it to authorize online purchases with the company's new Apple Pay system. The device doesn't include NFC technology, so you won't be able to wave it at a checkout counter to make purchases.  

A new camera

Apple increased the resolution of the iPad’s camera to 8 megapixels, from 5. It also added a new burst mode to the camera, so you can take multiple photos quickly. Also new is the Air 2's slow-motion video capability.

Do you need the iPad Air 2?

We’ll do further tests on the iPad Air 2, including taking a more detailed look at Touch ID, the camera, and battery life. But if you’re in the market for a new iPad, here’s our buying advice: It’s a great choice if you don’t have a tablet, or if you own one of the earliest versions of the iPad. If you don’t need the enhanced features outlined here, you can save $100 and get the iPad Air, which is just a bit thicker but has the same display resolution as the Air 2.

What about the iPad Mini 3?

The only noticeable difference between the iPad Mini 3 and the iPad Mini 2 is the addition of Touch ID to the new one. But here’s the great news: You can save $100 by choosing the older iPad Mini 2. It’s got the same processor, the same display, and the same look and feel as the Mini 3.

—Donna Tapellini

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