We Told You What to Dream: The iPad Air 2 Review

Merely the best mainstream tablet.

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“What good is an iPhone that can’t make calls and doesn’t fit in your pocket?” That’s what I (and many others in the tech enthusiast community) said upon the announcement of the original iPad back in the far off antebellum past of 2010. The whole idea of an ARM-based tablet running a smartphone OS seemed absurd. Tablets were specialty tools for students and professionals who needed the ability to take notes and annotate presentations on the go in a way that a traditional laptop wouldn’t easily allow. And here comes Apple, trying to suggest they should be mass-media consumption devices. “Harumph,” we said.

How does that old saying go? “Time makes fools of us all.” The iPad was a runaway success that spawned a legion of competitors, and tablets have all but replaced small sub-notebooks and netbooks. Now they even threaten to overtake traditional laptop sales in the coming quarters, though as per usual the market Apple found the ideal time to capitalize upon seems to have run away from them. Once thought to be the new crown jewel in Apple’s mobile empire, the iPad has seen its market share toppled by Google’s Android, while the realities of competing without carrier subsidies have never allowed it to be the cash cow the iPhone has become for Apple. Some speculated after the launch of the iPad Mini in 2012 that Apple might refocus on the more popular sub-8” tablet market and leave the traditional flagship 9.7” iPad to rot. This doom and gloom quickly proved misplaced, however, when the iPad Air launched in 2013. The largest iPad shed substantial weight and girth, slimming down to be lighter than many competing 8” tablets. Then, late last year, it was refreshed again with the predictably-named iPad Air 2. This device was not just thinner and lighter still than its immediate predecessor, it also picked up some new tricks. Externally, the iPad Air 2 picks up a higher-resolution camera sensor and TouchID-enabled home button, but as always it’s what’s on the inside that counts. While the original iPad Air shared the same 1 GB of RAM and A7 system-on-a-chip (SoC) as the iPad Mini and iPhone 5s it debuted alongside, the iPad Air 2 features a specially-designed A8X that brings two things to the table never seen in a previous iOS device, even the new iPhone 6 Plus: a second gigabyte of RAM, and a third processor core. Combined with a monstrously powerful GPU co-designed with Imagination Technologies and a desktop-class 128-bit memory bus, Apple is competing on specs like never before. The message is clear: Apple is through playing second-fiddle in a market they exploded. The king wants his crown back.

Video Review

I’m trying out something new with this device: a ‘brief’ video review. This one has some limitations related to my setup and being my first go at such a task, but it’s definitely a process I want to work on improving and refining for future devices (and possibly even some editorial content). You may notice that content is coming at a faster clip these days, and I fully intend that to be something that continues, with a full review every couple of months and (ideally) one to two shorter news or editorial articles a week. Anyway, the first official Blag-o-nets video review should be embedded here, barring any WordPress-related disasters:

iPad Air 2 Detailed Specifications

Apple iPad Air 2 Google/HTC Nexus 9
Display 9.7” 2048×1536 IPS 8.9” 2048×1536 IPS
CPU Apple A8X (3x “Enhanced Cyclone” @ 1.5 GHz) nVidia Tegra K1-64 (2x “Denver” @ 2.3 GHz)
RAM 2 GB LPDDR3 2 GB LPDDR3
GPU Apple/Imagination Technologies “GXA6850” nVidia Kepler (1 SMX, 192 CUDA cores)
NAND 16/64/128 GB 16/32 GB
Expandable storage? No No
Connectivity 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.1, optional LTE + GNSS 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.1, GNSS, NFC, optional LTE
Cameras 8 MP F/2.4 rear, 1.3 MP front 8 MP F/2.4 rear with flash, 1.6 MP front
Charging Proprietary Lightning Micro-USB 2.0
Battery 27.62 Whr 25.46 Whr
Dimensions 240 x 169.5 x 6.1 mm 228.25 x 153.68 x 7.95m
Weight 436g WiFi, 444g LTE 425g WiFi, 436g LTE
MSRP $499/$599/$699 WiFi

$629/$729/$829 LTE

$399/$479 WiFi

$599 LTE (32 GB only)

A Note on this Review

Traditionally, I examine mobile devices by running down the spec sheet. First we’d talk about industrial design an build quality, then about the quality of the display, then about the performance of the SoC, then about battery life, and so on. This review is going to try something a little different. Rather than treat the iPad Air 2 like a series of numbers on a spreadsheet, I’m going to review the two very different roles modern tablets try to fill: content consumption, the role Apple pushed heavily with its original iPad in 2010, and content creation, the role that Microsoft champions with Windows 8+ and in which Apple has been trying to prove its chops over the last couple of generations. I’ll look at both of these facets individually, and then reflect on the device as a whole through these two lenses. Some things are common to both roles, of course, such as build quality and display quality, so I’ll do my level best not to repeat myself too much.

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Content Consumption

Let’s start this section off with the elephant in the room: that 9.7” 2048×1536 ‘Retina’ display. At 268 pixels per inch, it’s no longer class-leading in terms of raw pixel density, but it’s hardly a slouch either. Both sizes of the Galaxy Tab S, Nexus 9, and even 2013 Nexus 7 all edge out the iPad Air 2’s display in terms of raw pixel density, which is certainly worth considering. It isn’t impossible to resolve the individual pixels in the Air 2’s display by any means – I can easily do so from distances of just over a foot. There’s more to a display than just density, however, as anyone who works in art or design can tell you. The iPad Air 2’s raw size makes for a compelling argument when consuming content over a smaller tablet like the old Nexus 7 or nVidia Shield – web pages are easier to read and movies are easier to follow on the bigger screen.  The larger screen size also means you don’t need to hold the tablet as close to your face to fill your field of view, which mitigates the lower density a great deal. The iPad’s display also gets incredibly bright – almost uncomfortably so, even in a well lit room. Fortunately, it maintains good black levels while doing so, leading to contrast levels that, while inferior to an AMOLED panel for obvious reasons, put many other displays to shame. Colors are vivid without being oversaturated like the are on so many consumer-oriented displays. While I don’t have a colorimeter to measure exact color accuracy and contrast ratios, Anandtech does and they have consistently found the recent iPad ‘retina’ displays to be among the most accurate in the business. That being said, it’s not leaps-and-bounds compared to other well-calibrated panels like last year’s Nexus 7 – if, like me, that’s the upgrade path you’re taking, display quality isn’t a driving reason to do so.

But size? Oh the size. When I first got my Nexus 7, it replaced an aging HP TouchPad I had picked up during the fire sale. That device had a 9.7” IPS panel as well, but ran at a lowly 1024×768 resolution like the original iPads. It was big, but that size came at a cost: the tablet itself was very heavy – heavier than even the original iPad – and chunkier than year-old milk. It also wasn’t ever really intended to run Android, which resulted in a lot of battery life and performance issues. The Nexus 7 felt like a breath of fresh air, to such an extent that the smaller display was mitigated by all the advantages. Over time, however, I came to use the Nexus 7 less and less as it just didn’t convey enough of a benefit over just using my phone. This came to a head after I upgraded my Nexus 4 to a Galaxy S5. Not only did the S5 have a bigger, more accurate display than the Nexus 4, it was faster than even the Nexus 7. An extra 1.9” of diagonal space – less, even, once the N7’s software buttons are factored in – just couldn’t justify the carrying and use of a second device any more. Let me tell you, the Nexus 7 gets great battery life when sitting idle 99% of the time, and it was still better for notes during D&D sessions or reading books than my phone, but it just had a hard time defending its presence in my day-to-day life. Instead, I found myself using my MacBook Pro or ThinkPad T61 in less than ideal conditions for a full-size laptop due to their superior performance and larger displays. The iPad Air 2, then, is the perfect fit. The display is just the right size and aspect ratio for reading or watching YouTube in bed or on the couch, while being plenty portable enough to take on the go. It isn’t just the raw display size that goes into this, either; all the devices dimensions play a role. The iPad Air 2 is the thinnest, narrowest, shortest, and lightest tablet to ever stuff a full 9.7” display into its chassis, and it makes an enormous difference. Where the TouchPad was an encumbrance to take anywhere without a specific need, the iPad Air 2 is so small and light it practically disappears when placed in a bag or even carried in hand. The very first impression you get of the device upon lifting it out of the box is of how light and slim it is. It almost feels like it’s missing something; it’s a feeling not dissimilar to a phone that hasn’t yet had the battery inserted. The thickness of the tablet is so absurdly low as to almost be too thin; it feels like it might be a little easier to hold if it were just a little thicker. It’s so small, in fact, that it actually has less bezel than not only the Nexus 7 it replaced, but even than my MacBook Pro. While using terms like “perfect form factor” is a great way to insert your foot directly into your mouth (Apple should know, since they called both 3.5 and 4 inches the “perfect” smartphone sizes in the past), the iPad Air 2 does seem like it comes close to the best you’re going to realistically achieve in a 10-inch tablet given the limitations of lithium-ion battery technology.

Of course, the display isn’t the only aspect of content consumption. If the speakers are tinny garbage that you can barely hear over your air conditioner, then it doesn’t matter how good the display is, you aren’t going to be consuming the video and music that make up a lot of web content. Fortunately, Apple has delivered on that front – mostly. The iPad’s speakers are both at the bottom of the device (in portrait mode), and do nominally provide stereo sound. They are plenty loud and provide a surprising amount of bass given the limitation of a thin tablet body, but their placement sabotages them somewhat. When using the device resting in your lap or on your chest/stomach in bed, the speakers are firing directly into your body, which is obviously not ideal. When watching a video in landscape mode, they both fire off to either the left of or right, robbing you of meaningful stereo output and making for a somewhat odd effect. The HP TouchPad placed its stereo speakers on the side to mitigate this problem, though since they didn’t rotate their stereo output with the device this caused a whole new set of problems when watching videos. The Nexus 7 puts its speakers on the back, which is also not ideal for obvious reasons. Ultimately, there probably is no good solution other than interrupting your smooth bezels by placing them up front a la HTC. Even that involves tradeoffs, however: in a device as thin as the iPad Air 2, you’re going to have very shallow chambers, sacrificing loudness and bass range.

With high-resolution 3D games and increasingly complex websites making up a growing part of the content consumed on mobile devices, the idiots who decry that “specs don’t matter” look dumber with each passing generation. Thankfully, Apple has ignored them, because the iPad Air 2 packs arguably the best internals in the business. Complex web pages render in mere seconds, and games run beautifully. On my Nexus 7, the Android port of Blizzard’s TCG hit Hearthstone was so choppy as to be nearly unplayable. On my Galaxy S5, it’s a lot smoother, but still stutters and drops more frames than I’d like. On the iPad Air 2, however, it’s practically indistinguishable from playing on my desktop. I don’t typically play a lot of games on my tablet – a trend that probably won’t change, partly for a reason I’ll get to later – but if you do, the iPad Air 2 will not disappoint you. I do load a lot of complex web pages, however, and I can report that the experience browsing the web on the iPad is miles ahead of the experience with my Nexus 7. A lot of this is due to the larger display, of course, but the A8X’s CPU deserves no small amount of credit. This thing is fast. Blisteringly, blindingly, blazingly, mind-blowingly fast. Page loads are downright desktop class. I know that phrase has been thrown around in reference to ARM devices a lot (Apple made the same claim about the iPhone 5’s A6, for example), and hasn’t ever really been true in the past. It definitely is here, however. I loaded up about a dozen sites in Safari on both my iPad and my MacBook Pro, spanning the gamut from Ars Technica and Android Central to Amazon, Steam, and of course Apple.com. In almost every case the iPad was off in load times by less than a quarter of a second, and not even always in the MacBook’s favor. The notable exception was the notoriously sluggish The Verge, which saw the MacBook beat out the iPad’s load time by about two full seconds. Of course, as you can tell we’re splitting hairs in most of these cases, but by comparison the Nexus 7 is almost always at least a full second or two slower than the iPad Air 2, regardless of the page being loaded. Apps load incredibly quickly here, too, often barely flashing a splash screen before popping into view. Word (in which I am writing this review) is an especially egregious offender on the Nexus 7, taking several seconds to get to the document screen. On the iPad, that load time is reduced to about two seconds. This extends to games, social media apps like Twitter and Facebook (another especially slow Android app that springs up nearly instantly on the iPad), and video apps like Netflix. Preposterously, even Google Play Music and YouTube – which you may note are Google apps – are drastically faster on the iPad Air 2 than they’ve ever been for me on Android devices. The performance delta doesn’t stop once the app loads, either. Much has been made over time about Android’s “lag” problems relative to iOS, and while the situation has been grossly exaggerated, there is a nugget of truth in the comparison. Facebook and Twitter are good examples here – on the Nexus 7, scrolling in these apps has the slightest amount of stutter. Now, this was true as recently as the 4th-generation iPad on iOS as well, but it’s definitely not the case here. Most interestingly, the behavior I noticed on most previous generations of iOS devices where scrolling a web page in Safari would totally block the rendering thread until you stopped is gone. Now scrolling around a page that is still loading is not only completely fluid but also appears to have zero impact at all on the loading time – again, a situation that is definitely not the case on the Nexus 7 despite the latter’s quad-core CPU. Android has improved enormously over the years in terms of UI smoothness, but despite several generations of “the next generation of hardware will really fix it for good” it still remains slightly behind iOS and Windows Phone in this regard. It’s especially noticeable when comparing across not just platform, but hardware generations as well. Of course, you could convincingly argue that as a device that cost $500 and up in fall 2014 versus one that cost $230 in summer 2013, the iPad Air 2 had damn well better be a lot faster than the Nexus 7, and you’d certainly be right in that regard. That doesn’t really make the difference any less dramatic, however.

With all of this great performance, you’re probably thinking the iPad Air 2 would make a great gaming device. Well, it certainly can, as long as you stick to genres that work well on a touch screen. I’m a big fan of Crossy Road because I have a soft spot for both Frogger and voxel graphics, but there are other good ones as well. Dark Echo was the free app of the week recently, and manages to generate suspense and excitement with simple, stylized graphics. There are of course some big blockbusters in the App Store as well, like BioShock and the various Grand Theft Auto games. The latter you may remember as being early examples of games that leveraged iOS 7’s new controller support. “Aha!” you exclaim. “I have an extra PS3 controller that uses Bluetooth, I’ll just pair that and use it!” Not so fast, hoss. That would work on a PC, Android device, or even a Mac, but on iOS only special “MFi” controllers are supported. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are ridiculously expensive, hard to come by, and often designed specifically to accommodate an iPhone (an older one, at that). It’s safe to say that to date iOS 7’s “controller support” is a promise left unfulfilled, and it will stay that way until Apple just implements a standard Bluetooth controller stack as Google does on Android.

Another important aspect of content consumption performance is getting to that content in the first place, and that means powerful WiFi. The iPad Air 2 doesn’t disappoint here, either. In fact, it hold the distinction of being the first ARM-based mobile device to totally saturate my internet connection in Speedtest. I tried to transfer some files between the two devices using AirDrop to get a better feel for the raw throughput, but it turns out that my Late 2011 MacBook Pro doesn’t support AirDrop connections with iOS devices, even though it supports them with other Macs that would support them with iOS. Because, Apple. I suspect the veneer of a reason is the lack of Bluetooth 4.0, though why the Late 2011 MacBook Pro lacks BT 4.0 when the Mid 2011 MacBook Air had the feature is an entirely different animal.

The iPad Air 2 casually maxing out my 150/10 cable connection.
The iPad Air 2 casually maxing out my 150/10 cable connection.

Oh, and I should note that all the performance testing I just mentioned happened while the device had just about every app I’ve ever touched suspended in the background and music streaming through Google Play Music. The A8X is like a honey badger: it doesn’t care what you throw at it.

Content Creation

So we’ve established that the iPad Air 2 is basically the ideal device for content consumption. If you recall the complaints leveled at the original iPad all those years ago, however, the one that stuck through the first several generation was that it was really only any good for content consumption and useless as a productivity device. So is that still the case with the latest generation?

I’ve already stated that I’m writing this review on the iPad Air 2, but that isn’t really the most intensive content creation workload. I’m also cheating a little even at that relatively simple task; I might be writing this review on the iPad, but I’m not actually typing it on the device – I have a bluetooth keyboard connected for that. Still, the process of writing a review is more than just hammering out a few thousand words in Word. There’s a lot of formatting, research, editing photos, wasting time checking Twitter when you should be working, redoing the aforementioned formatting when the awful WordPress uploader inevitably eats most of it, and proofreading. This review has a goal: be the first one I’ve written, edited, formatted, and uploaded entirely with the device that I’m reviewing. (Editor’s note: I have in the interim actually written, edited, formatted, and uploaded another article using the iPad as well.) Other than the MacBook Pro one, of course, since that would kind of be cheating to include in this metric. Furthermore, you may have noticed the brief video review I’m testing out. That video was shot with my Galaxy S5, but it was then transferred to and edited entirely on the iPad. So yes, the iPad Air 2 is capable of creating content. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ideal for doing so; after all, we endured editing video on Pentium 4s at one point, too, but we wouldn’t clamor to do so today. So how well does it all work on the iPad Air 2?

Well if you watched the video overview I posted a couple of days back (which is also embedded at the top of this post), you’ll note that at the end it says the review was edited entirely on the iPad itself. That is absolutely true, but a few points about that bear mentioning. First, you’ll notice that it is uploaded in 720p. While it was shot with my Galaxy S5, which is fully capable of recording in up to 4k, size constraints from editing on the iPad forced me to reduce the quality of the footage. It’s not that the iPad couldn’t handle the processing related to 1080p or even 4k video – it’s simply that there isn’t enough space on the iPad’s non-expandable internal storage to work with such large files. I made the mistake of purchasing the 16 GB iPad Air 2, thinking that I could avoid Apple’s highway robbery storage markups by virtue of primarily using streaming music and video on my tablet. I had never run into an issue with the 16 GB of internal storage on either my HP TouchPad or my Nexus 7, after all. However, the iPad is a different beast. For whatever reason – perhaps owing partially to the need to include 64-bit binaries, and perhaps partially to the fact that iOS apps must include entirely separate retina and non-retina assets for each supported form factor – iPad apps tend to be very large. Apple’s own iMovie and Garageband are bother over 700 MB without any projects started, and the iWork apps are all over 300 MB each. Word is about 500 MB with only a couple of documents saved locally. Hearthstone is nearly 1 GB, and many games actually do break that 1 GB threshold. Simply put, 16 GB of storage isn’t enough, and like is becoming increasingly common on the Android side of the fence as well, there’s no support for expandable storage. The end result is the 16 GB model is extremely constraining. The good news is that you can uninstall the iWork apps, Garageband, and iMovie if you don’t use them to reclaim some space, but at the end of the day you’re still looking at about 10 GB of space to work with out of the gate in the best case scenario. This poses problems for both sides of the usage fence: for productivity, lots of documents, pictures, and presentations will quickly eat into such a small amount of storage even with liberal use of cloud syncing. For content consumption, it leaves you very little room for locally-stored media and games. Frankly there’s no excuse for Apple to ship so little storage in the base model, but the fact that they charge $100 for each ~$25 of NAND you add to the device is appalling. That said, I still have to recommend you purchase at least the 64 GB model, because 16 GB just isn’t enough any more.

But once I had reduced video size and uninstalled some apps to make room for working with that video, how did it go? Surprisingly, the iPad is quite capable of basic video editing. The performance of iMovie is perfect – no dropped frames or slow processing times when trimming and rearranging videos, adding effects, or mixing in other audio sources. The touchscreen controls are obviously less precise than what you could accomplish with a mouse, but on the whole the iPad makes a perfectly reasonable video editing device. Even the export of the video to a YouTube-friendly format took barely a minute – I can remember when even desktop computers would take longer than real time to export 720p video files. The A8X’s powerful CPU no doubt helps here, but it’s clearly the advent of GPU acceleration for these tasks that has made the real difference. Retouching the photos for this review is a similarly snappy process, never having to spend time waiting on the CPU to catch up when applying modifications or scrolling through large numbers of photos.

The last performance-related change to this generation of Apple’s tablet has perhaps one of the most profound effects on my usage, however. With the iPad Air 2, Apple has finally given us an iOS device with 2 GB of RAM, and it only serves to highlight how badly other devices in the range need that upgrade. I have been able to switch back and forth between this review, several Safari tabs, editing photos, and any app like Twitter or email that throws a notification at me without worrying about anything getting kicked out of RAM and losing my place. I’m even able to do all of this while streaming music or talking on a Hangouts call without negative impacts on performance. In fact, if iOS supported any kind of multi-window view, this would be a nearly desktop-class multitasking experience. It is still possible to trigger full app or tab reloads, but it typically involves switching between a dozen or so open apps and Safari tabs at a time; anything less than that and likely all you’ll ever see is a brief flash or white as the app in brought back from compressed memory. I’ve used a lot of Android devices with 2 GB of RAM – my Nexus 7 had 2 GB, as does my Galaxy S5 and even my Nexus 4 before it – and the iPad is clearly able to do more in that same 2 GB. But as efficient as iOS with RAM, it isn’t capable of miracles, and the iPad Air 2 just goes to show how desperately Apple needs to bring this upgrade to the rest of their iOS devices.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with trying to be productive on the iPad ends up being iOS itself. As noted earlier, there’s no multi-window support, so you end up doing a lot of task switching. Now to be fair, on the iPad this incredibly easy thanks to the four-finger swipe gestures to switch back and forth between apps and invoke the card-like multitasking view. Still, the ability to snap a web browser next to a Word document or a Twitter feed next to Safari, as in Windows 8, would be handy. Similarly, many Android tablets add the ability to float small widgets over other windows, like a calculator or messaging app, saving you from having to switch completely away from what you’re doing just to multiply some numbers together or respond to an IM. iOS doesn’t allow you to do any of this, still sticking strictly to a full-screen, one-app-at-a-time approach to interacting with the device. Fortunately, there are rumors of Apple bringing some form of Windows 8-style snapping to a future version of iOS, but rumors don’t provide functionality today. The other problem comes from trying to get content onto the device to work with. I recorded the video footage for my review with Galaxy S5 onto a microSD card. Now, how would you go about getting that footage onto the iPad? You can’t just pop out the microSD card and throw it in the iPad, because there’s no slot for it and the camera connection kit wasn’t updated for the Lightning connector. You can’t use WiFi direct or Bluetooth to share the file because iOS doesn’t support arbitrary file transfers over those protocols. You can’t even copy it to a computer and then over USB to the iPad because it doesn’t present itself as an MTP device like Android does. The answer involves one of two inelegant solutions: either use a cloud-based storage like OneDrive or Dropbox, or use (insert vomiting sound here) iTunes to send the file to iMovie on the iPad. Getting the music file I used for the intro and outro segments of my video review onto the iPad involved similar shenanigans. I was able to play it back from Kevin’s website in Safari, but there’s no way to actually save the MP3 file to the device. I had to download the file on my MacBook and send it over to the iPad via OneDrive. That’s quite simply ludicrous, and going to be a huge pain for anyone who tries to do this sort of work frequently from an iPad. I also mentioned earlier that I’m typing this review on a Bluetooth keyboard, and it’s a great boon to productivity that iOS supports that. However, it doesn’t support any sort of pointer input. This means that I can’t also use a Bluetooth mouse or trackpad with the iPad for more precise cursor positioning, or indeed just to avoid having to reach up and touch the screen while writing. Android supports Bluetooth mice, but iOS is determined to force you to touch it whether you really want to or not.

There are also problems with trying to use the whole bluetooth keyboard + stand setup on your lap or another un-ideal surface. Much like Microsoft’s Surface Pro, the extra space and stability required by having the screen supported by a stand rather than a hinge attached to the keyboard makes it awkward to try to use in a cramped or unstable environment. That isn’t to say that it can’t be done, but you aren’t going to be sitting in a terribly comfortable position while doing do. Alternately, you could prop the device at a slight angle on your lap with the smart cover and use the onscreen keyboard, but while that keyboard is surprisingly easy to type on and features excellent autocorrect, it still takes up almost half of the screen. Unfortunately, there’s really no ideal way to position the iPad for productive use in your lap.

As a quick aside, the on-screen keyboard manages to at the same time be one of the best and worst on a touchscreen device. It features an autocorrect engine that somehow still seems to be a step ahead of what the stock Android and Windows Phone keyboards have, and an excellent split mode for using your thumbs when holding the tablet. On the other hand, it still likes any sort of swipe- or gesture-based input, and more annoyingly, still doesn’t reflect case changes. While every other platform’s keyboard will shift case when you tap the shift key, the iOS keyboard stubbornly remains shouting at you in all capitals regardless of whether the letter you’re about to type will turn out as such. Since WebOS, Android, BB10, and Windows Phone all this licked on day one, it must be a deliberate stylistic choice on the part of the iOS developers at this point, but I can’t fathom why. It’s especially annoying in fields where the OS decides to automatically capitalize letters, since you won’t know it without looking at the small shift key that is likely under your thumb.

The upshot of all of this is that as a productivity device, the iPad Air 2 comes so very close to being viable replacement for an ultraportable notebook, but just can’t quite close the gap. The hardware under the hood is more than ready to take on all of your work, but the form factor and operating system collaborate to sabotage your productivity. With Apple increasingly focused on driving the iPad into offices and schools and increasing pressure from Windows-based competitors, I have faith that Apple are working to address these issues in future versions of iOS. For today though, buying an iPad isn’t going to let you get rid of your ultrabook just yet.

Common Ground

As I mentioned at the start of this review, there are some things that are equally important to either facet of the iPad Air 2, so let’s tie up those loose ends. Chief among these is battery life. Apple rates the iPad Air 2’s 27.62 Whr battery for 10 hours of web browsing, and on that front it definitely succeeds. While running the battery from 100% to 0% by just web browsing is going to be quite a task, I can report that in my experience it loses somewhere under 9% per hour through a mixture of web browsing, typing this review, and using lighter apps like Twitter, Hangouts, and Mail. Even throwing in some light gaming like Crossy Road or Dark Echo doesn’t seem to have a significant drain on the battery. On the other hand, while editing the above video review in iMovie, I did see a noticeable drop in battery life, but even on that day the device lasted over 8 hours before hitting the 10% low battery warning. Of course, the worst case scenario is going to be intensive 3D gaming like Modern Combat 5 or BioShock, and when testing out the former I did see a downward spike in battery life to losing about 20% per hour. Overall, you can probably expect to easily get the advertised 10 hours of battery life unless you’re pushing the device to the limit continuously, but in that case you’re probably going to be near an outlet anyways.

On the subject of pushing the device, it’s worth addressing the thermals of the device. In short, they’re a non-issue. The only time I noticed the rear of the device get particularly warm was during the previously-mentioned hour-or-so stint in Modern Combat 5. During this time, the back of the iPad became toasty but not enough to cause any serious discomfort. If you have a smart cover attached, you probably won’t ever notice the heat since your hand will be resting on the microfiber surface of the cover.

Outside, the iPad Air 2's rear camera does a good job at web resolutions, but a lot of details are lost in the full-size image.
Outside, the iPad Air 2’s rear camera does a good job at web resolutions, but a lot of details are lost in the full-size image.
Up close and with manual focusing, detail and color can be pretty good - outside, again.
Up close and with manual focusing, detail and color can be pretty good – outside, again.

The cameras deserve a passing mention, though I’m still dubious of the usefulness of a rear camera on a tablet. Despite adopting the optical setup of the iPhone 6’s rear camera, the 8-megapixel sensor on the back of the iPad Air 2 uses comparatively tiny 1.12-micron pixels. The end result is a thoroughly unimpressive showing full of the expected noise and distortion. It’s certainly not as bad as the utterly useless rear camera on my Nexus 7, but it isn’t much better, either. Oddly, it seems to put in a worse showing than the Lumia 635’s rear shooter in both daylight and low-light. I won’t bother posting the dark-room shots here because they’re literally completely black – where the Lumia 635 managed at least some nondescript smudge of light, the iPad Air 2 turns up completely empty-handed. The front-facing camera, by comparison, puts in an okay performance, turning in decent “selfies” and video chat quality. Again, you really shouldn’t be using a tablet for photography since you probably have a smartphone with a much better camera nearby, but that may not always be the case and since “the best camera is the one you have with you,” I can’t really complain that at least something is included on the iPad.

Inside, however, it's grain-and-noise central.
Inside, however, it’s grain-and-noise central.

I’ve already harped on some of the failings of iOS in this review, but the majority of them come back to the same root cause: Apple decide what you can do with an iOS device, not you. If they wanted you to be able to use a Bluetooth pointing device or PS3 controller, it would be trivial for them to do so; after all, iOS is based on OS X under the hood and these sort of things are going to be part of any standard Bluetooth stack anyways. Implementing MTP or USB storage access would be equally trivial; even some older iPods had this functionality. We’ve seen a positive trend towards addressing some of these issues in the past couple of years; iOS 7 and 8 both expanded the capability of background tasks, while iOS 8 brings 3rd-party software keyboard support and lifts artificial performance restrictions on non-Safari browsers. With the iPhone 6, Apple have even finally implemented NFC, although in true Apple fashion there’s currently no API, limiting the functionality to only ApplePay. I suspect that too will change in future versions of iOS and the iPhone, but improvements the platform may gain in the future are of little help today, when competing platforms have already shed (or more likely, never had) such limitations.

I understand Apple’s position here, to an extent at least. The average end user is stupid. Basically the only way to get a virus on a modern version of Windows, Android, or OS X is to manually install a shady application while ignoring repeated warnings from the OS that you’re doing something potentially dangerous and stupid. Yet millions of machines become infected each year anyways. By locking users into a vetted App Store, you remove any possibility of the end user screwing things up. Of course, this has the added “benefit” (to Apple, at least) of forcing any developer that wants to sell an application on your platform to give you $99 each year and split 30% of their revenues with you. Even when the things they’re selling – like in-app upgrades to cloud storage space hosted on their servers – don’t involve you in any way. Look, I’m sure someone, somewhere at Apple truly had the end user’s best interests at heart when they walled in the garden. But that’s the thing about walls: they keep innocent people trapped inside as well as they keep bad guys out. If Apple truly see iOS as the future of their computing platform – and clearly, they do – something will eventually have to give. Mac die hards will not give up the ability to install what they please and tinker under the hood of their beloved, UNIX-based OS. Programmers simply cannot work on an OS that doesn’t let them execute arbitrary code. Artists and designers need to be able to easily move large files around from device to device. And currently, iOS doesn’t allow any of those things.

I know it seems like I’m beating a dead horse here, but the restrictions in iOS grate on me so severely because there’s a truly great platform under here. The iPad Air 2 packs the absolute best ARM silicon money can buy into an impossibly thin and light device with gob-smacking battery life. iOS is as buttery smooth as ever, now with the added benefit of not blocking actual loading while maintaining that smoothness. There are subtle-but-important Ux designs all over the place, from the four-finger multitasking gestures to the brilliantly-implemented TouchID. (Oh yeah, TouchID works great – much better than the swipe-based sensor in my GS5. Though I still had to enter my AppleID password five times in the first half-hour of using the tablet.) With a more capable OS and some improved expandability, the iPad Air 2 could easily compete with thin-and-light laptops and convertibles like the Surface Pro for your desk space. The performance, display, build quality, and needed apps are all there, but the whole somehow managed to be less than the sum of its parts thanks to the shortcomings of the OS tying it all together. As it is, the iPad remains merely a very good tablet. The best tablet, probably. For today that will have to be good enough. It’s what I needed, because I still have a MacBook Pro and a Windows 8.1 desktop for doing any more complex work. If just “the best mainstream tablet” is what you’re looking for too, absolutely get the (64 GB) iPad Air 2. If that’s what Apple are truly aiming for, they’ve succeeded. But devices like the Yoga and Surface Pro are improving rapidly, and someday soon, simply being “the best mainstream tablet” won’t cut it anymore.

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(Editor’s note: The above review and conclusion were finalized before the announcement of Microsoft’s new Surface 3. I feel this bears mentioning primarily because while it’s probably too heavy to seriously compete with the iPad Air and there are still unknowns regarding the performance and battery life of Cherry Trail, it at least brings Surface Pro-level 2-in-1 functionality down to the iPad’s price point. It highlights the increasingly dire situation looming for the iPad from a productivity standpoint, at least.)

1 thought on “We Told You What to Dream: The iPad Air 2 Review”

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