Apple iPad Air 2 Review: It’s Better, but Is It Better Enough?

I am a tablet lover and, more specifically, an iPad lover. I use my iPad and iPad mini every day for a variety of things, including productivity tasks, and that has meant that I rely on my laptop a lot less than I once did. I even wrote a recent essay defending tablets, in the face of falling sales.

So when Apple brought out new iPads last week, and I had a chance to test them over the past four days, you might think I'd be pretty excited about them — but I'm not. They are, in most respects, the best iPads ever made. But for average users, they represent only a modest evolutionary improvement over last year's models, not the kind of big change that the first iPad Air or the Retina display iPad mini did last year.

This year, the mini (called the iPad mini 3) offers hardly any changes. The full-sized iPad Air 2, which Apple is touting much more, is a little thinner, and a little lighter, than the original Air, which will remain on the market at a reduced price. It has a faster processor. And it (and the new mini) boasts Touch ID, the easy-to-use fingerprint reader introduced on the iPhone, which makes security better and is needed to use the new Apple Pay service for buying things without using a credit card or typing in a credit card number.

Oh, and it has a better rear camera, for those who take a lot of pictures and videos with 10-inch tablets. And it's available in an optional gold color.

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Here's what the iPad Air 2 doesn't have: A higher-resolution screen, a bigger screen, a changed height or width, longer battery life, a snap-on keyboard, or a lower base price. Also, while it does work with Apple Pay, it does so only when making in-app purchases online, not in stores. (Waving a large tablet over a payment terminal isn't a great idea, anyway.)

In fact, in one key metric, battery life, the Air 2 actually regressed from the original Air. In my tough battery test*, it lasted 10 hours and 37 minutes, exceeding Apple's 10-hour claim. That's quite good, better than most other tablets. But in 2013, the original iPad Air turned in the best tablet battery life I've ever seen on my test: 12 hours and 13 minutes — about 90 minutes longer. And earlier this year, Samsung's latest similar-sized slate, the Galaxy Tab S 10.5, lasted 11 hours and 14 minutes in the same test.

The Air 2 has the familiar $499 iPad starting price, for a 16 gigabyte, Wi-Fi only model. Prices rise all the way to $829 for a 128GB model with both Wi-Fi and cellular. The new mini starts at $399 and goes up to $729.

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Essentially, the iPad Air 2 is a thinner and lighter version of the original Air with a faster processor, one that has gained some of the latest iPhone technology, like the better rear camera, support for faster Wi-Fi and cellular networks (where available), and the fingerprint sensor.

In terms of software, the year-old iPad Air supports all the same features of Apple's newest iOS 8.1 as the Air 2 does, except for some camera features, like burst photos and slo-mo video. And, as far as I know, it runs all of the same 675,000 tablet-optimized apps in Apple's app store, which in my view are a key reason why the iPad is the best tablet available.

Both new iPads also offer a new kind of cellular SIM card that makes it easier to close and switch carriers, for the minority of iPad users who choose the cellular models. And the Air 2's screen was less reflective in my tests, though it still showed reflectivity.

Overall, the new model reinforces my view that the iPad is the best full-sized tablet, but this latest iteration isn't much of a leap.

In my tests, the iPad Air 2 was a sleek, fluid device. It ran all my apps well, took very nice photos and videos, registered fast Wi-Fi and LTE cellular speeds, and felt good in the hand.

The latest iPad also was able to handle the new "continuity" features in Apple's just-hatched operating systems. It made and received phone calls relayed by my iPhone 6 when they were on the same Wi-Fi network. And it was able to use Handoff, the feature that lets you complete certain actions, like viewing a Web page or writing an email started on a Mac, and vice versa. It also was able to receive and return standard SMS messages from my Android phone.

The problem was this: I couldn't tell the difference between the Air and Air 2 while doing these things. The new model didn't seem faster or smoother while running all my apps, perhaps because — like most people — I don't use my iPad for the most demanding video-editing apps or high-end games. It registered pretty much the same network speeds as my Air.

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The Air 2 didn't allow me to hold or carry the tablet longer and more comfortably than the Air. Its weight of 0.96 pounds isn't discernibly lighter than the Air's weight of one pound. And its thickness of 0.24 inches is a barely noticeable reduction from the Air's 0.29 inches.

So I don't recommend that average iPad Air owners upgrade to the Air 2. But what about the vast majority of iPad owners who own older models? That's a different story.

If you have an iPad 2, 3 or 4, the new Air 2 will make a big difference. Its thinness and lightness will be a dramatic change, and it will be faster and more fluid.

However, here's the catch: Upgrading to last year's iPad Air would have pretty much the same effect, and that model is now, suddenly, $100 cheaper, starting at $399.

(And for those who don't have an iPad and want one, you can now have one for $249, though it's the original iPad mini from 2012.)

That leaves future-proofing as the main reason to get an iPad Air 2. Its faster processing and graphics capability are likely to make it better than the original Air, as more apps are built that try to bring advanced gaming, or heavy-duty video editing, to the tablet.

If those things don't matter to you, neither may the iPad Air 2.

* Re/code's tablet battery test consists of turning off battery-saving features, setting the screen brightness to 75 percent, leaving the Wi-Fi and cellular functions on to collect messages and other content in the background, and then playing videos back to back until the battery dies.

By Walter Mossberg, Re/code.net.

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