The Apple iPad is fading away, so it can make iOS apps even more visible. Apple's obsession with making its iPads thinner and thinner, lighter and lighter every year is a philosophical statement. The computer should disappear; all that should be left is the app. The iPad Air 2 ($499, 16GB) is the least physical object, with the most apps. That's Apple's genius, and something Android tablet makers have trouble matching. That's what has made the iPad our top pick for large-screen tablets since the very first model came out in 2010.
The iPad is no longer advancing by leaps and bounds; as I've said before, it's basically a laptop, with a three-year planned replacement cycle rather than the one-to-two-year cycle we see with mobile phones. This year's model has a few key improvements, though, at least two of which are very meaningful: a very powerful processor, and the first multi-carrier SIM card we've seen in the U.S. So yes, the iPad Air 2 pushes the state of the art forward, and is a worthy Editors' Choice.
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The iPad Air 2 comes in 16, 64, and 128GB versions for $499, $599, and $699. A cellular modem adds another $130 to each model. We recommend the 64GB model, as movies and current games are large enough that they'll fill up 16GB very quickly.
Physical Design: What's Different in the Air 2?
The iPad Air 2 is super slim. At 9.4 by 6.6 by 0.24 inches (HWD) and 15.4 ounces, it's the same height and width as the previous iPad Air, and just a teensy bit thinner for bragging rights. It's only 1.13 ounces lighter, but holding them both, you imagine that the Air 2 is noticeably lighter because it's noticeably thinner. That's Apple reality distortion magic at its best.
Just like the previous model, this one is backed with dun-colored metal (gold, gray, or silver) and fronted with glass (and either a white or black bezel, depending on the back color you choose). The Home button has been switched out for Touch ID, Apple's signature fingerprint sensor, which now lets you unlock the tablet, buy things online, or log into, say, your Dropbox account with a touch of a finger. Along the bottom panel, the two rows of small speaker holes have been replaced by one row of larger holes (a good choice, it turns out). On the right hand side, the lock switch is gone.
The 9.7-inch LCD screen is the same 2,048-by-1,536 resolution with 264ppi as the iPad Air, but it has a new anti-reflective coating and it's been optically bonded. That means blacks look noticeably blacker here and colors look a little more saturated, although we're nowhere near super-saturated Samsung Galaxy Tab S levels.
Apple's existing $39 iPad Air Smart Covers fit the Air 2 just fine. More rugged or tighter-fitting iPad Air cases may not fit the Air 2, because the camera and volume rocker have both moved ever so slightly.
Networking and the Apple SIM
Apple claims the iPad Air's Wi-Fi is twice as fast as the previous model's, with 802.11ac support running up to 866Mbps. The problem there is that almost nobody's Internet connection is 866Mbps; against a 100Mbps corporate connection with a Meraki MR16 router, we got pretty much the same speeds on both tablets, maxing out the source connection near the router and then declining at about the same rate to 150 feet away from the router. Both tablets have very good Wi-Fi performance, though.
The big advance here, though, is the Apple SIM—something you can't get in any earlier iPad model. If you buy a cellular iPad that's outfitted for AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile, you'll get a single SIM card that can be switched between the three carriers' prepaid plans (and EE, in the U.K.) through the iPad's Settings app. The SIM is removable just like any other SIM, and if you buy a Verizon model, you'll just get an ordinary, single-carrier Verizon SIM in the slot. The single iPad model sold in the U.S. supports all of the U.S. carriers' arcane bands except one. While AT&T's new Band 29 carrier aggregation, Sprint's Spark, and Verizon's XLTE are all here, T-Mobile's 700MHz Band 12 isn't present. That won't affect current coverage or speeds, though, as it hasn't even been deployed yet.
The Apple SIM makes the iPad Air 2 very flexible for people who need occasional LTE access on their tablets, especially if they travel around the country or to the U.K. You can opt into a month of inexpensive T-Mobile at your city apartment and switch to costlier, but more widespread AT&T at your summer house, for example. If Apple gets more global carriers on board, this could be a real boon for world travelers. It makes the iPad Air 2 more compelling than any previous cellular iPad, although you still have to pay a painful $130 extra for that modem.
Exemplary Apps and Pure Power
The reason the full-size iPad keeps winning Editors' Choice awards is that there are whole categories of apps you'll find on iPads, that don't exist for Android tablets. Or there are under-featured Android versions. Apple is way ahead on creative and productivity apps, for instance. Music creation. Movie creation. The word-processing and note-taking apps on this platform are more sensitively and thoughtfully designed, in general, than those on Android. The iPad has full versions of Microsoft Office programs, while Android tablets don't. Want to take notes with a Livescribe 3 or draw with an Adobe Ink and Slide? iOS only, folks.
There are Google apps and Amazon Prime Streaming apps for iPads, but there are no Amazon Prime streaming or Apple media apps for (non-Amazon) Android tablets. The iPad is the one tablet platform all developers, except the most extremely hacker-focused, consider a must. Samsung must be gnashing its teeth at the fact that its tablets, with their beautiful screens, multi-window multitasking, and pen support, are set up for better productivity out of the box, but third parties let their side down.
Windows tablets, meanwhile, have great apps, but a more complex interface that is more malware-prone and not nearly as consumer-friendly. Apple's iOS still manages that careful balance of accessibility and power.
Inside the iPad Air 2, there's a 1.5GHz, 64-bit Apple A8X processor, but don't listen to all of that GHz and bit width stuff, because Apple's processor design makes for faster performance than other competing devices. Benchmarks tell the story. The Air 2 scored 63,264 on the Antutu system benchmark and 4,580 on the Geekbench 3 processor benchmark, as compared with around 30,000 and 2,863 for the iPad Air, and 35,000 and 2,770 for the Samsung Galaxy Tab S.
On the Sunspider browser benchmark test, the tablet scored an impressive 311.8ms, which is in the same class as the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus (360-380ms), and faster than we've ever seen Google Chrome operate on any Android device (the Tab S clocks in around 1,000ms.)
Impressive. But what does that mean for real life, day-to-day use? I suspect the 'iPad zombie' problem is preventing app developers from taking advantage of this performance in many of their apps. Apple's specs encourage developers to support the 2011-era iPad 2, which is great for earlier iPad owners, but may be slowing down development of apps that really rev the engines of the new tablets.
You can see the power of the A8x with movie exports in iMovie. In testing, exporting a two-minute movie to 720p took 19.5 seconds on the Air 2, as compared with 34 seconds on the original Air. Wow. But I didn't see such a dramatic change in other productivity apps. Opening a giant spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel only dropped from 26 seconds to 23 seconds. And resizing 24 photos in the third-party Reduce app took 28 seconds on both tablets. The iPad Air 2 has a blazing engine, but third-party developers really need to open up the throttle.
The Air 2's super-slim build means endurance falls a bit short. The battery life of 5 hours and 15 minutes streaming a YouTube video over Wi-Fi at maximum screen brightness is about the same as the previous generation (5 hours and 36 minutes in the same test). Cut the brightness in half, and you have Apple's 9-10 hour estimation. Neither tablet can come anywhere near the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5, though, which gives you two more hours of heavy use between charges.