Apple iPad Air 2 Review: Should You Upgrade?

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Design & User Interface

It's a rare occurrence when the overall design of a product remains unchanged through several generations and without many user complaints. Even Apple's iPhone recently received a major facelift, leaving behind the somewhat industrial design of its predecessors in favor of a sleeker makeup. But with the iPad, alterations since the original have mostly been minor ones, which is again the case with the iPad Air 2.

Apple iPad Air 2 Contents

Perhaps one day we'll unbox the iPad and be treated to a surprise, like a lint-free cloth or a set of headphones, the same two items we've been pointing out as noticeably omissions since day one. Now that Apple owns the Beats brand, it makes even more sense to treat premium-paying iPad buyers with a set of earbuds.

Instead, the iPad Air 2 comes with the same familiar contents -- the iPad itself (it would be a bit awkward to have that missing, wouldn't it?), Lightning-to-USB cable, USB power adapter, a pair of Apple logo stickers, and some paperwork. Pretty exciting stuff, right?

Apple iPad Air 2 Main

Apple's obsession with thinness is evident with each new product release that features a slimmer design as a highly touted feature, and so it is here with the iPad Air 2. Measuring just 6.1mm thick and weighing less than a pound, the iPad Air 2 is a remarkable demonstration of product engineering at its finest. It's still a bit much to comfortably hold in one hand for a long period of time, though it's closer than ever to being there, and it's easily one of the best feeling tablets on the market. What we mean by that is there's nothing that feels chintzy or rushed about the latest iPad -- the build quality is yet again reflective of a luxury item, perhaps to a fault. The first thing you'll want to do is slap on a screen protector and cover the tablet in a case. Until then, you'll find yourself being overly difficult with your $499+ purchase.

As with the previous generation iPad Air, the new model sports a 9.7-inch "Retina" display with a 2048x1536 resolution (264 pixels per inch). However, this time around Apple removed the air gap between the glass the digitizer and went with a fully laminated display panel. There are two upsides to this approach -- the first is it allows Apple to feed its obsession for increasingly thinner devices, and the second is that it puts images closer to the surface.

Apple also applied an anti-reflective coating to the panel that supposedly reduces glare by 56 percent. In our testing, you're still going to have a tough time using the iPad in direct sunlight, though it is easier to see than previous versions. It's also just as gorgeous in terms of image quality. That doesn't mean we would have guessed that Apple removed the air gap without being told -- we have keen eyes, but not that keen -- but the display was never a weak point to begin with. Just the opposite, we've consistently been impressed with the iPad's visual quality, and that's also true of the iPad Air 2.

Apple iPad Air 2 Edge Apple iPad Air 2 Touch ID
Adding to the premium design are chamfered edges that help hide the fact that the iPad Air 2 is constructed from front and back pieces glued together. Enjoy the aesthetic when you first unbox your iPad, because once you wrap the tablet in a case, you'll be hardly be able to see them (depending on which case you roll with).

Equally elegant is the new capacitive Touch ID sensor that's integrated into the Home button. Not just a simple button, there's actually quite a bit going on with the design. From top to bottom, there's a laser-cut sapphire crystal layer that's highly durable and scratch resistant (early rumors was that Apple would use the same sapphire crystal material to protect the display panel), which itself is encircled with a stainless steel detection ring. Sitting below is the Touch ID sensor, followed by a tactile switch.

If you choose to use the Touch ID sensor, the steel ring detects your finger while the crystal sends an image of your fingerprint to the sensor. Apple's software then reads the ridges of your print and decides if there's a match. You can use Touch ID to unlock your iPad, sign in to secure apps, make purchases, and more.

Apple iPad Air 2 Speakers

Want to know what's better than front-facing speakers? Nothing, really. Apple designed itself into a corner with the iPad -- either place the stereo speakers on the front where they would sound better to the listener but compromise the elegant aesthetic, or place them somewhere else (in this case, on the bottom flanking each side of the Lightning connector port).

Placement aside, the speakers sound quite good for a tablet. Don't throw away your Bluetooth boombox, but do expect a better sound experience out of the iPad Air 2 than the iPad Air -- these cans sound a little bit better, and to Apple's credit, they're not muffled when holding the tablet in landscape mode (unless you intentionally squeeze your palm over the grills).

Apple iPad Air 2 Volume

Overall button placement is unchanged on the iPad Air 2. There's a dual-purpose power and sleep/wake button on the top-right, volume up/down buttons on the right side, and a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack on the top-left. As shown above, can also see the 8-megapixel iSight camera surrounded by dual microphones.

Apple iPad Air 2 iOS 8 Home Screen Apple iPad Air 2 Family Share Apple iPad Air 2 SwiftKey

Naturally there's more to the iPad experience than the hardware and physical design -- there's also the underlying ecosystem. The iPad Air 2 ships with iOS 8, the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system, and with it come a bevy of tweaks and changes designed to make things easier to use and more intuitive.

One of the things we've always liked about iOS is the built-in keyboard, and in iOS 8, it's a bit smarter. It will suggest contextually appropriate words to complete your sentences (or at least try to), it recognizes who you're typing to, and it even knows whether you're typing in Mail or Messages for the purposes writing style (it will suggest more formal language in Mail). And if you don't like the keyboard, install a third-party plank. That's right, Apple finally opened up the keyboard to developers in iOS 8.

While there's far too much for us to cover on the software side, we do want to throw a mention at the new Family Sharing feature. In iOS 8, up to six people in your household can share purchases from iTunes, iBooks, and the App Store.
 

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