This year, unlike the iPhones that went through a plethora of changes in design, the world’s most popular line of tablet computers – iPad Air – only received an incremental facelift. The latest iPad now features Apple’s proprietary Touch ID fingerprint sensor on the home button which was introduced with the iPhone 5s. Otherwise, the design language remains almost untouched save for a few changes.
While not much has changed in the overall appearance of the iPad Air 2, it is now just 6.1mm thin; this actually makes it 1.4mm slimmer than its predecessor, and more importantly it also undercuts the thickness of both the iPhone 6 (Review | Pictures) and the iPhone 6 Plus (Review | Pictures). We’ll let you take a moment for that to sink in. One of the reasons this is possible is that Apple’s engineers have managed to reduce the gap between the protective glass, touch sensor and the actual LCD. This ‘no-gap display’ has been carried over from the iPhones.
The internal specifications have gone through an upheaval of sorts; the iPad Air 2 has a more capable primary camera, powerful new A8X processor, and M8 motion co-processor that has the ability to continuously measures data from the newly-added barometer. Moreover, Apple has removed the 32GB storage capacity variant. The iPad Air 2 is now available in a gold colour option.
Design and display
The iPad Air 2 is shockingly thin. Its slimness combined with its weight of 437g makes it easy to hold with one hand. The ergonomics hit a really sweet spot and we could feel the difference the moment we switched to an iPad Air 2. While people may argue whether there was any need to slim down the iPad Air in the first place, we aren’t complaining. Even a bit.
As before, the edges are chamfered, which gives the iPad Air 2 a premium look. The height and width are the same as the previous version. The Home button, which now has Touch ID, is smooth to the touch and the tactile feedback is also pretty good. The front-facing camera lies on top of the display. The lightning port lies at the bottom and flanking it are the stereo speaker grilles. There is only a single row of holes now instead of two, like on the iPad Air. The power button and the 3.5mm audio jack are on top. In an effort to make a super-slim iPad, Apple has gone ahead and removed the mute/orientation lock switch from the right edge. A microphone takes its place instead and of course there are two volume buttons as well. Bang in the center on the rear lies the Apple logo made of glass. In the top left corner of the rear lies the upgraded camera and another microphone.
The 9.7-inch display has a resolution of 1536×2048 which translates to a pixel density of 264ppi. Apple still calls it a Retina display and it has been using this screen resolution since the iPad 3. This may sound like a downer for some people but quite frankly the iPad Air 2’s display is still one of the best around. The display has natural colour reproduction, accurate colour saturation and great viewing angles. It sprung to life each time we woke up the iPad Air 2. In addition to this, Apple claims there is a custom-designed anti-reflective coating on the screen and which results in less reflection overall. We found this to be true especially when placed beside its predecessor in direct sunlight; the iPad Air 2’s screen was generally less reflective and as a result the readability was much better. Moreover, now that the protective glass, touch sensor and the actual LCD are very close to each other, it did actually feel like we were touching the pixels. Apple wasn’t being hyperbolic when it unveiled the iPad Air 2 on October 16.
Specifications and software
The iPad Air 2 has a variant of the A8 processor found on the iPhone 6. Called A8X, it is tweaked to perform better. The A8X has a triple-core processor clocked at 1.5GHz per core, compared to the dual-core A8. The A8X also includes a customised version of the PowerVRGX6450 GPU. Reputed tech publications around the world are calling it the PowerVRGX6850 for the sake of simplicity. Obviously, the PowerVRGX6850 is more powerful than the PowerVRGX6450 but we shall confirm by how much in the performance section. The iPad Air 2 also packs 2GB of RAM inside. Additionally, Apple has upgraded the motion co-processor. The new M8 coprocessor claims to continuously measures data from the accelerometer, compass, gyroscope and the new barometer.
The iPad Air 2 is a performance beast. With respect to the graphics performance on a mobile device, the GPU inside the iPad Air 2 is the fastest we’ve used till date. Apparently, it is more powerful than the Tegra K1, which actually makes it the fastest GPU inside a mobile device. We’ll let the numbers (and comparisons with other iOS devices) speak for themselves.
In our GFXBench test, the iPad Air 2 scored 52.3fps whereas the iPad Air and the iPhone 6 Plus scored 40.9fps. The iPad Air 2 maxed out 3D Mark Ice Storm and Ice Storm Extreme tests and in the more intensive Ice Storm Unlimited test it scored 21,576. In comparison, the iPad Air scored just 14,979. In SunSpider and Mozilla Kraken, the iPad Air 2 scored 286.3 and 4060.5, the lowest we’ve ever seen (lower is better).
All this graphical performance is put to great use by Apple’s proprietary Metal framework which is available to developers who can use it to maximise the graphics and compute potential of the device. For easier understanding – we saw more glorious crash effects and lens flare in Asphalt 8, which has been reworked to optimise the potential of the Metal framework. The same effects are also present on the iPad Air, but we noticed that it couldn’t render it at the same smooth frame-rate as the iPad Air 2. In short, the iPad Air 2 is probably your best alternative to a dedicated portable gaming console.
Apple devices have a restricted number of video formats that are supported by default but we managed to test all our test videos using a third-party application and it worked. At full volume, the sound blaring from the speakers causes the iPad Air 2 to reverberate, which may be because of its extremely thin body. While the sound quality is decent overall, we noticed a little bit of crackling at maximum volume. Apple doesn’t bundle the EarPods in the box but we tested a reference pair of headphones and they sounded great.