Apple iPad Air 2 Review: Is it still worth buying?
The iPad Air 2 is still a very good tablet, but it's no longer the best iPad you can buy
The iPad Air 2 is the sixth version of Apple’s 10in tablet in four years, so it’s easy to become indifferent to what is still a technical marvel. A computer, camera and camcorder in a metal casing that weighs just 437g and is connected to the internet wirelessly would’ve been unfeasible just a few years ago.
It's also now the entry-level 9.7in iPad. Thanks to the release of the iPad Pro 9.7in, the iPad Air 2 has been superceded as the top of the line iPad in this size. But, as we'll see, it's still a great device and one well worth considering.
iPad Air 2 review: build quality, display and battery
The Air 2 looks almost identical to its predecessor, but it’s 1mm thinner than before and just over 30g lighter. We scoffed at such small changes in dimensions on paper, but they’re surprisingly noticeable in the flesh. With its lighter, more evenly distributed weight and thinner profile the Air 2 is much more comfortable to hold than its already slender predecessor - especially for long periods of time.
We were also sceptical about Apple’s claims that the 10in screen is less reflective, but once again the difference was noticeable. Compared to other tablet screens, it was considerably less reflective under both domestic halogen lighting and fluorescent office lighting strips. This means it’s less likely you’ll have to change your seating position or turn down the lights just to avoid seeing your reflection while attempting to read or watch a video. Contrast and colour accuracy are both excellent - the only tablet display that’s as good is the one found on the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5 which has more vibrant colours.
It doesn't have the True Tone display of the iPad Pro 9.7in, which actively adjusts the colour depending on lighting conditions. However, it's still a very good screen, and it does take advantage of the Night Shift feature, first introduced in iOS 9, which automatically changes the colour temperature depending on time of day.
The Air 2’s thinner build means that the battery is a little smaller than before, which we feared would result in noticeably shorter battery life. This wasn’t the case though, with the battery lasting ten and a half hours when playing videos - the same lengthy score achieved by the original iPad Air. However, rival tablets can last even longer - the Tab S 10.5 lasted 14 hours and 20 minutes for example, while the Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet lasted a staggering 16 hours.
iPad Air 2 review: hardware, performance and connectivity
Part of the reason for the Air 2’s lengthy battery life is its power-efficient triple-core processor, the 1.4GHz A8X. It’s also very fast, excelling in our 3D graphics tests as well as our app and webpage loading benchmarks. Paired with 2GB of memory, it makes the Air 2 one of the fastest tablets we’ve seen so it should have no trouble running demanding apps for some time to come.
We suspect most people will opt for the WiFi-only version of the Air 2, but if you do opt for the 4G variant then there’s a potentially handy new feature called Apple SIM. This SIM card can, in theory, be used with any mobile network so you can take advantage of the best mobile broadband deals by simply selecting the network and package you want in the Settings app instead having to order, wait for and swap SIM cards.
However, for now the only UK network that works with Apple SIM is EE, whereas Americans have their choice of almost all the major nationwide mobile networks in the US. Hopefully, the other UK networks will become compatible with Apple SIM soon. You can of course use a standard nano SIM with a 4G Air 2 and the Apple SIM is still useful if you’re travelling in the US and want to have mobile broadband as British visitors can sign up for one month plans with T-Mobile US.
Although the new fingerprint reader isn’t as useful here as it is on an iPhone, which is more likely to be lost or stolen due to its smaller size, it’s still a useful feature to have on an iPad. Whether you’re worried about data security or simply want a more convenient way to unlock your tablet, the fingerprint reader worked flawlessly.
iPad Air 2 review: camera, iCloud and iOS 8.1
We feel very conspicuous taking photos using a tablet, but many other people share no such inhibitions. We’ve seen tablets used as cameras from the streets of London and Rome to the Jordanian desert. The Air 2’s camera coped well in brightly lit conditions, capturing surprisingly sharp and detailed photos. It’s not as good as the iPhone 6 or 6 Plus for low light photography where its photos aren’t as sharp or well-lit and have more noise, but the Air 2 is still a respectable camera to fall back on.
There are lots of new features on the Air 2 that came embedded at launch with iOS 8, Apple’s latest mobile operating system at the time of release, and one of our favourites is Continuity. This lets you use different iOS devices together more efficiently and now work with Macs too. For example, you can now instantly share the Air 2’s 4G connection with your Mac without fiddling about with settings and you can reply to iMessages using your Mac’s keyboard.
You can even start tasks on your iPad, such as writing a long document or working on a spreadsheet, and finish them on your Mac picking up right where you left off. It’s a shame but unsurprising that these useful features aren’t available for Windows, but even if you do have a Mac most of the Continuity features rely on your Mac having built-in Bluetooth 4.0 or require apps to specifically support them.
One feature which does work with Windows is iCloud Drive, Apple’s equivalent to online storage services such as Dropbox and is used for sharing files between the Air 2 and your other computers. You get 5GB free, but this is shared with any other iCloud services you use such as iCloud email. Extra storage is reasonably priced starting at 79p per month for an extra 20GB.
However, iCloud Drive does have some odd limitations. While it works with Windows 7 and 8, it only works with Mac OS X Yosemite and not any older versions of Apple’s own desktop operating system. Plus, there’s no currently no way to share a large file with non-iCloud Drive users by creating a link as you can with Dropbox. In any case there’s little reason to use it if you already use other storage services as apps updated for iOS 8 can now access other storage services more easily than ever before. Plus, if you want to share files between your iOS 8 devices and Macs without using the internet you can do so using the revamped AirDrop wireless file sharing feature.
iPad Air 2 review: conclusions
Each of the iPad Air 2’s new features seem minor on paper, but taken together they all add up to help make it one of the best tablets available – it’s simply a joy to use. If you want the longest possible battery life though or if you want waterproofing then the Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet is a better pick despite its inferior screen and camera.
Should you buy a 9.7in iPad Pro instead? The cheapest iPad Air 2 – a 16Gb WiFi-only model – will cost you £349, compared to the cheapest iPad Pro which is priced at £499, but includes 32GB of storage. £150 is nothing to be sneezed at, and the performance of the iPad Air 2 is still more than good enough for everyday use.
But for the extra £150, you're getting a lot. The iPad Pro 9.7in includes double the storage, a better screen, faster RAM (2GB LPDDR4, compared to 2GB LPDDR3), a desktop-class processor, and the option of using the Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil. The iPad Air 2 is still a very good tablet, but the iPad Pro 9.7in is better in almost every area. That makes the £150 worth the money – if you're not on a very tight budget.
OS: iOS 8.1
Display: 9.7in 2048 x 1536 display
CPU: 1.4GHz Apple A8X triple core processor
Dimensions: (WxHxD) 170 x 240 x 6mm