Gadgets get thinner every year. That's a given. But the iPad Air 2 crosses a threshold where thin makes a difference.
I bought my first iPad in the summer of 2012, under the pretense that it would be a really killer digital photo frame at my wedding. (Ahem.) In the two-plus years since, I've never had a reason to upgrade. It still browses the internet just fine, still plays most every iOS game out there, and the gorgeous 2048 x 1536 Retina display hasn't aged a day. If I ever get married again, you can bet your ass my iPad will be there.
But my third-generation iPad is thick, wide and heavy. It requires two hands.
Unlike the new iPad Air.
I can hold the iPad Air 2 above my head in bed with just three fingers.
It also rests comfortably between my forefinger and thumb, leaving my other hand blissfully free to pet cute dogs.
And surprisingly, it's only this new .98 pound, 6.1mm thick iPad Air 2 that can do so. I put it right up next to the previous iPad Air, which barely tips the scales at 1 pound and 7.5mm thick, but it wasn't the same. The extra thickness and relative lack of rigidity (did I mention the Air 2 is rigid?) was enough to make it unwieldy. The iPad Air 2 really is the tipping point, at least where my hands are concerned.
This is how the iPad Air 2 stacks up to the third-generation iPad.
Of course, the new Air is also superior in a number of other ways. The camera is better. The Wi-Fi is faster. The processor is more potent. It can read your fingerprint with Touch ID. My personal favorite: the screen throws off less glare. Still not enough to read in direct sunlight, because the screen isn't that bright anyhow, but it's more than enough to keep my reflection from distracting me with narcissistic charm.
But let's get real: nobody who bought an iPad Air should buy an iPad Air 2. The burning question is whether anybody who buys an iPad should ever upgrade at all. And with my perfectly good two-year old third-generation iPad and absolutely no money burning a hole in my pocket—because mortgage—I'm the guy who can answer that for you.
Let's get this out of the way. The iPad Air 2 has the best iPad screen ever made. It's laminated, getting rid of the pesky air gap between the glass surface and the actual display. When you reach out and touch icons, it feels more like you're actually touching them than ever before. And yes, there's less glare. But the 3.1 million pixels underneath that glass are identical to the ones I bought two and half years ago. The beautiful high-res screen is one of the best reasons to buy an iPad (or a Galaxy Tab S) but not to upgrade. Not yet.
Now we're talking. Could the iPad Air 2's A8X chip convince anyone to upgrade from the A7 processor in the previous iPad Air? Probably not. But compared to the aging A5X in my third-generation iPad, it's like driving in the fast lane. With a Corvette. Compared to, say, a Toyota Corolla in the middle lane. Or something. What I'm trying to say is that my old iPad takes its sweet time opening apps these days, stutters when I swipe through websites, and generally feels long in the tooth, while the iPad Air 2 (obviously) handles everything I throw at it with aplomb.
Games are the biggest difference. I thought my third-generation iPad ran games decently well. With a few recent exceptions like BioShock, it's not like there was anything in the App Store I straight-up couldn't play if I wanted. But firing up intensive games like Republique, Dead Trigger 2 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas showed me that my old tablet leaves a lot to be desired.
While the GIFs above illustrate a huge difference in the level of detail you can see in these games, they don't tell the whole story, because these games also run like shit on my iPad 3 by comparison. Third-generation iPad = stuttery and slow. iPad Air 2 = buttery and responsive. Grand Theft Auto looks exactly the same on both tablets, without any graphical upgrades, but on the iPad Air 2 it felt like a game I'd actually want to play. And if you're not familiar with iPads, know that the iTunes App Store is still the first, best place to get mobile games.
I mostly use my tablet at home. It rarely leaves. I don't work on the iPad, so there aren't any top-secret files to protect. I'm not afraid of people seeing that my Netflix queue includes age-inappropriate anime. I could get excited about Touch ID for two and only two reasons: buying things at the store with a tap, and downloading apps without having to remember a password time and again. But 1.) the iPad Air 2 doesn't have NFC, 2.) it still prompts me for my password once a day, so what's the point? and 3.) Apple Pay doesn't recognize either of my VISA cards yet.
I still don't quite believe in tablet photography, and if I did, the iPad Air 2 still wouldn't be good enough for me. Now that I've tried the incredible camera in the iPhone 6 Plus, which makes taking decent pictures easier than any camera I've ever used, I wouldn't be satisfied with the Air 2. But if you do want to take pictures with a 10-inch viewfinder, the Air 2's 8-megapixel camera is actually pretty damn decent. And compared to my 2.5-year-old tablet, of course, the differences are night and day.
You'll see way more detail in good light, and a tremendous amount more in low light. I would never, ever have used the third-gen iPad's camera for anything at all, but I could see myself using this one in a very tight pinch.
There's one last major potential reason to upgrade to the iPad Air 2, and that's if you plan to buy the cellular version with integrated LTE. That's because—as long as you're fine with T-Mobile and Sprint, because AT&T and Verizon are being party poopers—the new iPad comes with an Apple SIM that can let you change carriers whenever you want. Or literally have pre-paid plans from multiple carriers at the same time, and switch between them when one has better reception than the other. Or when your data runs out. Or if you're overseas and don't even have US carriers to fall back on. Or... you get the idea.
And the beauty of the idea is how little you have to do to get started. I signed up for Sprint service on the iPad itself, for just $10, without ever having to go into a Sprint store, speak to a Sprint representative, or anything of the sort. (I did the same with T-Mobile, but glitches wound up requiring me to call tech support.) You do have to enter in your address and credit card information, but it was still so little hassle that I could see myself skipping a monthly plan and just buying week-long data passes whenever I need them.
Besides, if you've never had an LTE-equipped tablet before, you really must try it. It is so choice. It's something special to walk away from your home and still be able to surf your favorite tech site. Or play Hearthstone, which requires a constant connection to other players but only sips gingerly at your data plan as you zap opponents with spells. I clocked just 300KB of use for 15 minutes of ownage.
It's an iPad, which means it's a finely crafted tablet with an app store filled to bursting with the latest mobile games and utilities. This one is better than ever before.
I love that I can now lift a 10-inch screen above my head in bed and watch movies without exhausting my arms. Also, the optional Smart Cover (pictured below) is excellent.
The cellular version actually makes a lot of sense now, because it's totally unlocked and you can switch between T-Mobile and Sprint at will. Shame about AT&T and Verizon.
The battery still feels like it will last all day, with hour-long episodes of TV shows only making slight dents. And as usual, you'll barely see any dip whatsoever if you leave it sleeping—unlike many Android and Windows tablets I've tried. It charges fast. I'm also a big fan of Apple's double-sided Lightning cable, which keeps me from having to fumble around in the dark while I figure out how to plug in a 30-pin connector or micro-USB cable for the umpteenth time.
I don't give a damn about Touch ID until Apple trusts my fingerprint enough not to require a password ever again, and until Apple lets me use it to buy things at brick and mortar stores with Apple Pay.
It's expensive: I paid $730 for the model with 64GB of storage and a cellular modem, and $600 for the 64GB model without any ability to sling LTE data. There's a 16GB version for $500, but trust me, you don't want it. That storage fills up fast, and still a major pain in the ass to upgrade operating systems or selectively back up apps in the iOS ecosystem.
Why does Apple still not have multiple user profiles for iPads? My wife has her own collection of purchased apps. Apple's Family Sharing seems to assume that each of us will have our own Apple devices. We never intended to buy iPhones—that's why we bought an iPad.
Should I Buy It?
If you don't have an iPad and want an iPad, this is the best iPad there is. It's meaningfully better in terms of portability (light, thin, rigid, glare-resistant) than the previous iPad Air, and that's about it. But for $450, the previous 32GB iPad Air will suit you fine, or the 32GB iPad Mini 2 (not the Mini 3) for $350.
And trust me, if you don't have a tablet and want a tablet, you probably want an iPad. Unless you're looking for a Windows 2-in-1 with a nice keyboard dock or a stylus or something, which you won't get here. You can do work on the iPad, but it's not made for work in the traditional sense. I still wouldn't trust myself to edit Gizmodo reviews in mobile Safari, for instance.
But back to the big question: if you do have an iPad, is it finally worth upgrading to the latest and greatest? For me, the answer is still no. I simply don't use my existing iPad enough to shell out $600 for a new one, even if this is the first model that actually tempts me to do so. But I don't think it will take many more meaningful differences to push me over the edge. New technology is always right around the corner. Next time, maybe my silly excuse will be that I need an iPad for work, too.