When Steve Jobs introduced Apple’s tablet in January 2010, he delivered an unequivocal answer. “The iPad, if you were to sum it up, is our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price,” he said. The words appeared on the screen behind him as he said it, and then he repeated the line. Magical and revolutionary. It became one of Jobs’ most iconic phrases. What he was really saying was even simpler: the iPad is the future.
But pendulums tend to swing back, and the iPad’s rocket ride into the future seems to have slowed. Sales have flattened out and missed expectations, Apple’s Mac sales have held their ground, and phones themselves have gotten larger and larger -- the iPhone 6 Plus is creeping right into iPad mini territory.
And now, just one month after releasing that larger iPhone 6 Plus, Apple is back with the iPad Air 2, an even-thinner reworking of last year’s iPad Air. It has a faster processor, a better camera, and a fingerprint sensor. You can get it in gold. It costs anywhere from $499 for a base model with a paltry 16GB storage to $829 for the top-end model with 128GB of space and a cellular radio. It is an iPad. It is the latest iPad.
What is an iPad?
From a distance, it’s almost impossible to tell the iPad Air and iPad Air 2 apart. The basics of the design are exactly the same: the same proportions, the same polished chamfered edges, the same layout of ports and speakers and buttons. All that’s missing is the side switch, which was extremely useful as a rotation lock or mute switch. Locking rotation is now done with the control that appears by swiping up the Control Center from the bottom of the display; you can mute by holding to down volume button. None of this is easier or better than a switch, but so it goes with Apple’s ongoing quest for thinness.
That thinness is primarily achieved from a new optically-bonded display that virtually eliminates the air gap between the LCD and the top glass, making it seem like you’re touching the pixels directly. Apple’s making a big deal out of this, but it’s actually fairly late in bringing the technology to the iPad — every iPhone since the iPhone 4 has had a bonded display, the iMac has had one for a while now, and several competing high-end tablets have one as well. All for good reason: bonded displays look terrific. The Air 2 has a vibrant, sharp display that looks almost painted on. Apple says the new antireflective coating on the Air 2 reduces glare by 56 percent, but I didn’t really notice it making a huge difference; you definitely can’t use it in bright sunlight. My only issue was a pinkish cast on one of our review units when viewed off-axis; iPads have usually had near-perfect viewing angles and any inaccuracy is probably worth an exchange.
Just below the display you’ll find Apple’s Touch ID fingerprint sensor, which works as seamlessly as it does on the iPhone to unlock the iPad and pay for things using Apple Pay in apps. (There’s no NFC chip in the iPad Air 2, so waving it at credit card terminals is sadly not possible. Next time.)
You’d expect a thinner device with a more powerful chip to take a hit on battery life, but the Air 2 lasted just as long as any of my other iPads — I went a full weekend of using it on LTE and Wi-Fi without charging it, finally plugging it in at 34 percent.
A FINE ENOUGH CAMERA IN BRIGHT LIGHT AND JUST OKAY IN LOW LIGHT
Just consider something as simple as browsing the web. On raw benchmarks the iPad Air 2 is comparable to a 2011 MacBook Air — which, again, is crazy — but the MacBook’s version of Safari is vastly more feature-rich and flexible. That MacBook will also allow me to run multiple apps alongside Safari and be far more productive than the iPad; we’re well past the point when Apple needs to figure out proper multitasking on its tablet.
A CASE STUDY IN MISSED OPPORTUNITIES AND UNTAPPED POTENTIAL
I said it in last year’s iPad Air review and I’ll say it again: it feels like Apple is so content with its commanding lead in the tablet market that it’s willing to let the iPad’s superlative hardware sell itself instead of figuring out new places for it to go. For better or worse, Apple’s allowed the iPad to become the giant iPhone its critics have always insisted that it is, and in a world with giant iPhones that’s a tough spot to be in.
What is an iPad?
It’s for sharing.
Every single one of Apple’s other devices pulls you into a bubble — from the on-my-body Apple Watch to the always-with-me iPhone to the my-life-is-on-here MacBook. I don’t want to hand any of those things to anyone else; they’re mine. But every time I hold an iPad, I’m eager to show it to someone, to pass it off, to share the experience with the people around me. Tablets are social in a way that no other device except the television is social, but there’s nothing about the iPad or iOS 8 that recognizes this essential fact. It’s time for Apple to start pushing the iPad forward again; not just in hardware but in all the places it should fit into our lives.
It’s mostly just thinner.