My hands-on impressions on the iPad Air 2 (2014). Great product as always but not worth an upgrade for anyone with an iPad Air or iPad 3.

Hands-on with the iPad Air 2(2014)

Just as the new iPhone launches every September, like clockwork every October, Apple releases its next iteration of the iPad. This year, Apple announced the 2014 models for the iPad – the iPad Air 2 and the iPad Mini 3. I had the opportunity to spend some time with the iPad Air 2 and here are my early impressions.

iPad Air 2

The iPad Air 2 was announced on October 16th along with the iPad Mini 3, the iMac with 5K Retina display and pricing and product positioning changes. The focus of the event was naturally the flagship tablet, the iPad Air 2. Tablet sales have been slowing down and Apple has not been immune to this slowdown. Unlike the iPhone which has been growing rapidly (even more so with iPhone 6 and 6 Plus), the iPad family has started to show some weakness after a torrid first few years. So there were a lot of questions for Apple to answer about how they were going to prop up their tablet sales.

Apple unsurprisingly announced a new thinner, lighter iPad Air 2. At this point, one thing is certain for Apple’s annual product refreshes- they are always lighter and thinner. Think what you may with Apple persistence on these two features while keeping the battery life the same (10 hours for the iPads), they are a mainstay. So how does it feel in the hands? Read on…

The Basics

I had ordered an iPad Air with Wifi and cellular – 16 GB model in gold. I picked it up in store locally and paid for it using Apple Pay (more on this in a future post). The packaging is Apple-like. Functional and well thought out in every aspect. I have one minor gripe on the in-box accessories. Apple pioneered the SIM removal metal add-on. A thoughtful inclusion when it first shipped and beautifully fit in the instructions package. Since then other phone and tablet manufacturers have improved on the idea with better grip and more intuitive use (Motorola does a great job on this). Apple might want to consider an upgrade to its SIM removal thingie.

The gold iPad Air is blingy without feeling ostentatious. It is the same shade as what first launched with the iPhone 5S. It looks classy although I prefer the space gray more than this.  The device is as thin as thin can be on a tablet device with 10 hours of active use battery life. More on this topic in a further section.

The iPad Air 2 is easy to hold with a single hand. This was sorely lacking for a long time and got fixed with the iPad Air last year. The iPad Air 2 has the same dimensions of the iPad Air but for the thickness/depth.

Apple SIM

One of the much written about features with this year’s cellular version is the introduction of Apple SIM. A carrier agnostic SIM card which allows the user to theoretically select a carrier on the fly, this feature seems like a cure all for the traveling user who would like to have the flexibility to use the best carrier at any given time. Unfortunately and expectedly, this has not won meaningful support from Verizon which does not support it outright and AT&T which locks the device to its network after the first time it is selected.

The Apple SIM feature holds promise for the consumer and risk for carriers who are already wary of Apple’s large influence in their fortunes. The Apple SIM allows Apple to build a single SKU to ship to all the carriers across much of the world. It also gives them more power over the user’s carrier selection process and thus the carriers themselves. It is seen as the logical next step for the SIM card before eventually becoming an embedded entity on the device (e-UICC). This will be a fascinating tussle to watch develop over the next year or so.

The Case of the 16 GB RAM to 64 GB RAM Jump

In what can only be dually seen as the smartest product management move and also the least consumer friendly move Apple has continued to make over the past two years, the base model of the iPad Air 2 that costs $499 ($629 for cellular) ships with 16 GB. This means that the usable memory in your device is about 11 GB. This is ridiculous considering that the most recent iOS update needed about 5.8 GB. That means that there is not much media- magazines, movies or music that you can actually store on the device.

In what was a brilliant move to boost the iPad (and iPhone’s) Average Selling Price (ASP) this year, Apple offers a 64 GB version for $100 more. To many, this would seem like Apple being nice and offering them 48 GB RAM for $100 more instead of the $200 it was last year. But given how practically useless the 16 GB SKU is from a storage standpoint, it means far more people will lean towards the 64 GB version this year. The iPad and iPhone’s ASP will definitely take a nice jump up this year. Ideally, if Apple were as consumer friendly as they claim to be, they would offer the 32 GB as their base model on both the phone and tablet for $499/$199.

iPad Air 2 and iPad 3

This year’s iPad Air 2 is 18% thinner than the iPad Air and it is an incredible 6.1 mm thick (or thin). The device weighs less than a pound. So how does this feel in the hands…it is pretty light. My current iPad is two years old (Oct 2012 model) and this one is dramatically lighter and thinner. It is hard to explain this without having the two next to each other. Argue as you may on the merit of the obsession on thinness and lightness, it is a definite testament to Apple’s hardware engineering chops.

There are a lot of differences under the hood- the iPad 3 has a 32-bit processor while the iPad Air 2 has the 64-bit A8x processor. The camera is much improved. Most importantly, the iPad Air 2 finally has the TouchId which has been available on the iPhone platform for just over a year now.

The iPad Air 2 also has the fingerprint identity sensor (NFC +secure element) to support Apple Pay. For someone who rarely if ever takes his iPad out of the house, the Apple Pay part does not make a difference. Also, the improved camera does not mean much to me since I have taken no more than 50 photos in the past two years I have owned the device. The iPad Air 2 is definitely getting more popular with a lot of people from a photography standpoint and the 8 MP upgraded iSight camera will mean something to them.

Performance and Use

I installed my usual set of apps (Netflix, Spotify, Amazon Instant Video, Kindle) on the iPad Air 2 and each one of them worked flawlessly. Interestingly, in my limited time with the device, the famed and regular iOS 8 crashes were not to be seen. Battery life (in my limited use) was as good as always.

I have heard a lot of folks tell me that they use their iPads for reading. I am not sure how this is comfortable. Even with the thin and light iPad Air, I found reading to be a challenge. Ignoring the screen eyesore part, the thin bezel makes it a challenge to hold the iPad in one hand for more than a few minutes. I accidentally page turned multiple times. One of those things were the reduction in device dimensions while retaining screen size has reduced the quality of a user experience.

So, should you buy one or upgrade?

For a change, I have a fairly straightforward answer to this question. The iPad continues to be one of the best if not the top of the heap among the current generation of tablets. While the Surface Pro 3, Kindle Fire HDX and Samsung’s family of tablets offer excellent experiences in various ways, the iPad is compelling as an entire package due to the best in class AppStore, great hardware, excellent battery life, great iSight camera and more. While I dont necessarily recommend the iPad for everyone (some people can do better with other tablets for various reasons), the iPad is a pretty fantastic buy.

That said, the iPad Air 2 does not offer a compelling reason to upgrade from the iPad 3 and most certainly from the iPad Air of last year. It has a lot of small upgrades but absolutely nothing that will make me pony up the $499 or more for this years iPad. In an ironic way, it is a testament to how good the iPad 3 (the first with Retina display which was leap forward for the iPad family) is.

The iPad Air 2 takes something great and refines it in the corners. It makes for a compelling package as it has always been the case. But it not a revolutionary new product.

It is magical, but not in any new way.


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