Apple has "gone for gold" with its new iPad Air 2 – and so have we, picking up a 128GB Wi-Fi-only model, available in the new gold finish for the first time, to see how it compares.
On the outside, the iPad Air 2 looks almost identical to the previous generation iPad Air. The giveaway, though, is the metal-ringed Home button at lower-front, which includes the welcome addition of the fingerprint reader introduced on the iPhone 5S and continued in the new iPhone 6, 6 Plus and iPad mini 3.
The Air 2 has the same width and height and 9.7-inch screen dimensions as the iPad Air, but the glass screen has been given an much-needed anti-reflective coating which greatly reduces (but not eliminates) glare, making it more usable outdoors in full daylight.
All the goodies
Through six generations of iPad, Apple has conditioned us to expect significant improvements in speed, thinness and weight reduction with each new model. This time around is no exception for the larger iPad, though not for the smaller version. The 7.9-inch iPad mini 3, announced at the same time, gains only the fingerprint reader, but is otherwise identical to the iPad mini 2 (formerly called the iPad mini with Retina Display), which is still available along with the original iPad mini. Apple has kept the original iPad mini around despite its relatively low resolution (1024 x 768 pixel) non-Retina screen and lower-spec A5 chipset.
The iPad Air 2, meanwhile, gets all the goodies. Along with the fingerprint reader, other new features include a next-generation A8X processor and M8 motion co-processor, built-in barometer, anti-glare screen and faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi.
Impressively, Apple has shaved off almost 20 per cent of the Air's already waif-like profile, to make it just 6.1mm thick and, Apple says, the world's slimmest tablet. That's 1.4mm slimmer than the the 7.5mm of the previous generation iPad Air, iPad mini 3 and iPad mini 2. The original iPad mini is is 7.2mm thick.
The Air 2 is also a tad lighter, at 439g versus the Air's 469g for the Wi-Fi models. You might think it would be hard to tell the difference, but in the mobile device race every gram and fraction of a millimetre counts – and the subtle combination of thinner and lighter is somehow noticeable every time you pick it up.
Lighter is always better when continually holding the device one-handed, especially when held aloft such as you tend to do when reading ebooks and digital magazines while lying down on a lounge or in bed. Of course, at 106g lighter and with the same 2048 x 1536 pixel resolution as the Air, the iPad mini 3/2 is still the best ebook reader alternative.
The iPad Air 2 has an improved 8MP iSight camera, with 1080p video recording, 720p slow motion video and auto HDR. The front 1.2 megapixel camera is claimed to take in 80 per cent more light for better FaceTime video sessions and selfies. While it retains the physical volume up-down buttons on the side, it loses the physical lock/mute switch, though this can be activated by swiping up from the bottom of the screen even when the screen is locked.
Of all the features added to the new iPad Air 2, the fingerprint reader is arguably the one that is most noticeable if you're a heavy user and keen on security. Let's face it, four-digit passwords are just not strong enough these days, but a password complex enough to afford you some security reassurance is a pain to tap in many times a day. And with cloud access to programs and personal information across all your devices, your phone and tablet may be the weak link. They need to be every bit as secure as your laptop and desktop computers.
Those who prefer strong passwords (and we all should) will love Apple's Touch ID. This fingerprint recognition is a joy to use – just ask anybody who's migrated to an iPhone 5S, 6 or 6 Plus. Once you have it on your phone, you'll want it on your tablet. It will also allow the iPad Air 2 to use Apple's new secure payment system, ApplePay when it eventually comes to Australia (though no date has been given for that yet).
Pedal to the Metal
Speed-wise, the iPad Air 2 definitely feels very responsive indeed, though the full benefit of its new "desktop class" A8X/M8 processor combo will only be really felt in apps designed to take advantage of it. For now, that means games engineered to use the new high-performance programming framework called Metal. Both the iPad Air and 2 are 64-bit computers, but need programs written to take advantage of that for maximum effect.
Apple has created a section on its online App Store for Metal-enhanced apps to show off its capabilities, claiming that it enables "console quality" graphics. For the record though, the iPad Air 2 is claimed to have a 40 per cent faster main chip and and 2.5 times faster for graphics over the (already very lickety-split) iPad Air. Despite the extra grunt, Apple claims the Air 2 has same 10-hour battery life as the other iPad models.
Should you buy one?
Apple's pricing for the iPad Air 2 starts at $619 for the 16GB Wi-Fi only model and $779 with cellular as well, though the reason for offering a meagre 16GB of storage appears to be so that Apple can claim a low-cost entry point. With many apps now taking up hundreds of megabytes, plus photos and videos, 16GB won't go far for a lot of users.
There's no 32GB version and there's still no USB connector or memory card slot for additional plug-in storage. You can, of course, use one of the many portable wireless hubs available, including hard drive versions that offer up to 2TB of storage, but they have their downside – they can be fiddly to set up and require the use of battery-sapping Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
The next step up from the 16GB iPad Air 2 is to 64GB, which indicates that this is what Apple feels you should really be going for. There's also 128GB models, which is more realistic if you plan to use the iPad as a laptop alternative. The existing iPad Air drops to $499 for 16GB/Wi-Fi, with 32GB for $549, but Apple has dropped the 64GB or 128GB models. And, of course, it doesn't have the fingerprint reader.
Sure, the Air 2 is not a dramatic redesign - it doesn't have to be. The Air was already that good. It's a refinement of a winning formula and one that will be welcomed by many. If you have an iPad that's fourth generation or earlier, the move to the iPad Air 2 is almost a no-brainer for convenience of the fingerprint reader alone. If you already have an iPad Air, justifying the upgrade to the Air 2 is harder unless you're a particularly heavy user, in which case the fingerprint reader could be just tempting enough.