Most people tend to be happy with the tablets they already own, especially when it comes to Apple Inc.'s iPad: This past May, J.D. Power & Associates gave the iPad top marks in consumer satisfaction scoring five out of a possible five marks. And in market research from the likes of IDC, it's clear that the rest of the tablet segment is no longer growing at a torrid pace. Put simply, it is increasingly difficult to convince consumers to invest in incrementally updated hardware that may provide little additional benefit over the tablet they already ready own.
The question, then, for Apple's freshly minted iPad Air 2 is whether the new features inside and out represent more than an incremental update. Having spent a number of days with the new machine, I feel safe in saying that this is best tablet currently on the market: a surefire device to boost your mobile productivity, after work goofery or make anyone you buy it for an life-long fan of your taste in gifts–but that doesn't mean you should run out and buy it without some forethought.
At $549 for 16GB, $659 for 64 GB or $110 more for 128GB of on board storage, it costs slightly less than the last generation of the hardware. That said, there's no denying that, in comparison to most Android and Windows-powered tablets, it's still an expensive purchase. But you get what you pay for: No other tablet currently on the market can match the iPad Air 2's combination of light weight, sturdy build quality, blazing fast performance and an absolute glut of games and applications to choose from.
Measuring only 6.1mm thick, the iPad Air 2 is 18 per cent thinner than the original iPad Air, which at 240 mm x 169.5 mm x 7.5 mm was already razor thin. Placed side-by-side, the difference in thickness between the iPad Air and iPad Air 2 is immediately noticeable. In use? Not so much. During the course of my testing, I found the difference was so minimal that it scarcely warrants a mention from a tactile point of view. Even in the slimmer package, Apple was still able to maintain the same 10-hour battery life seen in last year's device. Over the course of several days of work, web surfing, playing stored music and movies, streaming videos from iTunes and Netflix and playing processor-intensive games like XCOM, I found that the iPad Air's battery was more than up to the task of powering me through a day's use with juice to spare. On average, I saw at least 20-30 per cent of my battery left by the time I was ready to power down for the night.
The iPad Air 2's thinner profile is largely made possible by the fact that its display contains no air gaps between its glass, touch sensors and LCD. Again, despite the tablet's deduction in thickness, users will note no change in performance. In fact, the 9.7 inch 2048 x 1536 resolution Retina display has actually been improved with the introduction of an anti-glare coating, making it easier to see under bright lights or in direct sunlight. It can't match e-ink for outdoor reading, but it's is a huge improvement compared to last year's Air.
At the heart of all of this hardware is Apple's new A8X chip, which offers up to 40 per cent more horsepower and 2.5 times faster graphics performance than the A7 chip found in last year's Air and iPad mini with Retina display. The difference this increase in computing power makes in speed while performing tasks such as editing video or photos is considerable, making the Air 2 an attractive option to mobile professionals.
The tablet's rear facing camera has also received some love, with an upgrade to an 8 megapixel sensor. This, when combined with iOS 8's image handling, allows for burst mode shooting and significantly improved photographic results in most lighting conditions.
But here's the reality: If you already own an iPad Air or iPad mini with Retina display, there may be no reason replace them with this year's units. Apple makes their hardware to last. Unlike Android with its fragmented ecosystem, software purchased in the iTunes App Store tends to run on Apple tablets and iPhones for years after they were released and upgrades to the OS are made available to old gear for years at a time, making an upgrade to a new device more of a want than a need for most people.
The equation changes somewhat if you're a professional who needs the additional processing power of the iPad Air 2's A8X or want to upgrade to a tablet with a larger storage capacity. (Or you really need your iPad to be gold, a colour option available on this year's tablet lineup.) Unless you're working with large file sizes or complex applications, most everything you use will run just as well on any iPad made in the past few years.
The iPad Air 2 is also slightly more attractive purchase in the United States than it is in Canada. This is due to the fact that it comes at a lower price point, and is the first iPad to come packing Apple's fingerprint reading Touch ID sensor. The inclusion of this sensor in Apple's tablets allows for them to be used with the company's Apple Pay secure purchase system in the United States. But Apple Pay isn't available in Canada yet, and no release date for it has been announced. So, for the time being, a Touch ID device offers a marginal security upgrade to Canadian owners.
For current owners of an iPad Mini with Retina display, upgrading to the iPad Mini 3 (which was unveiled at the same event as the iPad Air 2 last week) is even less attractive. The Mini 3 still uses an A7 chip, so the only true difference between the current and last generation is the fact that it also packs that Touch ID sensor. Did we mention that it comes in gold?
Pro iPad users will notice an immediate and significant boost in speed, a big reduction in the weight of your device and most likely, improved battery life: all attractive features in a mobile device. That these updates can be had for a lower price than we've seen from Apple in the past, and with Apple's suite of free pre-installed productivity apps to boot, makes buying an iPad Air 2 or iPad mini 3 a very attractive proposition. Even more so if you're considering making the jump from an Android or Windows device for the sake of iOS' ease of use, the iTunes App Store's massive variety of applications or the sheer trendiness of the hardware.
So even if the changes to the hardware seem incremental to those who own a recent iPad, for the time being, this year's update iPads are the best tablet computing option for most people on the market.