I’m sitting on an airplane right now, my tray table folded out, with my iPad Air 2 sitting in front of me. I’m typing this in Byword on the iPad, and am immediately surprised by the unfamiliar but reassuring feeling of tapping on this screen. Gone is the hollow thud that we’ve grown to expect from typing on Apple’s tablets. That thud has been replaced with mere silence, and the incredibly pleasant feeling of tapping on what feels like a solid piece of glass.
This is thanks to the way that Apple now laminates the glass of the iPad Air 2 directly to the LCD panel, leaving no air gap between. The result isn’t easy to describe, but is absolutely trivial to appreciate. There are no reflections, there’s less glare than ever (thanks in part to an advanced anti-glare coating), and I cannot state this enough: the feel is unbelievable.
The original iPad felt like a device from the future — a mobile computer that was the size of a pad of paper, with all of the connectivity you could ask for. In years to follow, the iPad got thinner, lighter, and more powerful, with vastly improved screens, but the general feeling was the same. Soon, it no longer felt like a device from the future, but instead like a perfectly capable mobile computer from right now. The iPad Air 2, which may at first glance seem like nothing more than another evolutionary update to the wildly successful tablet, is the first iPad since the original that feels, to me, like a device from the future.
The first thing about the iPad Air 2 that struck me as revolutionary is just how damn thin the thing is. I had seen plenty of comparison photos in other reviews, but nothing prepared me for just how small it really feels in the hand. No photo can properly communicate how thin it is, and even though I’ve watched iFixit tear it down to its bones, I still can’t quite grasp how they managed to make it this thing so slim.
I’m not a thickness freak, and I’ve always said that I’d much prefer that Apple increase battery life instead of making the devices thinner — this goes for the iPhone as well. Having said that, after holding the iPad Air 2, I now completely understand why Apple does what it does with the iPad. The word “svelte” comes to mind, but it’s beyond svelte. It’s practically invisible. You no longer feel like you’re holding a metal shell full of complicated electronics — this feels like nothing more than a sheet of glass with a metal back.
Upon powering it up, the screen improvements were clear. I happened to have the last generation iPad Air to compare it against, and it was like night and day. We’ve become accustomed to this special screen lamination process with iPhones in recent years, but iPads have always continued to have a small air gap between the glass and the LCD panel. This is now gone, and the screen looks every bit as gorgeous as the one on my iPhone 6. Glare and reflections are reduced to minimal and nearly unnoticeable levels, and the clarity and brightness are as good as anything I’ve seen on an Apple device. Much like the new iMac 5k, it doesn’t look like a screen, it just looks real.
The true charm of this new screen, however, is something that I mentioned earlier — the way it feels. I’ve been using iPads since the very first one, and they’ve all had the same feel and sound when tapping on the screen. It wasn’t a cheap feeling by any means, but it also felt and sounded very much like there was some hollow space beneath that sheet of glass. This is now gone. In fact, find a glass table or desk, and pretend that it is an iPad screen. Tap away on it, and take note of how solid and confident it feels. That is the feeling of the new iPad. There isn’t an empty thud, there isn’t any hollow feeling, there is just a solid tap.
The screen is stunning, and the device is mind blowingly thin, but none of it would do any good if the internals couldn’t keep up. No fear, the processing upgrades in the iPad Air 2 are equally as impressive as the physical bits. The new A8X processor is stunningly fast, with no perceivable lag or stutter in any day-to-day task. The original iPad Air was no slouch in terms of processing power, but the iPad Air 2 feels that extra bit smoother. Graphics intensive games and photo editing applications run smoothly and without hesitation, and even launching and switching between applications occur at such a speed that I believe finally brings the iPad into desktop-class performance.
It’s thinner, it’s lighter, and it’s significantly more powerful, and fortunately thanks to some very clever power management, Apple was able to keep the battery life at the already excellent 10 hours of usage time. In practice I found that to be accurate, and while it didn’t seem to last any significant amount longer than my original iPad Air, it also didn’t drain any quicker. The battery performance is on par with every other iPad before it, which is to say that it’s among the best in its class and perfectly usable. It’s always been a strong point for the iPad, and this one is no exception.
Lastly, Apple has now added TouchID to the iPad line, and not a moment too soon. Anyone who’s spent any signficant amount of time with a TouchID-capable iPhone knows very well how quickly you become dependent on it. That said, with iOS 7 and TouchID being limited only to iTunes purchases and device unlocks, its usefulness on an iPad was questionable. Thanks to iOS 8 and the TouchID API, apps are now adapting this method of secure authentication rapidly, and I’m finding that it’s becoming more useful by the day. Using TouchID is now second nature, and thankfully the muscle memory I’ve built from using my iPhone is now applicable to the iPad. It works exactly as you’d expect, and you very quickly forget that you ever lived without it.
The iPad Air 2 is an important device for Apple and the iPad line as a whole. The physical enhancements are beautiful and charming, but the souped up internals and unbelievable processing power show that Apple is dedicated to the iPad as a platform and even as a creation tool. Those who claimed for so many years that the iPad was nothing more than a consumption device are continuing to be proven wrong, and this new iPad shows that it is so much more than just an internet connected slab of glass. The processing power helps developers push the boundaries of what was once thought possible on a mobile device, and I believe the best is yet to come.
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