It’s a weird time for Apple’s iPad.
iPad sales continue to fall, likely because many realise they don’t need to upgrade every other year like they do with an iPhone. Meanwhile, the big-screen iPhones have the potential to cannibalise even more iPad sales.
For instance, it’s been over a month since I’ve used my iPad.
Last year, I bought the iPad mini with Retina display. It was the perfect device for me. I was tired of squinting at the tiny 4-inch screen on my iPhone 5, so the larger display on the iPad mini let me get a lot more done. Many days, I used the iPad more than my iPhone, especially during meetings and interviews.
But when Apple released the iPhone 6 Plus with a 5.5-inch screen last month, I found no use for my iPad. It’s still gathering dust on my nightstand and lost its charge long ago. Thanks to the Plus, I don’t need to lug around three Apple gadgets — a MacBook, iPad, and iPhone. The iPhone and MacBook do the job.
In this environment, Apple released the newest iPad, the iPad Air 2.
There’s still a case to be made for owning an iPad. And after spending a week with the iPad Air 2, I think it’s the best tablet you can buy. The iPad Air 2 starts at $US499 for the 16GB, Wi-Fi model, and goes up from there.
But the question is whether or not you should buy it.
At first glance, the iPad Air 2 looks nearly identical to last year’s iPad Air. It’s slightly thinner (6.1 mm versus 7.5 mm) and lighter (0.96 pounds versus 1 pound). Apple removed the physical mute switch on the side to keep the device as thin as possible. The cameras, processor, and most other internal specs are better and faster. The screen is glare-resistant. And it finally has the Touch ID fingerprint sensor that lets you unlock the iPad without a passcode and make purchases within certain apps using Apple Pay.
Other than that, it’s the same old iPad you’re used to.
Over the last week, I’ve forced myself to use the iPad Air 2 instead of the iPhone 6 Plus whenever I can. It was a tough transition. The 6 Plus is big, but still pocketable and portable enough for me to take everywhere, and it does just about everything the iPad can do.
But eventually, I found that the iPad is better in certain situations, especially when I’m home or travelling. It’s much better for reading, emailing, and scrolling through Twitter when I’m on the couch. On a flight a few weeks ago, I stubbornly refused to use my iPad mini to watch a movie and used the 6 Plus instead. It was great! But on a flight a few days ago, I used the iPad Air 2 to watch a movie, and the experience was much better. I was able to keep it propped up on the seatback table, and the bigger screen made the movie a lot more enjoyable. I could also keep the iPad propped up using the Smart Cover as a stand on the seatback table, something that’s impossible with the iPhone. I could’ve used my MacBook, but the iPad has a sharper screen and much thinner and lighter profile.
But I think the best case for owning an iPad is (strangely) found in the Mac. The newest operating system for Macs, OS X Yosemite, has a new feature called Continuity that allows your iPhone, iPad, and Mac to talk to each other. For example, you can start browsing a website in Safari on your Mac and automatically pick up where you left off by opening Safari on your iPad. It works with all of Apple’s flagship apps for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and email.
I found Continuity worked best for me with Messages. Before, I rarely used iMessage on my iPad because I missed messages from people who didn’t have an iPhone. Now Messages works with standard text messages so you can get them on the Mac and iPad too. It gives me the freedom to leave my iPhone anywhere in the house and not have to worry about missing something if I happen to be reading on my iPad or doing work on my Mac.
The iPad works best for someone who’s willing to live completely in Apple’s world. It’s a seamless, integrated experience no one else has been able to emulate yet. If you’re willing to dive fully into Apple’s world of apps and gadgets, you’ll be really happy owning all three: A Mac for work, an iPad for casual browsing, gaming, and reading, and an iPhone on the go.
When Apple introduced the iPad Air 2, it spent a strangely long amount of time talking about the new and improved cameras. The rear camera now takes 8 MP photos, up from 5 MP in last year’s model. Photos were fine in my tests, but I don’t see the point in using the iPad as a camera when the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus have really good cameras that fit in your pocket. There are some great photo editing apps for iPad, but I think your better off syncing you iPhone photos over iCloud and editing on your iPad.
Photos taken with the Air 2 do look good though:
Even though Apple made the iPad Air 2 slimmer, it still fulfils its 10-hour battery life claim. But there’s a caveat. Last year’s model got well over 10 hours on a charge, closer to 11 hours in some cases. I was only able to get a little 0ver 10 hours. And while that’s right in line with Apple’s claim, it’s disappointing that battery life suffered just so the iPad could be modestly thinner.
My only other problem with the hardware are the storage options. You should be prepared to spend at least $US100 if you buy an iPad Air 2. You have three choices: 16GB, 64GB, or 128GB. But 16GB just doesn’t cut it these days. As we learned when people tried to update to iOS 8 a few weeks ago, you need about 5GB of free space, which is pretty tough if you only have a 16GB machine. It’s nice that the next level up is 64GB where it used to be 32GB, but Apple really should have made the base model 32GB instead of kicking the can down the road and giving users a subpar experience next year when it’s time for another iOS update.
Do You Need A New iPad?
This is a tricky question, and the answer will probably vary from person to person. To start, I’ll go with the simplest scenario: If you don’t already own an iPad and you want one, then the iPad Air 2 is the best tablet in the world. Get one with at least 64GB of storage.
If you have an iPad 2 or earlier, you should definitely upgrade. You’ll be dazzled by the iPad Air 2’s sharper screen and blazing-fast speed. It’s a major upgrade.
If you already have a third-generation iPad (the first one with a Retina display that launched in 2012) or newer, I don’t think the iPad Air 2 is a big enough upgrade from previous models to justify spending at least $US600 on a new tablet.There’s very little those older iPads can do that the new iPad Air can’t do.
That’s the real problem with the iPad, and likely one of the biggest factors behind the recent decline in iPad sales growth. iPads are still essentially giant versions of the iPhone. They have hundreds of thousands of tablet-optimised apps, something Android tablets don’t even come close to, but the core features are still the same as the iPhone.
For example, there’s no split-screen app multitasking and no good first-party keyboard option. Tablets may still become the dominant form of computing in the future, but the iPad in its current form is only a supplement to the iPhone and Mac. It’s a wonderful supplement and you’ll love it, but it’s not an essential device. And now that iPhones have larger screens, I suspect more people will choose to do what I do and just stick to the iPhone and Mac combination. Something needs to happen on the software side of things to differentiate the iPad more from the iPhone and Mac.
The strength of the iPad Air 2 is the same as it always has been with all iPads. It has the most and the best apps designed for the larger screen than any other competing tablet. That alone makes it worth buying if you want a tablet, but it’s also beautiful, thin, light, and powerful. It may be a modest improvement over last year’s iPad Air, but it’s still the best.