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iPad Air 2 And iPad Mini 3 Review: The Best Tablets, Made Slightly Better

Apple gives the big iPad a few worthwhile tweaks—and hardly changes the small one at all.

[Photos: courtesy of Apple]

Let’s make this simple: If you already own last year’s iPad Air, you probably don’t want to buy an iPad Air 2. The new version’s improvements, though noticeable and welcome, are too minor to make the tablet you bought less than a year ago feel obsolete.

If, however, you own one of the earlier full-sized iPads and are hankering for an upgrade—or are in the market for your first iPad—the Air 2 is pretty darn compelling. Though it introduces no radical new twists likely to lead to a lasting surge in iPad sales, which have been in the doldrums lately, it’s the most evolved version ever of the tablet which defined the category and continues to lead it.

As for the iPad Mini 3, the changes from last year’s iPad Mini 2 (née iPad Mini With Retina Display) are so exceedingly modest that "iPad Mini 2.1" might have been the most appropriate name for the new model. The nearly-as-capable iPad Mini 2 remains on the market, at a new low price which makes it a deal.

With both the iPad Air 2 and the iPad Mini 3, the killer app remains…apps. 675,000 of them, to be specific, by far the most extensive, wide-ranging, imaginative, and useful selection available for any tablet platform. The App Store's riches keep both iPads comfortably ahead of even their nicest Android rivals; the race shows no signs of narrowing as the one between Android and iPhone has.

Thus concludes my brief review of the iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3, which arrive in stores this week. If you want a more detailed look, read on. (Apple provided me with pre-release units for review, which I've been using for the past few days.)

The Same, Only Skinnier

More than almost any other category of gadget, tablets benefit from reductions in weight and thickness. Especially full-sized tablets such as the big iPad, which can be a chore to hold for extended stretches of movie-watching or book-reading.

The headline news about last year’s iPad Air was that it was 28 percent lighter, 20 percent thinner, and 11 percent narrower than the iPad 4 which preceded it. And at first blush, the aluminum-clad iPad Air 2 looks just like that first Air—unless you buy it in gold, a new color choice along with the traditional space gray and silver.

Its reduction in weight, from one pound to .96 pound, is scarcely more than a rounding error. But Apple was able to make the iPad another 18 percent thinner: It’s now 6.1mm deep, down from 7.5mm—which might explain why Apple removed the slider on the side which let you lock the screen's orientation, replacing it with a software-based switch. (Amazon’s Fire HDX 8.9 is 7.8mm; Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1 is 8.6mm.) It’s a meaningful further step towards the ideal iPad form factor, and a refinement which my fingers noticed and appreciated each time I picked the tablet up.

Apple skinnified the tablet further in part by fusing together the 9.7-inch screen’s three layers: the LCD, touch sensor, and protective glass. The company says that doing so has the additional benefits of improving color, contrast, and sharpness. I strained to detect the improvement from the already-gorgeous screen on the first Air, but on close inspection it did look even more like ink on paper rather than pixels trapped under glass.

In any color, the iPad Air 2 is really, really thin

Also new: an anti-reflective screen coating. That enhancement I had no trouble seeing—the image remains pristine even at angles which reveal a ghostly visage of your own noggin on other tablets. It particularly helps outdoors, where the display remains bright in environments which wash out previous iPads and other tablets.

Speed Secrets

The weirdest fact about the iPad Air 2 is that Apple isn’t publicizing (or even acknowledging) one of its best new features. The tablet now has 2GB of RAM, up from the rather cramped 1GB allotment in the original iPad Air. (Some competitors, like the Galaxy Tab 10.1, have even more.)

Doubling the RAM means that the iPad can keep more apps and browser tabs in memory without having to reload anything. That results in a speed boost which which is very apparent as you hop between apps and load new web pages.

As an informal test, I tried loading FastCompany.com in multiple Safari tabs, stopping only when the browser ran out of RAM and had to reload pages from the Net as I switched tabs. On an iPad Air, I was only able to open five tabs before Safari choked. On the iPad Air 2, I was able to open a dozen of them before the browser felt less than snappy.

A video shot with the iPad Air 2's new timelapse feature

Apple is crowing about another enhancement to the iPad Air 2's performance: It sports the company's new A8X processor, an iPad-specific version of the A8 in the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. Without compromising the tablet's traditional ten-hour battery life, the A8X speed increases CPU speed by 40 percent and graphics by 250 percent, according to the company.

When I ran the Geekbench performance test—which reports that the A8X has three cores of computing power—I got multi-core results which were around twice as fast as those for the dual-core iPad Air from last year. But as usual, the quicker chip is less about turbocharging existing software than it is about letting developers build ambitious new apps. Industrial-strength tools such as the Pixelmator image editor and Replay movie maker—both of which Apple showed off at its launch event—should benefit in particular. So should 3D games.

The Air 2 also supports 802.11ac, the speediest flavor of Wi-Fi, and the fastest versions of LTE wireless broadband—improvements which you'll only see when connecting to networks which also support these new standards.

Security and Snapshots

When Apple's elegant Touch ID fingerprint scanner debuted in last year’s iPhone 5s, it was obviously only a matter of time until it made its way onto the iPad. With the iPad Air 2, that day has come. Train the sensor to recognize one or more of your fingers and/or thumbs, and from then on, a light press on the home button will get you into your locked tablet and lets you authorize the purchase of new apps. Once you get the knack, it’s quick and reliable.

Touch ID lets you pay using Apple Pay in apps such Apple Store

The technology is at its most useful in the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus: It’s how you prove that you’re you so you can pay for stuff at retail stores using Apple Pay. The iPad Air 2 doesn’t support that sort of in-person purchasing, which is O.K., considering how silly you’d look if you brought the tablet to a cashier and waved it over a payment terminal.

You can, however, use Touch ID and the credit cards you've stored in Apple Pay when paying for goods and services in apps from e-commerce companies such as Groupon and Hotel Tonight, as well as in Apple's own Apple Store app. If you do, you get the same security benefits as if you paid in person at a brick-and-mortar establishment: The iPad only transfers a one-time payment code to the merchant, not the details of your credit card.

Apple also gave some love to something which usually gets short shrift in tablets—the cameras. The rear-facing one is still no match for the camera in the iPhone 6, 6 Plus, or even the 5s: It doesn't even have a flash, let alone cutting-edge features such as the iPhone 6 Plus's optical image stabilization. But it's now capable of capturing crisper images, thanks a resolution bump from five megapixels to eight. It also lets you shoot with the transfixing time-lapse mode introduced with the new iPhones, as well as in burst mode and with improved versions of the existing slo-mo and panorama features.

The front-facing camera has burst mode, too. Now, snapping lots of selfies is as easy as taking one of them.

I rarely shoot photos with a tablet myself: Any self-respecting smartphone packs more advanced photographic technology and is easier to hold steady in your hand. Unlike some people, though, I’m not appalled by the possibility that somebody else might be into tablet picture-taking. And if a tablet has cameras, they might as well be as good as the ones in the iPad Air 2.

Herewith, a few of my unretouched photos:

  1. 01/04
  2. 02/04
  3. 03/04
  4. 04/04

A Smarter SIM Card

The iPad Air 2 introduces one potentially game-changing new feature which wasn't ready for me to try for this review, and which only comes into play if you buy one of the versions with built-in 4G wireless networking. (As usual, they sell for $130 more than their Wi-Fi-only counterparts.)

The new Apple SIM lets you pick your wireless carrier

In the past, buying a cellular iPad has required you to choose a wireless company up front, even though contracts and price subsidies were not involved. If at any point you’ve wanted to switch carriers, you’ve needed to visit a store and swap in a new SIM card. Doable, yes; convenient, no.

Enter Apple’s new Apple SIM. It’s designed to let you pick a carrier and a plan on the fly, right from the tablet's settings, and then change them at will. For example, if you visit England, you can pay for just enough data from a local carrier to get you through your trip—rather than getting gouged by your U.S. carrier’s roaming charges.

At launch, Apple SIM only works with four wireless providers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and the U.K.’s EE. (Verizon customers will still need to get an iPad with a plain old Verizon SIM.) The more carriers which sign up to support the technology, the more useful it will get, especially since the Air 2 is compatible with more flavors of LTE than ever. And if Apple is ever able to bring the concept to the iPhone? Well, that would be a historic day for commitment-phobic consumers.

Oh Yeah, the iPad Mini 3

The iPad Air 2’s list of new features may not be all that extensive, but with the iPad Mini 3, the changes are so minimal that you can cover them in six words: Touch ID, Apple SIM, gold case. That's it.

That doesn't mean that the iPad Mini 3, which retains the Mini's 7.9-inch screen, is a snoozer. The Mini was already a great tablet—more portable than the full-sized iPad, but posher and roomier than budget-priced 7-inch models such as Amazon's Kindle HDX 7. It remains classy and capable. Still, anyone who was hoping that it would get the Air 2’s other advances—the thinner case, the RAM upgrade, the next-generation processor, the reflection-resistant screen, and camera improvements—will apparently have to wait a year for the iPad Mini 4.

The iPad Mini 3, looking almost the same as the iPad Mini 2

In a way, the biggest change Apple is making to the iPad Mini this year didn't involve technology. It's the company's decision to chop $100 off the price of the iPad Mini 2, bringing the cost of the 16GB version down to $299. For 25 percent less than the $399 starting price of the Mini 3, you get a tablet with around 95 percent of its goodness, including the ability to run those 675,000 apps just as smoothly. The $349 Mini 2, with 32GB of space—formerly $499—hits an even sweeter sweet spot.

Meanwhile, if you’re considering plunking down $249 for the base-model iPad Mini, which has a lower-resolution screen and a pokier processor than any other current iPad, my advice is simple: Buy the Mini 2 instead.

The fact that the Mini 3’s upgrades are so much less meaty than those of the Air 2 represents an apparent shift in strategy from last year’s models. Technologically, 2013's iPads were nearly identical: You could pick your screen size and get Apple's latest technology either way. That made it seek like the highly portable and powerful Mini had a shot at becoming the dominant model in the iPad lineup, a bit like the way the iPad Nano came to overshadow the full-sized, classic iPod.

For this year, at least, that’s not happening. Polished though the Mini 3 is, it's the iPad Air 2 that boasts the sleekest industrial design and most potent components. Once again, the full-sized iPad is clearly the flagship—not just of the iPad line, but the whole tablet category.

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