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The iPad Air 2: Thin, Gorgeous, Powerful — and That’s Enough

David Pogue
Tech Critic
Yahoo Tech

Hey, kids! It’s time to play Apple Announcement Mad Libs!

Last week, at an invitation-only press event held in _______, California, Apple unveiled its latest tablet, dubbed the iPad ______. Executives took to the stage to note that the new model is thinner than last year’s, now only ___ mm thick. It’s also faster, with a new Apple-designed processor that Apple says delivers ___ percent greater speed. (Representatives from game-maker ________ took the stage to demonstrate how the improved chip delivered its latest title with impressive frame rates.)

Apple also pointed out improvements in the iPad’s camera, such as ___________. And the company stressed the value of its latest mobile operating system, iOS ___, running on the tablet-sized screen.

The new iPad will be available in white, black, or gold, in capacities of ___, ____, and ___ gigabytes. Prices range from $500 to $____; add $130 for a model with cellular connectivity.

Android fans immediately took to the message boards, denouncing the new iPad as too little, too late, and overpriced. Meanwhile, lines at Apple Stores in major cities stretched around the block.

Yes, it’s gotten to the point that we tech critics can pretty much recycle our iPad reviews from year to year.

iPad Air 2

This is it: The new iPad Air 2 (Deanne Fitzmaurice/Yahoo Tech)

But to be fair, what else is there with the annual tablet refresh? You can make it faster, make its camera better, make its battery life longer, fool with the screen sizes. Then what?

In any case, the iPad Air 2 really is extremely thin. That’s the salient feature. Less than a quarter of an inch thick (6.1 millimeters). You will definitely bend this thing if you put it in your back pocket and sit on it. Fortunately, you probably don’t have a pocket big enough.

Profile of iPad Air 2

(David Pogue/Yahoo Tech)

Why does thin matter? Because a tablet is something you have to hold all the time you’re using it. Thin and light matter. The iPad Air 2 isn’t strikingly light (it’s about a pound), but Apple won’t be switching from the handsome aluminum body to plastic anytime soon.

And, sure enough, there’s a new processor inside: Apple’s own custom-designed chip, called the A8X. It feels noticeably snappier than last year’s A7 chip (40 percent snappier, Apple says). Fast is always good.

Impressively, though — considering the speed boost and the bodily diet — the iPad’s battery life hasn’t taken a hit. Apple says you can get 10 hours out of it.

Camera
And, yes, the camera’s been improved. It does seem awfully weird to take pictures with a tablet — not to mention downright rude, if you’re blocking the view of people around you. But if people are going to do it, Apple’s there to help.

The new sensor takes 8-megapixel photos and 1080p high-def videos. They bring to the iPad most of the tricks of the iPhone 6, like time-lapse video, slow motion, burst mode, a self-timer, and panorama mode.

Photo of cat taken with iPad Air 2

It’s not as good as the iPhone’s camera, though. It doesn’t have the advanced, superfast autofocus (what Apple calls “focus pixels”); doesn’t have optical stabilization; can’t capture hyper-smooth 60 frames-per-second video.

The front camera does better in low light. That’s for you, bedtime video chatters.

Touch ID
The other news is that the iPad now has a fingerprint sensor embedded into the home button (what Apple calls Touch ID), just as the last couple of iPhones have.

The more you live with this thing, the more valuable and impressive it becomes. Touch ID is by far the smoothest, fastest, most reliable fingerprint sensor on the market — it doesn’t care what angle your finger’s at — and it’s a thousand times better than typing in a password over and over. Or having to remember passwords. So the more Apple can let you use your fingerprint in place of passwords, the better.

Of course, you can unlock the iPad Air 2 with your fingerprint. (You can teach it to recognize up to five different fingers.) And, as on the iPhones, you can make purchases from Apple’s online stores (music, movies, apps) using your fingerprint.

Now, though, there’s a third category of Touch ID usefulness: Apple Pay.

Apple Pay doesn’t let you buy things in physical stores with the iPad, as you can with the iPhone 6 models; the iPad doesn’t contain the necessary near-field communication (NFC) chip. Be glad; the only thing goofier than taking a picture with a tablet would be holding one up to the credit card terminal.

You can use your fingerprint for the other part of Apple Pay, though — and that’s shopping online. Not on websites like Amazon or Bestbuy.com, but inside certain shopping apps. I had no trouble buying stuff in Houzz.com’s app (housewares) or Fancy.com’s app (all kinds of stuff, “curated” by regular folks who earn commissions when other people buy them). At the shopping-cart screen, I tapped Buy with Apple Pay; then I touched my finger to the home button and the deed was done.

Houzz.com shopping app on an iPad Air 2

Only about 20 apps are Apple Pay-ready now (including Target, Panera Bread, the Disney Store and Uber). More, of course, will come soon.

WiFi
Apple says WiFi is much faster on the iPad Air 2 — and wow, do you feel it. Apple could do an ad showing this year’s iPad loading webpages side by side with last year’s iPad, if it didn’t make last year’s look like such a slug. NYTimes.com, for example, loads in one second on the new iPad; it arrives five seconds later on last year’s model (same WiFi network).

Apple says the cellular radios ($130 extra for a machine so equipped) are 50 percent faster than before, too.

Since Web surfing and email downloading are, you know, things you might do a lot on a tablet, these are important improvements.

Screen
The screen is fantastic, as always. At full brightness, you could light a runway with this thing.

(At night, anyway. In direct sun, you can hardly tell it’s turned on.)

iPad Air 2

Apple reduced the number of layers between your eye and the image, making the picture seem slightly closer to your fingers. That’s good.

But Apple also claims that the Air 2 “features a custom-designed antireflective coating that reduces glare by 56 percent, making it the least reflective tablet in the world.”

Must be a pretty feeble competition, then, because I couldn’t tell a lick of difference between the new iPad Air and last year’s. Not in the sun, not indoors. They’re both very reflective. (See the video above.)

The iPad Air S?
Apple’s naming is getting a little Microsoft-esque. This is the sixth model in the iPad’s four-year history, but its name is the iPad Air 2.

The improvements are all terrific — especially the WiFi speed and the thinness — but they’re not enough to make you want to ditch your 2013 iPad Air. If your iPad is older still, and you use it often, then, yeah; it’s worth the upgrade.

You can get the new iPad in 16-, 64-, or 128-gigabyte models (why not 32?), for $500, $600, or $700. (The latter two prices are $100 lower than before.) It’s available with a gray, silver, or gold back. The model with a cellular connection costs $130 more.

The cellular model comes, remarkably, with an Apple-designed uni-SIM card that can turn the same iPad into a T-Mobile, AT&T, or Sprint tablet. Verizon declined to play ball. “So whenever you need it, you can choose the plan that works best for you — with no long-term commitments,” says the Apple website.

That’s not quite true; Apple told me that you cannot, in fact, hop among carriers; with most of the carriers, once you make a choice, you’re locked into it from now on.

But someday … imagine a tablet where you could compare offers, prices, and signal strength among all carriers each time you get online. It’s clearly technically possible; only fear and greed prevent the carriers from letting you go that far with this new SIM card.

It must be darned hard coming up with a new tablet model every October. In any case, the list of incremental improvements keep the iPad Air 2 at the front of the state of the art. It’s a glorious, fast, beautiful, tablet, edging ever closer into laptop-replacement territory. And with the impressive iOS 8 and Apple’s universe of online services behind it, this iPad will light up a lot of faces under the 2014 Christmas tree.

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