Thinner, lighter and more powerful than last year's model, the iPad Air 2 is a tablet that's hard to beat. It's the sleekest tablet on the market, and its 9.7-inch display is beautiful to behold. Plus, the addition of Apple's Touch ID fingerprint scanner gives it a big security boost. But as a work device, Apple's flagship iPad still has some noteworthy shortcomings — especially with so many great Windows-powered slates to choose from. That bottom line is that the iPad Air 2 is a very good productivity device, but it's far from perfect.
How thin can tablets get? The iPad Air 2 sets a new bar for tablet slimness, with a thickness of just 0.24 inches (6.1 mm), down from original iPad Air's 0.29 inches (7.37 mm). It's a slight difference, but I immediately noticed that the device felt noticeably thinner, without losing any of the sturdiness of last year's model. Samsung's Galaxy Tab S 10.1 is a bit thicker at 0.26 inches (6.6 mm), but it also packs a slightly larger display.
Otherwise, not much of the design has changed from the original iPad Air 2, aside from a reflective ring on the home button that indicates Touch ID functionality (more on this later). With a slick glass-and-metal design, the iPad Air 2 follows in the footsteps of its predecessors as a device that business users can take seriously.
At just 0.98 lbs. (15.68 ounces), the iPad Air 2 is pretty light for a full-size tablet, especially considering its aluminum construction. In comparison, the plastic Galaxy Tab S 10.1 weighs slightly more, at 1.02 lbs. (16.32 ounces.) The Air 2's barely-there design is a perk for business users who carry their tablet with them everywhere.
Apple hasn't upped the size or resolution of the iPad Air 2's display, but it still produces a better picture than last year's model. That's apparently due to a new manufacturing technique that fuses the glass, LCD panel and touch sensor into a single unit, eliminating air gaps. The result is a picture that practically seems to sit on top of the display.
Meanwhile, a new anti-reflective coating makes it easier to use the iPad Air 2 outdoors in direct sunlight. Indoor reflections are also a bit more diffuse and less distracting than on last year's model. The result is a clearer picture with wider viewing angles, both indoors and out.
The 9.7-inch display feels large enough for most business tasks. While running the iPad version of Microsoft Word, the screen afforded plenty of space for both my document and the options ribbon at the top of the screen. For seriously screen-intensive tasks like editing a spreadsheet, however, things can start to feel a bit cramped. Those tasks are better suited for a desktop computer with a larger monitor. Either way, you'll want to pair your iPad Air 2 with a Bluetooth keyboard, since the touch-screen keyboard takes up half your usable screen space.
The best new thing about the iPad Air 2 has to be the Touch ID fingerprint scanner embedded in the home button. The feature, which was introduced with the iPhone 5s last year, makes its tablet debut with the iPad Air 2 (as well as the iPad mini 3).
You'll register your fingerprint as part of the setup process. After that, unlocking your device is as easy as holding your finger over the button. That way you can keep your work tablet locked down without annoying password screens. You can also lock individual apps using Touch ID, to keep business data from being tampered with if you share you tablet with family. For example, you can lock Evernote, E-Trade and the Mint finance app, among others, with more to come.
Touch ID is a pleasure to use, and it easily beats the fingerprint scanner on newer Samsung devices, which frequently misreads my print. Apple's scanner works nearly flawlessly, even when I intentionally hold my thumb at an angle.
Overall, Touch ID is a serious perk for security-minded business users. It's not necessarily worth upgrading for if you already own the original iPad Air, but it's the best reason to choose the iPad Air 2 if you're in the market for a new work tablet.
Most modern tablets are more than speedy enough for basic productivity tasks. If you need a little extra horsepower, though, the iPad Air 2 delivers. It includes Apple's new A8X chip, an upgraded version of the processor found in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Apps open and close quickly, and jumping between apps using the Recent Apps panel (double-press the home button) works without a hitch.
Android and iOS may have similar app libraries overall, but Apple's platform boasts far more tablet-optimized apps. Plus, apps are typically introduced and updated earlier on iOS than on other platforms. For example, Microsoft's Office for iPad debuted over the summer with a set of features that nearly rivals the full desktop version. Android tablet users, meanwhile, are still waiting for the full Office apps to launch on their platform; the Office Mobile apps currently available for Android are extremely limited in comparison.
Still, you can't run Windows programs on an iPad, which may make Windows tablets like the Surface Pro 3 or Dell Venue 11 Pro a better choice for some business users. Another annoyance is that you can't change which apps iOS uses by default. For example, clicking a Web link in your email will always open up Apple's own Safari browser, even if you prefer to use Chrome.
The iPad Air 2 runs on iOS 8, the newest version of Apple's mobile operating system. In addition to some visual enhancement, it includes a slew of new productivity-boosting features for business users. The best is probably the revamped Notifications Center, which features a new "Today" panel where you can install widgets. These are like small apps that update in real time, letting you see a variety of information at a glance. By default, the iPad Air 2 comes with widgets showing upcoming calendar events and the current weather, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. I particularly like the PCalc Lite calculator widget, which lets you perform quick calculations on the fly. I also like the Evernote widget, which makes it easy to save quick notes, and the Yahoo Weather app, which gives you a more detailed look at the forecast than the stock weather widget.
Business owners are likely to spend more time typing on their tablet than other users. That's why the new ability to install third-party touch-screen keyboards on the iPad Air 2 is such a perk. For example, the Swype app (99 cents) lets you drag your finger from letter to letter to type a word, instead of tapping each key individually. I love typing this way because it's fast and accurate, especially when you have only one free hand.
Unfortunately, Apple is still restricting keyboard developers from implementing some features that are standard on other platforms. For example, Android tablets let you long-press on letters to input numbers and special characters, but that functionality is missing from iOS 8. That means you have to jump back and forth between keyboard menus while typing, which really slows me down. And while the stock keyboard looks nice, the fact that it always displays capital letters on keys is a nuisance, since it forces you to constantly check to see if the shift key is selected. It's one example of Apple choosing style over functionality.
On the bright side, the iPad Air 2's screen is narrow enough to make comfortable two-handed typing possible when holding the device in portrait mode, even with my relatively small hands, though I did have to stretch my thumbs to reach the keys in the middle. Still, I much prefer the typing experience on Android tablets overall.
The iPad Air 2 can also link up with your other Apple devices for a variety of different uses. For starters, Handoff is a feature that lets you stop working on one device and pick up right where you left off on another. It works between iPads, iPhones and Mac computers, so long as both are connected to the same Apple ID and Wi-Fi network. The feature was fast and reliable when I tested it. When I started composing an email on my MacBook, I could swipe up on the Mail icon that appeared on my iPad Air 2's lock screen to keep writing on the go.
Also included is the ability to link your iPad Air 2 to your iPhone, then take phone calls right on the tablet. To set it up, you'll need to have both devices connected to the same Wi-Fi network and have Bluetooth enabled on both. It works well, though I noticed a slight audio delay on my end. Still, the ability to see call alerts on the iPad is a handy feature that could prevent you from missing an important call if you accidentally left your phone on silent.
Apple Pay is a new mobile payment platform that stores your credit card information on your iPhone 6 or 6 Plus, then pay with your phone at brick-and-mortar stores. The iPad Air 2 lacks the near-field communication (NFC chip) that makes that feature possible on newer iPhones, but it still lets you use Apple Pay in a limited capacity on the Web. Basically, you can store you payment info for quick and secure payments online, complete with Touch ID verification. It works for items in the App store, and many other Web stores are expected to integrate Apple Pay soon.
One of the perks of owning an iPad is the huge range of accessories available for it, and the iPad Air 2 is no exception. There are dozens of cases, keyboards and styluses available for the device. There's still no mouse support, though, which can make precise tasks difficult. Likewise, there's no easy way to link your iPad up to a larger monitor like you can with a Windows tablet.
For most consumers, tablets don't get much better than this. The iPad Air 2 is the thinnest, fastest and best-looking iPad yet. Meanwhile, the inclusion of Touch ID gives the device a welcome security boost, and iOS still has the best selection of tablet-optimized apps of any mobile platform by far. But iOS still has some annoying limitations, like a limited keyboard and the inability to change your iPad's default apps. And if you rely on a specific Windows program to stay productive, you might be better off with a Windows tablet. But for most people, the iPad Air 2 makes for a great portable productivity machine.