Overall, the improvement in detail is obvious, and imaging is noticeably better in a few other areas as well. The white balance is slightly improved; colors are a little more accurate; and harshly backlit images aren't as blown out as they were on the previous Air. And although the f/2.4 aperture is the same on both cameras, the new ISP manages to filter out more noise in low-light situations; it still won't catch as much errant light as the iPhone, however. Apple also says the 1.2MP FaceTime camera should do a better job of reducing noise, but I couldn't see any real difference in side-by-side comparisons.
(You can see full-res images taken by the Air 2 camera here, and samples from the original Air can be found here.)
Performance and battery life
Strap on your seat belts, kids -- the iPad Air 2 is speedy. The irony is not lost on me as I say it, given that we seem to say the same thing with every new iPad. Indeed, the Air 2 fits that bill perfectly: It's predictably more powerful than its predecessor, thanks to the A8X chipset inside, but there's a bit more to the tablet's oomph this time around. Apple's making a jump from a dual-core processor to one with three cores; the CPU is clocked at 1.5GHz, a 100MHz bump from the original Air; the L2 cache doubled from 1MB to 2MB; and it also comes with 2GB of RAM, twice as much as the last few iPads. It's no surprise, then, why the company is boasting a 40 percent boost in CPU performance and an increase in graphics prowess by a factor of 2.5.
So yes, the iPad was powerful before, and it's even more so now. Apple says the new chip is optimized for apps and games that use Metal, a framework that gets rid of a lot of the overhead that gets between a developer and the GPU. It also takes advantage of 3D graphics processing and other advanced computing capabilities. The A8X will increase the performance of every app regardless of whether or not they use Metal, but I focused more heavily on apps and games that do.
One such app was Replay, a video highlight tool featured in last week's keynote. The app takes images you've curated from your photo library and puts them into a cool montage-like video; you can add music, text and other effects to give some extra pizzazz to your Facebook slideshow of the family trip to Disneyland. The A8X showed its chops when it was time to save and render the video; I did the same exact video on both iPad Airs (iPads Air?), and the original wasn't even halfway through the job when the Air 2 completed the task.
It's clear that the A8X can make a huge difference over the A7 in many areas, but I didn't see as drastic a performance improvement with existing games that use Metal. I tried several, such as Asphalt 8, Beach Buggy Racing, Modern Combat 5 and Epic Zen Garden. As expected, I experienced fewer frame skips, smoother play and faster load times, all of which are nearly givens anytime there's a boost in graphics capacity. And the Air 2 is a winner for this alone. The only downside was that I saw the same number of fine details in the A8X during gameplay as I saw in the A7. When comparing the two Airs side by side, I saw the same reflections in puddles, blazing fires, other characters, falling buildings, exploding helicopters and other elements. Still good, but not a night-and-day difference. The improvements in this area were not as noticeable as I'd anticipated, but hopefully A8X-optimized games will come out soon that push the chip's graphics capabilities to the limit.
The benchmarks sided with Replay in terms of performance. I saw massive bumps in test scores on Geekbench 3 and Basemark X (nearly double that of the Air), as well as a 6,000-point increase on 3DMark. I also notched a 25 percent decrease in SunSpider, which was the lowest score I've ever seen on any mobile device (SunSpider scores are like golf -- the lower the better); finally, I was also impressed by the onscreen and offscreen GFXBench results. However, while the iPad is still among the most powerful tablets on the market, it's got some serious competition; the NVIDIA Tegra K1-powered Shield Tablet crunches some numbers that surpass the Air 2's scores, with others getting incredibly close.
A thinner profile comes at the expense of battery size. The new Air's is 5.1Whr smaller than the old one, but Apple still promises that you'll get the same 10-hour battery life because the A8X is more power-efficient. Real-life use shows that the original Air still rules the roost; after a day of heavy use, I typically went to bed with around 20 percent left in the tank. If you're only using it moderately -- say, for casual content creation or consumption -- you should get a little over two days. In our video test, in which an HD movie plays through the life of the battery, the Air 2 squeezed out 11 hours and 15 minutes, significantly lower than last year's Air and about an hour short of the Samsung Tab S. That said, I'm using the WiFi+Cellular version, so keep in mind that the WiFi-only option should get longer results. On the flip side, the mini 3 actually improved in battery life over the last model, getting nearly 14 hours of video before dying.
On the plus side, the loudspeakers have improved. In side-by-side tests with the original Air, the sequel's speakers produced even louder and fuller sound than its predecessor, which came in handy while listening to podcasts and streaming music around the house.
As usual, the new iPads come in WiFi-only and WiFi+Cellular options, with the WiFi-only models beginning at $499 for the Air 2 and $399 for the mini 3. In both cases, the base models have 16GB of storage. Meanwhile, the cellular options start at $629 for the Air 2 and $529 for the mini 3. If you need more storage -- and given how much available space is required just to update your devices these days, I strongly recommend it -- you'll need to add an extra $100 to get 64GB of storage and $200 for 128GB. As with the new iPhones, the iPads are no longer offered with 32GB.
The new iPads aren't the only show in town. Google's Nexus 9, which comes out in two weeks, will likely be a strong performer thanks to its NVIDIA K1 chip, a 2.3GHz dual-core processor with 64-bit support. (This is the "Denver" variant of the chip inside the NVIDIA Shield, so the Nexus 9 should keep up with the Air 2.) Apple got a nice head start on 64-bit support when it released the A7 chip last year, so it'll take some time for developers to take full advantage of their newfound abilities. The baseline, WiFi-only Nexus 9, which includes 16GB of internal storage, will go for $399; this puts it as solid competition against the mini 3, although its screen size is right in between the mini and Air. There's also the Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet, which is now going for around $460 and packs plenty of punch, and the Samsung Tab S, which comes with an octa-core chip and 3GB of RAM for the same price as the Air 2.
The mini 3 will also soon have to compete against Sony's Z3 Tablet Compact, an 8-inch waterproof slate that is now available for pre-order. It's 6.4mm thin and comes with a 2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon processor with 3GB of RAM, but you're also paying for the extra features: it's priced starting at $499, which is a fair amount higher than Apple's already high-priced option.
If you like the smaller form factor, but don't love the price, there's also the Shield Tablet, which comes with the aforementioned K1 chip and is available starting at $299; it's more gaming-minded than your usual Android tablet, but it's a fantastic performer that soundly beats out the mini 3. There's also the Google Nexus 7, which was discontinued, but still available on Amazon and other retailers for around $200. And finally, last year's iPad mini with Retina display is now $100 cheaper at $299, while the original mini is $249. However, that $50 difference also means you lose the Retina display; it's definitely worth the money to go with the higher resolution. Likewise, the original Air is now $399, $100 cheaper than its successor.
In the wake of dire sales, the Air 2 is exactly what Apple needed to keep the lineup fresh. It may not be a brand-new design, per se, but its thin frame helps keep the marquee tablet looking sleek and exciting, and the extra burst of performance ensures that it stays among the most powerful tablets on the market for the next year. It could use a little help with battery life compared to the Air, but it's still an improvement over the iPad fourth-gen and older. Most importantly, the Air 2 feels like Apple hasn't given up on the tablet form factor, even if it's experiencing a dip in sales.
That said, I'm not sure where the mini 3 fits into Apple's strategy. Since the only hardware improvement to the new slate is Touch ID, the mini lineup is no longer on par with the Airs; it's now a second-class tablet citizen. I love Touch ID, and I favor the screen size of the mini, but it's not worth paying an extra $100 for Apple's fingerprint sensor unless you use a ton of passwords or want to make a lot of online Apple Pay purchases. It's still a great performer, but I can't help but wonder if the mini lineup can remain relevant at its price point -- especially now that 5.5-inch iPhones are even more portable and still offer a large screen.