Let’s get this out of the way first: Apple’s new iPads are the best tablets on the market today.
The iPad Air 2, the company’s new top-of-the-line device, is substantially faster than its predecessor, which was already more powerful than just about every rival. It sports a terrific minimalist design, almost 1½ millimeters thinner than last year’s pretty skinny iPad Air.
And both the new Air and the iPad Mini 3, Apple’s latest small tablet, include TouchID and Apple Pay, Apple’s fingerprint scanner and payment system, which are handy innovations that make signing into apps and shopping for goods online much easier than in the past.
So these are fantastic tablets. The question is: Do you need a fantastic tablet?
Apple’s new machines are expensive. The iPad Air 2 starts at $499, and the iPad Mini 3 starts at $399, but both entry-level models have only 16 gigabytes of storage space. To get the most out of either device you really should pay the $100 upgrade to 64 gigabytes. But is it wise to spend $500 or $600 or more for a tablet, or can you get by with a marginal device that costs hundreds of dollars less?
For that matter, do you need a tablet at all? If you’re at all like me, you’re already swimming in computers, from a desktop to a laptop to a smartphone to an e-reader. Where does the iPad fit in that world? And even if you’re not like me and have only a couple of machines, you may still be confused by the choice between an iPad and, say, a light and powerful laptop or a large smartphone.
For all types of device users, then, the iPad presents a quandary. Are Apple’s premium tablets still worth their lofty prices?
After using the iPad Air 2 for the last few days, my answer is: Yes, with reservations. Whether you should take a leap on Apple’s new Air depends entirely on how you use your other devices.
If you’re not a big fan of personal computers and you don’t really like having your nose stuck in your phone all day, the iPad Air 2 might be for you. The iPad Air 2 is powerful enough to use as your main or secondary computer, after your phone, especially if you use your tablet as a replacement PC on the go, and if you’re looking to play processor-intensive games or run media-editing software.
But if that advice weren’t confusing enough, I’ll add one more caveat. If you’re mainly interested in a tablet for surfing the Web or watching movies, then the iPad Air 2 is probably overkill. Go instead with last year’s iPad Air, which is slightly slower, thicker and lacks TouchID, but starts at $399 and will prove pretty capable for many users. Even a bargain-basement machine like Amazon’s $99 Kindle Fire HD is a pretty good media device. It doesn’t look as good as the iPad, but if your needs are slight, it will get the job done.
As for the iPad Mini 3, Apple’s other new tablet, I’d advocate skipping it. Unlike the Air 2, the new Mini has not been upgraded with Apple’s latest processor. This means that internally, it is almost identical to last year’s iPad Mini 2, which Apple is still selling for $299 and up. The primary difference is that the iPad Mini 3 has a TouchID fingerprint scanner and has one more color option, gold. (The 2 comes in silver and black.) Unless you’re going to be doing a lot of Apple Pay shopping or you’re gaga for gold, it’s best to save the $100 and go with the Mini 2.
The iPad Air 2 also has been given some hefty internal upgrades. It now has a rear-facing camera that takes pretty good shots, though not nearly as stunning as the pictures you’ll get from the latest iPhones. It also has an iPad-specific version of the A8 chip found in Apple’s new iPhones, and that makes for off-the-charts performance. I noticed the speed immediately. Everything I did – from loading and switching between apps to surfing the Web to playing games – was more fluid and responsive than anything I’ve experienced on other tablets.
I performed a test of tech benchmarks – Geekbench 3 – on the device, and I got a single-processor performance score of 1,812 on the Air 2, and a multicore score of 4,530. Don’t worry if those numbers are Greek to you. What they mean, technically, is that the iPad Air 2 is faster than any other iOS or Android device ever sold. It’s about as fast as the Macs that Apple was selling as recently as 2011.
This gets to what is perhaps the main reason to choose an iPad Air 2. All that power will last a long while; you could get four or five years of use out of this tablet before you’ll need to upgrade. Of course, you’ll pay a pretty penny for that longevity.