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iPad Air 2 hands-on: the same, but different

It's really, really thin

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I just spent some time with Apple's new iPad Air 2. As all the leaks suggested, it looks almost exactly the same as the original iPad Air, although it's a bit thinner, has an optically-bonded display, a much-improved camera, a new A8X processor, and a TouchID sensor in the home button.

The story here is really how thin this thing is — the original iPad Air was already such a dramatically smaller package than the iPad 4 that the iPad Air 2 feels like there's almost nothing left to take away. Apple's obsession with thin devices is on full display here; holding the Air 2 feels like you're holding a screen and nothing more.

One thing that is definitively better is the new camera, which is now 8 megapixels; it's a lot faster and shots seemed a lot clearer, at least in Apple's hectic demo room. Apple made a big deal out of this camera and the interesting apps people are building for the iPad that use the camera; we've fought it for years but tablet photography seems to be a thing now. We'll have to try it out more seriously when we review this thing


iPad Air 2!

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Besides the thinness, the other thing you'll instantly notice is the new optically-bonded display. iPhone displays have been bonded since the iPhone 4; eliminating the air gap between the touch layer and the LCD is what makes it looks like you're touching the actual pixels directly. It's been too long coming to the iPad, and the display on the Air 2 looks terrific for it. There's also a new anti-reflective coating, which was hard to evaluate under Apple's diffuse indoor lighting; the real test for that will be outdoor. Overall, it's a terrific screen. It's not a gamechanger if you already have a Retina iPad, but it is a nice and very welcome upgrade.

The Air 2 also has Apple Pay support, but there's no NFC here, so you won't be waving it at any payment terminals. Instead it's all about the TouchID sensor and paying for things in apps; there are partners from Fancy to Uber to OpenTable which will all let you quickly touch-to-pay.

The notable omission from the new Air 2 is the side switch; it feels like a casualty of thinness. Rotation lock is now handled by the onscreen button in Control Center; you can mute by holding the volume-down button. It's not a huge loss but it is slightly less convenient, especially if you were used to using the switch for rotation lock while using an iPad lying down someplace.

As far as speed, it's really really fast — that A8X is obviously a performance champ, just as the A8 in the iPhone 6 is a screamer. But every new iPad is terrifically fast; the story here is that iOS 8 and Metal let games and apps like Pixelmator hit the GPU directly; the demos I played with were amazingly solid. There's nothing new here in terms of what you might use an iPad for, but whatever it is you're already doing, you're clearly going to do it much faster.


iPad Air 2 and mini 3.

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The iPad Air 2 and the mini 3 also both have an interesting new "Apple SIM" that lets the LTE models connect to a variety of mobile carriers for data usage; everything about the system is a bit of a mystery, and Verizon is a notable absence from the support list right now. We're digging into how all of this will work; we'll report back when we know more.

But beyond the impressive thinness and iterative internal hardware upgrades, there's not much more to say. Apple's hasn't made any major changes to iOS 8 to differentiate the iPad from the now-larger iPhones, and if you're happy with an existing Air it's hard to see how the new Air will kick off a massive wave of upgrades like the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus just did. It's a really nice iPad, easily the nicest ever made. But Apple has to start providing new reasons for people to get iPads, and at least in this quick experience the Air 2 is very much a highly-refined version of the same.