Apple iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3 Preview

Apple iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3 Preview

More of the same, but ... so what?

While it was very obvious what Apple needed to do to fix the iPhone in 2014—bigger screens, anyone?—demonstrably improving on the world's most popular tablets has proven to be far less obvious. So with less than the usual fanfare today, Apple introduced the new iPads, which aren't much different than the previous iPads.

They're high quality devices, of course. And that their respective feature-sets were telegraphed months ago shouldn't detract from the fact that these devices still set the standard to which other tablets must strive.

But that's like saying that Mercedes Benz sets the standard for automotive excellence. And while that may be the case, it's also true that most people buy less expensive cars. Much less expensive cars. And so it goes with the tablet market, where the iPad continues to lose ground to generally much less expensive Android devices.

And to be clear, by "losing ground," I mean not only that the iPad is no longer the best-selling tablet. Nor do I only mean that the iPad has actually seen sales decline in the past two consecutive quarters while the rest of the market surged forward. I mean that sometime in the next few quarters, the iPad will almost certainly no longer be the best-selling tablet model too.

This should alarm Apple and its fans. But for now at least, the firm is showing nothing but confidence. It is holding the line on iPad pricing--$499 and up for a stripper full-sized iPad and $399 and up for a stripper iPad mini—and reusing the same years-old designs on both.

So here's what's new.

iPad Air 2

The iPad Air is being replaced by the iPad Air 2, though Apple will continue selling the original for $100 less per model.

Colors. Like its predecessor, iPad Air 2 comes in white (silver) and black (space gray), but you can now get it in gold, too, just like iPhone.

Configurations. Apple is offering 16, 64 and 128 GB versions of this tablet in Wi-Fi-only and Wi-Fi/LTE versions. Note the jump from 16 to 64 GB between the low-end and middle-tier models; if Apple used 32 GB for the entry-level, that's all anyone would buy.

Prices. As before, the Wi-Fi versions of iPad Air 2 range from $499 to $699, and from $629 to $829 for Wi-Fi/LTE, but that big jump in storage on the middle models makes them a lot more palatable than in the past. But man, even a $50 price reduction would have been appreciated.

Touch ID. This is the marque new feature on this tablet in my opinion and the only thing—however obvious its inclusion is—that is demonstrably better about the iPad Air 2 than its predecessor. I've loved using the Touch ID on my iPhone 5S, iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, and have long wished for such a feature on iPad. Here it is.

Processor. The iPad Air 2 utilizes the new A8X processor with M8 motion coprocessor, compared to an A7 and M7 on the first Air. As you might expect, Apple has made crazy performance claims here, so let's just agree that it's faster/better and move on.

Display. Nothing new here: The 2 uses the same 2048 x 1536 9.7-inch display as its predecessor. But it also features a "fully laminated, antireflective coating," which could go a long way towards making the screen less unusable in certain conditions. I'll have to see that to understand the difference.

Size/weight. While the iPad Air features exactly the same 9.4-inch by 6.6-inch form factor, it's .05-inches thinner (0.24 vs. 0.29 inches) than its predecessor. So it's also an unnoticeable .04 pounds lighter: .96 pounds for Wi-Fi versions and .98 pounds for LTE. Still, thinner and lighter is thinner and lighter.

Cameras. Another area with a big improvement, though I couldn't personally care less about cameras on tablets. The iPad Air 2 now features what I believe is the same 8 megapixel rear camera found in the iPhone 6 (not Plus), vs. the 5 megapixel unit in its predecessor. It supports the new Burst mode and slow motion too. Front cameras are unchanged and even less interesting.

Sensors. In addition to the three-axis gyro, accelerometer and ambient light sensor that graced the original Air, the iPad Air 2 adds a barometer (and that Touch ID).

And that's about it. Virtually everything else is unchanged, including battery life.

iPad mini 3

The terribly-named iPad mini with Retina Display and the original iPad mini are being replaced by the confusingly named iPad mini 3, though Apple will continue selling both of those predecessors for less. The iPad mini is still called iPad mini, but the Retina version has been renamed to iPad mini 2. Yes, really.

Worse, almost nothing has changed. The iPad mini 3 offers a new color choice (gold) and Touch ID. That's it, the rest is the same as last year.

Colors. Like its predecessor, iPad Mini 3 comes in white (silver) and black (space gray), but you can now get it in gold, too, just like iPhone and iPad Air 2.

Configurations. As with iPad Air 2, Apple is offering 16, 64 and 128 GB versions of this tablet in Wi-Fi-only and Wi-Fi/LTE versions. With the same reason for the jump from 16 to 64 GB.

Prices. As before, the Wi-Fi versions of iPad mini 3 range from $399 to $599, and from $529 to $729 for Wi-Fi/LTE. Can you imagine spending $729 on a mini-tablet? Neither can I. But given how little has changed, the iPad mini 2 is now a much better deal, with a 32 GB model going for $349. (There are some other choices too.)

Touch ID. Here we see the single best new feature on the iPad mini 3. If it weren't so expensive, I'd upgrade just to get this.

And that's about it. Virtually everything else is unchanged, including the processor/coprocessor, display, size/weight, cameras and battery life. It's all the same.

My plans

Since there's nothing to test here, I won't be getting either of these devices. Yes, I'd love to have Touch ID, but not at those prices. I'll stick with the previous generation iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina Display—sorry, "iPad mini 2"—for at least the next year. I'm not being facetious when I thank Apple for making this so easy. With a lot of their product launches, I need to brace my wife for the next major cash outlay. This time, there's no need.

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