Review roundup: iPad Air 2 is powerful and appealing, but iPad mini 3 is meh

Pre-orders for the new Apple iPad Air 2, iPad mini 2 and iPad mini 3 are arriving later this week and the first wave of reviews is already in. As expected, the newest Apple tablets are better than the old ones, which is pretty much a given.

A touch I.D. pad is seen on the new iPad Mini 3 during an Apple special event on October 16, 2014 in Cupertino, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A touch I.D. pad is seen on the new iPad Mini 3 during an Apple special event on October 16, 2014 in Cupertino, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

One slight exception is the [company]Apple[/company] iPad mini 3, which is really last year’s model with the addition of a Touch ID sensor and optional gold color. At least one review has alluded to the same thing I did earlier this week: Unless you really want a fingerprint reader or a gold iPad mini, skip the new small tablet and buy last year’s model for a $100 savings.

What about the mini’s big brother — the new iPad Air 2, a very updated product?

Self-proclaimed Apple iPad lover Walt Mossberg suggests on Re/code that most current iPad Air owners won’t see that much improvement if they upgrade now. It’s a better buy for those who don’t have an iPad or have one that’s two or more years old:

“So when Apple brought out new iPads last week, and I had a chance to test them over the past four days, you might think I’d be pretty excited about them — but I’m not. They are, in most respects, the best iPads ever made. But for average users, they represent only a modest evolutionary improvement over last year’s models, not the kind of big change that the first iPad Air or the Retina display iPad mini did last year.”

Over at Daring Fireball, John Gruber highlights the performance boost found in the new Apple A8x chip and additional memory used in the iPad Air 2. Gruber prefers the smaller size of an iPad mini but suggests that the new tablet’s capabilities mark a time where it’s more difficult than ever to choose between an iPad Air and a MacBook Air:

“The iPad is no longer following in the wake of the iPhone, performance- and specs-wise. It’s forging ahead. With 2 GB of RAM, it’s a year ahead of the iPhone (we hope) in that department. Performance-wise it’s fast enough to replace a MacBook Air for many, many people. The demos that Apple chose for last week’s event — the Pixelmator image editor and Replay real-time video editor — emphasize that. Those are performance-heavy tasks, and the iPad Air 2 handled them with aplomb.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern appreciates that performance boost as well but thinks Apple needs to bring more advanced software features to take advantage of it.

“The new A8X processor provides a performance boost, so the iOS 8 operating system and immersive full-screen apps respond to taps and swipes faster. And while iPad apps in general are superior to the stretched phone apps you too often see on Android tablets, I wish I could see more apps on the screen at the same time, the way I can with a Surface or Galaxy Tab.”

I think Stern will get her wish in a future version of iOS 8 that will bring support for using two apps at once on an iPad screen. That function could be reserved for a larger iPad, though, as it’s ideally suited to bigger screens.

Engadget praised the new optically bonded screen on the iPad Air 2, saying it has better color accuracy than Apple’s smaller slate and the new anti-glare coating is a plus:

“Apple was able to trim down the iPad by using a laminated, optically bonded, no-gap display similar to the ones used on the iPhone and even the Microsoft Surface tablets. Not only does the new panel save vertical space by eliminating any gaps of air between the display layers, but it also makes the screen significantly less reflective. This is meant to reduce the amount of glare hitting the screen, whether you’re reading in direct sunlight or watching movies under harsh fluorescent lights. I’m happy to report that it works as advertised; I was able to read text and look at photos much better on the Air 2 than the previous version.”

By all accounts I’ve seen, Apple definitely moved the bar with the iPad Air 2. Not so with the iPad mini 3; I can’t find a generally positive review of it.

That’s because it really hasn’t evolved at all; everything inside and outside is the same, save for that fingerprint sensor and color option. I can’t see many people — if any — upgrading from last year’s iPad mini as a result. If you want a smaller iPad, the iPad mini 2 is a much better value than the iPad mini 3. It’s also worth the extra $50 to get a retina display instead of buying the original iPad mini.

Our own review units are arriving in the next day or two, so after putting Apple’s new iPads through their paces, we’ll be back with our own thoughts.