iPad Air 3

Apple's rumored third-generation iPad Air, coming in early 2016.

iPad Air 3

At A Glance

  • Apple's iPad Air 3 may make an appearance at a planned March event. Rumored features include an upgraded processor, a four-speaker design, and a rear-facing LED flash.

Expected Features

  • Four-speaker design
  • Upgraded processor
  • Rear-facing LED flash
  • Camera improvements
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iPad Air 3: What We Expect

With a prospective launch coming up in just a couple of months, new details about the upcoming iPad Air 3 are leaking out at a rapid pace thanks to multiple design drawings, cases, and detailed sketches. It looks like the new tablet will take several design cues from the iPad Pro, adopting a four-speaker layout, a Smart Connector, and a rear LED flash.

As with the iPad Pro, the four speakers would be positioned on the top and bottom edges of the device, with two speakers at the top and two speakers at the bottom. Four speakers would result in stereo sound for louder, more immersive audio. Four speakers will require a slight redesign of the iPad Air's body, but it will likely continue to feature largely the same form factor with an ultra thin design.

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If the iPad Air 3 adopts a rear-facing flash, it will be the first iPad that includes flash capabilities. Apple's lineup of iPhones have long offered a rear flash to improve photography in low light conditions, but Apple has never provided a similar feature in the iPad because it is not positioned as a photography device. If the iPad Air 3 is gaining a rear-camera flash, it could also offer other camera improvements to go along with the design update. Possibilities include the same updated 12-megapixel camera included in the iPhone 6s, an upgrade over the 8-megapixel camera in the iPad Air 2.

Size wise, design drawings suggest the iPad Air 3 will have similar dimensions to the iPad Air 2, perhaps measuring in at 6.15mm thick and 169.6mm wide. Compared to the iPad Air 2, the iPad Air 3 may be about 0.05mm thicker and 0.1mm wider, an imperceptible difference and one that can potentially be attributed to rounding and measurement errors. In short, it's sounding like the device will have design changes to match the iPad Pro, but with the same body size.

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One of the design drawings and one of two leaked cases said to be for the iPad Air 3 have shown a cutout for a Smart Connector similar to the one that's included on the iPad Pro. The Smart Connector allows the iPad Pro to connect to accessories like the Smart Keyboard, and with the iPad Air 3 adopting several other iPad Pro features, its inclusion makes some sense.

Apple has reportedly been testing iPad Air 3 display prototypes that support the Apple Pencil, but it is not clear if this functionality will be in the final version of the iPad Air 3 as Apple may not want to put a key iPad Pro feature in the smaller tablet.

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Other logical upgrade paths for the iPad Air 3 include a more powerful processor, perhaps the A9 used in the iPhone 6s or the A9X used in the iPad Pro, and an improved display is also a possibility if the iPad Air 3 is going to adopt features included with the iPad Pro.

The iPad Pro's display adopted the oxide thin film transistor from the 5K Retina iMac, along with a meticulous UV-based photo alignment technique that ensures uniform color and brightness in the display. It also included a variable refresh rate that preserves battery life by cutting the refresh rate in half whenever there's static content on the screen. A rumor from DigiTimes suggests the iPad Air 3 could include a "4K display," potentially referring to display updates adopted from the iPad Pro.

Rumors indicate the iPad Air 3 will not adopt the 3D Touch feature introduced with the iPhone 6s and the iPhone 6s Plus due to the production difficulties involved with scaling it up for a larger display. Supply chain rumors also say the iPad Air 3 may include up to 4GB of RAM, but it is not clear how reliable this information is due to its source.

By not upgrading the iPad Air 2 at the one year point, Apple is perhaps shifting towards a longer upgrade cycle for its iPad lineup. While the iPads have been updated in the fall for the last several years, the iPad Air 3 may be the first tablet since 2010 to debut in the spring. According to KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who often accurately predicts Apple's plans, the iPad Air 3 will launch in the first half of 2016. Apple is planning a media event set to be held on March 15, 2016, which is said to be the event where the iPad Air 3 will launch.

Current Version: iPad Air 2

Apple's original iPad Air was impressively thin, measuring just 7.5 mm thick, similar to the pencil that it was compared to in an array of advertisements. On October 16, 2014, Apple introduced the iPad Air 2, which is significantly thinner, at just 6.1 mm thick. According to Apple execs, it's the thinnest tablet in the world, and it's even thinner than both the iPhone 6 (6.9 mm) and the iPhone 6 Plus (7.1 mm).

Aside from a thinner body, the iPad Air 2 retains the same general design elements of the original iPad Air, but it has gained some impressive under-the-hood improvements. For one, the tablet now comes with the Touch ID fingerprint sensor first introduced in the iPhone 5s, and it also includes an upgraded A8X processor that's even faster than the A8 in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, and 2GB of RAM. There's an M8 motion coprocessor as well, which pulls in data from the accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, and a new barometer.

Using a laminated gapless display let Apple shed bulk from the iPad Air 2 while also improving its screen, offering enhanced contrast and more vibrant colors. Apple also added an anti-reflective screen coating that cuts down on up to 56 percent of glare.

The iPad Air 2 has gained an 8-megapixel rear camera that includes an Apple-designed image signal processor, an f/2.4 aperture, and support for 1080p HD video. For the first time, the iPad can capture large panoramas up to 43 megapixels, it can capture 720p 120FPS Slo-mo video, it has time-lapse video capabilities, and it can take burst mode photos.

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There's also a new front-facing FaceTime HD camera with an f/2.2 aperture designed to let in 81 percent more light. The camera supports single-shot HDR photos, HDR videos, and burst mode selfies.

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With 802.11ac Wi-Fi, the iPad Air 2 offers speeds 2.8 times faster than the original iPad Air and like the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the iPad Air 2 supports LTE Advanced for faster LTE speeds. It also integrates more LTE bands than ever before, for improved connectivity around the world.

iPad Air 2: In More Detail

Display

While the iPad Air 2 has the same 2048 x 1536 9.7-inch Retina display found in the original iPad Air, it uses a new "gapless" production technique that combines three layers (cover glass, touch sensor, and LCD) into one. According to Apple, this new fully laminated display results in both "more vivid colors and greater contrast" an improvement that was also cited in multiple iPad Air 2 reviews.

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Apple also says that the laminated display of the iPad Air 2 brings the LCD layer closer to the user's eyes, so when the screen is touched, it feels as if content is being touched. The touch sensor also has improved sensitivity, tracking a finger on the screen more accurately.

The iPad Air 2 has a new anti-reflective coating that Apple says is "custom-designed" to reduce glare by up to 56 percent making the display more readable outdoors. A recent test from DisplayMate's Ray Soneira found that the anti-reflective coating on the cover glass reduces ambient light reflections by about 3 to one over most other tablets and smartphones.

Aside from an anti-reflective coating and the gapless production technique, the iPad Air 2's display is largely the same as the display found in the iPad Air 2. In some respects, it ranks lower than the iPad Air display, offering 8 percent lower Brightness and 16% lower display Power Efficiency, and as a result, the iPad Air 2 still ranks lower than competing tablets like the Galaxy Tab S in DisplayMate's tests.

A8X Processor

The iPad Air 2 includes an A8X processor, an upgraded version of the A8 processor found in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. According to Apple, the A8X processor delivers 40 percent faster CPU performance than the A7 chip in the previous iPad Air and 2.5 times the graphics performance.

Benchmarks have suggested the A8X is a triple-core processor clocked at 1.5 GHz, which brings impressive speed improvements compared to the A8 processor found in the iPhone 6 and the A7 in the first iPad Air.

In a Geekbench 3 multi-core benchmark, the iPad Air 2 came in 55 percent faster than the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, and 68 percent faster than the original iPad Air. While the iPad Air 2 has a 3-core processor, the two aforementioned devices have only dual-core processors.

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The iPad Air 2 also performed better in single-core benchmarks, coming in at 13 percent faster than the iPhone 6's A8 thanks to 100 MHz speed improvement. It was also 23 percent faster than the original iPad Air.

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Apple's A8X chip includes 8-core semi-custom Series 6XT graphics from Imagination Technologies, which pairs two quad-core packages on the chip. Apple's licensing agreements with Imagination Technologies allows it to freely modify the company's GPU designs, which it has apparently done in this case.

RAM

Apple does not reveal the RAM in its iOS devices, but part leaks ahead of the iPad Air 2's release suggested the tablet would be the first of Apple's mobile devices to offer 2GB of RAM.

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Early reviews confirmed the inclusion of 2GB of RAM in the iPad Air 2, as did benchmarks. An iFixit teardown revealed that the iPad Air 2 has two separate 1GB Elpida RAM chips located on either side of the A8X processor.

With 2GB of RAM, the iPad Air 2 is faster at loading content like Safari web pages, according to reviews of the device.

Battery

Due to its thinner design, the iPad Air 2 includes a smaller battery than the battery that was found in the original iPad Air. At 27.62 Whr and 7,340 mAh, the tablet sacrifices a bit of power for a smaller form factor. The first-generation iPad Air had a 8,827 mAh/32.9 Whr battery life.

Despite the iPad Air 2's smaller battery, it continues to get the same 10 hours of battery life that have been advertised in the last several iPads. Apple says that the new tablet is more power efficient than previous versions, allowing the smaller battery to provide just as much power. Reviews, however, suggest that the iPad Air 2's battery does not last quite as long as the iPad Air's battery when performing the same tasks.

NFC

The iPad Air 2 and the iPad mini 3 both include an NFC Controller, according to recent teardowns of the tablets. The two devices do not contain accompanying NFC antennas to allow them to make NFC-based payments within stores, but the included NFC Controller chip is where Apple Pay's "Secure Element" is located. According to Apple, the Secure Element is a dedicated chip that stores encrypted Device Account Numbers, which replace credit card numbers for security reasons.

Though the iPad mini 3 and the iPad Air 2 are not able to make payments in retail stores, they can make Apple Pay payments within participating apps and thus utilize both the Secure Element and Device Account Numbers.

Touch ID

The iPad Air 2 comes equipped with a Touch ID fingerprint sensor, adding an additional layer of protection to the tablet and enabling it to make Apple Pay payments within apps.

Touch ID became highly useful in iOS 8, as it can now be used within third-party apps to replace previous passcode functionality. Reviews have suggested that the Touch ID sensor in the iPad Air 2 is as good as the sensor used in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.

Camera

The iPad Air 2 gained an 8-megapixel camera, which is similar to the 8-megapixel camera in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. It includes an advanced image signal processor that offers improved face detection, faster focusing, and better noise reduction.

With the new 8-megapixel camera, the iPad Air 2 is capable of capturing 1080p HD videos, and it also supports both 120 FPS Slo-Mo videos, high-resolution panoramas, and Burst Mode photos.

A new 1.2-megapixel FaceTime HD camera has also been included in the iPad Air 2, with an improved sensor and a larger f/2.2 aperture that lets in 81 percent more light. The camera can capture 720p HD video.

Other Improvements

Like the previous-generation iPad Air, the iPad Air 2 contains a motion coprocessor with a gyroscope, accelerometer, GPS, and compass functionality. The new version also includes a barometer, to measure altitude based on air pressure.

The iPad Air 2 supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi with MIMO support, which is twice as fast as 802.11n. Apple advertises speeds of up to 866 Mbps with the new Wi-Fi chip from Broadcom.

Cellular + Wi-Fi models support LTE Advanced, using carrier aggregation to offer LTE connection speeds of up to 150 Mbps. Like the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the iPad Air 2 also includes support for up to 20 LTE bands, allowing the iPad Air 2 to connect to high-speed LTE networks in more locations across the world.

Apple also introduced a new Apple SIM for Wi-Fi + Cellular models of the iPad Air 2, giving users the freedom to move between AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint at will, taking advantage of a variety of short-term plans in the U.S. and UK. Verizon is a participating carrier, which means Verizon customers must visit Verizon stores to activate cellular service on their devices.

Apple SIM cellular data plans were initially only available in the United States and United Kingdom, but in June of 2015, data access became available in more than 90 countries through a partnership with GigSky.

In the fall of 2015, the iPad Air 2 received a quiet over-the-air update to its Bluetooth firmware, upgrading it to Bluetooth 4.2. It originally shipped with Bluetooth 4.0.

iPad Air vs. iPad Air 2

The iPad Air 2 marks a major improvement over the original iPad Air, gaining a thinner design, an A8X processor, an 8-megapixel camera, 2GB of RAM, a laminated display, an anti-reflective screen coating, and a Touch ID fingerprint sensor.

That said, the majority of iPad Air 2 reviews have indicated that there's no real compelling reason for most iPad Air owners to upgrade, as the improvements to the iPad Air 2 won't be noticeable for most tasks.

For example, simple web browsing and the majority of iPad games will see little improvement going from the A7 to the A8X despite its impressive speed gains. The performance improvements will be more noticeable with system-intensive tasks like console-quality games, video editing, photo editing, modeling, design, and more.

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As Apple pundit John Gruber points out, the iPad Air 2 is the first mobile device that begins to compare with Apple's MacBooks. In fact, the tablet is faster than a MacBook Air produced in 2011, which is an impressive feat. The lines between MacBook and iPad are becoming blurred with the iPad Air 2, and the tablet may be a solid upgrade for users who are looking for a tablet powerful enough to replace a laptop.

Reviews suggest iPad Air 2 owners may not notice too much of an improvement in the iPad Air 2's weight and thickness, as it is only 18% thinner than the original iPad, but the difference in both size and performance will be very noticeable to those who own an original iPad, iPad 2, iPad 3, or iPad 4.

How to Buy

The iPad Air 2 can be purchased from Apple's online store or from Apple retail stores in many countries across the world. Having been available since 2014, the tablet is widely available and orders will ship out immediately.

Available in Silver, Space Gray, and Gold, the iPad Air 2 can be purchased in 16, 64, and 128GB configurations, with the Wi-Fi only models priced at $499, $599, and $699, respectively. Wi-Fi + Cellular models are priced at $629/$729/$829 for 16/64/128GB capacities.

Apple also offers refurbished versions of the iPad Air 2, available at a 15 to 17 percent discount. With the price cuts, the entry-level 16GB model can be purchased for as little as $419. Refurbished stock fluctuates heavily, so not all models may be in stock. Refurbished units come with a new battery, casing, and 1-year warranty.

Retail stores such as Best Buy, Amazon, and B&H Photo often discount the iPad Air 2, dropping prices by as much as $150. Ahead of purchasing, it's a good idea to look out for a sale as the device is available at a lower price on a regular basis.

iPad Air 3 Timeline

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