When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, one the first decisions he made as interim CEO was to simplify Apple’s product line. Today, looking at the company’s latest iPad line up, you can’t help wondering if Apple couldn’t benefit from re–enacting the same strategy. In striving to have an iPad at a range of similar prices, the iPad product line now consists of the iPad mini, iPad mini 2, the new iPad mini 3, the iPad Air and, the new flagship iPad, the somewhat awkwardly named iPad Air 2. If I was coming to the iPad for the first time as a consumer, I have to say that I’d probably be more than a little confused as to the differences between the various models, other than the price.
To be brief, the iPad mini (reviewed back in the January 2013 issue) is best avoided as it’s architecturally similar to the iPad 2 (reviewed in June 2011) and the A5 chip powering the device is starting to buckle under the pressure of the most recent iOS releases. The iPad mini 2 and iPad Air (reviewed in April 2014) are more or less the same technology in two different form factors and are still worthy of consideration. The latest iPad mini 3, however, disappointingly still has essentially the same guts as the iPad mini 2, but with the addition of the Touch ID fingerprint sensor.
All of which brings us to the iPad Air 2. Design wise, this latest and greatest iPad is basically the same as its predecessor, except that Apple have added Touch ID and once again made the device slimmer. Where the iPad Air had a depth of 7.5mm (consider that the original iPad was 13mm), the Air 2 is 1.4mm thinner at just 6.1mm. Now, you might be thinking this isn’t a notable figure, but the impression of svelteness that hits you when you pick the device up is remarkable, and we’re clearly getting to the point where Apple are going to have to remove the headphone jack to flatten the device any further.
One thing that has been removed, though, is the switch that was previously next to the volume buttons, which isn’t perhaps a big surprise given that the company has struggled for some time over whether the function of this switch should mute the sound or lock the display’s rotation.
Internally, the iPad features an A8X SoC (System–on–a–Chip), which is based on the A8 SoC that debuted in the iPhone 6, but is clocked slightly faster (1.5 versus 1.4 GHz) and features more powerful graphics to drive the iPad’s larger display. While I wrote in the iPhone 6 review that the performance jump from the A7 used in the iPhone 5S wasn’t as significant as the previous generation, the A8X represents a very significant improvement over the A7 used in the iPad Air — and, for that matter, the A8 used in the iPhone 6. Rerunning Geekbench 3 on my iPad Air, now with iOS 8.1, I got a multicore score of 2663; but the Air 2 has a multicore score of 4418, making it — theoretically, at least — 78 percent faster. (The iPhone 6 scored 2908.) To put this score in perspective, in terms of raw computing, the A8X is on a par with a late–2013 13–inch Retina MacBook Pro with a 2.4GHz i5 processor, or a 2006 Mac Pro with dual 2.66GHz Xeon 5150 processors.
One of the reasons for the dramatic increase in performance is the fact that the A8X is Apple’s first triple–core An chip; the A8 and A7 are dual core. So the actual single–core performance improvement isn’t quite so significant: in Geekbench’s single–core test, the iPad Air’s A7 scores 1469, iPhone 6’s A8 1622, and the Air 2’s A8X 1747. What this means, since I would be willing to bet the audio engines of most iOS music applications don’t scale across multiple cores in the way that regular Mac and Windows applications do, is that you’ll only get a marginal performance increase when running a single app. Indeed, playing the demo song that comes with WaveMachine Labs’ Auria, the Max CPU reading showed 40 percent for the iPad Air and 38 percent for the Air 2. Playing the song a second time (which isn’t something I would recommend), you could observe about a roughly five percent improvement during playback on the iPad Air 2.
Where having the extra core should come in handy, though, is if you’re running more than one app at the same time. Although it’s hard to really analyse what’s going on in iOS, it should mean that different audio engines for different apps can run on different cores and thus allow for more processing power. Running Cubasis, I opened up three different synths (Nave, Sunrizer, and PPG WaveGenerator) via Inter–App Audio, each playing a simple pattern at the same time, and using System Status (an app that is roughly equivalent to OS X’s Activity Monitor) it seemed very much as though the iPad Air 2 was being taxed less than the original Air. The only slightly weird thing was that when switching out of Cubasis on the Air 2, I would usually get a brief moment of crackling in the audio, which could be resolved by setting the buffer size to 512 samples (from 256). This didn’t happen while actually in Cubasis or any of the synth apps, or indeed on the iPad Air, which was also set to 256 samples.
While the A8X’s performance is impressive, the really great thing about this new SoC is that Apple have finally included 2GB of memory. Geekbench reports 1.94GB of memory (versus 975MB on the Air), and this is a big deal for those musicians who use AudioBus or Inter–App Audio to run an increasing number of apps simultaneously.
In terms of pricing, the iPad Air 2 starts at the same £399$499 price as its predecessors. However, as with the iPhone 6, the 32GB model that previously sold at £479$599 has been replaced by the 64GB model for the same price. So unless budget is an issue, to pay an extra £80$100 for four times the storage of the base model seems like a pretty good deal. But if even 64GB isn’t going to satisfy you, there’s also a 128GB model for £559$799, and cellular Internet connectivity is available on any model for an extra £100$130.
If you want to run music and audio apps on an iOS–based tablet, the iPad Air 2 is without doubt the device for you. If you’re using a pre–Air iPad and use it as more than just a controller, the Air 2 is a worthy upgrade with a noticeable improvement in performance. For existing iPad Air users, an upgrade is probably only worthwhile if you find yourself running out of gas when using multiple apps. Mark Wherry
Earlier in the year at Microsoft’s Build conference for developers, the company announced the concept of a universal application — one app that can run on phones, tablets, computers and, eventually, the Xbox One. What this means for music and audio apps remains to be seen, given that up until now the number and quality of music and audio apps in the Windows Store has been lacking to say the least.
One reason for this has been the absence of a MIDI API (Application Programming Interface) developers could use when creating apps with the newer Windows Runtime (WinRT) architecture to which Windows Store apps must conform. And while, considering the competition, Core MIDI wasn’t actually implemented until iOS 4.2, the enthusiasm for the iPhone and iPad led to developers creating all manner of workarounds, custom peripherals and APIs (remember the first version of Line 6’s MIDI Mobilizer?) for iOS. Sadly there hasn’t been such developer fervour for Microsoft’s Surface range and third–party Windows 8 devices.
However, Microsoft clearly understand this and one of the sessions at the Build conference was entitled ‘Sequencers, Synthesizers, and Software, Oh My!’. During this session, a preview was announced and made available of a MIDI API for WinRT that allows apps to use MIDI hardware — finally! This makes it possible for MIDI Windows Store apps to exist that can run on any device running Windows 8.1, whether the device is based around an Intel chip or an ARM–based SoC (system–on–a–chip). The only slight difference is that ARM–based devices, like Microsoft’s own Surface 2 tablet, can only use class–compliant USB MIDI devices (as with iOS), while Intel–based devices can make use of whatever custom drivers a manufacturer might supply with the MIDI hardware.
The reason it’s a preview is that Microsoft are asking developers for feedback, to see where the API needs to go, and a big thing I would imagine most people wanting is support for RTP MIDI so you could send MIDI back and forth over a network. RTP (Real–Time Protocol) MIDI is the protocol on which Core MIDI’s networking features are based. Disappointingly, though, at the time of writing in late–November, this preview MIDI API has only been downloaded 369 times, so it may still be some time before we see a rush of MIDI apps on the Windows Store.
So as not to end this box in a depressing tone, the session concluded with a demonstration of a simple universal audio app (a very basic MPC–like app) that could run on Windows 8.1 or Windows Phone 8.1, which was kind of neat. Mark Wherry