Apple has been selling their line of tablets called the iPad for a few years now. Each new version of the 10-inch range iOS powered tablet offers a decent incremental update over the last, leading us up to the iPad Air 2 as the current top of the line device out of the U.S. based technology company.
We often wonder if these incremental updates are worth the extra cost to purchase, but instead of doing a comparison of the iPad Air vs the iPad Air 2 right at launch, here we are several months later. With the recently released iOS 8.4 and even more recent release of the public beta of iOS 9, including new multi-tasking features only available on the newer unit, we thought this was a good time to see how the older device holds up.
Well on our way to the next iPad release, join us for a late-life-cycle tablet shootout of the Apple iPad Air vs the Apple iPad Air 2.
At first glance, the Home button is the only sure sign that you are looking at two separate devices. The older iPad Air houses the familiarly designed circle Home button with a small rectangle design in it. The newer iPad Air 2 has a much more prominent circular Home button, embellished with a metal ring, but where it lacks the familiar little square design, it makes up for in function, hiding a fingerprint scanner underneath.
In terms of build and overall design, both devices rock a full metal back, 9.7-inch display, enough bezels to pick up the device from any side and speakers out the bottom edge that straddle a Lighting charging port.
The power button lives on the right side of the top edge, just around the corner on the top of the right edge lives your power buttons with a rear facing camera just on the back side in that same corner of the device. Aside from the placement of the microphone slots, the only real difference here is the removal of the iconic old Hold slider from the newer iPad Air 2, which serves to mute the audio of the older iPad Air.
The design is kept simple to the touch, with the metal backing folding all the way around the sides to meet up with the front glass. I did find that the fancy looking polish to the front edge of the metal has a sharpness to it that causes discomfort with extended use – less so with the older iPad Air, funnily enough.
You will need extremely accurate measuring tools to prove a size difference in height or width of these tablets. The spec sheet says they are the same at 9.4-inches tall by 6.6-inches wide, but I swear the iPad Air is slightly taller and the iPad Air 2 slightly wider by a hair’s breadth. Where you will not need convincing is in the depth of the devices, the iPad Air measures in at 0.29-inches, or 7.5mm thick, the iPad Air 2 is super thin in comparison, measuring 0.24-inches, or 6.1mm thin.
The Air 2 is lighter as well, by 32g. It does not sound like much, but after an hour of reading your favorite book or surfing your favorite tech blog (that’s us, right?) the full 469g of the iPad Air will feel pretty heavy compared to the 437g of the iPad Air 2.
While the iPad is generally considered to be a 10-inch tablet, the display measures in at 9.7-inches. More than large enough to get some work done and enjoy a few games and videos on the couch at home. Apple says the iPad Air and the iPad Air 2 have Retina displays, both measuring in at 2048×1536 resolution for 264 ppi.
For our time with both iPads, we found the iPad Air 2 to have the brighter display, with crisper and cleaner colors. Perhaps the addition of an anti-reflective coating and being a fully laminated display helps the iPad Air 2 stand out. Either way, you will not be disappointed with the display quality of either tablet, both offering a great viewing experience in both light and dark environments and at sharp viewing angles.
We’ve been talking so much about how these devices are so similar, but when we discuss performance, we get to talk about the biggest difference between them. I’ll just say up front that the older iPad is powered by the A7 chip with the M7 motion coprocessor. The newer iPad Air 2 rocks the A8X chip with M8 motion coprocessor.
While the difference on paper is just a number, the difference in real world performance between these two 64-bit processors is noticeable. From the split second less time it takes the iPad Air 2 to load a web page, to the ability for the more powerful device to record slow-motion video, you will notice the speed difference, especially under a heavy load, like while playing your favorite game.
Even though the iPad Air 2 is noticeably faster, you should not be displeased with the performance of the iPad Air. If you recall, the current generation mini, the iPad Mini 3, is also powered by the A7 chip, and I will readily admit that the Mini 3 has become my daily driver, at least as far as a work and gaming tablet goes. I still use Android for my music, sorry Apple, good luck with the new Apple Music.
In the end, you have two very capable devices that can easily handle all of your day-to-day activities. There is no doubt that if you plan to work the device heavily, like with some hard-core gaming, or are just planning on future proofing as much as possible, it is worth the extra money to get the newer iPad Air 2. But as a simple coffee table companion or children’s tablet, you won’t go wrong picking up the older unit.
Both the iPad Air and the iPad Air 2 sport great specs, sharing many items on the list, where they differ in hardware is where the real differences in capabilities of the devices shine through. We mentioned the included fingerprint scanner housed in the Home button of the iPad Air 2, not to be found in the iPad Air. As you might imagine, the scanner enables a handful of convenience and security enhancements in the newer tablet.
Looking inside the devices, you’ll find those A7 and A8X chips powering the iPad Air and iPad Air 2, respectively. The newer of the two has an updated rear camera and the same front camera, but we’ll talk more about that in the next section.
Perhaps one of the more exciting updates to the iPad Air 2 over the older iPad Air, is the upgrade to the installed WiFi radio. Both are capable of 802.11 a/b/g/n with dual channel 2.4 and 5GHz, but the iPad Air 2 now supports 802.11ac, taking your connectivity to the next level. In addition to WiFi, both units can be purchased with an optional LTE capable cellular radio.
Finally, along with the matching gyro, accelerometer, ambient light sensor from the iPad Air, and the new Touch ID fingerprint scanner, the iPad Air 2 houses a barometer. Nothing like keeping tabs on your local air pressure.
Apple claims both tablets will last upwards of 10 hours of screen-on time for a full charge. We certainly have never made it that long, but 5 hours is not unreasonable for basic web surfing and video consumption. Knock that time in half if you are speeding around the track in your favorite racing game.
Loaded into the front of the iPad Air and the iPad Air 2 is a fairly simple video conferencing capable camera sensor. On both tablets it measures in at 1.2MP and can handle 720p video. Great for your FaceTime needs.
The back side of the tablets reveals another story, with the iPad Air coming to bat with the famous 5MP sensor found on many Apple products, the iPad Air 2 steps it up to a 8MP sensor, capable of fairly decent photographs. While there are many that shun tablet photography, it will be for the size of the device, not the failure to produce good shots from the iPad Air 2.
While the capabilities look fairly similar on paper, autofocus, face detection, IR filter, f/2.4 aperture, HDR and panorama modes, the 8MP sensor adds in a new burst mode, taking many photos in rapid succession.
While we did not scientifically measure it, and Apple claims Burst mode is capable of 10 shots per second, we clocked burst mode to about 8 shots per second. This sounds like it would make for decent animated gifs, but by default, the software displays in your gallery just the few images from the burst that it thinks you’ll like best. I burst 45 shots of my desk, it gave me one image, I think I need to do some cleaning. All of the images are stored on your device, don’t you worry, you just need to dig to get them.
We can talk all day about it, but it is probably easier to just show you a few image samples. Here is a little gallery, iPad Air photos come first, iPad Air 2 photos second.
In the last week, iOS 8.4 has been rolling out users around the globe. While there is a smattering of bug fixes and security patches, the big news here is the addition of Apple’s new music streaming service, Apple Music. While we have been rocking iOS 8.3 for several months, we obviously have limited time with the latest software, but enough to give some opinions.
iOS 8.4 is a smooth running OS on both the iPad Air and the iPad Air 2. While we found no apparent speed improvements over previous software, the new Music app is loaded with great new features, and iBooks is a little easier to work with as well. Aside from the update, you will find a speedy experience jumping in and out of apps, and a smooth experience once you’ve put your apps to work.
Again, you have virtually identical software here, but you will notice that the more powerful iPad Air 2 runs just a tad faster and smoother. Not so much faster that we would want to take a stop watch to it, but you would notice the differences with the devices side by side. In the end, the software experience, tied into the entire Apple iTunes, App Store and iCloud ecosystem, is comfort for users familiar with it, and perhaps one of the smoothest computing experiences around.
I should note here that iOS 9 is coming this fall, with the Public Beta already released. While both tablets are set to receive the new software, the iPad Air 2 is the only iOS device currently slated to get the new multi-tasking capabilities. If you are buying for work and productivity purposes, this will be important to you.
Pricing and final thoughts
I joked in my rough draft of this article, and as a place holder for this entire section I wrote one small comment that I think rings true: buy the newer one, it’s better.
Of course, looking at the spec sheet, and knowing that Apple had a year to improve the iPad Air 2 over the iPad Air, it is easy to say that the iPad Air 2 is the superior tablet. Looking forward, Apple has already singled out the iPad Air 2 as the flagship for great new multi-tasking features in iOS 9. It would be hard for me then to recommend purchasing the iPad Air over the iPad Air 2.
Pricing for the Apple tablets is a fluid thing, you can often find sales and even permanent discounts as the devices continue to age. Apple’s advertised retail pricing at this time is as follows.
iPad Air 2
I certainly would not blame you for saving a few dollars in buying the older iPad Air over the iPad Air 2, just please be sure that you won’t sorely miss the fancy new features only available on the newer and more powerful tablet. Aside from this, and my recommendation to grab the iPad Air 2 over the iPar Air, you will be in good hands with either purchase.
Stay tuned, we will be spending some time with the iPad Air 2 and iOS 9, but be sure to check out our other iOS 9 coverage to see what is next for your Apple powered devices.
What do you say, was I too harsh on the iPad Air, or is the iPad Air 2 the clear choice between these two tablets?