Should You Upgrade to iPad Air? An iPad Spec Comparison

| Analysis

Apple launches the iPad Air on Friday, and the question for many current iPad owners is, "Should I upgrade?" OK, let's be honest, the real question for most of us is, "In what way can I rationalize upgrading to this sexy new iPad when my current iPad is still so awesome?"

Either way, the easiest way to answer those questions is to look at those specs and see how they compare. Accordingly, I'm doing my first comprehensive iPad-only spec shootout. I'm going to look at the iPad 2, the iPad with Retina Display (iPad 3), iPad 4, and iPad Air to see how they stack up, and then offer my thoughts on the differences.

First, let's look at the specs:

The Specs
(Product images are intended to be close to scale, but they may be rendered incorrectly on some browsers. Note that iPad 2, 3, and 4 are the same height and width, while the iPad Air is shorter and narrower.)

  iPad 2 iPad 3 ipad 4 iPad Air
Product iPad 2 iPad 3 iPad 4 iPad Air
OS (current) iOS 7 iOS 7 iOS 7 iOS 7
Siri x
Dimensions (in.) 9.5 x 7.31. x 0.34 9.5 x 7.31 x 0.37 9.50 x 7.31 x 0.37

9.4 x 6.6 x 0.29

Weight (lbs) 1.33 (601 grams) 1.44 (652 grams) 1.46 (662 grams) 1 (469 grams)
Display size (in., diag) 9.7 9.7 9.7 9.7
Display Resolution 1024 x 768 2048 x 1536 2048 x 1536 2048 x 1536
Pixels per inch 132 264 264

264

RAM (MB) 1024 (1GB) 1024 (1GB) 1024 (1GB)

1024 (1GB)

Processor(s)

A5 (dual core)
1 GHz

A5X (dual core) 1 GHz;
quad core GPU
A6X A7 (64-bit, with M7 motion coprocessor)
1.4 GHz
GPU PowerVR SGX543MP2 Quad core PowerVR SGX543MP4 Quad core PowerVR SGX 554 Multi-core PowerVR G6430
User Storage (GB) Originally: 16/32/64
As of Today: 16
16/32/64 16/32/64/128 16/32/64/128
Expanded Storage x x x x
Cloud Storage iCloud iCloud iCloud iCloud
Front Camera 0.3 megapixel
VGA video
0.3 megapixel
VGA video
1.2 megapixel
720p video
1.2 megapixel
720p video
Rear Camera 960 x 720 photos
HDR
Autofocus

5 megapixel
HDR
1080p video
Image stabilization
ƒ/2.4 aperture
Autofocus
Face detection

5 megapixel
HDR
1080p video (30fps)
Image stabilization
ƒ/2.4 aperture
Autofocus
Face detection

5MP photos
HDR
1080p video (30fps)
Image stabilization
Five-element lens
Hybrid IR filter
ƒ/2.4 aperture
Autofocus
Face detection

Camera Flash x x x x
Microphone
Audio/speaker mono spkr, stereo headphone mono spkr, stereo headphone mono spkr, stereo headphone stereo spkr, stereo headphone
Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n 802.11 a/b/g/n 802.11 b/g/n (802.11a/b/g/n)
MIMO (multiple antennas)
Bluetooth 2.1 4.0 4.0 4.0
GPS (Only with cellular) (Only with cellular) (Only with cellular) (Only with cellular)
Battery Life, hours

10
(25Wh)

10 (9 w/ 4G) (42.5Wh)

10 (9 w/ 4G)
(42.5Wh)

11
(32.4Wh)
Accelerometer
Magnetometer/Compass
Gyroscope
Video out HDMI (w/ accessory) + AirPlay HDMI (w/ accessory) + AirPlay HDMI (w/ accessory) + AirPlay HDMI (w/ accessory) + AirPlay
Dock 30-pin 30-pin Lightning Lightning
Sensors Ambient Light Ambient Light

Ambient Light

Ambient Light
Colors   Black or White Black or White Space Gray or Silver
Price US$ (Wi-Fi) Originally: 499/599/699
As of today: 399
Was: 499/599/699 Was: 499/599/699/799 499/599/699/799
Price US$ (3G/4G)   629/729/829 N/A N/A

The Main Differences

With this spec shootout we can get straight down to nuts and bolts. The main differences in the iPad Air from the iPad 3 and iPad 4 are:

  • Size and weight
  • Processor
  • Graphics
  • Wi-Fi performance
  • Speakers

In each of these areas, the iPad Air represents a significant improvement making it the hands-down choice for anyone buying a new iPad. Dollar for dollar, it's no contest, especially if you're only comparing it to the iPad 2, the only other 9.7-inch iPad that's still for sale.

For those of us with iPad 2, 3, or 4, the issue is whether or not to upgrade. Many of us sell our used iPads or give them to family members in a sort of keep-it-in-the-family-but-it-rolls-downhill kind of way. Since iPad maintains its value, selling it is also a viable choice.

But should you upgrade? Let's look.

iPad 2

Compared against the iPad 2, the iPad Air is such an improvement that if you are wanting to upgrade, just do it. The Retina Display alone is worth it. As I said above, it's not even a contest. In fact, for the $100 difference, I can't recommend buying a new iPad 2 today. It makes no sense for personal use (education and commercial uses are different).

iPad 3 and iPad 4, Starting with Battery

If you have an iPad 3 or iPad 4, I think the case for an upgrade is less compelling. The display is essentially the same, and the battery life across all three devices is similar. 11 hours on the iPad Air is great, but 10 hours on the older iPads is still very good. In my opinion, there's no reason to upgrade based on battery life unless your battery is going out.

Weight

Of course, the weight issue comes into play when talking about batteries, because Apple is giving us increased battery life in the iPad Air with a smaller battery. That means less space and less weight. Everyone who has handled an iPad Air marvels at how light it is, and for many people (think reading in bed on your back), that's killer.

Size

The iPad Air's smaller size means it's easier to tote, easier to put into bags and backpacks, and easier to hold. If you like your iPad 3 or 4, I don't see that as being a reason to upgrade, but your mileage may vary. This area is very subjective.

Processor

The iPad Air's A7 processor is a significant improvement over its predecessors. This thing is fast (check out Anandtech's review for more), very fast, and it will be able to do more than previous iPads. At least at some point.

Personally, I haven't found anything my iPad 3 can't handle, but developers will be taking advantage of the A7 processor at some point, and as they do so, older iPads will be left behind. That won't happen overnight, however, and I don't think the increased processing power is a reason to upgrade if you are happy with your iPad 3 or 4.

Wi-Fi

Apple built its MIMO technology—a bunch of gobbledygook meaning it uses multiple antennas—into the iPad Air. This should result in better performance, but it's not the sort of thing to cause you to upgrade unless you particularly need high bandwidth or are experiencing poor Wi-Fi performance in your particular circumstances.

Again, this by itself won't be a compelling reason to upgrade for most people.

Graphics

The iPad Air has significantly improved graphics improvements over its predecessors (Anandtech has some great benchmarks for this, too). If you're a serious iPad gamer, this could be important for you, especially for high-end rendered games. As more developers tap the power of the iPad Air, this will only become better.

If your idea of iPad gaming is Words with Friends and Angry Birds. Don't worry about it.

Speakers

The iPad Air has stereo speakers like the iPad mini. It sounds better than previous iPads, but I can't help but wonder how many people care about this. It would seem that if you were serious about listening to music or watching a movie, you'd do it through headphones or a speaker.

But, if you like to lay in bed and watch a movie with your significant other, the stereo speakers in the iPad Air will be a noticeable improvement for you. If you spend a lot of time sitting by yourself where you can turn your iPad up enough to notice the difference, you might also appreciate the improvements.

Otherwise, I don't see this as a compelling reason to upgrade.

Should You Upgrade?

This is the subjective part. If money is no object, then yes, upgrade. The iPad Air has a lot of significant improvements that are well worth the money in my mind. It's smalller, lighter, and faster. Yay!

If money is an object, though, I think you have to look at the pressure points like the ones I mentioned above. Is holding your iPad 3 or 4 tiring? Do you not read in bed with it because you read on your back? Do you wish your first person games looked better? Do you want to do faster calculations with a particular app? Have you thought to yourself that carrying it around is heavier than you'd like?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, upgrading to iPad Air might be worth it, especially if you can sell your old one.

If not, however, keep your iPad 3 or 4. Upgrade when Apple brings Touch ID to iPad Air 2 or iPad Pro or whatever the next one is called. iPad 3 and iPad 4 are excellent tablets and can do anything on the App Store today. While that will eventually change, your decision to upgrade can change, too.

Comments

mhikl

Good Job, Bryan. I have been drooling over the possibilities of the iPA but seems I ain’t missing much. The bonus is that my right arm is huge after a year holding my iPad3 so am now working on mustering up the left one. Do that with the iPA, I think not. Besides, I like my iPad like my lady: with a little meat on the bones. (Hallowe’en handout and all, I should be safe with that one going public.)

Aside. I like the renaming of the iPad. I think the number system has served its purpose. From now on it will be like the MBA and MBP. Mature products do not need be counted by their year any more.

I do wonder how the slimmer boarders is going to work out. My iPad3 messes up at times, usually when I am not holding it with both hands.

ppartekim

Since you left out the original iPad (which is what I own), I guess the answer to the upgrade question is a definite “YES, why did you ask”.

Risco

Great review Bryan,answered all my questions!  Mhiki’s comment raised an issue I also had.  I have the 4 retina display version, wifi only, and I love it.  It was my 1st Apple product and now I have an iPhone and iPod as well.  I find Apple’s designs and architecture elegant.  I reel daily at how well my devices stay in sync with each other.  The slim borders may be a problem for me.  I find my fat fingers constantly making inadvertent choices for me even with the wider borders on my current tablet.  The Air may intensify that problem.  An area of great concern for me that you didn’t address was the MEMORY issue.  My 16gb is eaten up by my library of 4,000+ books (yeah, I know a bit OCD).  I’m so tight I have to juggle to make room to upgrade to IOS7.  Since Apple provides no options to u/g memory, I’ve been considering a new tablet specifically to address that issue.  I wonder if I’m alone I this?  Again, excellent review 5 stars plus

ctopher

I’m waiting for the iFixit teardown!

webjprgm

@Risco Memory is also a big issue for me on my iPad 3. After deleting a lot of apps I don’t use (mostly games I play on my iPhone), I still decided to remove almost all of the TV episodes. Now I stop running out of space every time something needs an upgrade, but I have fewer options on what to watch when traveling. It’s not a good enough reason for me to upgrade though.

I also rather like the iPad 3’s border width.

ibuck

ctopher: Since Apple provides no options to u/g memory, I’ve been considering a new tablet specifically to address that issue.  I wonder if I’m alone I this?

You are not alone. For me 32 GB is the minimum size to consider for any iOS device. And $50 more for that first jump in additional memory seems more reasonable than the $100 Apple charges.  Maybe Apple does it to appease investors who want them to keep their margins up.

jachim

I’m just curious about one line in the chart. What is “expanded storage”? I don’t know that I’ve seen this referenced anywhere before.

Thanks for the great comparison!

Wendy Harris Marcus

Great analysis. You forget that apple still sells the iPad 4 for almost 20% less than the air (refurbished). I have an ipad 2 and I’m debating between a refurbished ipad 4 and an air. The savings is $170 for the model I want. While $170 won’t kill me, it like getting free verizon cellular for 8 months. In my case I only use my ipad at home, so weight isn’t that much of an issue. Hard choices.

Risco

Hi Wendy,  you’ll have to clue me in on how you get Verizon at that price.  My bill is $160/mo for two of us.  As I stated I love my iPad 4 just be sure you bite the bullet and get extra memory.  I agree with ibuck that 32gb is the absolute bare minimum if you want to store entertainment items like books and videos.  If you have 3G cell service, not so much.  I have down and dirty wifi and load anything I need at home.  Alternatively you can turn your phone (most new models) into a hotspot for emergency connection on the road.  The primary reason I acquired the iPad was for reading.  The kindle was too restrictive and forced you to buy product from Amazon in a single format.  The iPad did everything the Kindle did and more.  It also read multiple formats allowing for competitive price shopping.  Now I almost never use my PC.  All day to day activities can be done on the iPad.  Get yourself a 4, you’ll never regret it.

Risco

Ibuck:  my son is an Apple techie.  He prefers customer service rep.  He explained the memory is hard wired into to the motherboard design and can’t be upgraded even by disassembly and assuming you could get proprietary memory somewhere.  That’s why ( as you rightly assumed) the $100 bumps even though the first bump is 16 and the third is 64.  With the 2 still being available for sale with zero costs left to recoup, the giant margins there balance out the slimmer margins on the new products.  Apple is the new AT&T from the Ma Bell phone days, they charge $100 because they CAN.  I hate the idea of replacing my tablet, but its the only way to grow the memory.  It may get better now that Apple allows Walmart to sell the new Air for less than the Apple Store.  Maybe good old competitive capitalism will prevail.  Go USA!

geoduck

@Risco
We have a 32GB iPad2. I upgraded to the Air mostly because of space. I’m needing to carry a lot of video and the 128GB air I ordered will do that for the foreseeable future. Also games and other apps that take advantage of the retina display are huge compared to the ones that were written for the iPad2 Display Right now 6 of the 10 biggest Apps on the iPad2 are my games, all at or above 1GB each. The 32GB iPad2 seemed like plenty when we got it the month it was introduced, but now while it’s good for e-mail, surfing, MLB App, and a few other things that my wife does, it’s just not big enough anymore (which in a way is really ironic).

wab95

Bryan:

Permit me to add my praise to your comprehensive review. Very nicely done, sir.

I have but one quibble. You state, “Should you upgrade?”. I don’t understand the question. Should one upgrade? Are. You. SERIOUS!? Admittedly, not everyone who reads this falls within the target demographic of your question, so my bewilderment is clearly a function of your addressing that query someone else. Clearly.

That said, for me the most compelling reason to upgrade (which I am doing) from my iPad 3 RD, is the 64-bit processing. It may not be here yet, but it’s coming. I want, within this current refresh cycle and my estimated 2 year iPad service lifespan before my next upgrade, to be able to take advantage of this capacity.

A corollary of this increased processing ability, in my non-professional opinion, is the need for greater storage space, as some of these new apps are likely to come in larger, more feature-rich, packages. Given that I am often in remote locations without internet access, I tend to go all in on storage, and am pushing the limits on my current 64GB RD iPad3. The move to 128 GB is both welcome and necessary. For primarily consumption use, with uninterrupted high bandwidth internet access, lower end storage (e.g. 16GB) will probably remain sufficient for the short run, but I suspect will come under increasing pressure. For those working more in productivity, particularly if accompanied by interrupted internet access, increased storage is already required.

Among the apps that I am hoping to see in the not-too-distant future are professional-grade data management and analysis apps, such as Stata, for the iPad, and possibly more robust mobile solutions for data access and management from the likes of Oracle.

Tomorrow I am travelling again to meet with a group of international colleagues in Edinburgh for data-intensive discussions on a respiratory viral pathogen that is not yet under control. While I would prefer to take only my iPad, just to keep the weight down, I will almost certainly take my MBP, simply because I anticipate having to break out additional data and conduct on-the-fly analyses with colleagues as part of the discussion. Being able to do this on my iPad, at least to a minimum requisite degree, would be truly welcome.

I look forward to a whole new generation of 64-bit apps, and next-level productivity on the iPad.

Ron V

Thanks Bryan, I would have liked to see 802.11ac support on the Air to match the new AirPort Extreme.  Also there is a type o you put the A7 clocked at 1.4 ghz. The iPad 4 is clocked at 1.4ghz and the iPhone 5S A7 is clocked at 1.2 Ghz I believe but it might be different for the IPA.

After upgrading to iOS7 on my iPad 3 it was a brick until updating to 7.0.3, which seems to have resolved most issues ( like typing comments on websites ).  Having invested in a 64gb model with AppleCare I think will get as much use out of the iPad 3 if possible.

After looking at the new Air today though I must say I was impressed with its weight and design changes. I was considering a mini but the Air should breathe back some sales into the 9.7” screens again.  If you prefer a lighter weight in a smaller frame the Air is definitely worth considering. 

Personally however, I think the price is a bit high compared to the competition and I would like to see more ram and 32gb as the default storage option. 802.11ac is also a fail if you have one of these new routers you’d want your new tablet to have it as well. 

While the retina display is excellent I would like to see them one up the competition like they did when the retina display first launched. Touch ID would have been a nice touch since the tech already exists on the iPhone 5s but I don’t really need it on a tablet sitting at home. For work and corporate use it would be an excellent addition to the iPads.

WAWdotcom

iPad 2 has 512mb of RAM not 1024.

Lots of changes this year. 64bit cpu, slim light redesign, user interface refresh in ios.

Next Year. Get rid of the 16g air and start at 32g to 256g. Get 2g or more of RAM. Lower power cpu from 28nm design to 24nm or lower.

Risco

Ron V:  Excellent comments!  One issue….. I don’t know how you feel about privacy but the average view is that we don’t have enough.  I personally agree.  See latest on Facebook, yahoo, google, NSA, etc.  My point:  Why would you want to volunteer to place your fingerprint(s) into the public domain?  That is the end result of the Apple bio authorization scheme.  I know they say it’s private. But we all know better. Once you put it out there, it’s any and everybody’s.  Sign in with a random password, numbers better than words if you have a choice.

Some tips for random and somewhat complicated (hence, more secure), but easy to remember, sign in PW’s: keyboard patterns: say “V” = RFVGY, W= WDVGNJI, etc. mix ‘em up with caps or separate with (a) symbol(s) and they’ll change based on where you start.  Use strange words and substitute numbers for some letters.  “Dragons”= D-R-A-G-(zero)-N-5, “obsolete” = (zero)-3-5-o-1-e-7-e and so on.  Simple, but effective.  /Risco

Bryan Chaffin

Hi Risco, note that iPad Air doesn’t have Touch ID, making the fingerprint issue moot on this device.

That said, Apple has stated that Touch iD on iPhone 5s stores fingerprints on a “secure enclave” on the A7 processor, not in the cloud. Your fingerprint isn’t leaving the device. Ever. It’s also not accessible to third party apps. The stored fingerprint not even available to the OS—the OS instead passes the sensed fingerprint to the enclave and gets a yes or no response from that secure enclave.

Risco

Hey Brian,

Thanks for that.  I realize the Air doesn’t have this capability.  I was responding to Ron V who proposed it would be nice, and mentioned its incorporated in the 5s.  I know most people will be ok with your explanation.  As a retired D.C. security consultant that specialized in Federal Clients, I tend to be wrapped in a healthy paranoia that considers what CAN or MAY happen with technology.  I apologize to the forum for possibly being overly concerned.  I spent 20+ years getting paid to do exactly that. 

I would still advise a client not to store that level of bio-data anywhere when they weren’t required to do so.  I worked on designing biometric devices like fingerprint, retina, and other like security devices for access control applications.  Users were always advised to be sure databases were secure.  I can see how the A7 chip in the wrong hands can be compromised.  If its stored in there, it can be retrieved.

Bryan Chaffin

No apologies needed, Risco. Your expertise is welcome–especially in the area of security—and we love having a diverse set of opinions. I hope we see more of you here. smile

Copeland Lee

Here is warning from CNET: iPhone “Restore” does not delete personal data
http://t.co/GKD9KxiLXy

So before selling your old iPad or iPhone, you should erase all personal data first
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wj_rS2dLfiM

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