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:
(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.)
|Product||iPad 2||iPad 3||iPad 4||iPad Air|
|OS (current)||iOS 7||iOS 7||iOS 7||iOS 7|
|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|
|RAM (MB)||1024 (1GB)||1024 (1GB)||1024 (1GB)|
A5 (dual core)
A5X (dual core) 1 GHz;|
quad core GPU
A7 (64-bit, with M7 motion coprocessor)|
|GPU||PowerVR SGX543MP2||Quad core PowerVR SGX543MP4||Quad core PowerVR SGX 554||Multi-core PowerVR G6430|
|User Storage (GB)||
As of Today: 16
960 x 720 photos|
1080p video (30fps)
|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||
MIMO (multiple antennas)
|GPS||(Only with cellular)||(Only with cellular)||(Only with cellular)||(Only with cellular)|
|Battery Life, hours|
|10 (9 w/ 4G) (42.5Wh)|
10 (9 w/ 4G)
|Video out||HDMI (w/ accessory) + AirPlay||HDMI (w/ accessory) + AirPlay||HDMI (w/ accessory) + AirPlay||HDMI (w/ accessory) + AirPlay|
|Sensors||Ambient Light||Ambient Light|
|Colors||Black or White||Black or White||Space Gray or Silver|
|Price US$ (Wi-Fi)||
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
- Wi-Fi performance
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.