Apple now offers two iOS tablets with 9.7-inch screens. The recently-released iPad Pro has the faster processor, more speakers, and the new Smart Connector, while the iPad Air 2 from 2014 starts at $200 less. Which is the better choice for you? Read on to find out.
And if you’re one of the millions with a first-generation iPad Air wondering if you should upgrade, we’ve included notes comparing this older device with the new Pro.
Build & Design
Apple has been working to slim down its tablets for years. But the company seems to have decided that the iPad Air 2 is slender enough, because the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is exactly the same size. Specifically, both models are 9.4 x 6.6 x 0.24 inches and 0.98 pounds.
The main advantage of this is that the Pro can use many accessories designed for the earlier model, including any case that doesn’t cover its two additional speakers. A prime example of this is the BrydgeAir, a clip-on keyboard that turns either device into a 2-in-1 hybrid tablet/laptop.
The Air 2 comes in silver, space grey, and gold. The Pro is available in those same colors, plus there’s a rose gold option.
The designs for these two are so similar that neither model really comes out ahead in this area.
The situation isn’t the same with the original iPad Air, which has the same length and width, but is slightly thicker and heavier, so the iPad Pro has the advantage.
The basic display specs are identical: 9.7 inches and 2480 x 1536 pixels, resulting in 264 pixels per inch. But in this case the raw specs don’t tell the whole story because Apple added some new features to the iPad Pro.
The newer model can display more colors than its predecessor, and it detects ambient colors and slightly tints the screen to match, so the device harmonizes better with its environment.
Only models in the Pro series can use the pressure-sensitive Apple Pencil. There are pressure-sensitive styli available for the Air 2 as well, but Apple’s offering has quickly picked up the broadest support among software developers.
These improvements give the iPad Pro an advantage in this category.
The original Air has a display that’s essentially identical to the Air 2’s, so the Pro beats it too.
Buttons, Ports, & Speakers
The home button on both the Air 2 and Pro functions as a biometric fingerprint scanner, and Apple has been building the lightning connector into its iOS devices for years, so both the Air 2 and Pro use this for charging, connecting to iTunes on another computer, and plugging in accessories like flash drives.
The dual speakers in the bottom edge of the Air 2 put out a decent amount of sound, but Apple doubled this by adding two more speakers to the top edge of the Pro. This makes the tablet significantly louder.
The Smart Connector and the additional speakers give the iPad Pro a definite advantage over the Air 2.
The original Air lacks the Pro’s fingerprint scanner, Smart Connector, and quad speakers.
The iPad Air 2 runs Apple’s 1.5GHz tri-core A8X 64-bit processor, but the 9.7-inch iPad Pro has a 2.16GHz dual-core A9X 64-bit chip. Benchmarks like the Geekbench 3 measurement taken below give Apple’s newest tablet a speed advantage over the Air 2, but the 9.7-inch version of the Pro isn’t as fast as the 12.9-inch version:
None of these chips heat up even when being used for gaming or video.
Both the 9.7-inch version of the Pro and the Air 2 come with 2GB of RAM. More RAM is almost always better, especially for those who are planning to open multiple applications and web pages on their tablet, but 2GB is sufficient for less heavy use.
There are versions of the Pro with 32GB, 128GB, and 256GB of built-in storage, while the Air 2 comes in 16GB and 64GB capacities. People planning to carry around lots of work or entertainment files will see the advantages of the Pro, though flash drives can extend the storage of even the smallest tablet.
The iPad Pro comes out ahead because its processor is faster than its rival’s, and it has more and larger storage options.
The Pro is dramatically faster than the original Air, plus it has twice as much RAM.
Both the Air 2 and its rival come with dual band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) Wi‑Fi a/b/g/n/ac with MIMO, as well as Bluetooth 4.2. What all this means is that both tablets offer fast and reliable Wi-Fi connections.
For an additional cost, 4G LTE can be added to either iPad, bringing CDMA EV-DO Rev. A and Rev. B as well as UMTS/HSPA/HSPA+/DC‑HSDPA. This option also includes LTE Advanced (23 bands) on the Pro, but LTE (20 bands) on the Air 2. Those willing to pay extra for a nearly ubiquitous connection to the Internet will find that the both the Pro and Air 2 can provide it.
There is pretty much a tie between these two in this category, though the iPad Pro has potentially faster 4G speeds for customers whose carriers offer LTE Advanced.
The first-generation Air doesn’t support 802.11ac, it uses Bluetooth 4.0, and its LTE support includes just 14 bands.
Upgrades to the most recent version of iOS are available for the iPro and the Air 2. Apple works hard to provide upgrades for its older tablets, and even those who chose 2014’s iPad can expect to receive operating system updates for years to come. That said, the more powerful processor in the iPad Pro will offer better performance running future iOS versions than the older model will.
This holds true for third party software. The Air 2 can still handle today’s cutting edge games and utilities, but when it begins to become obsolete the faster CPU in the Pro will keep this newer model going strong. This is especially true when side-by-side multitasking is taken into account; both models can display two applications at the same time, and the more powerful the device the better this works.
The first generation Air is really starting to show its age in this area. While it can run the newest iOS iteration, its slower processor isn’t really up to the latest high-end applications, and definitely not two at once.
Apple significantly improved the cameras with the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. This model has a 12-megapixel rear camera and a 5MP front one, compared with the 8MP rear and 1.2MP front shooters on the Air 2. This allows the newer model to record 4K (3840 by 2160) video, compared with its predecessor’s 1080p video.
And the changes go beyond the number of pixels. The newer model is the only iOS tablet with a flash, plus it can take Live Photos that combine images and videos.
According to Apple, both of these computers offer up to 10 hours of web access on Wi‑Fi, watching video, or listening to music. Our tests of them showed a somewhat different result.
Using the Geekbench 3 benchmarking tool, we found that the 9.7-inch iPad Pro lasted 15 hours and 2 minutes on a single charge, while the Air 2 was good for 8 hrs. and 52 mins. Obviously, the Pro has a significantly longer battery life than its rival.
In our testing, the original iPad Air went for 9 hrs. 19 mins., so better than the Air 2 but not as good as the Pro.
In our head-to-head comparison, the iPad Air 2 tied with the 9.7-inch iPad Pro in design, and came close to tying in the quality of its display, software support, and wireless capabilities, but there were no areas where the 2014 model was better than the newest Apple offering.
The Pro was definitely superior in performance, RAM, storage options, ports, speakers, cameras, and battery life. This is on top of the previously-mentioned areas where it was just slightly better than its rival.
In the competition between the new Pro and the original iPad Air from 2013, the latest tablet is hands-down better in every single category.
Apple doesn’t offer these two tablets with equal amounts of RAM and storage so it’s difficult to do a direct price comparison. The base model of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro with 2GB of RAM and 32GB of built-in storage is $599. The base model iPad Air 2 is $399, with the same RAM and half as much storage. A version of the Air 2 with double the storage of the base Pro is $499.
The Pro is the better device in quite a few ways, but those who aren’t looking for a high-end tablet can probably be satisfied with the iPad Air 2 and save themselves $200. On the other hand, those looking to use this tablet as a 2-in-1 or laptop alternative really should go for the latest and greatest.