Anyone in the market for a high-end iOS device has to decide between the iPad Air 2 with a 9.7-inch display and the new iPad Pro with a 12.9-inch one. The latest model also has a significantly faster processor and more RAM, but comes with a much higher price tag as well.
We’re extensively used both tablets and so are ready with advice on choosing which is the best option for a wide array of potential users.
Build and Design
The main difference between these two is obvious: the iPad Pro is close to twice as big as the iPad Air 2, and is significantly heavier. Getting into specifics, the Pro is 12.0 x 8.7 x 0.3 inches (306 x 221 x 7.0 mm), which makes it 4 inches wider, and 3.3 inches taller than the Air 2. It weighs 1.6 pounds (299 g), so it comes in at 0.64 pounds more.
The new model needs that extra bulk to fit in a display that’s 78% larger than the one in Apple’s former flagship tablet. So the main question anyone debating between these two products needs to answer is, do I need the extra screen space?
The Pro has 78% more screen area. In fact, the short edge of the Pro’s screen is almost exactly the same length as the long edge of the Air 2’s.
There a similar difference in resolution: the Pro’s is 2732 x 2048 while the Air 2’s is 2048 x 1536. An important thing to keep in mind here is that while the resolutions are different, the pixel densities are the same, as both models have 264 pixels per inch. This mean that while one has a much larger screen area, the quality of the screens are almost identical.
Apple has drawn criticism for releasing a tablet with “Pro” in its name that is essentially just a larger, faster version of its predecessors. The company’s response is that the bigger screen completely changes the ways this computer can be used, making it much more productive. There is some justification for this.
iOS 9 introduced side-by-side multitasking, allowing two applications to be shown on the screen simultaneously, and the iPad Pro takes full advantage of this feature. It’s an ideal platform to, for example, have an Excel spreadsheet open next to a Word document or email.
This can also be done on the iPad Air 2, but it’s simply less practical on a 9.7-inch screen, especially when compared to the Pro’s display. Multitasking on the Air 2 display is much more cramped. With the Pro, each window is not that much smaller than the iAir 2’s entire screen. This makes the iPad Pro the most productive tablet Apple has ever released.
Beyond productivity, another area where bigger is always better is watching video. The Pro’s larger display is undoubtedly a superior way to keep take in a movie or TV show. The Air 2 is still good for this, but the Pro is better. It’s also better than a traditional laptop at this because there’s no keyboard permanently in the way.
There are areas where the iPad Air 2 provides a better experience because it is smaller. The Pro does not make the best eBook reader; it’s so large that it’s a bit unwieldy, like reading a coffee table book, while the Air 2 is a great way to read eBooks. And many casual games look a bit silly by being super-sized: playing Bejeweled with each jewel nearly an inch across is hardly ideal, for example. Once again, the Air 2 does a great job with these same games.
With the Pro sitting on a table, the on-screen keyboard is a good way to enter text, and the same is true of the Air 2. However, the Pro is not nearly as good a solution as its smaller rival when held between the two hands in landscape mode because the keyboard is too wide to thumbtype, and Apple left the Split Keyboard option out of this model. While it can be done with in portrait mode, the tablet is very top heavy. All in all, the Air 2 is a better alternative for typing while holding the device up.
To summarize, those who are just looking for a computer to look at web sites while they’re watching TV, or read their email while on vacation, probably won’t see much advantage from the larger display. It’s great for casual use, but not ideal for productivity. On the other hand, the iPad Pro’s screen makes it a much better option for those who want a productivity tablet, but it’s not the best for most casual uses except watching video.
Buttons, Ports, and Speakers
Both the iPad Pro and the iPad Air 2 have the same minimal selection of physical buttons, and use the large Home button located on the front for most tasks, as well as serving as a fingerprint scanner.
Another area the Pro has drawn criticism is that Apple didn’t use any of the extra space to add additional features, especially a removable memory card slot and/or a video-out port. These complaints are well deserved, as these are features that are standard in most other tablets designed for professionals, like the Microsoft Surface Pro 4.
Instead, this new model has exactly the same ports as the iPad Air 2, most notably the Lightning Port. While this can be used to add the feature people are asking for — with accessories like the Leef iAccess microSD card reader and Apple’s Lightning Digital AV Adapter — these aren’t as convenient as the same features would be if they were built into the Pro.
Although these two models tie when it comes to buttons and ports, that’s not the case for speakers. The Air 2 has a pair located on one edge, but the Pro has four, with two on the top and bottom edges of this tablet. Not surprisingly, these produce far more sound and help make the Pro an outstanding way to watch movies and TV.
The Pro is the first device with Apple’s Smart Connector, so keyboards can be attached to one edge of this tablet to power the accessory. The Air 2 can also use clip-on keyboards that use the short-range wireless networking standard Bluetooth. Each of these options has advantages. Keyboards that use the Smart Connector will never have to be charged, and there’s never any delay in typing — Bluetooth keyboards shut themselves off after a few minutes of not being used in order to save their batteries, and waking them up takes a few seconds. Bluetooth keyboards, on the other hand, don’t have to be physically touching the tablet at all times to work, so they can be positioned at whatever distance and angle the user finds convenient.
The Apple Pencil is a pressure-sensitive pen stylus designed for artists to draw on the iPad Pro, but there are pressure-sensitive pens that can connect to the Air 2 over Bluetooth. The main difference in this area is therefore the Pro’s larger display, as drawing, painting, and sketching is generally better on a bigger surface.
As discussed, there’s no removable memory card slot in either model to add capacity, but there is a range of accessories that connect to the Lightning port to handle this job. Among these are the SanDisk iXpand, a flash drive that can bring up to 128GB of storage, and the Leef iAccess, a microSD card reader for iOS devices. These can be used with either the Air 2 or the Pro, so neither has an advantage.
Every new iPad is faster than its predecessor, and the iPad Pro is no exception. Last year’s iPad Air 2 sports Apple’s 1.5GHz dual-core A8X 64-bit processor, while the latest model has a 2.26 GHz dual-core Apple A9X 64-bit chip, which offers double the memory bandwidth as well as storage performance that’s twice as fast.
Our benchmark testing bore out the performance difference: the Pro scored 5411 on the multi-core portion of Geekbench 3, while the Air 2 pulled in a 4529 on the same test. While benchmarks don’t tell the whole story, and the Air 2 is definitely a speedy computer, the Pro is noticeably faster. It’s often just the difference between one doing something really, really fast and the other doing it almost instantaneously, but there is a difference.
Even more important that processor speed for day-to-day performance is the Pro’s 4GB of RAM versus the 2GB in the Air 2. This provides far more capacity for holding numerous running applications; In our daily use of the newer model, apps and web pages can sit in the background for hours without being automatically closed to make more room for foreground tasks.
The Air 2 has a decent amount of RAM, especially when compared with the original iPad Air’s measly 1GB, but the Pro’s 4GB gives it a real advantage.
It’s possible the iPad Air 3, which at this point exists only as a rumor, will have the same A9X processor and 4GB of RAM and so offer comparable performance, so those who are considering the Pro just for the extra power might want to wait for Apple’s next 9.7-inch tablet.
Apple offers the Air 2 in 16GB, 64GB, and 128GB capacities, while the Pro comes in either 32GB or 128GB capacities. This gives those considering the smaller model more options.
Both the iPad Pro and the iPad Air 2 run iOS 9.1, the latest version of Apple’s operating system for tablets and phones. They come bundled with the same applications, including free versions of the iWork and iLife Suites.
So, aside from the benefits and disadvantages for running various types of applications that come from the larger or smaller displays that were discussed earlier, these two devices come out as a tie in software.
The iPad Pro and the iPad Air 2 have identical Wi-Fi capabilities: Wi‑Fi (802.11a/b/g/n/ac); dual channel (2.4GHz and 5GHz); and MIMO. They also both support Bluetooth 4.2.
All versions of the Air 2 are available with optional cellular wireless data, including 4G LTE, but that’s not true of the Pro: Apple only offers a cellular-enabled option with the 128GB version.
So there’s a tie between these two in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but those who are looking for cellular data have more options with the Air 2.
Apple put the exact same front facing and rear facing cameras in the iPad Air 2 and the newer iPad Pro, but there is a difference: while the Air 2 is a bit too big to be really practical as a camera, the Pro is ridiculously too large.
On the other hand, the Pro is definitely better for video conferencing because of its large display. Thanks to improvements in iOS 9, a FaceTime video stream can “float” above other applications, allowing someone to work with two other apps while still chatting. This is something that’s also possible with the Air 2, but everything is much less crowded on a 12.9-inch screen.
Users of both of these devices can expect long battery lives, but the iPad Pro takes it to a whole new level. In tests with the Geekbench 3 benchmarking tool, the 9.7-inch model lasts for, on average, 8 hours 41 minutes before needing a recharge. In our test of the 12.9-inch model with this benchmarking software, the iPad Pro lasted exactly 16 hours.
This gives Apple’s latest and largest a significant advantage in battery life.
The Pro’s large display makes it ideal for displaying two applications side by side, making this the most productive iPad ever. That same screen, with the help of a set of strong speakers, make it very well suited for watching video.
The Air 2’s smaller, lighter form factor makes it a better option as an eBook reader, and for playing casual games. It’s definitely the more portable of the two, and those who don’t need side-by-side multitasking, or don’t regularly watch video on their tablet, should go with this model.
Anyone who plans to use their tablet as a laptop alternative really should strongly consider the Pro. While a 9.7-inch screen is large enough for heavy use, a 12.9-inch one is just a better alternative. The opposite is true for those looking for a light-duty computer, as the Pro is too bulky for daily use for anyone who isn’t going to get a real benefit from it.
The base model iPad Air 2, with 16GB of storage, is $499, making it a good value compared to the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 and similar devices. The base iPad Pro has 32GB of storage and sells for $799, which puts it in-line with other large screen models like the Microsoft Surface Pro 4.
But not surprisingly there’s a significant difference in cost between these two. The prices for the Air 2 and Pro go up depending on amount of storage and the addition of cellular capabilities, but the larger model is always $250 to $300 more. This means that only those who feel they need one or more of the additional capabilities of the iPad Pro should choose it.