iPad Air 2 vs iPad Air 1 comparison

Update, 12th April 2016: Apple has discontinued the iPad Air 1, replacing it with the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. (The iPad Air 2 is still on sale.) For the latest advice on which iPad to buy, see our updated iPad buying guide for 2016.

The iPad Air 2, which launched earlier this month, replaces the iPad Air 1 as Apple's top-of-the-line iPad tablet. The iPad Air 2 is thinner than its predecessor, lighter, faster and better at photography; the older iPad Air 1, meanwhile, gets a tasty price cut (and recently gained new features thanks to iOS 8).

Does the iPad Air 2 do enough to justify the extra cash, or should iPad buyers be looking to the more budget-conscious iPad Air 1? That all depends on your computing needs, your budget, and your preferences. And in this article, our comparison of the iPad Air 1 and the iPad Air 2, we will attempt to explain the pros and cons of each option.

Read: Is it possible to get a free iPad? The truth about free iPad scams

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Air 1 comparison: Design and build quality

The physical design of the iPad Air 2 is strongly reminiscent of the iPad Air 1, with the same rounded back edges and brushed-metal back panel, and a similar sharp mirrored chamfer on the front edge. And that’s a good thing: the Air 1 was and remains a stunning piece of industrial design.

The Air 2 takes the aesthetics of the 1 but presents them on a smaller scale. Apple has sliced 6 percent off the weight of the (already wee) iPad Air 1 and almost 19 percent off its depth. The Air 2 is just 6.1mm thick (the corresponding figure for the Air 1 was 7.5mm) and weighs 437g (or 444g, if you add 3G). That's down from 469g/478.

iPad Air 1 vs iPad Air 2 comparison: Build quality and design

iPad Air 1 (left) and iPad Air 2

iPad Air 1 vs iPad Air 2 comparison: Build quality and design

These are small but pleasing improvements. The iPad Air 1 was already a wonderfully slender device, and shaving off a further millimetre-and-a-bit doesn’t transform the experience entirely. But it is noticeably easier to hold and use in one hand.

It’s better for reading in bed (and less painful when dropped on the face of someone falling asleep). It's a lighter camera (and the camera itself has been improved - we'll discuss that after the specs section). It’s an all-round more portable computing device, although the difference is less noticeable than that between the iPad 4 and the iPad Air, or between the original iPad and the iPad 2. Those were miniaturisation quantum leaps; this is a pleasant tweak.

One other physical change worth mentioning is the mute/orientation lock switch, which has disappeared entirely. We don't know why (unless it's the all-consuming drive towards minimalism), but we're not sure we like the change. Mind you, the Control Centre and its quick toggles make it very easy to mute sound or lock orientation without using a hardware switch.

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Air 1 comparison: Specs

The iPad Air gets a relatively small number of boosts to its specs, but they're in some of the most high-profile areas. The processor gets a bump (by a full 'generation and an x'), the rear-facing camera has its megapixel rating raised from 5 to 8 megapixels (and slo-mo video and burst mode are added), RAM is doubled, the screen gets a nice antireflective coating and wireless is upgraded with 802.11ac compatibility.

Here are the specs of the iPad Air 1 and 2. Then we'll discuss the various features in more depth.

iPad Air 1 specs

  • A7 processor chip with 64-bit architecture; M7 motion coprocessor
  • 1GB RAM
  • 16GB or 32GB storage
  • 9.7-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit widescreen Multi-Touch display with IPS technology; 2048x1536-pixel resolution at 264 ppi; Fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating
  • Rear-facing iSight Camera: 5Mp still photos; Autofocus; ƒ/2.4 aperture; Five-element lens; Hybrid IR filter; Backside illumination; Face detection; Exposure control; Panorama; Tap to focus; Photo geotagging; Timer mode; 1080p HD video recording (30 fps); Time-lapse video; Video image stabilisation; 3x video zoom; Video geotagging
  • Front-facing FaceTime HD Camera: 1.2Mp still photos; ƒ/2.2 aperture; 720p HD video recording; Backside illumination; Auto HDR photos and videos; Face detection; Exposure control; Timer mode
  • Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n); dual channel (2.4GHz and 5GHz); MIMO; Bluetooth 4.0 technology
  • Audio Playback: Frequency response: 20Hz to 20,000Hz; Audio formats supported: AAC (8 to 320 Kbps), Protected AAC (from iTunes Store), HE-AAC, MP3 (8 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 2, 3, 4, Audible Enhanced Audio, AAX and AAX+), Apple Lossless, AIFF and WAV; User-configurable maximum volume limit
  • Video formats supported: H.264 video up to 1080p, 60 frames per second, High Profile level 4.2 with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4 and .mov file formats; MPEG-4 video up to 2.5 Mbps, 640x480 pixels, 30 frames per second, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps per channel, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4 and .mov file formats; Motion JPEG (M?JPEG) up to 35 Mbps, 1280x720 pixels, 30 frames per second, audio in ulaw, PCM stereo audio in .avi file format
  • Built-in 27.3-watt-hour rechargeable lithium-polymer battery; Up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video or listening to music (Apple's claimed figures)
  • Three-axis gyro
  • Accelerometer
  • Ambient light sensor
  • Siri
  • Lightning connector
  • Height: 240mm; Width: 169.5mm; Depth: 7.5mm; Weight: 469g (Wi-Fi model), 478g (Wi-Fi plus cellular model)

iPad Air 2 specs

  • A8X processor chip with 64-bit architecture; M8 motion coprocessor
  • 2GB RAM
  • 16GB, 64GB or 128GB storage
  • 9.7-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit widescreen Multi-Touch display with IPS technology; 2048x1536-pixel resolution at 264 ppi; Fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating; Fully laminated display; Anti-reflective coating
  • Rear-facing iSight Camera: 8Mp still photos; Autofocus; ƒ/2.4 aperture; Five-element lens; Hybrid IR filter; Backside illumination; Face detection; Exposure control; Panorama (up to 43Mp); Burst mode; Tap to focus; Photo geotagging; Timer mode; 1080p HD video recording (30 fps); Slo-mo (120 fps); Time-lapse video; Video image stabilisation; 3x video zoom; Video geotagging
  • Front-facing FaceTime HD Camera: 1.2Mp still photos; ƒ/2.2 aperture; 720p HD video recording; Backside illumination; Auto HDR photos and videos; Face detection; Burst mode; Exposure control; Timer mode
  • Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n/ac); dual channel (2.4GHz and 5GHz); HT80 with MIMO; Bluetooth 4.0 technology
  • Audio Playback: Frequency response: 20Hz to 20,000Hz; Audio formats supported: AAC (8 to 320 Kbps), Protected AAC (from iTunes Store), HE-AAC, MP3 (8 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 2, 3, 4, Audible Enhanced Audio, AAX and AAX+), Apple Lossless, AIFF and WAV; User-configurable maximum volume limit
  • Video formats supported: H.264 video up to 1080p, 60 frames per second, High Profile level 5.0 with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4 and .mov file formats; MPEG-4 video up to 2.5 Mbps, 640x480 pixels, 30 frames per second, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps per channel, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4 and .mov file formats; Motion JPEG (M-JPEG) up to 35 Mbps, 1280x720 pixels, 30 frames per second, audio in ulaw, PCM stereo audio in .avi file format
  • Built-in 27.3-watt-hour rechargeable lithium-polymer battery; Up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video or listening to music (Apple's claimed figures)
  • Touch ID fingerprint scanner
  • Three-axis gyro
  • Accelerometer
  • Barometer
  • Ambient light sensor
  • Siri
  • Lightning connector
  • Height: 240mm; Width: 169.5mm; Depth: 6.1mm; Weight: 437g (Wi-Fi model), 444g (Wi-Fi plus cellular model) 

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Air 1 comparison: Cameras

The bump from 5Mp to 8Mp for the rear-facing camera translates into noticeably better photos, under certain conditions. We tried both cameras in low-light conditions, and while neither shot was brilliant (the iPads don't come with flashes), the iPad Air 2 took a sharper, less noisy image.

iPad Air 1 vs iPad Air 2 camera comparison

A posed shot taken under studio lighting, too, demonstrated the greater detail that the iPad Air's sensor is capable of capturing. Take a look at the pixellation around the eye in the Air 1's shot:

iPad Air 1 vs iPad Air 2 camera comparison

But many of the more generic shots we took in daylight came out much the same across both models. The iPad Air 2's shots are larger, in the sense that they contain more pixels (iPad Air photos measure 2592 x 1936 pixels, whereas Air 2 shots are 3264 x 2448), so in principle they can be blown up to a larger size without becoming unpleasantly pixellated. Yet to the average eye our shots of trees, faces and buildings, when zoomed-in to a similar extent, looked pretty similar.

iPad Air 1 vs iPad Air 2 camera comparison

Needless to say, professional and expert photographers may well find themselves able to make more of the Air 2’s camera.

For more on this subject, see iPad Air 1 vs iPad Air 2: camera comparisons

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Air 1 comparison: Speed tests

The A8X processor chip in the iPad Air 2 is exceptionally quick and powerful. In our battery of tests the iPad Air 2 was head and shoulders ahead of the iPad Air 1 and all of the iPad mini models.

In GeekBench 3, the Air 2 destroyed all-comers, demonstrating particular dominance in the multi-core tests:

  • iPad mini 1: 260 (single), 494 (multi)
  • iPad mini 2: 1374 (single core), 2484 (multi)
  • iPad mini 3: 1376 (single), 2483 (multi)
  • iPad Air 1: 1468 (single), 2658 (multi)
  • iPad Air 2: 1818 (single), 4520 (multi)

(Higher scores are better)

And in the SunSpider 1.0.2 JavaScript web browser tests the Air 2 was again hugely impressive:

  • iPad mini 1: 1,503ms
  • iPad mini 2: 442ms
  • iPad mini 3: 449ms
  • iPad Air 1: 439ms
  • iPad Air 2: 287ms

(Scores in milliseconds. Lower scores are better)

These tests illustrate what Apple has claimed: that the iPad Air 2 is monstrously fast, and faster than any previous iPad by a clear margin. What it doesn’t show, however, is what difference this speed boost will make in day-to-day life right now. And the truth is that, for the time being, it won’t change much.

The problem is that current apps simply aren't demanding enough for the iPad Air 2 to show its power. If you're into the latest games, then the iPad Air 2 will prove its worth in the coming months and years, as games devs craft more and more graphically ambitious titles to harness the latest mobile processor chips. The same applies to those who are into video- and photo-editing apps, and anything that is processor-intensive: apps will be launched in these fields in the coming months that will put the iPad Air 2 to the test, and justify this more expensive purchase.

For now, the iPad Air 1 and 2 behave similarly. On a few of our more demanding games, the Air 2 gets the app running a second or two quicker. It also feels a bit nippier in general use (although this appears to be a function of the more responsive screen). But it's mostly about the same, for now. And if you only plan to use your iPad for simpler tasks, such as email, browsing the web and playing light games, you won't see a speed boost for a fair while.

iPad Air 1 vs iPad Air 2 comparison

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Air 1 comparison: Graphics and gaming tests

Continuing on the themes of speed testing and games, we put the iPad Airs (and the iPad minis) through the GFXBench graphical benchmark. As you've surely come to expect, the iPad Air 2 showed a clear pair of heels to all the other devices:

Manhattan onscreen test:

  • iPad mini 1: n/a
  • iPad mini 2: 8.9fps
  • iPad mini 3: 8.9fps
  • iPad Air 1: 9.0fps
  • iPad Air 2: 24.6fps

T-Rex onscreen test:

  • iPad mini 1: 6.5fps
  • iPad mini 2: 22.7fps
  • iPad mini 3: 22.7fps
  • iPad Air 1: 23.0fps
  • iPad Air 2: 52.0fps

(Tests performed using GFXBench 3.0 app. All devices running iOS 8.1. Scores in frames per second; higher scores are better.)

These are really impressive figures, but the same caveat applies as in the processing-speed tests: these gains remain mostly theoretical, at least until software is launched that can harness this additional power.

iPad Air 1 vs iPad Air 2 comparison: Gaming

Deus Ex: The Fall is a graphically ambitious game, but one that the iPad Air 1 handles with ease. Even more processor-intensive software is required to make the A8X chip worth your while 

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Air 1 comparison: Screen

The iPad Air 1 and 2 have very similar screens, with the same resolution and pixel density (they're identically sharp, in other words). But there are two differences.

Firstly, the iPad Air 2 has a more responsive screen. Apple has been a tiny bit mysterious about how this has been brought about, but it’s undeniably true: screen response feels near-instantaneous. It’s a lovely experience.

Second - and possibly less appealingly - is an anti-reflective coating. Doesn’t sound great, but is. The mildly annoying screen reflections caused when using an iPad under electric lighting or outdoors are noticeably diminished and darkened.

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Air 1 comparison: Touch ID

We’re nearly finished with the new stuff, but there's one big-ticket upgrade left: Apple’s Touch ID fingerprint scanner. The iPad Air 1 didn't get this, but the Air 2 does.

iPad Air 1 vs iPad Air 2 comparison: Touch ID

First seen on the iPhone 5s and also now featured in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, and the iPad mini 3, Touch ID allows you to unlock the device - or third-party apps, if they’ve chosen to use the system - with a touch of a finger. You can also verify App Store purchases in the same way (although you'll need to enter your passcode the first time you perform each action after a power-down) and, once it launches in this country, you'll be able to use some elements of Apple Pay.

Touch ID is convenient and pretty cool, even if we think it’s more of a bonus item than a must-have feature. Luckily (unlike the iPad mini 3) the iPad Air 2 has plenty of other upgrades to offer as well.

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Air 1 comparison: Battery life

The iPad Air 2 has a smaller battery than the iPad Air 1 (for obvious slimming-down-related reasons) but it's clearly more efficient: both iPad Air models have roughly the same battery life, of about 10 hours of 'normal' use.

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Air 1 comparison: Wireless & connectivity

The iPad Air 2 gains 802.11ac Wi-Fi capabilities. This can allow for faster data throughput, if your router is compatible with the ac standard.

iPad Air 1 vs iPad Air 2 comparison

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Air 1 comparison: Colour options

Most people won't care, but a few will be overjoyed. The iPad Air is available in a rather nice rosy gold.

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Air 1 comparison: Storage options

And another relatively minor change: Apple has tweaked the storage options available with the iPad Air 1 and 2 for no-doubt cunning reasons. The Air 1 comes in 16GB and 32GB flavours; the Air 2 comes in 16GB, 64GB and 128GB.

We don't recommend getting 16GB, unless you're willing to jump through lots of hoops regarding keeping music, photos and so on in the cloud, deleting apps after you've used them, limiting your use of big games and so on. Having only 16GB can also be a pain when upgrading iOS, which often demands as much as 5 or 6GB to download the installation files.

Which means you should be looking at the 32GB or 64GB options - and to be fair to Apple, it has priced the 64GB iPad Air 2 at the same level that it previously sold the 32GB iPad Air 1, so being shoved up to 64GB isn't really the scam it might sound like.

(Apple's markup between storage points is quite steep, mind you. Storage components cost very little, but you wouldn’t know it to look at Apple’s iPad pricing.)

If your heart is set on 32GB (often called the sweet spot of tablet storage), you must therefore look to the Air 1; and if you’re desperate for 64GB or more, the Air 2 is for you. And remember that iPads cannot be upgraded (at least in terms of hardware). The storage allocation you go for initially is what you’ll be stuck with for the lifetime of the device.

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Air 1 comparison: Price

Here are the prices of the various iPad Air models:

iPad Air 1

Wi-Fi only: £319 (16GB), £359 (32GB)

Wi-Fi plus cellular: £419 (16GB), £459 (32GB)

iPad Air 2

Wi-Fi only: £399 (16GB), £479 (64GB), £559 (128GB)

Wi-Fi plus cellular: £499 (16GB), £579 (64GB), £659 (128GB)

OUR VERDICT

The iPad Air 2 is an accumulation of relatively small upgrades that together make for a pretty major overhaul. It’s thinner and lighter - you might feel unnecessarily so, or even worry about a repeat of Bendgate, but what was that saying about never being too rich or too thin? It’s faster, and while most of this extra speed won’t show itself for a few months, it’s nice to have a future-proofed device. The camera is better, even if real-world photos showed this off only some of the time. And it gets some of the newer Apple trademarks: Touch ID, a gold colour option, 802.11ac wireless. If you’ve got the iPad Air 1, we would recommend an upgrade only if you’re very rich or extremely keen on top-tier gaming. But those on an iPad 4 or earlier would do well to pick up the Air 2.

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