iPad Air 2 vs iPad Pro 9.7in comparison review

Which is the best mid-size iPad: the iPad Air 2 or the iPad Pro 9.7in? 

Apple currently sells two mid-size iPads but, slightly confusingly, they have completely different branding. The iPad Air 2 is 18 months old, and the iPad Pro 9.7in is brand-new, but physically they're virtually identical; we have to look inside for the differences. Don't worry, mind: the differences are significant.

Read more: iPad Air 2 review | iPad Pro 9.7in review | iPad buying guide 2016

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Pro 9.7: Differences between the iPad Air 2 and iPad Pro 9.7in

Physically, the iPad Air 2 and iPad Pro 9.7in are difficult to tell apart: in terms of external design they're matched to the nearest gram and tenth of a millimetre. The Pro 9.7 loses a few marks for its rear-facing camera lens, which sticks out at the back (much like the camera on the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus). But that relates to a more significant difference, which is that the Pro has a much more advanced camera setup.

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Pro 9.7in: Design

Apple has added a flash to the rear-facing camera (the Pro 9.7 remains the only iPad to include a flash), while its front-facing camera gains the Retina flash feature, which lights up the screen as a respectable improvised flash substitute. The Pro's cameras themselves are rated at 12 megapixels and 5Mp respectively (rear- and front-facing), compared with the Air 2's 8Mp and 1.2Mp offerings. We'll compare the performance of these cameras in due course.

The Pro 9.7 also gets Live Photos - a neat if quite niche feature whereby short snatches of video are captured before and after still photos so they can be animated; 4K video (up from 1080p); a 240fps slow-mo option (up from 120fps) as well as the option to shoot 120fps slow-mo at 1080p, up from 720p; 63Mp panoramas (up from 43Mp); auto HDR; and a focusing feature Apple calls Focus Pixels.

The Pro 9.7's processor (A9X) is one generation more advanced than the Air 2's (A8X). And this resulted in noticeable advantages in our lab speed tests, even though you won't see much real real-world difference for the time being - not until app developers release software that's designed to harness the latest Apple hardware.

The Pro 9.7, like the larger 12.9-inch Pro, is compatible with the Apple Pencil stylus, and it has a discreet, barely noticeable connector port on its lefthand edge that allows you to attach and power the Smart Keyboard, or a third-party equivalent. These two options, while they can be expensive (the Apple Pencil and 9.7-inch Smart Keyboard cost an extra £79 and £129 respectively) make the Pro 9.7 a far more appealing option for business and creative users.

And, while for some buyers this won't be a priority, audio performance is vastly enhanced. The Pro 9.7 has four speakers (two at the top, two at the bottom), compared to the Air 2's two, and can fill a small room with warm, immersive sound that makes watching films or listening to music a pleasure. The Air 2's audio output is thin in comparison - previously, we would always have recommended buying separate wireless speakers if you want to use your iPad as portable music device, but the Pro 9.7's enhancements make this unnecessary.

Lastly, the iPad Pro 9.7 is available in pink (Rose Gold), as well as the three colours (silver, gold, Space Grey) offered for the Air 2.

Let's look at each of these areas in a little more detail.

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Pro 9.7in

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Pro 9.7in: Screen

The screens of the iPad Air 2 and Pro 9.7 are the same in most respects. They are both Retina displays (to understand the significance of that proprietary marketing term, see What is a Retina display, and are they worth the money?) and both have a resolution of 2048 x 1536 and pixel density of 264 pixels per inch. In terms of sharpness they should be identical.

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Pro 9.7in: Screen

But there's one enhancement that should set the iPad Pro 9.7's screen apart from its predecessor: a new (optional) feature called True Tone. This is designed to adjust the screen's colour output to account for environmental light conditions.

True Tone is subtle in effect, but sitting at a desk under electric light in late afternoon with the iPad Pro 9.7 and the iPad Air 2 side by side, our reviewer could easily tell that True Tone was gently warming things up and increasing the amount of yellow in the screen's colour output - a kind of watered-down version of Night Shift. And of course you don't need to worry about this feature: you just get a slightly better and more context-appropriate screen performance. 

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Pro 9.7in: Processor power

Thanks to its latest-generation A9X processor chip, the iPad Pro 9.7 is much quicker at general and graphical processing than the Air 2 (which has a previous-generation A8X chip). Here are the speed benchmark scores achieved in our test labs by the two mid-size iPads.

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Pro 9.7in: Gaming performance

GeekBench 3 speed benchmark scores (version 3.4.1, iOS 9.3.1, higher is better):

iPad Air 2: 1,841 (single core), 4,604 (multicore)
iPad Pro (9.7in): 3,076 (single core), 5,257 (multicore)

GFXBench OpenGL (version 4.0.10, iOS 9.3.1, average of three tests per device, higher is better):

iPad Air 2:
Manhattan onscreen: 1,709 frames, 27.6fps
Manhattan offscreen: 2,226 frames, 36fps
T-Rex onscreen: 2,684 frames, 47.9fps
T-Rex offscreen: 3,440 frames, 61.4fps

iPad Pro (9.7in):
Manhattan onscreen: 2,099 frames, 33.8fps
Manhattan offscreen: 2,895 frames, 46.7fps
T-Rex onscreen: 3,342 frames, 59.7fps
T-Rex offscreen: 5,870 frames, 104.8fps

And while we're looking at benchmarks, here's how the JetStream 1.1 JavaScript benchmark rated the two devices' ability to process web-page elements:

JetStream 1.1 JavaScript benchmark (higher is better):

iPad Air 2: 83.757
iPad Pro (12.9in): 144.37

As these results show, the Pro 9.7 is faster than the Air 2 by a clear distance across a range of metrics... in theoretical testing. But this doesn't mean you'll notice a significant difference in real-world performance - not for a while, at least.

The most demanding tasks - extremely graphically ambitious 3D games, video and photo editing, and other processor-intensive apps - will start to tax the iPad Air 2 as more and more apps are released with the A9X chip in mind, but for the time being the Air 2 is quite capable of running any app on the App Store.

Think of the Pro 9.7, instead, as future-proofing. As a device that's been around for 18 months less time, it should expect to be able to run the most demanding apps, and install iOS updates, without any noticeable slowdown for about 18 months more than the iPad Air 2. Sadly, we'd expect our iPad Air 2 to start tangibly slowing down this year.

If you need your iPad to be able to run the most demanding apps for years to come, the iPad Pro 9.7 is a better choice. If you're willing to upgrade again next year, or if your iPad plans are limited to light use - browsing the web, reading emails, playing graphically simple games - then that A9X chip is probably overkill, and you can afford to compromise with the iPro Air 2. 

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Pro 9.7in: Cameras

The Pro 9.7 has a superior photographic setup to the Air 2, and indeed to any other iPad, with better-specced front and back cameras and numerous additional features.

The Pro 9.7's back and front cameras are rated at 12 megapixels and 5Mp respectively, compared with the Air 2's 8Mp and 1.2Mp, and the newer iPad gets a flash (on the back camera) and the Retina flash feature (on the front). We'll test out Retina flash in a moment.

The Pro 9.7 also gets Live Photos, 4K video recording (up from 1080p); slow-mo at 240fps (up from 120fps) and the option to shoot 120fps slow-mo at 1080p (up from 720p); and 63Mp panoramas (up from 43Mp).

In some of our test shots - ones taken in the most favourable conditions - there wasn't a noticeable difference between the two devices' camera performance. But when conditions became more overcast, the Pro began to demonstrate clearer, sharper detail and better contrast (in zoomed-in sections of the pictures):

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Pro 9.7in: Cameras

So much for the rear-facing camera. But differences were more pronounced when we compared front-facing cameras - the Pro's front camera is much sharper. And having a flash, or a feature that approximates a flash at any rate, is a huge convenience. Here's an idea of what you can expect from Retina flash, compared with the Air 2's unflashed effort:

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Pro 9.7in: Cameras

If you rely on an iPad for camera work (we tend to find it rather inconvenient, size-wise), then the Pro 9.7 is right up your street.

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Pro 9.7in: Weight and dimensions

Physically the iPad Air 2 and Pro 9.7 are virtually identical. They weigh precisely the same, their dimensions are precisely the same. Both devices are magnificantly slender and convenient to tote around. They can be easily held in one hand, although you'll need two to use them.

Once upon a time (way back in 2014) we were very slightly concerned about the robustness of this super-thin design, but after getting used to that 6.1mm chassis we can confirm that the iPad Air 2 is no delicate flower. It hasn't bent at all during - and barely been scuffed by - 18 months of almost non-stop use. We're confident that the Pro 9.7 will prove similarly tough.

One negative point: that high-powered camera lens sticks out a bit at the back of the Pro 9.7. (This isn't an issue with the Air 2.) If you lay the Pro flat on its back, particularly on a hard surface, then one corner is raised up awkwardly, and the lens scratches against the desk if you push it around. If you encase your iPad in a cover, however, this won't be a problem.

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Pro 9.7in: Design

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Pro 9.7in: Accessories

In a move that will be highly significant to some potential buyers (particularly creative and business users) but trivial to others, Apple has made the iPad Pro 9.7in compatible with the Apple Pencil stylus and Smart Keyboard (in a smaller size).

The former is an unqualified joy: the Apple Pencil, while costly by most standards, is about the best stylus any iPad owner can get their hands on. It feels good and natural in the hand (although it took us a while to get used to its balance), lag-free and attractively designed.

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Pro 9.7in: Apple Pencil

The Smart Keyboard, or at least this edition of it, is less of a home run. In the 9.7in size it's quite hard to type on accurately, and we prefer the experience with the 12.9in model. Still, it's better than the onscreen keyboard - and indeed than other iPad keyboards we've tried in this size - and therefore a solid option. 

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Pro 9.7in: Smart Keyboard

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Pro 9.7in: iOS 9 (and beyond)

Finally, both iPad Air 2 and Pro 9.7 will come with iOS 9 preinstalled if you buy them now, and both receive a full complement of its features - with a couple of exceptions.

The point of interest here is that the iPad Air 2 is one generation older than the iPad Pro 9.7, and consequently one rung further down the iOS ladder. It's likely to get access to iOS updates for around a year to 18 months less time than its newer cousin.

For iOS 8, the iPad 1 couldn't run it at all, the iPad 2 and 3 got most of the features, and the iPad 4 and later got the lot; for iOS 9 in 2015, the iPad 2 and later were again able to join in the fun. But for iOS 10, expected to be unveiled at WWDC in summer 2016, it's possible that some of the older tablets won't be able to get the update at all, and more iPads will miss out on features. Each year, owners of older iPads nervously wonder if they're about to stop getting iOS update support.

iPad Air 2 vs iPad Pro 9.7in: UK price

The iPad Pro 9.7 is much more expensive than its older sibling, but starting at a higher base storage allocation exaggerates this difference somewhat. It costs:

  • £499 (32GB, Wi-Fi)
  • £619 (128GB, Wi-Fi)
  • £739 (256GB, Wi-Fi)
  • £599 (32GB, cellular)
  • £719 (128GB, cellular)
  • £839 (256GB, cellular)

The iPad Air 2 costs:

  • £349 (16GB, Wi-Fi)
  • £429 (64GB, Wi-Fi)
  • £449 (16GB, cellular)
  • £529 (64GB, cellular)

You can buy the iPad Air 2 and iPad Pro 9.7 direct from Apple (iPad Air 2 | iPad Pro 9.7in), or from third-party retailers including John Lewis (iPad Air 2 | iPad Pro 9.7in). We advise shopping around; take a look at our Best iPad Air 2 deals UK and Best iPad Pro 9.7in deals UK for buying advice.

OUR VERDICT

The iPad Pro 9.7 is considerably more expensive than the Air 2 (direct comparisons aren't possible any more, because there are no overlaps between the two devices' storage offerings, but the Pro is £60 more at each point than the Air 2 was at launch), yet there are so many significant improvements that we reckon it's worth it. As usual, however, this depends on your individual needs and tastes.

If you're into iPad photography, the greatly superior camera specs and range of photographic features makes the Pro 9.7 a better choice. Detail is better in overcast conditions, and the rear-facing flash lets you shoot in low light; there's 4K video; selfies are far sharper, and can be lit using the Retina flash feature; you can create animated wallpapers with Live Photos.

For designers and other creative types, having access to the excellent (if costly) Apple Pencil stylus will be a major plus, and the 9.7-inch Smart Keyboard, while harder to type on quickly and accurately than its 12.9-inch sibling, is a nice option for business users. (We suspect that Logitech will release a more usable keyboard for the Pro 9.7 in the near future, so if your need isn't urgent it might be worth hanging fire for the time being.)

The Pro's processor is quicker, which doesn't mean much right now but will allow you to run processor-intensive apps and graphically demanding games for years to come, at the same time as Air 2 owners are seeing their tablet start slowing down.

Those who have light use in mind (email, browsing the web, simple games etc) should be absolutely fine with an iPad Air 2, and would do well to save the extra cash.

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