iPad Air vs iPad 2 comparison review: Which iPad should you buy?

On of the surprises of the iPad Air launch event was the news that the iPad 4, like the iPad 3 before it, is no longer available to buy, while the older iPad 2 remains on sale. But is the iPad 2 still worth buying? Find out whether you should plump for the iPad 2 or iPad Air, in our iPad Air vs iPad 2 comparison review.

First up, here's our video review of the iPad Air. See more iPad reviews

iPad Air vs iPad 4 comparison review: Is it worth upgrading to iPad Air?

iPad 2 vs iPad Air comparison review: Price

The iPad 2, surprisingly, hasn't had a price cut - usually when a new generation product emerges, any previous-gen versions that will remain on sale get cheaper right away. Still, the iPad 2 was already pretty cheap, so maybe Apple felt that going any lower would shrink the profit margin too much.

The iPad 2, then, remains on sale for £329 (for the 16GB Wi-Fi-only model) and £429 (for the 16GB unit with cellular/3G added on). Higher storage capacities of the iPad 2 aren't available any more. (Your colour options are simple: black or white.)

The iPad Air costs £70 more than the iPad 2 in each of the previous versions, but higher-capacity versions are available too.

In the UK the Wi-Fi-only iPad Air costs £399 (16GB), £479 (32GB), £559 (64GB) and £639 (128GB). Cellular models will cost £499 (16GB), £579 (32GB), £659 (64GB) and £739 (128GB).

At the upper end the iPad Air probably sounds horrifyingly expensive - and the 128GB 3G model is certainly a luxury product. But bear in mind that for the available iPad 2 models, it's only £70 more, which we don't think is that much when you consider what you get for your money.

iPad Air review

iPad Air, running iOS 7

iPad 2 review

iPad 2, running an earlier version of iOS: iOS 4. The iPad 2 can run iOS 7 - indeed it will come with iOS 7 preinstalled if you buy it now - but some features won't be available. This includes AirDrop, Siri and photo filters: see more details on iOS 7 compatibility

iPad 2 vs iPad Air comparison review: Retina display

First of all, the iPad Air has a Retina display. That's an Apple term that refers to the number of pixels per inch - the pixel density. Apple defines as Retina any screen where the pixels are so closely packed that (at what it considers a normal usage distance from the face) the average human eye can't pick out individual pixels. In other words, whatever's depicted on the screen - in theory - is indistinguishable from a real object.

Of course these things aren't quite as clear-cut in real-world usage - for one thing, you may be one of those who hold the iPad too close to your eyes for the effect to work fully. but a Retina display is still a thing of beauty: sharp, vibrantly colourful and bright.

The iPad 2 has a non-Retina display, and on text and similarly detailed imagery you can see slight pixellation. It's still a good screen, but not the best available. For more information on the difference between Retina and non-Retina displays, see our article 'What is a Retina display, and are they worth the money?'

The iPad Air is about the experience, not the numbers

iPad 2 vs iPad Air comparison review: Processor speed and graphical power

For each generation of iPad, Apple has introduced a new processor chip: the A4, A5, A5X, A6X and now A7 (which previously appeared in the iPhone 5s). And the speed gains have been significant. Apple reckons that the iPad Air is twice as fast as the iPad 4, and eight times the speed of the first iPad. We'll have to do some testing to verify these numbers, but our experiences with the iPad 4 and iPhone 5s make us pretty confident that this is a staggeringly powerful bit of mobile kit.

But do you need all that power? Here's the rub: you might not. Current apps don't stretch the iPad 4 to its limits, and previous generations are mostly doing ok. We did most of our testing of the top-end 3D game Infinity Blade 3 on an iPad 3, and it coped without any noticeable issues (beyond glitches we also saw on the iPhone 5s).

So an iPad 4 or an iPad 3 will seem as fast as an iPad Air on most current apps, and when performing simple, everyday activities such as reading email and browsing the web, even though the iPad Air has the potential to be a lot faster and will prove its worth on future apps. But what about the iPad 2? 

The iPad 2 is quite a bit slower than the iPad Air, but it's still good for almost all uses: web browsing, simple and even moderately demanding games, email, light work duties, FaceTime, reading.

Only the top tier of apps - image and video editing, recent 3D games such as Infinity Blade 3, anything that places a heavy toll on the predecessor - will be out of reach. Using the iPad Air instead of the iPad 2 for day-to-day tasks, you'll certainly notice that the experience is 'zippier', but the difference will not be insurmountable.

In other words, if you're into gaming, or plan to use more advanced apps, the iPad Air is the model for you. But don't think the iPad 2 is some sluggish, obsolete dinosaur - it will still work well for a lot of users.

Infinity Blade 3

Infinity Blade 3: the sort of graphically demanding game that we're likely to see more of in the future

But then you need to factor in what we call future-proofing: buying the appropriate iPad for the apps that you'll want to buy in the years to come, not just for the ones you've got now. And as the years go by, the iPad 2 is going to struggle more and more to keep up.

If you're a gamer, the iPad 2 isn't a good investment for the long - or even medium - term. But even for general users, we're starting to feel that the iPad 2 is getting a bit long in the tooth.

5 features missing from the iPad Air

iPad 2 vs iPad Air comparison review: Size and weight

Aside from being significantly slower, the iPad 2 is heavier and thicker than the iPad Air - the iPad Air drops about 28 percent of the weight of the iPad 4, which had the same chassis as the iPad 2.

The iPad 2 could scarcely be described as a heavy device, and anyone who's tried an iPad will appreciate that they are slim and portable objects. But the iPad 2, 3 and 4 can get a bit heavy after a while if you use them one-handed - a common method when reading, for instance. The success of the iPad mini shows that there is a desire for a yet-more-portable iPad, and the iPad Air is it.

iPad Air review

iPad Air: thin and light

The iPad Air's smaller weight and bulk substantially change the way you can use it - it's a far more comfortable ebook reader, for a start, and feels better as a handheld gaming device. This is the single biggest change from the iPad 4, and adds a physical dimension to the functional reasons why the iPad 4 was a stronger device than the iPad 2.


OUR VERDICT

You get three main upgrades for your £70: the iPad Air is 28 percent lighter than the iPad 2 (as well as a fair bit slimmer); it's a lot quicker, although some of the extra speed will only become apparent when you use demanding, recent apps; and it comes with a Retina screen, which is clearer and sharper than the (still good) display on the iPad 2. We'd say that's well worth the extra money. If you only plan to use your iPad for very light duties - email, web browsing, FaceTime with friends and family - then you'll have a perfectly good experience with the iPad 2, and might as well save your money. But if you have any plans to use more advanced apps and games released in the future, or if you'd like a lighter version of the iPad for reading and one-handed use, or if you're tempted by the sharper Retina display, then the iPad Air is the way to go.

The Complete Guide to the iPhone 5s & 5c is on-sale now. Click here for buying information.
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