iPad Air vs iPad mini 2 with Retina display comparison review

Apple' iPad Air and iPad mini 2 with Retina display were unveiled in October last year, as Apple refreshed its mini and full-size iPad tablet lineups. But which new iPad is best for your needs? In our iPad Air vs iPad mini 2 comparison review, updated after seven months of use, testing and analysis, we compare the iPad Air and iPad mini 2's specs, processing speed, features, build quality, portability, price and more, to determine which new iPad you should buy. Updated, 20 May 2014. See also our standalone reviews: iPad Air review and iPad mini 2 with Retina display review

iPad Air vs iPad mini 2 with Retina display review

Apple iPad Air

iPad Air vs iPad mini 2 with Retina display review

iPad mini 2 with Retina display

iPad mini 2 vs iPad Air: Screen size, area and quality

The most obvious difference between the iPad Air and iPad mini 2 is size: the overall size of the device (which we discuss below) and the size of the screen. The iPad Air is built around a 9.7in screen (9.7in is the screen's size measured diagonally, from corner to corner), whereas the iPad mini 2 is a mini tablet built around a 7.9in screen.

That's quite a difference: just under 30 square inches of screen space on the iPad mini 2, compared to about 45 square inches on the iPad Air. And the option of gaining about 50 percent extra screen space will be a major factor in your buying decision. The iPad Air's big screen provides a far more cinematic experience; for watching films or TV programmes the Air is definitely superior. It's also a more immersive gaming device.

iPad Air vs iPad mini Retina

What people love about the iPad Air

Most apps, however, work perfectly well on the iPad mini's 7.9in screen, and email and web surfing are both fine. Anyone who has used an iPhone will be aware that Apple's devices are terrifically optimised to fit relevant information on to a small screen in an usable way, and most users find the iPad mini and iPad mini 2 convenient to use.

Reading is a particular strength of the iPad mini's screen size. It's close to the size of a paperback, after all, and approximates the old-fashioned reading experience beautifully.

But what about screen quality? Actually the iPad mini 2, thanks to its new Retina display, has a far higher pixel density than the iPad Air, with the same number of pixels (and the same resolution) packed into a smaller space. But both are rated as Retina-class displays, so you shouldn't see a difference. (In theory, a Retina display is as good as the human eye can appreciate, and any extra pixels won't be apparent at a normal usage distance.)

See also: iPad mini 3 release date rumours

iPad mini 2 vs iPad Air: Dimensions, weight and portability

Other than price, you pay for the iPad Air's larger screen by having to lug around a larger chassis - although the slimmed-down body of the iPad Air compared to the iPad 4 means this is less of an issue than in the previous generation.

Here's the tale of the tape. The iPad Air measures 240 x 169.5 x 7.5mm, and weighs 469g (or 478g with 3G). That's down from 601g (or 613g with 3G) for the iPad 2; thickness has also gone down from 8.8mm to 7.5mm.

The iPad mini 2 with Retina display measures 200 x 134.7 x 7.5mm, and weighs 331g (or 341g with 3G). That's a slight increase in the iPad mini 1's 308g (or 312g with 3G). Thickness has gone up from 7.2mm to 7.5mm.

In other words, the two lines have got a lot closer in terms of weight and thickness; the iPad Air is a fabulously portable unit considering its screen size. You may still find the iPad mini 2 easier to slip into a handbag, though.

iPad mini 2 with Retina Display

iPad Air review

iPad mini 2 review of reviews

iPad mini 2 vs iPad Air: Processor speed

The iPad Air and iPad mini 2 are identically equipped processor-wise, both coming with the A7 chip (and M7 motion co-processor) previously used by the iPhone 5s. That's a bit of a catch-up from the mini line; in the last generation the iPad mini 1 was a little behind the iPad 4 in terms of processing speed.

The A7/M7 combination is lethally quick and should result in an extremely zippy experience and hotshot gaming. But, to be honest, most of the power of these components won't be apparent yet, particularly if you're already on the A6X sported by the iPad 4 (the iPad mini 1's A5 is a different matter).

Indeed, as we discuss in our iPad 4 vs iPad Air comparison review, stepping up to the A7 processor may not make any noticeable difference at all, depending on how demanding your apps are. Some of the most advanced and processor-intensive apps around - the game Infinity Blade 3, for instance, but also including high-powered video editors and the like - may see a difference, but it won't be dramatic.

Infinity Blade 3 review

We think of the A7 as a future-proofing measure more than anything else. In the future apps are going to get more demanding, and the A7 will be able to handle it better than older chips. But whether that's worth the expense of an upgrade is up to you.

Anyway: the iPad mini 2 and iPad Air are evenly matched for processor speed.

iPad mini 2 vs iPad Air: Other specs

What about other specs? The iPad Air and iPad mini 2 are closely matched throughout their specification list. Their cameras are the same - 1.2 megapixels on the front, and 5 megapixels on the back - and they both have the enhanced MIMO wireless technology. Similarly, neither have been upgraded to the newer 802.11ac wireless standard that we were hoping for.

Here are the iPad Air's technical specs:

  • A7 processor chip with 64-bit architecture and M7 motion coprocessor
  • 9.7-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit MultiTouch Retina display with IPS technology, 2048x1536 resolution at 264 pixels per inch (ppi) and fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating
  • Rear-facing 'iSight' Camera: 5Mp photos; 1080p HD video recording; Autofocus; Face detection; Video stabilisation; Backside illumination; Five-element lens; Hybrid IR filter; f/2.4 aperture; 3x video zoom; Tap to focus video or still images; Tap to control exposure for video or still images; Photo and video geotagging; HDR photos
  • Front-facing FaceTime HD Camera: 1.2Mp photos; 720p HD video; FaceTime video calling over Wi-Fi or a mobile network; Face detection; Backside illumination; Tap to control exposure for video or still images; Photo and video geotagging
  • Built-in 32.4-watt-hour rechargeable lithium-polymer battery
  • Lightning charging and syncing port and cable
  • 3.5-mm stereo headphone mini-jack
  • Built-in speakers
  • Microphone
  • Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n); dual channel (2.4GHz and 5GHz) and MIMO; Bluetooth 4.0
  • Optional cellular connectivity: UMTS/HSPA/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1700/2100, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); CDMA EV-DO Rev. A and Rev. B (800, 1900 MHz); LTE (Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 13, 17, 18, 19, 20, 25, 26)
  • Three-axis gyro
  • Accelerometer
  • Ambient light sensor
  • Digital compass
  • Audio 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
  • Siri voice assistant
  • Height: 240 mm (9.4 inches)
  • Width: 169.5 mm (6.6 inches)
  • Depth: 7.5 mm (0.29 inches)
  • Weight: 469g (Wi-Fi model), 478g (Wi-Fi plus cellular model)

Specs from Apple's UK website

iPad Air vs iPad mini Retina

And here are the iPad mini 2 with Retina display's technical specs:

  • A7 processor chip with 64-bit architecture and M7 motion coprocessor
  • 7.9-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit MultiTouch Retina display with IPS technology, 2048x1536 resolution at 326 pixels per inch (ppi) and fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating
  • Rear-facing 'iSight' Camera: 5Mp photos; 1080p HD video recording; Autofocus; Face detection; Video stabilisation; Backside illumination; Five-element lens; Hybrid IR filter; f/2.4 aperture; 3x video zoom; Tap to focus video or still images; Tap to control exposure for video or still images; Photo and video geotagging; HDR photos
  • Front-facing FaceTime HD Camera: 1.2Mp photos; 720p HD video; FaceTime video calling over Wi-Fi or a mobile network; Face detection; Backside illumination; Tap to control exposure for video or still images; Photo and video geotagging
  • Built-in 23.8-watt-hour rechargeable lithium-polymer battery
  • Lightning charging and syncing port and cable
  • 3.5-mm stereo headphone mini-jack
  • Built-in speakers
  • Microphone
  • Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n); dual channel (2.4GHz and 5GHz) and MIMO; Bluetooth 4.0
  • Optional cellular connectivity: UMTS/HSPA/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1700/2100, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); CDMA EV-DO Rev. A and Rev. B (800, 1900 MHz); LTE (Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 13, 17, 18, 19, 20, 25, 26)
  • Three-axis gyro
  • Accelerometer
  • Ambient light sensor
  • Digital compass
  • Audio 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
  • Siri voice assistant
  • Height: 200 mm (7.9 inches)
  • Width: 134.7 mm (5.3 inches)
  • Depth: 7.5 mm (0.29 inches)
  • Weight: 331g (Wi-Fi model), 341g (Wi-Fi plus cellular model)

Specs from Apple's UK website

iPad mini 2 review

iPad mini 2 vs iPad Air: Price

The iPad Air is basically £80 more than the iPad mini 2 at each storage capacity and model:

Wi-Fi iPad Air: £399 (16GB), £479 (32GB), £559 (64GB), £639 (128GB)

3G iPad Air: £499 (16GB), £579 (32GB), £659 (64GB), £739 (128GB)

Wi-Fi iPad mini 2 with Retina display: £319 (16GB), £399 (32GB), £479 (64GB), £559 (128GB)

3G iPad mini 2 with Retina display: £419 (16GB), £499 (32GB), £579 (64GB), £659 (128GB)

iPad mini 2 vs iPad Air: Other iPad options

If you like the iPad mini 2's lower price tag then you might want to consider an options that's cheaper still: the old iPad mini 1, which costs just £249 (with Wi-Fi) and £349 (with Wi-Fi and 3G). As a budget option the iPad mini remains a strong choice, offering the same processor as the iPad 2, a smaller, lighter and more portable chassis and a screen with a higher pixel density (although it's still not Retina-class).

The iPad 2 isn't a terribly appealing option any more, but may be worth a look if you definitely want a 9.7in screen - if you have visual impairments, say, or want to watch lots of movies - but want to keep the price tag down. And processor speed isn't an issue, and you don't need a Retina display.

We made a video about the pros and cons of each iPad model. Here's our iPad buying guide, updated for spring 2014:

iPad Air vs iPad mini 2 with Retina display: Video reviews

For a more visual examination of Apple's two top-of-the-line iPads, our video reviews are a good source of buying advice. First up, here's our iPad Air video review:

And here's our video review of the iPad mini 2 with Retina display.

Finally, the Macworld team discuss the launch of the iPad Air and iPad mini 2 - and whether they deserve the media hype - here:

All of our iPad Air coverage:

iPad Air review (all Macworld's iPad reviews)

What people love about the iPad Air | What people hate about the iPad Air

iPad Air vs iPad 2 | iPad Air vs iPad 4

5 features missing from the iPad Air

All of our iPad mini 2 coverage:

iPad mini 2 review  (all Macworld's iPad reviews)

iPad mini 2 review of reviews - what do the experts say about the iPad mini with Retina Display?

iPad mini 2 with Retina display vs iPad mini 1 comparison review

iPad mini 2 vs iPad Air comparison review

OUR VERDICT

Which iPad would we recommend? Obviously that depends on your needs. If portability is top priority, the iPad mini 2 remains the best option, although the iPad Air is so much slimmer and lighter than previous 'full-size' iPads that it's close to catching up. The iPad Air can be used one-handed for quite a long time without tiring the arm, which makes it great for reading - although if that's all you want to do with your iPad, you could save some money and just get the old iPad mini (or a Kindle, at that). The A7 processor on the new iPads make them superb games machines, and ideal for photo and video editing, especially for the next few years as such apps get more demanding. But the iPad Air has the larger screen to go with those activities - we'd rather edit movies on a 9.7in screen, and games are more immersive on the larger device. Hopefully we've summarised the strengths and weaknesses of Apple's new iPads effectively, but our last word would be this: if your heart is set on one of the new iPads, is portability or the screen your first priority? The two lines have got closer on both fronts, but the iPad Air remains the best option for a stunning visual experience, while the iPad mini 2 is a great buy if you want to slip a fast, powerful computing device in a handbag or rucksack pocket.

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