If you’re in the market for a 10in tablet, Apple now offers either the new iPad Air or the old iPad 2. Read on to find out which one you should buy.
NOTE: This comparison review is based on our hands-on review of the iPad Air and long-term use of the iPad 2, reviewed. Once we’ve had time to fully test and benchmark the iPad Air we will update this review with a proper battery life comparison and benchmark results. (See also: New Nexus 10 2 (2013) vs iPad Air specs comparison review.)
iPad Air vs iPad 2 comparison review: Price
When Apple launches a new iPhone or iPad, it typically keeps the lowest-capacity model of the previous generation to sell at a discounted price alongside it.
That hasn’t happened this time. For some reason, the iPad with Retina display (the fourth-generation iPad) has been ditched and the iPad 2 retained. It might be only two-and-a-half years old, but in tablet terms, that’s an eternity.
Another unusual decision is that the price hasn’t dropped either: you’ll pay £329 for the 16GB Wi-Fi version or £429 for the 3G model (there’s no 4G support). That's the same price it was selling for against the iPad 3 and 4.
Impressively, the iPad Air starts at the usual £399, which is only £70 more than the Wi-Fi iPad 2. This is in contrast to the new iPad mini with Retina display whose price has risen a considerable £50 from the old iPad mini’s base price.
Arguably, the 16GB iPad Air isn’t worth buying, however. Unless you’re the sort of person who will stick with the default apps and won’t want to have their music, photo and video collections stored on the tablet, 16GB will fill up all too quickly.
The Air’s higher resolution cameras produce bigger files than the iPad 2’s, so storage again needs to be proportionately more.
Your only choice with the iPad 2 is the 16GB model and since no iPad has expandable storage, be sure that you won’t need more before getting out your credit card.
iPad Air vs iPad 2 comparison review: Design and build
The iPad Air shares the iPad mini’s design, and looks more modern than the now-dated iPad 2. The Air is smaller and lighter – 478g versus 613g – and has a thinner bezel.
The iPad 2 and iPhone 4S are now the only iOS device with the older 30-pin connector, which might work in your favour if you have lots of 30-pin accessories. However, adaptors mean than most devices can work with the iPad Air’s new Lightning port.
iPad Air vs iPad 2 comparison review: Performance
We’ve yet to run our benchmarks on the iPad Air, but given that it has the A7 chip from the iPhone 5S, there’s no doubt it will be a storming performer. Indeed, we could tell in our short hands-on time with the Air that it was amazingly slick regardless of whether you’re swiping between home screens or playing the latest 3D games or apps.
By contrast, the iPad 2’s A5 processor is around 4x slower by Apple’s own admission. Graphics performance is 8x slower, meaning that the latest apps don’t run as well or look as good as on the iPad Air.
iPad Air vs iPad 2 comparison review: Screen
The iPad Air’s Retina screen is nothing new. Don’t get us wrong – it’s an amazing screen – but it’s no different from the 9.7in screen that was on the iPad 3 and 4.
Again, the iPad 2’s screen pales by comparison. It’s 1024x768 resolution is the same as the original iPad’s and looks blocky and even a bit washed out next to the vibrant Retina panel of the iPad Air.
iPad Air vs iPad 2 comparison review: Cameras
Cameras are another area where the iPad 2 doesn’t even come close to the iPad Air. The rear camera shoots 720p video and photos at a low 960x720-pixel resolution, while the front webcam is a low-quality VGA affair.
The iPad Air’s cameras might seem no different from the iPad 4’s but the extra speed of the A7 processor means it focuses faster and (Apple says) it leads to sharper photos and videos. We already know that the iPad 4 and iPad 2 are like chalk and cheese when it comes to photos and videos, and the gap will only widen with the iPad Air.
Oddly, though, the iPad Air does not have the slo-mo video capabilities of the iPhone 5S.
Don’t overlook the fact that the iPad 2 lacks video stabilisation and face detection – both features which do a lot to ensure the iPad Air’s video looks great.
iPad Air vs iPad 2 comparison review: Software
Buy an iPad 2 this Christmas and it will come with iOS 7, just like the iPad Air. The trouble is the iPad 2 doesn’t really have the grunt to make the new interface run flawlessly. You’ll wait longer for apps to launch, web pages to load and even for keystrokes to register.
The iPad 2 misses out on iOS features, too. There's no Siri and no AirDrop, which is the new, easy way to share things to other nearby iOS devices.
Being a 32-bit device, and one that’s already on the edge of Apple’s lifecycle, the iPad 2 is extremely unlikely to be included in the next major iOS update. A future-proof purchase it is not.
iPad Air vs iPad 2 comparison review: Battery life
As we’ve said, we haven’t tested Apple’s claims for the iPad Air yet, but the company’s battery life claims are always honest. That means the Air should last all day, regardless of whether you’re watching videos on a long-haul flight or browsing the web via Wi-Fi. Playing demanding games or using the GPS receiver, Bluetooth and 4G will reduce battery life, but the Air should last at least as long as the iPad 2.
iPad Air vs iPad 2 comparison review: Bottom line
Why did Apple choose to keep the iPad 2 instead of the iPad 4 to sell side-by-side with the Air? The most likely reason is that, like the original iPad mini, it doesn’t have a
Retina display. It widens the gap between the two devices much further than if it continued to sell the iPad 4.
However, that chasm is so big that buying the iPad 2 makes no sense at all, especially when the new iPad mini with Retina display costs £10 less and has the same performance as the iPad Air. Had Apple cut the price significantly, there might possibly be an argument to opt for the iPad 2 instead of an Air, but if you’re wondering whether to save the £70, the simple answer is don’t.