In Praise of the iPad Air 2

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Image courtesy Apple

With the release of the 12.9 inch iPad Pro late last year, and more recently the 9.7 inch version, much of what I’ve been reading recently has centred around the virtues of that larger 12.9 inch screen, or equally since earlier his month, the benefit of the “pro features” — namely the Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil support for both sizes of the device.

I’m happy to admit in my links post two weeks ago, I myself extolled the virtues of “newest and shiniest”, however when it came to an actual purchase, common sense and a little objectivity thankfully ruled the day.

My previous iPad? A mini 2 – or as it was known at the time I bought it in November 2013, the iPad mini with Retina display (a 32 GB WiFi model). The mini served me well for over two years, until I made the decision late last year a little extra screen real estate and additional features of iOS 9 (read Split View) were probably something I could utilise quite well on my iPad. Having made the decision to upgrade, I was very tempted to immediately pick up an iPad Air 2 (64 GB) from the Apple Refurbished stock at a pretty decent AU$619, however given the timing, decided to wait until March this year to see what a new release might bring in the way of features and processing.

With that decision made, I had a few months to think about what I really needed in a mobile device, and with a pretty firm commitment to the Apple ecosystem these days, it was always going to be a 9.7 inch iPad. The only question being whether that would be a newly released version, or a pretty compelling iPad Air 2 on a reduced price tier. I was, of course, excited in anticipation of the “new”.

Exactly how do I use my iPad? In summary, I’d say I am a moderately frequent, yet low demand user. By that I mean it certainly gets a good deal of use, however most of that use relates to reading, writing and research; followed by email & social media; with some video content consumed on the way home during my afternoon commute (there’s no better way to wind down after work than with an episode of House of Cards or Vikings). Most of this use typically occurs on the couch at home, at my favourite cafe, or on a bus. By low demand, I simply mean I do no video recording or editing, gaming and only perform infrequent photo editing, with no actual photography. All activities which might be a little more demanding on the processing capacity.

Perhaps I’m mistaken, however I’d like to think this pattern of usage is not unique to me, and I think you can probably see where I am heading with this post.

What they’re saying

The larger model: iPad Pro 12.9 inch

Firstly, a comment on why I so easily ruled out the larger 12.9 inch iPad Pro. For what I use this thing for, it’s simply too big. A tonne of added features mean nothing if it won’t fit where you want to use it. I’m almost at the point where I laugh upon repeatedly hearing “I could never go back to the smaller size after using this 12.9 inch screen”. Well, if it fits where and how you use it — why would you? When was the last time anyone chose to buy a smaller TV unless they absolutely had to?

Believe me, I get it that Split View gives you two “full size” apps side by side; the 4 GB of RAM and A9X chip are fantastic; the Apple Pencil is great; and that keyboard — once “I got used to it”, works really well.

For me however, ruling the 12.9 inch size out was pretty simple, and in fact, it was never really in the hunt in the first place. Great device yes — just too big for how I want to use it, and at a base price of AU$1249.00, never really a consideration.

The smaller two: 9.7 inch Pro and Air 2

The recent release of the 9.7 inch iPad Pro, has brought even more comparisons between screen sizes on the Pro line, and to a lesser extent, between the iPad Air 2 and the corresponding Pro version. A quick scroll down the iPad comparison table on the Apple website will highlight the main differences between the two 9.7 inch iPad models, and my aim is not to provide an exhaustive listing here.

What I would recommend however, is when scrolling down said list, for every difference in specs or dashed line in the Air 2 column, ask yourself whether that will really make a difference to how you use the iPad. And I mean real differences — not just nice-to-haves.

A case in point for example is this, from CNET, admittedly not my usual tech reading source, though many have expressed similar thoughts. Here we have five reasons to pick the iPad Pro over the Air 2, stating “it’s what’s under the hood”. The article then cites:

  • More storage (32, 64 and 128 GB vs 16 and 64 GB for the Air 2)
  • Apple pencil support
  • That “Smart Connector” (with the Smart Keyboard it “means no more bulky batteries in keyboards”)
  • 4K video shooting, better selfies
  • Better audio

We then read, almost as an afterthought, about the A9X chip and M9 coprocessor with Hey Siri capability, and the True Tone display.

Writing on Macsparky (more like my usual tech reading), David Sparks, in a comparison with the Air 2, cites the better processor; the “pro features” (Pencil and Smart Connector); the camera; and better colour and sound. Also acknowledged here are the levellers — being the 64GB Air 2 storage and 2 GB RAM on both models, and introducing the article with the comment that neither is a bad choice.

Looking at the bigger picture, I don’t necessarily disagree with any of the above. Any review of a new device or model will always highlight those new features — otherwise what is the point of it at all. Again, objectively consider what sits before you, how you will use it, and the value proposition it presents.

Which is exactly what I did — before picking up a pretty good deal on a 64GB iPad Air 2 at AU$687.00 last weekend.

Ending up with the Air 2

With reference back to my use case above, let me outline a little further on how I ended up with the Air 2.

Firstly, the Pro model’s A9X/M9 chip/coprocessor. For me, this could have gone either way. Of course, for longevity of performance in future years, faster equals better. The 2GB of RAM (the same as the Air 2) probably swayed me towards the Air 2 a little here. I’d also note, for the way I use the device – I’ve never had any performance issues with the A7 chip on my iPad mini 2. Yes, the Air 2 is significantly snappier across all aspects of usage by comparison, however somehow I don’t think I’ll be hardly done by in choosing the A8X of the Air 2 over the newer A9X.

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Ulysses and MindNode in Split View

Next: go and draw a line through everything which is identical between the two devices on that iPad comparison page — it’s an awful lot of lines. Only a few things remain, essentially those listed by CNET above. It is for you to decide whether they are worth it. I’m simply here outlining how for me, they are not.

I am certainly no tech writer (pretty clear), however what I am is a consumer with a budget, who carefully considered the options and ultimately purchased the best device for my needs at the best available price — I’d imagine the same as anyone. Given these considerations, what follows is simply my thought process before I ultimately made the purchase. Whether or not they able in your case is another matter of course, however I could not be happier after using the Air 2 over the past week.

The Numbers

Any real comparison surely must look at the numbers (read price) to some extent, and if the difference we’re talking was $50 or $60, or even say $100 then I wouldn’t be suggesting there is much of a decision to be made. That said, I also understand new technology comes at a cost. For reference, in Australian dollars, we have:

Model iPad Pro 9.7 (WiFi) iPad Air 2 (WiFi)
Storage 32 GB 64 GB
List Price $899.00 $729.00
Apple Pencil $165.00 N/A
Smart Keyboard $229.00 N/A
Total cost $1293.00 $729.00

Consider that final figure for the iPad Pro for just a second — particularly in the context of many reviews holding up the Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil as some of the main reasons you should invest in the Pro model. It then isn’t “just a couple of hundred bucks” more is it? I say go for it if those are two accessories you could really get a lot out of, though to suggest the price is not much more, and have those as some of the main arguments for the Pro model I find a little misleading, and in many ways a little disrespectful — particularly to consumers prepared to spend the money if required, yet for which it would be a considerable stretch to do so.

I hear what you are saying — no one is forcing anyone to buy anything, and the cost of these accessories can be spread out, yet the tone is often one of you should, or in many ways it would be a mistake not to buy them. In this case, I simply don’t agree.

Of course I have not included the 16 GB Air 2 as the comparison above, which can be picked up even more cheaply, and there are a few very good discounted deals on the 64 GB model available at the moment.

Those points

So in looking at the points made by CNET above, were there compelling reasons for me to go with the Pro rather than the Air 2? Perhaps I have erred after all?

Remember – my thoughts based on my use case.

As far as storage is concerned, the Pro has more storage, yet at the same time less. I have never needed more than 32GB on my iPad mini 2, having never come close to the limits. If anything, it would have been the 32 GB model for the Pro, yet all of a sudden, I now end up with 64 GB and refer you back to the price comparison above. Not a bad deal, of course I could argue just as easily there will be quite a few GB wasted on me, though for the price, I’ll take it.

Regular readers of this site will of course realise, I love my pens and notebooks. For my handwriting, I am firmly embedded in the analogue world, however when it comes to drawing, I am utterly hopeless. My point? Apple Pencil support brings nothing to the table for me as far as features go. Given my fairly jarring lack of creativity with a standard pencil, the only possibility was taking digital handwritten notes with the Apple Pencil. Set aside my pens for that? Not for me.

On to the Smart Keyboard, which I admit to looking a little longingly in the direction of, though again, at the end of the day I cannot justify a purchase here given the price (remember we are talking the combined price of the Pro itself and the Smart Keyboard just for the benefit of this specific keyboard). I do use an external Bluetooth keyboard with my current iPad mini (laughable to some I know), essentially for the extra screen real estate it gives me when writing, however also find it more comfortable to so.

As far as my pattern of use is concerned, when out and about in my lunch break, if I know I’ll be sitting to write, the keyboard is attached just before I leave the office. If I’m not, or prefer to write by pen and notebook that day — it won’t. All other times it is Smart Cover only, as I prefer the iPad as thin as it comes. Although it is minimal, the added thickness of the Smart Keyboard doesn’t appeal to me as an “always on” cover, and I suspect I would find myself swapping it on only when I planned to sit and type as I’ve outlined above. A pretty expensive proposition for a three or four times per week occurrence.

The most likely scenario? Were I to indeed buy the iPad Pro I would most likely have purchased the Bluetooth keyboard I am planning to buy for the Air 2 anyway (at a third of the price), with the Smart Connector left out in the cold. True, there may be additional accessories which will utilise this capability, yet I cannot imagine any over the next few years that I’ll be kicking myself for missing out on.

As for the 4K video and better selfies? I’ve not too much to say here, having never taken a photo on my iPad mini let alone a video. I have nothing against those who do, and a better camera would no doubt be a boon for said people, however I am just someone who has always used my phone. Further I cannot remember the last selfie I took on either device, which is probably a similar boon for any of my followers on social media.

I also mentioned in my Wednesday links post a couple of weeks ago that if the Pro was my preferred purchase, the camera bump would be a non-issue, and after further consideration in writing this post, I’m even more certain on that point. If my iPad lays completely flat when not in use, it is face down on the Smart Cover, and when used, the flattest it will ever get is at the lowest Smart Cover elevation. I cannot come up with a scenario in my daily use where I’d notice it.

I have no doubt the four-speaker audio is a significant improvement on the Air’s two, however in the last 6 months I’ve listened to the audio on my iPad without headphones probably once or twice, and that’s because I was too lazy to get of the couch and go and get them. Again, just not something I’d use.

Finally, I don’t use Siri on my iPad, so the “Hey Siri” option doesn’t afford much benefit, and although I absolutely love the Night Shift feature in iOS 9.3, the True Tone display (while a nice touch), also isn’t a big drawcard.

In conclusion

I seem to have rambled along quite a bit here, however my intention was simply to say: if you are anything like me in how you use an iPad and are considering an upgrade, there is an awful lot to like about the iPad Air 2 in the context of the current iPad line up — particularly given the price. With my main criteria being able to access Split View, at a minimum the Air 2 was needed, however now two options (at the 9.7 inch size at least) are available if you are considering something similar.

For me, the iPad Air 2 is the perfect mobile device to get a few things done, as well as serving up everything else I consume online. The iPad Pro 9.7 inch? It would of course be the perfect device for the exact same thing — it’s just that some things are a little more perfect than others, and at $729.00 (or less with a good deal) for the Air 2, there’s never been a better time to pay a little bit less for that.


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