A Tale of Two iPads: Comparing the iPad Air and the iPad 4

Comparisons are the name of the game in mobile tech. Products get compared, sometimes when they aren’t even in the same gadget category. Those with insatiable appetites for new shiny gadgets devour every word, every benchmark, and well everything they can get their eyeballs on to see what’s what about what’s new. This is certainly true about new Apple devices. The comparisons never seem to end as Apple gear is compared to other makers (both before and after they devices have actually been released), and of course to the previous generation of that device. With the iPad Air now on sale, we’ve already seen some interesting benchmarks, tables, and other comparisons to other Apple iOS devices. We posted an interesting chart yesterday that’s worth a look, given that Apple’s new iPad Air, containing the new A7 chip looks to be at the head of the class when it comes to speed and performance.

Read: iPad Air Unboxing

After working (and playing) a bit with a new iPad Air, my first impressions are this is a device where benchmarks and real world impressions line up. The new 64 bit chipset and instruction set look to make a big difference based on the few Apps that have already been written for it. Regarding the form factor I can say that all the hype you’ve heard about the iPad Air is real. It is indeed lighter and does indeed perform better than the previous generation iPad 4. If you have access to an iPad 4 or an iPad 3 (there was not much difference in weight between those two generations) you’ll feel quite a difference as the new iPad Air weights in at 1 lb vs. 1.47 lbs for the iPad 4.

 

Comparing the iPad Air and the iPad 4

Comparing the iPad Air and the iPad 4

I own an iPad 4 and have done some performance and photo comparisons to share, as well as taken a few photos from both the iPad Air and the iPad 4. This comparison focuses on the following:

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  • Size and Weight Differences
  • Speed and Performance Differences
  • Camera Differences
  • WiFi Radio Differences
  • Naming Differences
  • Battery Life Differences

Size and Weight Differences

I can’t do anything to help you better understand the weight difference other than just say that it is significant and the reduced weight and size dimensions are impressive in their own right. When you look at the smaller, lighter iPad Air next to its one-year older sibling, the iPad 4, those differences are even more striking. I’d almost go as far as to say the difference is the same that users of the earlier iPads felt when and if they first began using an iPad mini. The iPad Air is very light to tote around, strikingly so for a full-size Tablet. The iPad 4 feels much heavier in comparison than the number differences show. It’s akin to changing from a heavy winter coat to putting on a sleeker leather jacket.

Here are the size differences:

iPad 4

  • Dimensions: 9.50 x 7.31 x 0.37 inches (241.2 x 185.7 x 9.4mm)
  • Weight 1.47 lbs (662g)

iPad Air

  • Dimensions: 9.40 x 6.6 x 0.29 inches (240 x 169.5 x 7.5 mm)
  • Weight: 1 lb (453g)

Note: The weight of the iPad Air cellular models bump up to 1.04 lbs

The numbers on the page don’t really tell the story of holding an iPad Air in your hand side by side with an iPad 4. Suffice it to say that if you’re moving from the iPad 4 (or any earlier model iPad) you’ll be more than amazed at what you’ve purchased on the size differences alone.

Form Factor size differences

Form Factor size differences

Form Factor Size Differences iPad Air on bottom

Form Factor Size Differences iPad Air on bottom

Speed and Performance Differences

The iPad 4 was the fastest Tablet Apple had produced. It’s now the second fastest. It is still a great Tablet, and frankly, I don’t know why Apple isn’t still selling it at a lower cost rather than the iPad 2. The A6x chip handled anything you could throw at it, but the Retina display needed all the heft it could get. So, there were times when you could sense that the chips were working overtime to push all those pixels.

Here's a look at the performance of every iOS 7 device Apple sells.

Here’s a look at the performance of every iOS 7 device Apple sells.

The A7 chip in the iPad Air adds 64 bit architecture to the mix, along with an improved instruction set. It also contains the M7 chip to gather data from the various sensors on your device, but we’ll have to wait and see what the M7 means for the iPad Air until developers take advantage of it. By and large we’ll have to wait and see what the 64 bit A7 chipset means as well. You can really only see what this means when you run Apps coded for this new configuration. Apple’s iWorks Apps, (Pages, Numbers, Keynote) and its iLife Apps (GarageBand, iPhoto and iMovie) are the best examples of what this means today. This new architecture has the potential to turn the iPad Air into quite an impressive machine down the road when other developers show what they can do. Apple called the iPhone 5s “the most forward looking” smartphone on its release that debuted the A7 chip with M7. It is intriguing that the iPad Air wasn’t given the same label, but I think we’re looking at another “forward looking” Apple device here. I’m excited to see what this means in six months or so.

But for now, the differences mean Apps load faster, animations are smoother, and the Retina screen moves pixels quicker. Infinity Blade 3 and Asphalt 8 are excellent games that show this difference.

Read: Everything You Need To Know About How Fast the iPad Air Is

In the videos below, note that the iPad Air is on the left and the iPad 4 is on the right. The differences you are seeing in height are due to the different stands I am using.

This first video shows the difference in loading Pages and Keynote, both Apple iWorks Apps that are coded for the 64 bit platform of the iPad Air, but work equally well with the 32 bit architecture of previous iPad generations.

This video shows Infinity Blade 3 loading side by side on the iPad Air and the iPad 4.

This video shows both devices syncing an Evernote data store for the first time. The iPad 4 holds its own, but the iPad Air is definitely faster.

This video shows Garage Band and iPhoto loading on both the iPad Air and the iPad 4. The iPad Air is slightly ahead of the game, but not by much.

This final video shows the RSS App Feedly opening on both the iPad Air and the iPad 4. Feedly is not coded for the 64 bit world of the iPad Air.

Camera Differences

Intriguingly there are no differences in the physical cameras between the iPad Air and the iPad 4. But does that really tell the story? The front facing FaceTime camera is the same 1.2MP camera that shoots 720HD. The rear facing iSight camera is same 5mp camera that will shoot 1024HD video. But Apple obviously worked some of the same magic into its image processing with iOS 7when you compare the pictures below as the shots I took for comparison show much better image quality from the iPad Air.

iPad Air Indoors Rear Camera

iPad Air Indoors Rear Camera

iPad 4 Indoors Rear Camera

iPad 4 Indoors Rear Camera

iPad Air Night Street with Rear Camera

iPad Air Night Street with Rear Camera

iPad 4 Night Street Rear Camera

iPad 4 Night Street with Rear Camera

iPad Air Front Camera

iPad Air Front Camera

iPad 4 Front Camera

iPad 4 Front Camera

WiFi Radio Differences

Apple is touting improved WiFi reception for the iPad Air with the distinguishing feature being MIMO (multiple-input and multiple-output) technology. Simply put, if you have a router that supports MIMO you’ll see better throughput because there are multiple antennas on both the transmitter and receiver side. So, this is a benefit that will only make a difference if you have a MIMO equipped router. MIMO technology has been around since the days of 802.11n standard so it is not new technology. If your router has multiple antennas sprouting out of the top and supports 802.11n technology you have a MIMO equipped router. Apple’s Airport Express and Airport Extreme routers also support this. Curiously though, Apple did not include capability in the new iPad Air for 802.11ac spec, which is supported by its latest Airport Extreme router which supports the 802.11ac standard.

Using the same Airport Extreme (not the newest model but the previous one that supports 802.11a/b/g/n), I ran a few tests with both the iPad Air and the iPad 4, and you can see the results in the pictures below. Apple claims the WiFi radio in the iPad Air will support up to 300 Mbps, but keep in mind that’s what it will support, not what you’ll actually see, regardless of your hardware. I downloaded the Bard’s Tale, a very large(1.44 GB) graphic intensive game separately on both devices. On the iPad 4 the download took 9 minutes and 34 seconds. On the iPad Air the download took 7 minutes and 24 seconds.

WiFi Speed Tests on iPad 4 and iPad Air

WiFi Speed Tests on iPad 4 and iPad Air

Naming Differences

What’s in a name?  When the iPad 3 came out it was simply called the new iPad by Apple. Cupertino ceased using a numbering system after the iPad 2. The iPad 4 was also just simply an iPad as far as naming conventions go. But those who write and comment about these devices didn’t follow Apple’s naming conventions because you have to have some way to distinguish the old from the new. The latest generation iPad now has a first and last name, the iPad Air. Or in naming terminology, the iPad Air’s “given name” is iPad and its “family or surname” is Air. Some have speculated that this might mean we’ll see an iPad Pro in the future, following Apple’s MacBook Pro and MacBook Air naming conventions. Maybe, maybe not. But for now, the iPad Air is about as “pro” a machine as we have. To be frank, the iPad 4 could easily serve as a pro machine as well, and did until the debut of the iPad Air.

Battery Life Differences

As I’ve stated many times I’m not one for benchmarks and those kind of scientific tests when it comes to devices. How a device performs in my regular use cases means more to me than what test results do. Apple has proven to be accurate with its battery life claims in every iOS device I’ve owned, so I have no reason to doubt that I’ll see 10 hours or so of battery life out of the iPad Air, which is what I saw out of the iPad 4 on a typical day. It’s impressive engineering though that Apple has squeezed a larger battery that should yield equal results to its predecessor into a smaller form factor. The numbers say that the iPad Air’s battery is rated at 32.4Wh versus 45.2Wh for the iPad 4. Yes, that’s a decrease in numbers but it is obviously made up for in changes to processing power.

One of the ways I judge battery life on devices has to do with my morning routines. I typically pull a device off of the charger after showering for the morning and as I hit the first up of coffee I do three things routinely on an iPad: check email, check various news sources on Flipboard, and then do some additional web browsing to see what’s up in the world. This morning I followed this routine with the iPad 4 and then with the iPad Air. The iPad 4 battery life’s meter showed that it had decreased from 100% to about 92%. That what I have been seeing on a typical morning with the iPad 4. The iPad Air’s battery life meter showed a decrease from 100% to 97% doing the exact same chores. Now, that is no way a scientific measurement. The iPad Air is a brand new device and it takes some time after setting up a new device for things to settle in. Call this an interesting first morning observation.

iPad Air and iPad 4 comparisons

iPad Air and iPad 4 comparisons

Conclusions

The iPad Air is certainly a stunner of a new Tablet. Increases in technology and decreases in size have made it the most advanced iPad Apple offers. The iPad 4, though is no slouch and keeps up very well in comparison. Of course you won’t be able to purchase an iPad 4 any longer. But if you have an iPad 4 and are skeptical about upgrading, I don’t think you should feel the need to rush to upgrade. If you do, you’ll see and feel some impressive changes. I feel like I got my money’s worth given the changes in form factor and performance, but that’s my reaction today. In six month’s time or so we’ll see what the new 64 bit architecture and the A7/M7 combo yield. Like the iPhone 5s, which Apple called its “most forward looking” smartphone, the iPad Air hints at an interesting future as well, But the iPad 4 could serve you capably until that future arrives.

Read: iPhone 5s and iOS 7: Forward Looking or Just Change?

Another note: We don’t know the date officially that the iPad mini with Retina Display will go on sale. Those much smaller devices have the same chip architecture that the iPad Air does. So, on paper these two devices should perform similarly. If that is indeed the case, the iPad mini is going to one heck of a 7 inch Tablet that will be tough to beat.

 

 

 

  

Comments

  1. Detex says

    Great review. Every other site seems to be so biased to the new ipad air. I am on the fence to go from a 3 to the air. The 3 is no slouch either but this review was helpful! Thank you.

  2. Michael says

    Thank you for this review, clear, concise and comprehensive! The photo comparisons were really helpful, i’ve been very disappointed with the ipad 2 vga camera.

    I’ll be upgrading from ipad 2 to ipad air, so the enhancements will be well worth it for me.

  3. Jason says

    Great review! I have a first gen iPad and think I will get a refurbished iPad 4 while I can to save $120. If money grew on trees I’d certainly get the Air for its size and weight improvements, but after seeing the comparisons, aside from the photo quality, think I’ll be happy with an iPad 4. Thanks for such a thorough review.

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