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iPad Air vs. older 9.7-inch iPads: Worth the upgrade?


October 24, 2013

Gizmag compares the features and specs of the iPad Air to the previous three full-sized iP...

Gizmag compares the features and specs of the iPad Air to the previous three full-sized iPads

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With the new iPad Air now available, you might be wondering whether it's worth the upgrade. Or maybe you're eyeing a discounted or used older model, and wondering if that's worth saving a few bucks on. Let Gizmag lend a hand, as we compare the new iPad Air to the 4th-generation iPad, 3rd-generation iPad, and the iPad 2.

Update: This 2013 comparison now has an updated version for 2014, including the latest model.


This is how Apple described each of these iPads at launch

What do you call your model of iPad? Don't ask Apple, as it keeps changing its mind. At the simplest level, it's always just been "iPad," but the way Apple described each particular model when it launched has changed with every generation.

We've seen numbering with the iPad 2, newness with the 3rd-gen model, and Retina Displayness with the 4th-gen version (to differentiate it from the non-Retina iPad mini that launched beside it). And now it's "Air," to emphasize the new model's lighter build.

When in doubt, just refer to the generation number, as that's how Apple now (retroactively) refers to the older iPads. You'll also hear "iPad 4" and "iPad 3" used casually.

Release date

Original release dates for each iPad

In case you're fuzzy about which model you have – or forgot how long you've been using your iPad – these are the dates that each model released.

Model numbers

In case you aren't sure which iPad you have, look for one of these model numbers in tiny w...

Still don't know which generation of full-sized iPad you have? Then you can look for the model number in the tiny print on the bottom of your iPad's backside, and check it against the above visual.

Still for sale?

The 3rd- and 4th-generation iPads are technically obsolete, yet the iPad 2 lives on

Somehow 2011's iPad 2 is still on the market, for US$400. The 3rd- and 4th-generation models are now kaput, though retailers are still offloading their iPad 4 stock. You can probably find some nice deals on that year-old model, if you keep your eyes open.


The iPad Air is nine percent narrower than the older models, and much thinner too

The 3rd- and 4th-generation iPads are the exact same size. The iPad 2 is actually a little thinner than those two, but otherwise is identically proportioned.

The new iPad Air is the biggest physical redesign since the tablet's inception. It's only a hair shorter than its predecessors, but is nine percent narrower. It's also 20 percent thinner than the iPads 3 and 4, and 15 percent thinner than the iPad 2.


The iPad Air's killer feature: it's 28 percent lighter than the last iPad

This is the iPad Air's killer feature. Apple managed to squeeze the same size 9.7-in screen into a body that's 28 percent lighter than the 3rd- and 4th-gen iPads, and 22 percent lighter than the iPad 2.


The iPad Air is still aluminum, but has a new look and finish

Still aluminum all the way, though the appearance and finish of the iPad Air's back now matches that of the iPad mini.


Colors that each Apple is/was sold in

It's still basically black and white with the iPad Air, but since the colors on the back of the new iPad vary as well, "space gray & black" and "silver & white" it is.


The last three iPads have all had Retina Displays

Every full-sized iPad has had a 9.7-in screen with a 4:3 aspect ratio, and the iPad Air is no exception. It retains the Retina Display that the last two models had. The iPad 2 was the last pre-Retina model.


Storage options originally available for each iPad

These are the storage options that were available during each iPad's initial run. As the budget full-sized iPad, the iPad 2 has only been sold in a 16 GB model since March of 2012.


The cellular version of the iPad 2 was limited to slower 3G speeds

The 3rd-generation iPad was the first Apple product that supported LTE. The cellular model of the iPad 2 only supports slower 3G data.

The iPad Air also has some improved Wi-Fi capabilities, with multiple antennas, and supposedly delivers up to twice the performance of last year's iPad.


Camera resolutions for the four recent iPads

The iPad Air's cameras have the same resolution as the iPad 4's, but Apple did mention some improved sensors in its presentation.


The processor info for each of the iPad's chips

If cores and clock speeds don't mean anything to you, then just know that the iPads above get faster as you move from right to left. Though the iPad 3's A5X has the same processor as the iPad 2's A5; that chip just added quad-core graphics to drive its Retina Display.

Motion coprocessor

The new iPad Air has Apple's M7 motion coprocessor

Apple included the iPhone 5s' M7 motion coprocessor in the iPad Air. It can log data from your iPad's motion sensors, and compatible fitness apps can use that data without draining your battery. This makes sense on the iPhone, but not so much on an iPad (who works out with an iPad?), so we're suspecting the M7 has more to do with a future iWatch than with fitness apps.


Fancy that: all four iPads have the same 1 GB of RAM

The iPad Air sticks with 1 GB of RAM, which shouldn't be too surprising. Apple tends to boost performance every year without necessarily boosting processor cores, clock speeds, or RAM.


Battery watt hours for each of the last four full-sized iPads (Apple advertised 10 hours o...

If the above battery Watt hours look like gibberish, then just know that Apple has always advertised the same 10 hours (web use over Wi-Fi) with each model. In our experience, those estimates are pretty sound.


You can upgrade to iOS 7 on all four of these iPads

All four of these iPads now run the new iOS 7. Only the original iPad, which we left out of this comparison, got locked out of the iOS 7 action (it's forever stuck on iOS 5).


All but the iPad 2 support Apple's Siri virtual assistant

If you like to use Apple's virtual assistant on your iPad, then everything but the iPad 2 delivers. There's no technical reason why Siri can't run on an iPad 2 (jailbreakers can vouch for that), so it looks like Apple left it out just to make upgrading that much more enticing. Those rascals.

Charging cable

The older iPads use Apple's 30-pin charging cables

Starting with the 4th-generation iPad, Apple dropped the old 30-pin connector, and replaced it with the smaller Lightning port. So if you're upgrading from the iPad 3 or 2, and you have charging docks or other accessories, you'll need a $30 adapter for your newer iPad.


It doesn't necessarily look like in paper, but we think the iPad Air is a big step forward from its predecessors. It's so much lighter than the older models that its comfort in hand alone could potentially make it worth the upgrade.

Of course there's also the iPad mini. A new model with a Retina Display will be launching sometime in November. If you're happy with its smaller screen, you could potentially save $100 and get it instead of the iPad Air.

Unsure? Then why not peruse our iPad Air review? Or if you're considering other tablets, you can hit up our 2013 Tablet Comparison Guide.

About the Author
Will Shanklin Will Shanklin is Gizmag's Mobile Tech Editor, and has been part of the team since 2012. Will has a Master's degree from U.C. Irvine and a Bachelor's from West Virginia University. He currently lives in New Mexico with his wife, Jessica.
  All articles by Will Shanklin

Excellent and very helpful article. I'm about halfway between "dummy' and "expert" as far as computer expertise and this article was in my opinion well written... Thanks

25th October, 2013 @ 11:48 am PDT

Very useful comparison. However I have the original iPad 1, it would have been even more useful if this model had been included as well.

27th October, 2013 @ 08:08 am PDT

Thanks for the article. Looking forward to your impressions after you play with it awhile.

@rozel3 a comparison to the iPad 1 would not have made this article useful for you. Just give yours to a one year old child and get a new one! My toddler niece loves hers!!

Hellia Sonnenschein
1st November, 2013 @ 05:13 pm PDT

Thanks Will, interesting article. I'm thinking of getting a used iPad and am on a budget. Would an iPad 3 be suitable for use mainly to write on with a Bluetooth keyboard? I'm not a gamer so don't need a fast processor. Or would an iPad Mini 1 be better?

Sean Martin
5th September, 2014 @ 12:25 pm PDT
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