iPad Pros vs. iPad Air 2: Should You Upgrade?

All the fancy features of the Apple iPad Pro 12.9-inch machine are now available in a smaller, 9.7-inch model, plus a few new extras. But before you dump your existing iPad Air or bigger Pro for the smaller size version, compare the differences in displays, prices, processors and cameras to make an informed decision.

Apple starts taking orders for the 9.7-inch iPad Pro on March 24, and the new tablets will start shipping March 31. Mark those dates in your calendar if you've been waiting for a Rose Gold tablet to match your similarly hued iPhone, as Apple doesn't sell the 12.9-inch Pad Pro or iPad Air 2 in that color.

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The iPad Pro 9.7-inch is definitely more portable, yet still be large enough for many activities such as watching movies. Of course, the larger 12.9-inch display was made for creating detailed drawings on a big canvas. But the larger of the two is unlikely to fit neatly in a purse, and for $200 less you can get the iPad Air 2 in the same 9.7-inch size. 


If you wanted the 12.9-inch iPad Pro's Pencil and Smart Keyboard, but felt that was tablet too large, you'll be happy the new 9.7-inch model supports both. However, during our hands-on time with the 9.7-inch tablet, the new, smaller keyboard wasn't exactly a joy to use. Its keys still have plenty of travel, but the cramped layout reminded us of the pains of writing on a netbook. The iPad Air 2 doesn't support the pencil or come with its own Apple-made keyboard. But there are plenty of third party options available. 


Both iPad Pros and the Air 2 have the same 264 ppi resolution, but the 9.7-inch Pro introduces a new True Tone Display. It uses dual ambient light sensors to detect nearby light and adjust color for accuracy. Apple claims the 9.7-inch tablet's display panel can emit 500 nits (a measure of brightness), a higher amount than our tests found in the 12.9-inch iPad Pro (374 nits) and iPad Air 2 (368 nits).


It's baffling to me, but some users prefer to snapping photos with an iPad. With this in mind, Apple fitted the 9.7-inch iPad with a 12-megapixel rear camera and 5-MP selfie camera.

That's an upgrade from the 8-MP rear camera and 1.2-MP front camera found in the 12.9-inch iPad Pro and the iPad Air 2. The new 9.7-inch iPad Pro can also shoot Live Photos, the .gif-like moving images, which the iPad Air  2 and 12.9-inch iPad Pro cannot.

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro also stands out from its brethren because it's the only Apple tablet that can record 4K video. Both the iPad Air 2 and 12.9-inch iPad are limited to shooting 1080p HD video.


No matter which size iPad Pro you buy, you still get Apple's speedy A9X and M9 co-processors, which earned high marks for performance in our review of the original 12.9-inch tablet. While the A8X-packing iPad Air 2 worked well in real-world experience, it didn't fare as well in comparisons with newer devices. For instance, it was outmatched by the Surface Pro 3 in a number of categories. So if you own an iPad Air 2 or earlier, and find it unable to meet your needs, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro may give you the speed you want.


Starting at $599 with 32GB of storage, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro will also appeal to customers unwilling to pay the 12.9-inch tablet's $799 starting price. At each storage capacity, the 9.7-inch tablet is $200 less than its big brother, and it maxes out at a $899 model with a 256GB hard drive.

If you don't need the fastest processor or Apple's own stylus and keyboard, definitely consider the 9.7-inch iPad Air 2. Its 16GB entry-level model is $200 less expensive than the baseline 9.7-inch iPad Pro. Even the 64GB iPad Air is $100 cheaper than the starting price for the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, and it comes with twice as much storage too.

Bottom line

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro is a compelling addition to Apple's tablet family, bringing wanted features to a familiar size. We'll have to test the slate's display to see if it's as fantastic as the company claims, but on paper, this seems like a powerhouse slate.