iPad Air vs. refurbished iPad 4th gen; how much extra speed is enough?

Sections: Features, iPad, iPad Air, iPad mini, iPhone/iPod touch/iPad, Opinions and Editorials, Originals

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When I bought my iPad 2 back in 2011, I figured I wouldn’t be able to schedule future Mac and iPad upgrades in different years. That strategy partially worked. I’ve now had more than 4-1/2 years of service from my late 2008 MacBook as my anchor Mac, well beyond my usual three year provisional target for system upgrades, thanks to the iPad purchase.


What I hadn’t anticipated is the amount I use the iPad relative to my Macs, or that I would end up needing to replace both machines at the same time. However, that’s more or less where I’m at. The old MacBook is still providing flawless service, except that the hard drive is full even after judicious file-weeding, and I don’t really want to spend serious money for a larger capacity drive upgrade on a nearly five year old machine that’s the bottom minimum system requirement spec for Mountain Lion and Mavericks. And iOS 7 transformed the iPad 2 from a slick and refined performer into a ragged-performing clunker for the sort of use I give it. If I could downgrade to iOS 6, I would, but Apple has decreed that iOS version upgrades are a bridge-burner, and reversion is not an option. So, I need a faster iPad as well.


I figure the iPad Air would be a logical upgrade from my old iPad 2, but given the limitations of what my hardware replacement budget will comfortably stand, being able to economize a bit would be appreciated. The Apple Canada Apple Store finally got some stock of Certified Refurbished 4th-gen iPads, so last years’ model for a CAN$119 less (the interlude of U.S./Canada Apple hardware price parity appears to be over on recently released models) than a new Air might be a satisfactory compromise. I’m not especially troubled by the iPad 4’s size and weight, and going with the older form factor would also render unnecessary the replacement of cases and other iPad 2/3/4 sized accessories. After all, the iPad 4, with its A6X SoC, is roughly twice as fast as the iPad 2 with its A5 chip.


However, the A7-powered iPad Air is faster yet, although how much real world faster it is has been tricky to nail down.

In his review of the iPad Air this week, the Register’s Stephen Dean, who owns an iPad 3 (which offers roughly the same computing performance as the iPad 2), reports that a Geekbench 3 benchmarking registered a score of 2,683 for the iPad Air—a 52% improvement over the iPad 4—while the older GeekBench 2 rated the Air at 2,378, compared to 1,766 for the iPad 4. It’ not the 2x increase Apple claims, but still a substantial step up.

Primate Labs’ John Poole also included iPad 4 performance data with the Retina iPad mini benchmarks he posted this week, with the iPad Air returning a score of 1,487 in the Geekbench singel-core test.

Poole notes that after going on sale unexpectedly yesterday morning, the iPad mini with Retina display has started to appear on the Geekbench Browser, and he wanted to take a closer look at how the new iPad mini performs compared to other iPads, both past and current.

Poole’s calculations, generated using Geekbench 3 results from the Geekbench Browser, confirm that the new iPad mini processor runs at 1.3 GHz—the same speed as the iPhone 5s processor, but 100 MHz slower than the iPad Air’s processor. The difference presumably compensates for the mini’s smaller battery (less power) or the mini’s smaller chassis (less cooling), but it’s still substantially faster than the original iPad mini (which has an A5 SoC delivering similar performance to the iPad 2), with an over 5x increase in performance.

Poole reports that the new iPad mini Retina is 7% slower than the Air in both single-core and multi-core tests, and the iPad 4 scores only 772 in single core performance. In the Geekbench multicore test, the iPad Air scored 2,659 to the iPad 4’s 1,409, so on that basis, Apple’s 2x performance boost claim is about right, and what isn’t disputable is that both 4 and Air blow the iPad 2’s anaemic 261 and 493 scores on the two tests respectively into the weeds.

So, the operative questions are: how much faster is enough, and does it really make sense to go with roughly half the speed of the iPad Air in order to save a hundred nineteen bucks and the replacement price of some accessories?

My provisional answers are: “It’s a judgment call based on your iPad usage habits,” and “Probably not,” respectively. I haven’t entirely made up my mind, but I’m inclined to think that the commensurate extra value is there if one can scrape up the higher up-front cost, at least for power users. Your mileage may vary.

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  • Jim Gramze

    Since I got my iPhone 5 with the Lightening connector I’ve wanted to upgrade my iPad 3 so everywhere I go to plug in I can use the same cord. Since it was easy to sell the old iPad the whole thing was a no brainer. If I had an iPad 4 I don’t think I would have been able to justify doing it but the difference in weight and the oddly smoother touch of the glass and the increased speed during certain operations makes it totally worth it.

  • Joseph Singer

    I think it also has to do with your “need for speed.” It really depends on what you want to do with your iPad as to how satisfactory the task you wish to do is concerned. For me with my iPad 2 I cannot see any really good reason except the less heft and faster processor and for what I do it’s not going to make a difference for me.

  • dragonfly

    the Air is 64 bit – that alone should be the deciding factor…