Last year the iPad Air and Retina iPad mini made for a tough decision. This year, though, with Apple putting all its eggs into the iPad Air 2 basket, there's no question which tablet is better. But is there any reason to consider the iPad mini 3? Let's take a quick hands-on look.
In case you missed Apple's 2014 iPad announcements, we're looking at the outstanding iPad Air 2, a solid step forward from its predecessor, and the iPad mini 3, which is nearly identical to its predecessor. Which is better? The iPad Air 2 is better.
But what if you don't need the very best, and only want a good iPad that works for you? Then your answer might not be so cut-and-dry. We've been using both iPads since they launched, and have a few thoughts on how they stack up.
Size is the most obvious difference, with the iPad Air 2 measuring 20 percent longer and 26 percent wider. Its screen is also 51 percent bigger (if you use your iPad with a keyboard cover, then the larger Air makes for a better faux laptop).
Generally speaking, the iPad mini has always been the more portable tablet, while the iPad Air gives you that bigger canvas. But this year the iPad Air 2 feels almost as portable as the iPad mini. That's because, even though it's heavier, the Air got lighter and thinner, while the Mini stood pat.
The iPad Air 2 is a full-sized tablet that handles a lot like a mini-tablet. It isn't just more powerful than the iPad mini 3, it also undermines what used to be the Mini's biggest strength.
We're looking at pretty much the same build quality, as both tablets have Apple's (now familiar) unibody aluminum construction. The Air 2 loses the old side switch, for muting or locking orientation, that you'll find on the right side of the Mini and older iPads. But otherwise, the tablets' designs are, more or less, the same.
The iPad Air 2 is faster (by about 36 percent in single core and 83 percent in multi-core, according to Geekbench 3). And though the iPad mini's screen is sharper, the Air 2's display has a wider color range and, thanks to Apple eliminating an air gap in its display assembly, content appears to sit closer to the surface. Colors are rich, and everything just pops.
The iPad Air 2 also has an anti-reflective coating on its display. Most mobile devices are hard to read in direct sunlight (how can you properly crush candy or fling birds when all you see is your own mug staring back at you?), but that glare is less of an issue on the Air 2. You will still see some reflections outdoors; Apple didn't cure the world of glare. It's just that it isn't quite as overbearing on the Air 2.
The Air also gives you more RAM (double, in fact) than the Mini, along with a higher-resolution camera.
Battery life is one of the only areas where the iPad mini 3 has an advantage. In making the Air 2 thinner, Apple gave it a smaller battery – and it shows up a little in experience. In our video-streaming benchmark, the Air 2 dropped about 14 percentage points per hour. The Mini dropped just over 9 percent per hour.
In day-to-day use, I don't think battery life is a big concern in the iPad Air 2: I've been using it regularly since it launched, and have yet to run out of juice by day's end. But it is the one area where the Air took a small step back.
Both tablets have Apple's excellent Touch ID fingerprint sensor (this is also the only difference between the iPad mini 3 and its predecessor). Touch ID is one of Apple's best hardware features in years: it lets you easily secure your device with your fingerprint, and you can also use it to log into some third-party apps (most notably, password managers). As convenient as it is, though, I'm not sure if Touch ID makes the iPad mini 3 worth $100 more than the iPad mini 2.
The iPad mini 3 is still a fast tablet with a crisp display. When new tech becomes available, it's easy to get into the line of thinking that last year's best is suddenly rubbish. But of course that's silly: the Mini is still a very good tablet today, even with 2013 specs. The Air just gives you more bang for your buck.
Maybe the real question is "who is the iPad mini 3 for?" Well, if the iPad Air 2 is too big for you, and you must have Touch ID (or a gold color option), then maybe, just maybe, you'll find the iPad mini 3 to be worth $400 or more.
... but if that isn't you? Then you're going to be better off with either the bigger and better iPad Air 2 ($500+) or the cheaper iPad mini 2 ($300+).