Apple currently offers two sizes of it’s iOS powered tablet, the iPad. The larger of the two is the current successor to the original, running on the name iPad Air 2. The other satisfies a different use case for users, clocking in with a display that is nearly two full inches smaller, the iPad Mini 3 is the currently available ‘pocket sized’ iPad.

Today, we put Apple’s tablets side by side – is it truly just size that differentiates the two? Continue to read our Apple iPad Air 2 vs Apple iPad Mini 3 comparison to find out.

Design

Apple iPad Air 2 iPad Mini 3 unboxing

The simple truth is that these two tablets are extremely similar in design. The iPad Air 2 is the successor to the original iPad, and the iPad Mini 3 is, as the name implies, a mini iPad. There are only a few subtle differences, but let’s focus on the similarities first.

Both the iPad Air 2 and the iPad Mini 3 offer a full metal back that slightly wraps around to the front. The front edge of the metal has been polished, giving a shine when the light hits it. Previous Apple device owners will be very familiar with the single round physical button on the front bezel below the display. This button also houses the fingerprint reader, as an alternative security layer.

iPad Air 2 back

On the right hand edge of both tablets, near the top, is a volume rocker. On the front top bezel lives the front facing camera, with the rear facing camera living in the top left corner. Finishing them off, the power button lives to the right hand side of the top edge and speakers force sound out of the bottom edge, with dual speaker grills flanking the centered Lightning port.

While the full metal back on both tablets provide strength, as well as a cooling surface for the internals and a premium look, I do have a couple complaints. First, the tablet is always cold to the touch, as I assume it would feel warm to the touch in the summer months. When picking up the iPad after a time of non-use, it almost hurts to hold, it feels that cold sometimes.

Apple iPad Air 2 Home button speaker grills

Second, the shiny polished front edge of the metal has a relatively sharp edge of its own. While it is not likely to cut you, I find that it becomes uncomfortable to hold either tablet for extended periods, especially if you rest the device on the inside of your little finger. As you might imagine, the smaller iPad Mini 3 weighs a good amount less, reducing this strain.

The iPad Mini 3 has one extra switch compared to the iPad Air, a relic of the days of old, you will find a toggle ‘hold’ switch above the volume rocker on the right edge. The switch operates as a volume mute control.

Aside from our devices being different colors, that’s the gold version of the iPad Air 2 and the silver version of the iPad Mini 3, the two devices really do come off as the same likeness, just in different sizes.

Display

Apple iPad Air 2 iPad Mini 3 front

Apple offers a fairly premium experience when it comes to the display on both the iPad Air 2 and the iPad Mini 3. They both rock that IPS multi-touch panel with a 4:3 aspect ratio with a resolution of 2048×1536. This means that the 9.7-inch iPad Air 2 clocks in at 236ppi, while the 7.9-inch iPad Mini 3 offers up 326ppi.

Sadly, this is one of a few times that we must report a disadvantage in the iPad Mini as compared to the Air, with the iPad Air enjoying a superior physical build. While the Air rocks a fully laminated display with both an anti-reflective coating and a fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating, the Mini lacks both the lamination and the anti-reflective coating. Don’t worry though, not only is the smaller device easier to shield from the sun when on the go, you would truly need to pay special attention to see a difference between the two in most situations.

Apple iPad Air 2 Mini 3

Apple has done a great job with the auto-brightness feature present on both of these versions of the iPad, it is very rare that we found the need to manually adjust the brightness on either device. The one recurring and consistent situation we found was needing to turns the display brightness up in low light situations when trying to view text or images on a dark background app or web page, such as scrolling your social media stream.

We do not consider this a fault, as the darkest auto brightness setting is very easy to see and read when viewing a web page or app with a white background. On the other end of the spectrum, the brightest setting makes for a readable screen even in direct sunlight, the full iPad Air 2 will serve you better in this situation, but both perform respectably.

Performance

iPad Air 2 Power Button face up tt

We’ll explain what is under the hood in a bit, for now, I will just say that the iPad Air 2 and the iPad Mini 3 are not equal. The Mini rocks what you might call last-generation specs, but you would be hard pressed to tell the difference in most situations.

As has almost always been the case with tablets coming out of Apple, these two devices offer the latest version of iOS, and perform as smooth and fluid as can be. Neither the iPad Air 2 or the iPad Mini 3 show signs of slow downs or stutters as we put them through their paces. It is not uncommon to see a spinning wheel in a slow internet situation, but this loading effect does not slow the operating system itself.

As you may be familiar with your other iOS powered devices, the iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3 both benefit from iOS’s simple user interface. App icons and folders grace your home screens, a static row lives across the bottom and you are always a swipe away from the Control Center quick settings.

iPad Air Mini Control Panel Quick Settings

Touch input is also as fluid and responsive as we’d hoped for. Taps are registered well and adequately differentiated from swipes. If there were room for a complaint, it would be in the overall design decision in most cases that stops a screen from free scrolling when you touch it next. Let me explain quick:

Typically, as we’ve always experienced on Android tablets, when you are scrolling through a lengthy web page or list, the scroll speed is determined by how fast you swipe your finger. This is true for iOS as well. When you swipe and lift your finger away, the screen free scrolls. Now, on our Android devices, when you come back in with another swipe, to keep the screen moving along, it is very fluid and natural feeling, on the iPads, however, it appears to stop the scroll at your touch and restart it on the new swipe. Not a big deal, just something we noticed.

Hardware

Apple iPad Air 2 Mini 3 boxes

As earlier mentioned, we have here two very similar devices in the iPad Air 2 and the iPad Mini 3. Let’s start at the end, with the differences between the two devices on the spec sheets.

The iPad Air 2 brings to the table the 64-bit A8X chip with M8 motion coprocessor. The Mini 3 is not as well equipped, still rocking last generation’s 64-bit A7 chip with the M7 motion coprocessor. Again, you’ll have to engage in a heavy application like a big video game or iMovie before you’ll be able to measure any significant speed differences between the two.

It should go without saying that the display panel is a little different between these two iPads, what with one registering as an 8-inch device and the other in the 10-inch category.

iPad Air 2 back diagnol

Rounding out the major differences, the iPad Air 2 is equipped with a larger 8MP rear facing camera sensor, with the iPad Mini 3 coming in at 5MP. Capabilities are different as well, as the larger 8MP sensor is able to shoot in a burst mode for still images and capture slow motion 720p video.

As far as the similarities go, both devices provide you with a standard headphone jack and Apple’s Lightning connector port. Hidden under the Home button is a fingerprint scanner that allows for biometric authenticated access into your tablet. Audio output is by the bottom facing speakers, sound is crisp and more than loud enough for most situations.

Apple iPad Mini 3 waterfall

The iPad Air 2 measures 9.4-inches tall by 6.6-inches across with an impressive 6.1mm (0.24-inch) depth. Comparatively, the iPad Mini 3 measures 7.87-inches tall, 5.3-inches across and is noticeably thicker at 7.2mm (0.28-inch). Not suggesting that 7.2mm is all that thick, but you will notice the difference with both devices in hand. The full metal shell of both iPads provide the utmost in strength. It takes a fair amount of pressure to make them bend, but forgive us for not pushing it too far.

Looking inside, we see other sensors, including a gyro, accelerometer, and ambient light sensor. Believe it or not, the iPad Air 2 has a barometer. Keeping everything running on the Air 2 is a 7340mAh battery and the Mini 3 has a 6350mAh battery. Apple says these will provide upwards of 10 hours of web surfing, music or video playback. In our time with the devices, they did not last quite as long as advertised, and one lasted much longer than the other, but you’ll have to stay tuned for our full battery life test to see which.

Camera

Apple iPad Air 2 iPad Mini 3 camera logo waterfall

The iPad Air 2 offers a 8MP rear camera and the iPad Mini 3 has a smaller 5MP sensor. They are both f/2.4 with auto-focus. Video recording is at full HD, with the iPad Air 2 camera app offering up slow-motion capture at 720p. As the similarities continue, both tablets offer Panoramic and HDR capture.

The front side of these tablets offer up 1.2mp camera sensors, for all of your FaceTime, Skype or Hangouts needs. 720p video capture is not a premium these days, but is more than adequate for a little video conference.

I suppose there is no better way to explain the value of the cameras than to simply put them to work, here are a few camera samples with the iPad Air 2 going first and the iPad Mini 3 following.

Software

If we have not yet spoken of similarities, the software experience experience will keep that in play. Both the iPad Air 2 and the iPad Mini 3 offer the same iOS experience.

Apple iPad Air 2 iPad Mini 3 software car

iOS on both the iPad Air 2 and the iPad Mini 3 is a solid and very fluid experience. The tablets benefit wholly from the vast number of apps available that are dedicated to the iPad screen sizes. Straight out of the box, one can enjoy basic web surfing and navigation with just the default apps pre-installed on the device. However, you’ll need to have an Apple ID if you want to download and install more apps from the App Store.

As with your other iOS powered devices, there is no pressing need to connect your iPad to your PC and sync data through iTunes. Although, that connection may prove the best when it comes to transferring files, such as your pictures or music. From there, you are sure to find no end of help and how-to material for your iPad. Like our own tips and tricks piece for the iPad Mini 3 and iPad Air 2 alike.

Pricing and final thoughts

There is little doubt that Apple keeps both of their iPad offerings priced in a rather premium range, at least as compared to Android tablet alternatives.  That being said, the gap between the two ecosystems is not what it once was, particularly in the case of the entry level iPad Mini 3 costing the same amount as the Android powered Google Nexus 9.

iPad logo tt

Apple iPad Air 2 Apple iPad Mini 3
16GB – $499
64GB – $599
128GB – $699
Add $130 for cellular capability
16GB – $399
32GB – $499
128GB – $599
Add $130 for cellular capability

So, what it boils down to for most users is the ability to choose between two differing sizes of the same great tablet. Apple’s iOS has matured into a solid operating system, and both the iPad Air 2 and the iPad Mini 3 exemplify these efforts.

The bottom line, if you are in the market for a productivity device, the full iPad Air 2 offers more horsepower and a larger display for your needs. If, however, you are hoping for a more portable device, something that can easily slip into a purse, or even a large pants pocket, the iPad Mini 3 provides plenty of horsepower in a convenient package.

Do you prefer the larger 10-inch range iPad Air 2, or will you go for the more pocketable 8-inch range iPad Mini 3?