Deployment Diary: iPad Pro or iPad Air 2?

I promised a while back that I would start a "Deployment Diary" documenting what I was doing for our second redeployment at Cedars. Since the first post, what I've mostly been doing is sitting and waiting for Apple to have the March event that was long-rumoured to be bringing new iPads.

Now, after the event, the deployment landscape seems set for this coming year. In education, September events are very much "next year".

The iPad line is often accused of being confusing. I don't think it's so much confusing as full of odd and tricky marginal trade-offs. Maybe that's just why it's confusing.

So, right now, we have the following:

  • A 12.9" iPad with an A9X processor, 4GB RAM and 32/128/256GB storage options.
  • A 9.7" iPad with an A9X processor, 2GB RAM and 32/128/256GB storage options.
  • A 9.7" iPad with an A8X processor, 2GB RAM and 16/64GB storage options.
  • A 7.9" iPad with an A8 processor, 2GB RAM and 16/64/128GB storage options.
  • A 7.9" iPad with an A7 processor, 1GB RAM and 16/32GB storage options.

At this point, I'm wilfully ignoring all other concerns such as Apple Pencil support, 4-speaker systems, Smart Connector and the True Tone display.

For the purposes of this discussion, I'm going to mainly focus on my own redeployment conundrum which is: which 9.7" iPad are we going to get?

The 12.9" iPad Pro is straightforwardly too expensive for our budget and the iPad mini is - I still believe - too small to ask our 16-18 year olds to work on all day. We're also not going to split the deployment across multiple models.

Let us further simplify by stating that no 16GB iPad will cross the threshold into my school, so that eliminates the entry-level iPad Air 2.

 Storage Requirements

The first question I have to ask is: is 32GB enough? If it isn't, then the 128GB 9.7" iPad Pro is a step too far for our budget and the choice is easy: 64GB iPad Air 2.

However, I pulled the storage usage stats from our Mobile Device Management server to answer this question with real-world data (a relative novelty in EdTech, I know).

We have 110 32GB 4th Generation iPads in the field. These devices were deployed in August 2013 and have not been reset or redeployed since.

The result is that after three years of data accumulation, the average usage on our iPads was 52%.

I put this down to a couple of things: firstly, I think the novelty of the camera has worn off a bit. From a few samples I took, camera roll sizes are not as big as they were. Secondly, pupils are much more aware of their own storage and how to manage it. iOS 9 made the storage usage stats much easier to find and pupils are learning to manage it. Finally, the fact that we have unlimited Google Drive storage and good bandwidth means that we have an effective near-line storage system for bulk data that students create and then are finished with.

At the same time, I ask myself what is coming down the pipeline that will more than double our working storage usage in the next three years. I don't see many obvious candidates - apart from maybe that 4K video camera!

I conclude, then, that 64GB would probably be nice to have but is evidently not a necessity for our usage patterns.

Performance

The thing that separates the competent sysadmin from the great sysadmin is the willingness or ability to plan for the final year of use, not just the first year.

I constantly remind myself of the fact that these devices will be in heavy use in 2019. Will they be good for the software requirements of that year?

The iPad Air 2 is still a very strong machine, but it is 2014 technology. Will it still be good in 2019? I'm not sure, but I'll try and think aloud here.

Whichever iPad we go for, we will be getting 2GB RAM so that isn't an argument for the 9.7" iPad Pro.

The big performance differentiator is the processor. The A8X is no slouch, delivering around 1,800 Geekbench points in the single-core test and 4,500 in multi-core. The 9.7" iPad Pro delivers 3,000 Geekbench points for single-core and 5,100 in multi-core.

Those multi-core numbers seem a little wierd until you realise that the A9X is dual-core while the A8X has three cores.

In a multitasking world, are you better off with three quite-fast cores rather than two really-fast cores? How much multitasking will students do? The answer is I don't really know but I suspect pupils will do more than we might think.

I'm leaning towards the Pro, just because of my future-proofing paranoia.

Camera

The camera is very important in education. Perhaps as much as a data capture device than as an artistic tool, but that applies too.

The salient feature of classroom photography is that it is always done in sub-optimal lighting conditions. I would like to test the iPad Pro camera in lower-light situations and see if it performs better than the Air 2 camera.

I don't think that camera resolution is really a deciding factor in our but great low-light performance might tip the scales a bit more towards the Pro.

The Pro Bits

Of course, the iPad Pro isn't only distinguished by its processor. The 9.7" iPad brings a host of other capabilities, including:

  • Apple Pencil support
  • 4-speaker system
  • Smart Connector
  • True Tone display

On the Apple Pencil, I think there are compelling use cases for it in school. I would love to have the budget to put one in every pupil's hands but, at £79 a throw, that's not going to happen any time soon.

The Apple Pencil is very easy to move between iPads - you just plug it into the Lightning port and it pairs with that iPad. This would make it easy in principle to have a set of Apple Pencils in the Art classroom that could be used by pupils just in those lessons.

So, then, a question: is it worth spending £70 more for every device in the school just to get access to Apple Pencil for a few pupils in one class?

The second question is this: is it worth saving £70 per device at the cost of locking ourselves out of any Apple Pencil use at all until the 2019-2020 school year? What if Apple halves the cost of the Pencil next year?

Right now, I would place Apple Pencil compatibility as "very nice to have but not essential".

The 4-speaker system won't make a huge difference in schools as it's rare that pupils use iPads to listen to audio/video content without headphones.

The Smart Connector is an interesting one. Right now, the two keyboards that use it are both very expensive and not exactly what we're looking for. However, we do offer physical keyboards to students using iPads to sit exams. If a lower-cost Smart Connector keyboard became available, that would be a nice and more-reliable option than Bluetooth keyboards in the exam room. Again "very nice to have but not essential".

I don't know enough yet about the True Tone display but my gut feeling is the same: nice to have but not essential. The additional colour gamut in the iPad Pro doesn't move me at all, to be honest. Nothing we do is colour corrected or needs to be.

Price

We currently run what was the mid-tier newest iPad in 2013: a 32GB 4th-generation Retina iPad. I don't want to get hung up on entry-level vs mid-tier. There is no 16GB iPad Pro, so whatever. The point is that a 32GB top-of-the-line 9.7" iPad used to cost £479 and in the form of the 9.7" iPad Pro, the same point in the range now costs £499. At the same time, the iPad Air 2 took a big price drop from £479 for 32GB to £429 For 64GB.

So now the choice is basically:

  • 32GB iPad Pro for £499
  • 64GB iPad Air 2 for £429

I have to be honest and say I don't find this an easy call. My future-proofing paranoia says iPad Pro. My budgeting spreadsheet says that the iPad Air 2 is good enough for the next 3 years.

My problem is that, processor performance aside, many of the Pro features just aren't that important to us. The Pencil support is the biggest one but, if that's all that really leads us to the Pro, the effective price of getting access to, say 20 Pencils is 20x£79 for the Pencils themselves plus 120x£70 to buy into owning the iPad Pro that supports them. Is access to 20 Apple Pencils in the school really worth nearly £10,000?

Leasing

Perhaps one way around this is to consider changing our leasing structure. For the past six years we have leased for three years at a time. Would it make sense to go to iPad Pro for a four-year lease? That would make iPad Pro cheaper on a quarterly basis than leasing iPad Air 2 over three years.

Based on my experience of owning the 12.9" iPad Pro, I certainly believe that an A9X-based iPad Pro will be good enough for the next 4 years. Having said that, I am also fairly certain that a 4-year lease will require budgeting for at least one replacement cable per user over the course of the lease.

At the moment, we just buy cheap replacement cables for charging since we are getting very close to the end of our three year lease. If we were going on for another year, I would want to be replacing cables with other good quality cables, such as the Amazon Basics lightning cable. Then you're looking at another, say, £10 per unit over the course of the lease. Not huge, but another little line in the spreadsheet.

Conclusion

After Writing all this, I'm still not that sure. What I do think, though, is that I'm a lot more comfortable now with the option of going to the iPad Air 2 instead of the 9.7" iPad Pro.

If we have the budget, we'll go Pro. If not, I don't think the Air 2 will be a bad choice at all. It's still a great iPad.