Will $399 iPad Air 3 have an A9 chip, & Apple’s A9X chip be reserved for iPad Pro?

Apple recently released iOS 9.3, surprising everyone with its robust education features. Chromebooks have overtaken education, and Apple needs to be competitive.

It seems curious to me, though, that all these education features come in a point-release, iOS 9.3, instead of a major release like iOS 10. Sure, Apple might want to get these features our there ASAP, since Chromebooks are now over 50% of the education market in just a few years’ time.

However, point releases such as 9.3 often relate to new hardware. Everyone’s expecting an iPad Air 3 this spring, and like all past iPad Air’s, it’ll have Apple’s fastest CPU, the A9X, right?

Well, something funny happened along the way to this year’s delayed iPad Air: the iPad Pro.

Sure, the iPad Pro is bigger than the iPad Air, but Pro is more than just about being bigger. MacBook Air’s and MacBook Pro’s have both had 13˝ models, for example. Pro models are typically more expandable (ports), have nicer screens, have more RAM & storage options, & have faster CPU’s. The iPad Pro has all of these things, with Smart Connector, Smart Keyboard, Pencil, 128 GB option, 4 GB RAM…

And, I’m suggesting, the iPad Air may “just” get the A9 CPU instead of the A9X. This might logically come with a $50-$100 price reduction.

Why would Apple lower the price of the iPad Air? Simple: the education market. Chromebooks are cheap, and while Apple doesn’t do cheap, they are astute competitors.

The iPad Air used to need the fastest CPU because mobile CPUs were generally pretty slow compared to laptops. The A9 and A9X changed that equation. The A9X is actually faster than the mobile Intel CPUs in the base models of the Surface Pro 4 and the Retina MacBook.

The A9X is actually faster than the mobile Intel CPUs in the base models of the Surface Pro 4 and the Retina MacBook.

Meanwhile the A9 is no slouch. It makes the iPhone 6S the fastest phone on the market—by a very wide margin. If the Air series is a “light” (figuratively and literally) version of the Pro line, then it certainly makes sense for it to have a lighter-weight, but still very capable, CPU.

This would allow Apple to lower the price of the iPad Air, making it more attractive to the education market, the enterprise, and consumers. It would also allow Apple to create a bigger price gap between the iPad Air and the iPad Pro, possibly allowing the iPad Pro 2 to start at $799 and the iPad Pro 1 to drop to $699 this fall.

To drop the iPad Air’s price by $100, Apple would have to make other hardware compromises. Maybe 3 MB RAM instead of 4; probably no Pencil support; definitely no Smart Connector. In other words, Apple needs to further distinguish the Air and Pro lines—more than just screen size.

But this low price and basic features, while still being powerful enough, could make it a great tablet for large purchasers, such as schools, the enterprise, and for children. Don’t scoff: many people are perfectly fine with a MacBook Air or Retina MacBook instead of a MacBook Pro. Pro’s can still buy the iPad Pro, if they need features like the Pencil, Smart Keyboard, 4 GB RAM, and 128 GB storage options.

So I think iOS 9.3 was the final puzzle piece that makes this all make sense. The iPad Air 3 was delayed for reasons that no one really understood. But a lower priced model aimed at education & the enterprise would make all the puzzle pieces fit together.


10 thoughts on “Will $399 iPad Air 3 have an A9 chip, & Apple’s A9X chip be reserved for iPad Pro?

  1. What do you think the cost difference is to Apple between A9 and A9x or between 3GB and 4GB of ram in real dollars vs the difference it makes for complexity to developers? As for pencil support vs dock connector support I would actually think the dock connector is the more obvious to be included but again margins on pencil are not bad so as long as there is not a ton of extra cost to support it I’d guess that it should be included as well.

    I know, but then how can they continue to sell a 13″ tablet for hundreds of dollars more than a 10″ tablet? Well maybe they don’t really care! Much like the Apple watch Gold edition. Do you really think it was worth the work to make that watch for it’s sales? Hell no! But it changed the perception of the value of the other watches. Do you think Stainless really adds $200 of cost or does that just help to make the $400 sport seem that much less expensive?

    Bottom line, if Apple wants to goose sales of iPads and iPhones they have to bring down their price point but still deliver top quality performance. So I say it will get it all!

    • Sure, A9 & 3 GB of RAM may not be all that’s needed to get price down $100. Maybe it’ll go down $50, or, as I implied earlier, they’ll use a cheaper screen. Or maybe it’ll be education-only. All in the realm of possibility.

      I just think it’s unlikely that the Airs will continue to get the fastest processor Apple makes. Not with a Pro around.

      Developers won’t care if there’s an iPad with an A9 processor, because they’re already designing their universal apps to work on the iPhone, which has an A9 processor. No problem there.

  2. Anything is possible, but I find your suggestion to be unlikely. I suspect that it’s enough of a concession that the iPad Pro gets the A9X 6 months before the corresponding iPad Air. Additionally, if Apple were to reduce the base cost of the iPad Air 3 by $100, they’d have to do the same for the iPad mini. Again, that’s an unlikely scenario.

    • So, if the only concession is the 6-month delay, are you saying the iPad Air(s) will always come out in the spring?

      I’m not 100% convinced of the $100 price drop, but I do think Apple—as always—will push power users to their Pro devices by knee-capping their Air lines of products.

  3. I don’t claim to be in the rumor business, so I don’t know what Apple will do. That said, there seems to be a sufficient amount of smoke indicating an iPad Air 3 release is imminent near the March time frame. That certainly seems plausible, given the clear omission of an update this past fall.

    I don’t disagree with your suggestion that Apple will “knee cap” the next Air release as compared to the iPad Pro in some way. Given that the mini is only using an A8, simply using an A9 is possible, though I would think less likely. More likely would be that Apple ships the Air 3 with less memory than the Pro. I would think the dock connectors and stylus support would probably be included, but if Apple were looking to “knee cap” the Air 3 further, they’d do so with these features before dropping the A9x. Again, just speculation on my part,

    On a personal note, I was looking to replace my iPad Air with an iPad Air 3 this fall. Instead, Apple shipped the iPad Pro. I took a look at the Pro, but I didn’t like it. It’s too big for what I need a tablet for. Cost isn’t a consideration, as I’d simply get the product I preferred the most. Similarly, I have an iPhone 6s. The 6s plus is too big for me. No matter what features Apple puts in the iPad Pro or the 6s plus, I’m not tempted to “level up” simply because I don’t care for the form factor of either of these devices. Regarding iPads, I suspect the mini is the “dumbed down” version. We’ll see.

    • Yes, I agree the iPad Air is rumored to come out this spring, but what about next year? Presumably there will be a new iPad Pro in the fall—will we have to wait for spring for the iPad Air 4? Possibly, especially if it’s aimed at the education market. I think we both agree Apple would not release an iPad Pro and an iPad Air with an A10X processor at the same time. That was what I was getting at.

      I also agree about the iPhone Plus’s: they’re too big for me (though I grant many/most people like them). I bought an iPhone 6 Plus in 2014, but when the 6s came out, I downsized to the 6s and I’m loving it. I do wish it had the optical image stabilization, but this is how Apple always tries to upsell us. 🙂 The smaller phone is for me. Now if the iPhone 7 Plus had no Home button and smaller bezels, it might fit in my pocket!

      I was just discussing on Twitter (where I’m @TheNewLou) that the Pencil is still in such limited supply that Apple would be crazy to expand it to iPad Airs or iPhones. I do think, for the next couple years, anyway, Pencil and Smart Connector are Pro-only features. Apple may someday have an 12″ iPad Air, but it will have to have fewer features than a 12″ iPad Pro, just as MacBook Air’s do compared to MB Pro’s.

  4. I personally somewhat agree with you in that I believe that they will probably reduce the price for education (I believe $50.00 not $100.00). And I also agree that a 3 core A9 chip would probably be the chip they use rather than the A9x dual core chip. But I think the screen would get a bump. And I personally would be very disappointed if it doesn’t get apple pencil support. I know they want to distinguish the two. However, I really think what there trying to do with both devices is make the iPad pro a desktop version of a tablet for power users and the air the mobile version for casual users. But I really believe both the power users and casual users would love the ability to use the pencil….not so much the smart keyboard honestly.

    • A lot of bloggers and tweets agree with you about Pencil support.

      But I have to wonder why someone who buys a $300, $400, or $500 device will want a $100 Pencil when, for casual drawing, they could buy readily available, much cheaper alternatives like Pencil by Fifty-Three. They are literally half the price.

      Sure, those cheaper pens/styluses aren’t as sophisticated as Apple’s Pencil, but they also don’t require the presumably expensive screen technology that Apple’s Pencil requires.

      I can see an iPhone (or maybe just iPhone Plus model) support Apple’s Pencil, but I can’t see today’s iPad Air models supporting it.

      The sophistication of Apple’s Pencil seems to require a Pro device. At least until Pencil 2.0 comes out.

  5. Well, here we are a year or so later, and it all came true. Today Apple released a $329(!) iPad with an A9 CPU, no keyboard, no Pencil support. Meanwhile iPad Pro’s have all of that and an A9X CPU. Apple gunning for education market, if not also low-cost enterprise and consumer.

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