iPad 2 VS iPad Air for Construction

Now that you’re ready to buy iPads for your jobsite, the first question that comes to mind is “Should I get the iPad 2(and save $100) or the iPad Air?”

The second question is, naturally, “How will this decision affect the productivity on my jobsite?”

To answer these questions effectively in the context of construction, keep the following in mind:

1) For most field personnel, the first experience with the technology will leave a lasting impression that may affect future willingness to cooperate on new digital initiatives, especially for those who are already skeptics. Make sure you execute things right.

2)  The list of construction apps are rapidly growing, and most take advantage of the latest improvements in hardware specifications. The iPad 2 is considered by most to be  at the very edge of Apple’s lifecycle.

3) Small savings in loading time between documents and models may not seem significant initially, but throughout the course of a project this savings can add up to hours of savings per month. Don’t underestimate long term value.

Let’s now do a side-by-side comparison of the hardware specs against construction needs in the field.


iPad Air (16GB)


iPad 2 (16GB)

Viewing PDFs

In terms of usability, you can technically view drawings on the iPad 2… but there’s a catch. When trying to view PDFs using a generic PDF viewer app (Good Reader, iAnnotate, PDF Expert to name a few), the PDFs must be in Vector format; otherwise, you’ll endure extremely slow load times (10 seconds+). Vector PDFs are documents produced directly from source software, such as Revit or AutoCAD, which means that the file is compact and clean. The other type of format is the Raster PDF.


The Vector PDf will look clean and smooth at any resolution, whereas the Raster PDF will become grainer the more it’s zoomed in.

You’ll have to consider yourself lucky if you’re fortunate enough to have access to Vector PDFs on your project, but the vast majority of construction documents (especially OSHPD for hospitals), require that the drawings contain a stamp of approval from an agency such as the State Government. Most documents you’ll find in construction are scanned-in Raster PDFs. These types of PDFs are big, clunky, and load very slowly on the iPad 2.

It takes 10 seconds to load on the iPad 2, as opposed to 2 seconds on the iPad Air. Note: this load time applies not only to opening the PDF initially; when you want to navigate around the PDF to view a different part, you have to wait another 10 seconds.

“It’s absolutely terrible. I tried racing my inspector to see who could get to the right drawing the fastest, and I would lose everytime, because it takes so long to load [on the iPad 2]. It’s also frustrating when I have 6 guys standing around me and having to wait 15 seconds for the PDF to load each time”.  –Robert Miller, Quality Control Manager, McCarthy Building Companies

Of course, you could use other 3rd party applications to render the 2D documents more quickly. These applications, which typically charge a monthly fee for it’s use, converts the PDFs into images, then creates “tiles” so that you’re only viewing a few sections of the drawing at a time. This allows the users to view complex drawings on the iPad instantaneously with almost no load time, which is one of the prime reasons why Plangrid was able to capture the market so quickly.

3D Models

The capability of the iPad 2 vs the iPad Air to render 3D models efficiently also makes a big difference in usability. The new 64 bit A7 processor in the iPad Air has 4 times the processing speed and 8 times the graphics performance of the iPad 2 (32-bit A5), allowing you to load and navigate 3D models even more quickly than your big, expensive BIM laptop.

Note that the difference in loading times adds up, especially on larger projects when you have multiple superintendents, foremen, and subcontractors relying on the 3D model to plan, track, and verify MEP installation.  If you’ve worked really closely with any of these people, I am sure that you have come to understand the importance of 15 seconds on the job site!

“Even though BIManywhere still loads pretty fast on the iPad 2, the speed on the iPad Air just blows me away. It’s amazing”. –Jimmy Johnston, DPR Construction

Portability: Weight and Dimensions

The iPad Air is 20% thinner, has a 40% reduction in bezel size over the previous version and weighs just one pound. The iPad 2, comes in at 1.35 pounds.

Although weight and thinner design may seem trivial, portability can become noticeable when a superintendent has to spend all day carrying the iPad around, and when holding it on one hand to use it while standing. The lighter and thinner iPad Air can seamlessly transform into an extension of the builder’s arm. The weight difference  also means that the damage from impact, such as dropping,  is far less for the iPad Air.

Lifecycle Cost

Another factor to consider is lifecycle cost.  Purchasing an iPad 2 for your small tenant improvement or office building project may be a short term economical solution, but you’ll quickly realize that you’ve shortchanged yourself when you move onto a larger more complex project that needs the power of an iPad Air.  The extra $100 is worth it if you’re a young engineer and anticipate moving to larger more complex projects!


There is such a significant gap between the iPad 2 and iPad air in terms of specifications (given that it’s 3 generations ahead), that it would be almost foolish to consider purchasing an iPad 2 just to save $100.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Comments