After a long, too long wait, I’ve finally purchased a third-generation iPad. I don’t think I’ll write a review because I feel it would just be redundant — what could I possibly say that hasn’t been said already? But for the purpose of this article, I’ll stress one thing: the size of this iPad is just fine. I have held and played with iPads (all three generations) at Apple stores and other electronics shops, and since she got hers before me, my wife has occasionally let me use it. But it’s when you have your own iPad that you really get to notice things like bulk, weight, user interaction, comfort, and so on. And after ten days of continued use, I just can’t, for the life of me, picture this device as being big or bulky. When some Android-loving acquaintances exalted the portability and the form factor of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7, saying that the iPad was so impractical compared to it, I gave that remark the benefit of the doubt. After getting my iPad, loading my favourite apps (and exploring new ones) and starting to create my workflow, my answer to anyone telling me that a 7-inch tablet is better is going to be a proverbial Jobsism: Are you nuts?
So, Google makes a nice, cheap 7″ tablet called the Nexus 7, and suddenly a 7″ tablet “makes sense”. Suddenly Apple has to build an ‘iPad mini’ because… because it has to kill a competition that’s basically made up of the aforementioned Samsung Galaxy, Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire. The question that’s been nagging me since this whole 7″ iPad debate started is: Does Apple really need to introduce a smaller iPad to kill these other three devices? Perhaps it does. Perhaps it won’t be a defensive move, just a “Oh hey, look, we’ve extended the iPad family just like we did with the iPod a few years back” sort of casual move. Perhaps this purported iPad mini will be another smashing success, capable of effectively fulfilling this need for smaller tablets which personally I don’t get.
Well, let me be clear: I understand that for some people a 7″ tablet may be more appealing than a 9.7″ one, especially if it’s also cheaper. It may be more appealing because it’s smaller and fits in smaller bags, it’s more portable, it’s lighter (by the way: I’m not finding my iPad particularly heavy to transport or operate). It should also be more comfortable to hold with one hand for longer periods of time, at least according to all those who have tried and reviewed the Nexus 7.
But has portability become the top priority in this kind of device, usability be damned? Because to me, all this seven-inch tablet affair reminds me all too closely of another kind of portable-but-awkward device: the netbook. Remember the netbook debate? Netbooks are lighter than laptops. They fit in purses. They’re great for use in cramped spaces. They share a lot of the features of laptops but they’re far more portable. Too bad the average user experience was a nightmare. I know, I know, “but the Nexus 7 is really okay, Android 4.1 is surprisingly good, the overall experience is good”. I haven’t tried a Nexus 7 myself, I only tried the Galaxy Tab and similar smaller tablets whose names I honestly forgot due to their being crappy devices overall, and from what I’ve understood by reading various Nexus 7 reviews and impressions, the reviewers haven’t used the device extensively (the Nexus 7 hasn’t been on the market that long). Sure, reading an ebook may be more comfortable, watching movies too (if you have to hold the tablet for a couple of hours, lighter is better). The Kindle Fire may have been a moderate success, but it’s essentially an ebook reader with some more bells and whistles. I believe that despite those bells and whistles, its main function for those who bought it is to read books. And that’s fine. A 7″ tablet is really fine for reading books. The regular Kindle’s screen is 6″ if I’m not mistaken, and it’s a nice format for reading books. In truth, since it’s gone Retina, even an iPhone can be a decent ebook reader. I know because I’ve read more than 20 ebooks on it.
Now, back to the ‘iPad mini’: try to go beyond the simple consumption, like reading ebooks or RSS feeds or watching a movie; picture all your favourite iPad apps, especially those you use to create (text, drawings, music, whatever) and those you interact a lot with, and think about using them on a smaller iPad. I have done this little thought experiment, and I’ve concluded that no thanks, I’m really better off with the bigger screen of a regular iPad. With some websites and photo editing tools, and sometimes while playing with GarageBand I actually found myself wanting an even (slightly) bigger screen.
Again, I’m sure a 7″ iPad makes sense for some people. Like netbooks and ‘ultrabooks’ still make sense for some, to the point that they’d choose them over a regular laptop. They hardly make sense to me, simply because they sacrifice usability and a decent user experience just for the sake of mere portability (and price). It’s a trade-off I don’t accept. Similarly, with tablets, I’m certainly not a target user for a 7″ device. I’m sure that, if Apple actually introduces an ‘iPad mini’ later this year, it’ll be a more usable device than any other on the market, but I’m not entirely convinced it’ll retain the same usability as a regular, 9.7″ iPad.
I sense the objection: “What, you’re fine with the 3.5” screen of an iPhone, but not with a 7″ iPad?” Yes, I am. Because the iPhone’s interface is designed differently. If you look at ‘universal’ apps (those whose interface adapts according to the device they run on — iPhone or iPad), you’ll see that their iPhone interface is not the same as their iPad interface: elements are rearranged to achieve the best experience on either device. Plus, on an iPhone, there’s another thing to consider: it’s a smartphone. As good as apps like iPhoto, GarageBand, Snapseed, Photoshop Express, Flipboard, etc. are on an iPhone, they’re not made for long sessions. While you can edit photos, write blog posts, handle email, surf the Web, you’re more likely to spend more time with these applications on an iPad, in portable but more relaxed scenarios. The ‘iPad mini’ interface is more likely to be a slightly-shrunk version of the regular iPad interface. Still manageable, sure, but not as optimal as a 9.7″ iPad.
Anyway, I’m really curious to see what kind of rabbit Apple will pull out of its magic hat. After all this ‘Retina display’ exposure, it’s going to be weird if the iPad mini has a non-Retina display. And if it has a Retina display, I can’t wait to see how it fares when it comes to battery life (smaller device, smaller battery I guess).
A final thought on portability: it just seems a bit of a silly obsession to me. A lot of people keep talking about wanting smaller, lighter devices, then when I move around the city I keep seeing people with generous-sized purses, messenger bags, hefty briefcases, backpacks, because you know, you have to make room for cameras, phones, ebook readers, magazines, notebooks (the paper and/or electronic variety), and other stuff. Does a slightly smaller, slightly lighter tablet make all that difference, in such a context?
- 1. It’s about time that a version of Android reached the ‘surprisingly good’ stage. iOS was already surprisingly good five years ago. ↩