The iPad I did not expect to buy

After Tim Cook and Phil Schiller finished extolling the virtues of the iPad mini in last month’s event, I thought to myself, “they’re going to sell a ton of these in the Holiday quarter. But not to me, as I have no need for one.” Well, I have to take those words back.

You see, I was in the market for a smaller device, but was thinking along the lines of a Kindle. I wanted something a little better for reading than the iPad 2 I already own, on which I’d read all of The Hunger Games’ trilogy and found that it took Suzanne Collins’ addictive novels for me to not let the non-crispy text rendering of the iPad 2 bother me. But reading websites, content-oriented apps like Flipboard or Undrip, and any other books was just a little too annoying, due equal parts to the size, weight and low pixels-per-inch (PPI) density of the iPad 2.

But then, as part of developing my startup’s upcoming online presentation tool and sharing platform, I ventured into the local Apple Store to test some things on the iPad mini myself. What happened was something very Apple-like: the tangible experience with the iPad mini was shockingly convincing as a device useful for me to have, much to my own surprise. The price of the mini is, it should be noted, a good $200 above a Kindle Paperwhite, but only $30 above a Kindle Fire HD. So I was left with the following aspects to consider:

  • How much reading of books vs. content (and other) apps was I expecting?
  • How much did price matter to me?
  • How much value did the price difference make between a Kindle Paperwhite and the iPad mini?
  • Would I be better off with a Kindle Fire HD?
  • Did I really need a smaller iPad than the one I already owned? (besides having it for testing purposes, which wouldn’t quite warrant it as a business expense)

While I have a good digital pile of books and short stories I plan to read, I knew that I would still feel a need for good content apps that demand more than a non-Fire Kindle could provide. And my price range was flexible enough to allow a Fire or iPad mini, so that mostly wrote off the Paperwhite.

Reviews of the Kindle Fire HD are generally positive, but videos of it in use suggested it didn’t quite match the smoothness of Apple’s interfaces—something I personally place a great deal of value on. Jittery scrolling doesn’t bother everyone, but it bothers me a lot, and in video reviews the Fire seemed very jittery.

Apple’s iPad apps ecosystem is still best of breed, which is a big consideration since I already planned to do more than read books. Regarding the thus-far unmentioned Android tablets: every time I try Android apps, I’m left frustrated and annoyed by the user experience. It’s getting much better on that platform, but I just don’t “work” in the way it wants me to, and I find it does a poor job at making the transition to a new way of thinking enjoyable.

I didn’t have any personal experience with the Kindle Fire and its apps, so my comparison to that was based on videos—which, as mentioned before, made me very hesitant. But I knew iPad apps were great, and from trying them out in the Apple Store I could tell the smaller screen did not hamper these apps.

Then it came down to whether I needed a smaller iPad besides my iPad 2, and that was answered with a resounding “Yes.” I’d found I didn’t use my iPad as much anymore; not because of lack of utility or need, but because I just didn’t enjoy its size and weight. It had been reduced to a pseudo-notebook, sitting on my table with its smart cover to prop it up, used for all sorts of things but never anything hand-held. The iPad mini promised to break free from the table, and it delivered.

So when I was yet again at an Apple Store, playing with a mini in my own hands, evaluating its ability to find a spot in my work and play lifestyle, I bought the very device I had told myself I wouldn’t need.

Using the iPad mini

After a solid weekend of use, my observations on the mini are overwhelmingly positive. It has the same chip and, as far as I can tell, performance as the iPad 2. This may feel a bit unintuitive given its much newer status, but the 2 was no slouch and neither is this mini. The display quality is a big improvement over the iPad 2’s, but if you’re coming from a Retina iPad (3 or 4) or compare it to an iPhone 4 or newer, it’s noticeably poorer. Not enough to bother me when reading books on it, however, and though I’m sure a Retina iPad mini will be phenomenal, it’s perfectly usable at its current resolution. The mini’s thinness and battery life would not be possible with a Retina display—not yet, that is—so I much prefer the tradeoff that Apple went with.

Like John Gruber, I find typing in portrait very easy, but in landscape quite poor. Landscape typing on my iPad 2 was always a breeze to me, and I’d frequently type at regular (hardware keyboard-like) speeds on it. In this regard, as well as in others, the iPad mini feels much more like a big iPhone than anything else, but with the more powerful and more usable apps of a dedicated tablet.

All the iPad apps work just fine on the mini, and are a delight to use. More so, at times, than on a regular iPad simply because the mini weighs half as much. Reading books and magazines is a pleasure, perfectly comparable to an old Kindle, but with so many additional possibilities the mini beats a Kindle hands-down.

And that perhaps sums it up best: the mini is light and convenient like a Kindle, but comes packed with all of the iPad’s performance and its myriad apps. It’s as winning a combination as I could have imagined Apple to create.

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