A Tale of Two Tablets
I’m doing some work on a project that requires iOS, and my ipad 3 is now sufficiently out of date, processor-wise, that it makes no sense to use it for the project (and anyway, the home button stopped working, too), so I went and ordered an iPad Mini 4, which arrived about a week ago. I’ve been playing with it ever since, and now of course I have some thoughts about it and about tablets and brands and so on and so forth.
The first thing about it is that the iPad Mini confirms again for me something I already knew, which is that I prefer my tablets smaller than “full-sized,” i.e., the size of the standard iPad and other 10-inch tablets. The mini has a 7.9 inch screen and is roughly “paperback”-sized in the same way my Nexus 7 (appearing alongside it in the picture above) is. It’s easy to hold and work with one hand in the way standard-sized or larger tablets aren’t; I generally find standard-sized tablets unwieldy to hold and work on.
For me, at least, the 7-to-8 inch tablets make sense as the intermediary computing device between a smartphone and a laptop, where 10-inch tablets pretty much always just felt like hobbled laptops. I realize other people like 10-inchers just fine. I suspect they have larger hands than I do. That said, as a matter of proportion, on a smaller tablet, I think I prefer the 16:10 ratio of the Nexus 7 to the 4:3 ratio of the Mini; it’s slightly more comfortable to hold in a single hand. Again, this may be an issue of tiny hands on my part. But either way, when it comes to tablets, smaller is better.
The second thing about it is that it confirms another thing that I already knew, which is that Apple makes pretty, pretty objects that make you look cooler just for being near them. I don’t know what terrifying deal Jony Ive made with the devil, but it’s working, because in taking the Mini out of the box, I just about petted the thing and called it My Precious. You (or at least I) want to use Apple products in a sort of compulsive way that doesn’t apply to other manufacturers, and when there’s a problem, you (or at least I) feel like you’re letting the computing object down, rather than the other way around. It’s a little like dating someone who is vastly more attractive than you; you fumble about and try not to give it an excuse to leave you for (depending on your tastes) someone like Channing Tatum or Rosario Dawson.
Compare, once again, to my Nexus 7, about which I definitely do not feel the same way. I really really like my Nexus 7. It’s my pal, my buddy, my friend. It’s perfect-sized for me and super-capable. It does everything I want a tablet to do. But it doesn’t make me feel cooler, or alternately, insecure/incompetent when something on it doesn’t work the way I want it do. It’s just… my pal the Nexus 7. I put it down, it doesn’t call to me to pick it back up. I put the iPad Mini down, and, I don’t know, I feel… reproach? Emanating from the general direction of the iPad Mini? Kind of feels like it.
Yes, yes, I’m overthinking it. That’s what I do. Nevertheless, I pick up the Nexus 7 and it feels like, dude, you wanna get on the Internet? Me too! Let’s go look at things on the Internet! Come on! Whereas I pick up the Mini and it’s all you may not actually deserve me, but I’ll make you look good scrolling through Facebook. And then it does. Curse you, Jony Ives.
My iPad Mini, while lovely and supremely capable, also points out yet another thing that I already knew, which is that with the exception of a few bits here and there, it follows the Apple trend of being slightly behind the times, spec-wise. The machine runs an 1.5GHz multi-core processor with 2GB of RAM, separate GPU and a nice bright LCD screen with a ppi of 320+ — which is to say, pretty much the same specs as the Nexus 7, which was released in 2013. Spec nerds will now descend on me to point out the various difference between the chips Apple uses and the chips Asus used to make the Nexus 7, and so on and so forth, but from a practical point of view, i.e., how people use these machines, these two tablets are in the same ballpark when it comes to their guts.
Likewise, iOS 9 is a very fine operating system, but in a number of ways it lags behind Android (which itself just came out with a new iteration, although I have not played with it yet). iOS’s notification system and handling of apps is less capable than Android’s, in my opinion; likewise Siri isn’t as good at her job than Google is, when it comes to understanding my voice or understanding what information I want. Android has onscreen keyboards that have numbers and most punctuation available via long-presses; Apple’s native onscreen keyboard is still kind of terrible for actual communication. And so on.
This doesn’t mean the Nexus 7 is better than the Mini 4, or Google better than Apple; the experience of the tablet isn’t just about the guts of the machine or how the software does what it does. It does mean that Apple, for its own reasons, isn’t interested in playing the spec game, in terms of hardware or software, on anyone else’s terms but its own. I think it sees its primary competition as being previous Apple products, not current products from any other manufacturer. And if so, you know what? They’re probably right. At this point in the tech manufacturing world, most people wittingly or unwittingly chose their mobile OS allegiance three or four cellphones ago. If you go from Android to iOS, there’s enough of a difference to be exasperating; likewise the other direction (I know, Microsoft. I’m leaving you out of this particular conversation. But look, you’ve got, like, 3% of the US market. Sorry).
Also, Apple is more interested in the best experience of everything than the first experience of anything. It’s not the guy hacking through the jungle with a machete to make a path; it’s the guy coming through laying down an asphalt road and setting up a rest station with a Starbucks inside. Mind you, the “best” experience is a subjective thing; in this case it’s defined as “Whatever the design folks at Apple decide it is.” But they have a pretty good track record, and they’re willing to wait to let other people make all the mistakes, because that means they’re on someone else’s time and budget.
They’re not wrong to do it that way. I remember having a Creative MP3 player (this one, in fact), and being underwhelmed when people started losing their brains about the first generation iPod. And then I saw one in the flesh and started playing with it, and oh my God it was soooo much better. My Zen Nomad had better specs and more memory and Creative EAX sound processing, which really did make crappy low-bit MP3s sound better. But the iPod just worked, in terms of finding and playing music. It’s why Apple sold millions and millions, and Creative became a “me too” in a field they were one of the first to be in.
So, in sum: iPad Mini 4 is very pretty and capable and makes me feel like I need to stand up straighter, wear better shirts and brush my teeth more often to be worthy of it. Nexus 7 is friendly and capable and if it were a person I would probably hang out with it and trade sarcastic zingers. And there you have it, the fundamental difference between these two tablet experiences, at least as I approach them.