Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Small is Big: the iPad Mini

Small tablets are tailor-made for road warriors. They’re easy, light, portable, and have all the power you need to access the internet or write an email on the go. More functional than smartphones, less bulky than laptops, they’re quickly becoming a must-have in every go bag. Now the only question is: Which smaller tablet should you carry? For me, there are two serious contenders �" the Nexus 7 that’s already in my go bag and the iPad Mini Apple shared with me to review.
The iPad Mini comes with a legacy advantage. Apple is the market leader in tablets, selling more than 100 million iPads in fewer than three years. By one recent analysis, iPads account for 98% of all web traffic originating from tablets �" and 54% from all mobile devices, including smartphones. It’s not as if no other tablet comes close: It’s more like every other tablet combined doesn’t come close.
Still, the iPad Mini was only introduced last October, which meant that competitors could beat it to the small tablet market. The Nexus 7 was released earlier in 2012, and, for all intents and purposes, introduced the category*. Cheaper worthy tablets like the Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook also joined the fray, creating need for Apple to create the iPad Mini, and the appealing chance for price pressure on the iPad premium.
So, which one is a smarter choice to toss in my go bag?
On one level, it comes down to the software, specifically the iPad’s iOS versus the Nexus 7′s Android platform. To note the obvious, app selection is vastly superior for Apple devices. The total number of apps available isn’t necessarily make or break, if the ones you need exist on your platform of choice. But the extent to which you need to be future proof is a factor. The Apple and Android development communities are both robust.
One of the simplest hardware decisions is one of the most powerful on the iPad: The placement of the iPad’s home button makes it possible to wake the device with one hand when it’s lying on a surface. On the Nexus 7 the wake-up key is on the recessed side and cannot even be accessed when laying flat. I often use a tablet right next to my laptop for quick reference, and being able to work it with one hand is big plus.
That home button is also your quick access to Siri. With a press of that button, you can access any app and conduct any web search. You can dictate and send SMS and IM messages. As a second screen �" say you’re working at your laptop �" hitting the home button and saying “open IMDB” doesn’t require nearly the level of disengagement from your main task as navigating for the app. It’s akin to hitting an intercom and having an assistant play a crucial supporting role as you stay focussed on the task at hand. Semantic search is still a work in progress, but don’t hold that against this technology, which in addition to providing reliable command and control is also a powerful dictationist. I use Siri to take notes all the time, and it’s usually the way I start writing anything. The Nexus 7 equivalent requires first navigating to a Google search prompt (after using two hands to unlock the device). A painfully long time passes at is processes the request, then tells you (verbally) it is opening the app, then opens the app. It’s a novelty to the point of being worthless. Add to that, in my far-from-scientific tests, word recognition was vastly superior on the iPad.
There other important differences. Google search from the home screen is unexpectedly better on the iPad than on the Nexus 7. IPad also has the clear edge in the PIM Department: both the mail and calendar clients are more usable.
I also prefer notifications on iPad �" the Nexus 7 status bar can get clogged with icons, when all I need to know is that I have something awaiting my attention. Both reveal the entirety of waiting messages with a swipe down from the top, and Android notifications can all be closed with a single swipe �" on the iPad, only each app’s notifications can be cleared en masse. Another a small improvement in iOS would be single icon indicating unseen notifications.
I didn’t want to like the new iPad charging interface �" the lightning connector. Actually, I wanted to hate it, partly because of the inconvenience of potentially rendering my vast collection of “old” adapters obsolete and partly because Apple (almost certainly for revenue reasons, I imagine) chose to move to another proprietary standard and not micro USB. But after using thunderbolt for a while, I’ve become a convert. It’s superior to USB because it’s “reversible” �" it can be plugged in either way. It also provides very satisfying haptic feedback that it has been inserted properly, unlike the analog plug or USB. And, hey, didn’t Palm change their connector more than a couple of times?
I also want to hate 4G models of any kind, not because of the extra hardware cost but because data plans aren’t rational �" I would pay more than twice as much for AT&T’s “Mobile Share” for less data than I contract for now using three iPhones on my family plan. Under Mobile Share, if I added a tablet with only 1 GB of data that would increase the share plan by $25 a month. As it stands now, dropping my personal hotspot and adding 3 GB for an iPad a la carte would increase increase my bill by only $5 for that same 1 extra GB.
Paying a la carte for connectivity on your phones and tablet is maddening, but it’s hardly the fault of the tablet makers. The iPad’s implementation of 4G backup was perfect in my tests, which included above-ground rail commuting. If you happen to be in a 4G-LTE zone, the speed is breathtaking. If your phone can connect, so will your iPad, whenever you do anything which requires Internet, with no special setup. It’s like a hybrid automobile that starts using the standby gas on its own initiative: it is a non-event for you, just as it should be.
Peripheral cabling is also not a fair fight between the iPad and Nexus 7. An optional thunderbolt-to-HDMI cable means that an iPad can be your entertainment hub in most hotel rooms, patched right into that massive flat screen TV. At home it can substitute for a Roku or Apple TV for downloaded video �" and it operates with the cover closed so there is no mirror image you have to hide under a pillow. At present, there is no equivalent on the Nexus 7.
The iPads �" more accurately, iOS 6.0.2 �" does lack one powerful feature found on the Nexus 7: Gesture typing. This input technique allows you to skate across the keyboard to form words rather than tapping individual keys. It’s a surprisingly effective way to type, especially when standing and holding the tablet in one hand. There is no equivalent for Apple devices. (Swype, a third-party app, has been available for Android devices for some time but gesture typing is now part of the OS of the latest Android update, Jellybean 4.2).
That one winning feature may not be a deciding factor. But while I have defaulted to my review iPad Mini for most everything in recent days, I continue to grab my Nexus 7 when I want to jot something down (and can’t, for ambient reasons, use Siri). But adding gesture typing would be an easy fix for Apple, one which would make their 7″ entrant virtually unassailable. I hope the company isn’t adamantly against it, as it seems to be regarding NFC �" also ubiquitous on Android devices and nowhere to be found in the Apple universe.
On battery life, iPad Mini seems a clear winner as well. It charges more rapidly and discharges more slowly than the Nexus 7, in part because the Android device tends to like things running in the background. That’s addressable, but a nuisance task.
For the truly mobile �" those of it who intend to lug it around to use it at home, at work, and everywhere in between �" the iPad Mini is the clear choice for a smaller tablet. A Mini is destined for my go bag, probably this spring. There are rumors that a second generation is coming out as early as March, so I’m holding off on making the purchase until that clears up. But as soon as Apple makes its move on the iPad Mini, one will move into a permanent place in my go bag.


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