(A friend recently asked how I liked my new iPad mini. I tried to point out a few things not necessarily mentioned in other reviews. He suggested I post this for strangers to read. So, here.)
I’ll admit, I was up at midnight on Oct 26th, giddily pre-ordering the new iPad mini. This was unusual for me, because I don’t normally buy something like that without first seeing it in person and trying it out.
But this was different. This time, I already knew that I had to have the mini, even before laying hands on one. It wasn’t fanboyism: I only recently switched to Mac after 20 years of PC. It wasn’t the specs, some of which are great, while others are undeniably disappointing. It definitely wasn’t seeing Jony Ive drone on about “going back to the beginning” for the umpteenth time. It wasn’t even their cute and brilliantly allusive big-and-small TV ad.
It was this: 0:32-0:34 of the intro video.
Lasting all but two seconds, a non-descript, headless white male pulls an iPad mini out of a messenger bag while walking through a cafeteria.
I know, it seems totally unremarkable. But when I saw that, I actually said “Whoa” out loud, without really knowing why. Startled by my own involuntary utterance, I thought about it for a second. I realized that that image struck me because I never would have done that with the big iPad. First, it wouldn’t slip so easily out of a bag pocket like that, and second, I would worry about dropping it, especially while walking. Maybe I’m just a wuss, but as incredibly thin and light as the big iPad is compared to everything that came before it, I find it a bit…unwieldy.
And I had no idea I did until I saw those two seconds of video.
A Brief History of Portability
Ever since Neanderthals invented the computer, mankind has been trying to make them portable so that we could, for example, carry one from our home cave, to work at the rock quarry, and back. But, portability has traditionally just meant “how much weight does it add to my bag.” We judge the heft of laptops mainly in terms of ease of transport, because once you get to where you’re going, you generally put it down on a table, after which it doesn’t matter how heavy it is. I guess that explains why some people can live with those giant 17” laptops.
We’ve made a lot of progress in portability over the years, but ever since the Macbook Air, or maybe the Sony Vaio TX before it, laptops have become so small and light that you hardly even notice them in your bag. So as far as portability goes, it’s really diminishing returns from here on out.
A Future of Wieldability
Tablets started out even smaller and thinner than laptops, so for them portability is a given; it’s no burden at all to carry them station-to-station. But where they differ is, you are generally holding a tablet while you use it. So like a sword or a baseball bat, and unlike a laptop, it’s not about how much it weighs in your bag, but rather how easy it is to handle it nimbly during actual use.
For lack of a better word, I’ll call this “wieldability.”
Wieldability is a much more complex property than portability. Portability has only one dimension: weight. Wieldability, however, also depends on weight distribution, form factor, construction, and grip. So it’s not just about a tablet being light. It’s also about how that weight is distributed, its size in all three dimensions, how it’s constructed, and the materials used. For example, in some cases a grippy material might even help compensate for a larger form factor. The point it is, we should start thinking beyond mere portability when evaluating the usability of tablets. And now that I’ve used the mini for several days, I can say this about wieldability:
The iPad mini has it. The big iPad does not.
Your Hands Are Peripherals: iPad vs iPad mini
Computers have always had “peripherals” for input: keyboards, mice, and even joysticks. Steve Jobs tried to make sure that phones and tablets would not need them, but they will always still have at least one peripheral: your hands. They act as stand, keyboard, mouse, scroll wheel, and stylus, all in one. And while everyone gets worked up over Lightning, micro-USB, SD slots, and mini-HDMI, the single most important “peripheral interface” on a tablet is actually how it fits in your hands, your palms, your fingers.
With the big iPad, I generally hold it with two hands, and only take one hand off when I need to interact with the screen. But because of its weight, it gets uncomfortable to hold it in one hand for too long, and I want to bring the interacting hand back to holding the iPad again as soon as possible. It’s a very subtle, but real, inhibition.
With the mini, I still tend to hold it with two hands, but it is more wieldable in two ways:
1. Even when holding it with two hands (in either orientation), my two thumbs can between them reach almost the whole screen, so I can do most interactions BlackBerry-thumb style without removing either hand. With the big iPad, much of the screen is unreachable unless I move one hand.
2. Holding the iPad mini in one hand is very easy, so when I do take one hand off to interact, I don’t feel the mounting urge to bring it back to holding the iPad. It’s very easy to hold the mini either poker-hand style or beer-can style, and I don’t have particularly large hands.
Another interesting effect I noticed is that the big iPad is heavy enough that whenever I go to put it down on a table, I feel compelled to set it down somewhat gingerly. I think it’s because my instincts tell me that if I’m not careful, the force of the iPad’s own weight could damage it (or the table) if I plunk it down too hard. The iPad mini, on the other hand, is so darn light and thin that I feel comfortable plopping it down without any particular care. You might call this “tossability.” It just makes it that much more effortless to freely pick it up and put it back down.
Wieldable => Approachable => Usable => Valuable
Earlier I made an analogy to swords and baseball bats. But, we don’t exactly use tablets to slay dragons or hit curveballs, so what then is the value of wieldability? In my experience, it’s all about feeling less inhibition with the mini. Less inhibition to picking it up, to holding it however I want, to tossing it around, and yes, less inhibition to pulling it out of a bag while walking through a cafeteria. I look at my old iPad now and it just seems like it’s going to be more of a commitment to pick it up and use it. It seems silly but it’s true. The mini just feels more approachable, and I find myself using it far more than I ever used the big iPad. And in that simple fact lies the value of wieldability.
The Son Becomes The Father
Another reviewer recently discussed where the iPad mini would fit in his technology toolbelt. For me, the mini-ness of the mini doesn’t change the fact that I still often need a laptop instead of a tablet.
As far as tablet vs. tablet though, the arrival of the mini has caused me to stop using the big iPad. Completely. It’s not even a matter of different tools for different jobs. I don’t think I’ll ever use a 10” tablet again, actually. There doesn’t seem to be any point. Sure, if you’re using it as a cash register with Square you might want the big one, but for personal use, the iPad mini seems less like a companion to the iPad and more like its successor. In fact, once they figure out how to pack a Retina display in there, we might be looking at the ultimate evolution of tablets for a while. At least until they can make them fold up or Google Glass somehow takes over the world.
Something that was unexpected, though, is that with the mini around, I actually find myself using my phone less now. Whereas before I would pick up my phone to check text messages or play a quick turn of Letterpress, I now prefer to pick up my iPad mini to do those things. It is just as easy to pick up as the phone (maybe easier!), and the mini offers a bigger, better interface. These are the kind of quick little tasks that I never would have picked up the big iPad to do.
It’s interesting that the mini now feels like the more natural size for a tablet. Does that mean that the original iPad was a mistake at 10 inches? Well, remember that it’s always easier to make something big at first (iPod) and then miniaturize it later (iPod mini, nano). Apple was probably not even technically capable of making the iPad mini when the first iPad came out. Plus, introducing it at a larger size likely helped establish it as a completely new product category in the minds of consumers. If you remember the stink people made about the iPad being just a giant iPod touch, imagine how much worse it would have been if it had been only 7 inches.
During the iMac intro, Phil Schiller brought up a picture of the previous model and quipped, “Isn’t it amazing how something new makes the previous thing look instantly old?” While Apple may not want to admit it quite yet, that’s also exactly what the sleek, beautiful new iPad mini does to the iPad. My iPad now sits in the corner looking heavy, clunky, and outdated. If it had feelings, it would be sulking.
Some people are saying wait for the Retina version of the mini. I say that’s crazy. The eventual Retina version will probably be like the Holy Grail, and I will absolutely want one, but the current iPad mini is just so much better and more useful than the big, chunky iPad (Retina or no) that it’s totally worth it.