Now for the contrarian view after all the hullabaloo. Four days of patient evaluation have resulted in my returning the iPad Air to the Apple Store. It is without doubt the best tablet I have encountered; by and large I could live happily with it. But I could not manage without my current iPad mini or its forthcoming retina update. Even this short experience of carrying around the larger Air tells me beyond doubt that it is not the general, all-purpose tool I need. For you, maybe; for me, no.
The Air has been universally welcomed and I have nothing bad to say about it. Even my predilection for a smaller tablet is not a criticism of the Air; more, it is a reflection of my particular demands and preferences in a portable tablet. Others, a majority I imagine, will continue to think of the Air as being without equal. I can understand this and I would not argue with anyone who chose the bigger tablet. Yet, often a one for contrary thinking, I have decided it is not suitable as my only tablet. As an additional tablet, perhaps, I could enjoy the Air for use around the home, for media consumption and web browsing. But as an all-rounder it falls short in my estimation.
Things might be different if there continued to be a performance deficit with the mini. This is no difference. Screen size apart, both Minh and Air are identical.
For those who are vacillating ahead of the retina mini launch, here are my reasons, major and minor, for choosing the mini over the Air.
The shaving of 30 percent from the weight of the previous model is welcome and has a more than subjective appeal. The Air feel substantially lighter and better in the hands than the old iPad. While not quite suitable for one-handed wielding by the early-to-bed brigade, it clearly is a major improvement. I could live with this newly slimmed device much of the time although, it has to be said, those extra few grams over the iPad mini are noticeable when the tablet is packed in a bag alongside a keyboard and camera. When my MacBook Air is factored in, every additional gram matters.
Here I come to nub of the dilemma. After a year with the iPad mini I have not changed my opinion that the smaller tablet is revolutionary in terms of portability. While it is always nice to have a bigger screen, the mini’s is perfectly adequate and ideally suited to my usage which consists mainly of news reading, browsing, updating productivity apps and writing. The mini in portrait mode offers a better thumb-typing experience even than the iPhone. I prefer to type in portrait rather than landscape (even when using the split keyboard feature which I am slow to appreciate). The new Air, while superior to the old model because of weight and reduced width, is still not the ergonomic equal of the mini.
Another factor, perhaps more applicable to the city dweller, is that the iPad Air is too big to use routinely for reading on crowded public transport. I spend a lot of time on London’s Underground system or on the excellent bus network and I am reluctant to pull the relatively large Air from my bag. When held proud, even in portrait mode, the Air is too wide for use in cramped, crowded situations. It is akin to reading a broadsheet newspaper compared with a tabloid. There is also the matter of obtrusiveness. The iPad mini, like the Kindle, is small and acceptable just about everywhere. The Air, on the other hand, is just too obvious. That’s probably why I see so few full-sized tablets on the Tube or on the No.19 omnibus. Yet almost everyone these days is glued to a smartphone, a Kindle or a smaller tablet.
For me, therefore, the new Air is not a general-purpose device to be used around the house and then packed routinely into a day bag. The iPad mini is certainly a compromise when it comes to screen size but it is just so much more appropriate for travelling, writing and quickly checking facts. Since I don’t really want to keep two tablets, the mini wins on overall effectiveness.
In the past I have praised the iPhone, even the iPhone 4 with its smaller screen, as a handy reading device. I still do a lot of book reading on the phone. The mini offers just that bit more without going overboard on size. The Air, by way of contrast, is an inch or two too far.
In recent years I have become a minimalist, enjoying reading on the iPhone, preferring a Leica to a full-frame DSLR and all the paraphernalia that goes with it. I respond to small, neat devices that can do the job without excess. To me, the mini is the quintessential all-round iPad and it can only become better with the addition of a retina display and faster processor.
An iPad cannot do everything I need and is often not suitable as an only travel companion, particularly on longer absences. Creating and uploading posts for Macfilos, as an example, is virtually impossible to do on an iPad. So, inevitably, I have to pack a MacBook Air when travelling for more than a weekend. With this in mind, the iPad mini is a superior companion for the MacBook Air than the larger and heavier iPad Air.
I will be first in line for a new retina iPad mini when it arrives later this month. This doesn’t mean that I have written its bigger brother out of my future entirely. I could well see one by the sofa for home media consumption. But if I do buy another I shall be tempted by a trimmed-down version rather than the 64GB cellular model I picked up last week. I will reserve the up-speccing for my new mini and might even run to 128GB so I can keep more of my favoured snaps on hand all the time.
Looking further ahead, I could envisage a larger-screened iPhone assuming the mantle of the go-anywhere productivity and reading tool. It could even supplant the iPad mini in my affections. At that time the iPad Air would be seen as more viable, simply as a bigger screen for use at home and for occasional travels. For that matter, the rumoured big-screen iPad Pro could make even more sense for static duties.
In the meantime, I am happy with the size and weight of the mini. And that is why that gorgeous and blameless iPad Air is now back on Apple’s shelves.
Since I am probably in a minority in choosing a mini over an Air, I will leave the last word to Ben Lovejoy of 9to5mac who is keeping his Air and loves it above all tablets.
PS: This morning I took the Air back to the Apple Store where I purchased it last week. The return system worldwide was down “until 3 pm”. At three I called at the Covent Garden store and found the system would not be up until 5 pm. As a result I carried the iPad around all day and returned home still in possession. Is this the fickle finger of fate trying to tell me something?