Little, Big

I’m not going to go hunt for “claim chowder” on this, but I’m pretty sure that an awful lot of Apple pundits now celebrating the iPad Mini not too long ago argued that 10″ is the right size for a tablet, and that the sales clearly proved it. A 7″ screen may be great for reading books, but it’s too small to use a “pad” the way you use a computer. Right? Has that suddenly been thrown out the window now that the smaller pad is from Apple? Maybe, but maybe it’s more complicated than that.

The original defense of the iPad as a “post-PC” device rested on the notion that it could replace a laptop for many use cases. And it truly can. Can the iPad Mini? I think the answer is still yes, but it is to the iPad what a netbook is to a laptop. It’s still good for a lot of things, for some uses it may even be better than its bigger cousin—but when you want to do serious work on it, it’s going to get pretty cramped.

When my main computer was a 15″ MacBook Pro, I found myself taking my iPad out instead a lot—at first as an experiment but later because in many ways it was just more comfortable. I have a Bluetooth keyboard—the actual Apple one, not one of the tinier iPad-specific ones—that travels with it.

Last year, though, I replaced it with the then-current 13″ Macbook Air.1 I still bring the iPad out, but the weight difference between the iPad/keyboard combo—even when I’m using the elegant Touchtype Case—and the Air is so minimal that I’m likely to just grab the Air and its bag2. Byword in full screen mode on an Air gives me Zen focus when I want it. (And can we please stop pretending that the iPad’s inability to display two things at once is a huge productivity win?)

While the particulars change from person to person, I suspect a lot of the people declaring the iPad Mini as the Best Thing Ever are, well, people like me: we’ve argued that the iPad could be a laptop replacement for many buyers, but it isn’t one for us. We’re using our iPads for book and article reading, web browsing, Twitter, email, casual games—but when we do Serious Work we get the laptop. It turns out that when you shrink an iPad down a couple inches and cut the weight by more than half, it makes most of what we’re actually doing with our iPads better.

Part of me rebels against this observation, for “people like me” form a terribly skewed sample. We do a lot of things with our hardware that the Median User does not do—like install software. (If the majority of applications on your phone, pad or even computer didn’t come with it, you aren’t a Median User.) For people who want to have an iPad as an adjunct to their laptop, the Mini may be near perfect. For people who want to have an iPad as their one portable device, though—something that they really can do Serious Work on—the Mini may not be the right thing.

Yet I can’t shake the notion that I run into a paradox with that premise. Most “Power Users” wouldn’t want to replace their laptops with iPads, yet I suspect it’s only the Power Users (and a subset of them) who would look at an iPad and wonder if they could replace their laptop with it in the first place. The best way to use an iPad is not as a laptop replacement. It’s as an iPad. It’s quite possible that millions of people would rather have an iPad instead of a laptop. And it’s quite possible that many of those would, given a choice, rather have a smaller, lighter iPad, just like many of us who want an iPad and a laptop would.

So what does this mean for non-iPad tablets? If the iPad Mini is the better size, then all those other tablets were onto something, right? Yes, but the original iPad sells more than all other competitors combined. Either buyers vastly prefer 10″ tablets, or buyers vastly prefer iPads. Given that other 10″ tablets have been about as popular as a vegan activist at a Texas chili cookoff, I know which one of those I’d put money on.

  1. And with “only” a 128G SSD, shockingly enough—all my music/video is on a Mac mini and my Aperture library is on an external drive connected through the Thunderbolt Display. Since I’m not a gamer and the coding I do is web development, I’m not CPU-limited, and its internal display is the same resolution as the 15″ MBP it replaced. For a lot of my use, this is the perfect machine. 

  2. The Incase Nylon Sling Sleeve. Incase doesn’t get much love from bag obsessives, but this one’s been pretty solid. 

  1. besiktaskemre1903 reblogged this from chipotle
  2. pingpong777 reblogged this from chipotle and added:
    I like the logical flow of the analysis. Alas, I have a laptop that spends most of its time folded closed and outputting...
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