To Mini Or To Air, That Is The iPad Question

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Pop quiz, hot shot. You walk into an Apple Store to buy the new iPad. But there are two new iPads. The iPad Air and the new iPad mini. You can only buy one. What do you do? What — do — you — do?

The new retina iPad mini is great. It’s everything you loved about the first iPad mini, but upgraded in the two most important ways: a sharper screen and faster speed. Both are amazing updates by themselves, made all the better when you consider that the device is largely the same size (it’s ever-so-slightly heavier and ever-so-slightly thicker) and maintains the same excellent battery life. It’s clearly the class of smaller tablets.

That one paragraph, roughly 75 words, is pretty much all you need to know about the new iPad mini. If you’re at all debating getting one and have the means to do so, you should. End of story.

The more interesting question about the new iPad is the one I’ve gotten over and over and over again on Twitter and elsewhere: iPad mini or iPad Air? That, is the question.

It’s a hard one to answer because it obviously depends on many factors. And it’s actually even harder to answer this year because the new iPad mini and the iPad Air are basically the exact same machine on the inside. So it simply comes down to size.

But since so many people were asking, I figured they’d want an actual answer other than the “it depends” cop-out. So, it’s time to be subjective.

I’ve been trading off using both devices over the past few weeks. At first, I was carrying around and using the iPad Air (since it came out first). Then I started carrying around and using the new iPad mini. And for the past few days, I’ve been swapping between the two, trying to get a better sense of which one I’m more naturally drawn towards.

It used to be that at home, the 9.7-inch iPad was my go-to machine on the couch. Meanwhile, the iPad mini is the device I’d take on the road. The larger iPad was more powerful, while the smaller iPad was more portable. All made sense in the world.

Then Apple threw us a curveball.

Not only did they shrink the dimensions of the 9.7-inch iPad enough to give it the “Air” moniker, they boosted the innards of the 7.9-inch iPad enough so that it was every bit as powerful as its larger cousin. The result is a befuddling predicament of choice.

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The new iPad mini is now sharp enough and powerful enough to do everything I want to do on my couch. And the iPad Air is sleek and svelte enough to throw in my bag without worry.

To answer this question for myself, it comes down to both the past and the future. First, the past…

The new iPad mini provides a great experience, but it really takes using it next to the original iPad mini to appreciate how much faster it is. Every application I tried loaded significantly faster on the new iPad mini — which you’d hope were true given how much more powerful it is. But using it day-to-day, I honestly didn’t notice the speed improvements all that much for the majority of apps. That may be because very few apps are yet optimized for the new A7 chip. Or it may be because I’ve been spoiled by the speed of the iPad Air and iPhone 5s (which have the same A7 chip).

Side-by-side, it’s no contest. The original iPad mini seems pokey compared to the new model. But day-to-day, at least right now, the speed difference is not something I think the majority of users will notice simply because they’re not going to be comparing the two side-by-side.

To some degree, the same is true with the new retina display. Side-by-side, there’s no comparison. The retina display is so much nicer than the display on the original iPad mini. It’s like looking at a printed page from a glossy magazine versus looking at the same page out of a dot matrix printer. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but not by much. The old screen looks pixelated and blurry next to the new one.

But because the 9.7-inch iPad has a significantly larger screen, the jump to retina-level was more pronounced on that device. There also seemed to be more complaints about that old iPad screen since Apple had just made the move to the first retina display in the iPhone 4 as well. All screens looked bad in comparison.

But again, day-to-day, unless you’re comparing the old and new iPad minis, I’m not sure the screen upgrade is going to be hugely meaningful to the majority of consumers. If you do a lot of reading on the iPad, then sure. Otherwise, it’s simply not as big of a jump as it has been to retina in the past, in my opinion.

Which brings us to the future…

I can’t help but wonder if we’re on the verge once again of a new, larger screen iPhone. The rumors are swirling and while some may be bogus, some may not be. And if indeed we do see something like a 5-inch iPhone later this year, the gap between that device and the iPad mini will obviously be far less than it is right now.

Would I still feel as compelled to use a 7.9-inch iPad mini in a world where a 5-inch iPhone reigns supreme? Hard to know for sure. Perhaps for some of the iPad-optimized apps. But my sense is that in such a hypothetical world, I’d be more drawn to the 9.7-inch iPad Air in the times that I’m not using my iPhone.

And the truth is that I’ve already found myself more drawn to the iPad Air in the past week. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why other than the obvious: the larger screen mixed with the newly impressive size and weight. In day-to-day usage, it feels like the iPad Air is a bigger upgrade to me versus the new iPad mini.

It’s always going to be easier to perceive a difference in physical size and weight than it is in speed and resolution. The former two can take advantage of muscle memory (size, in particular) while the latter two often need points of comparison to be truly appreciated.

That’s why I’d vote for the iPad Air if someone were to ask me what iPad I’d recommend getting if I had to pick only one. To me, it feels like the more impressive upgrade this year and perhaps even more so next year, if a larger screen iPhone were to be unveiled.

That’s a big “if”, of course. You can never be sure what Apple is going to do. In fact, the only thing you can be sure of is that both of these new iPads are going to get upgraded in some way next year again as well.

But aside from sitting on the sidelines forever or upgrading every single year, you need to take the plunge at some point and get an iPad mini or an iPad Air. And this year, again, I’d vote for the Air. But it’s close. Real close.

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