iPad mini vs iPad 4: decisions, decisions


I’ve been using my wife’s former iPad (first generation) for many months now, in addition to my iPhone 4S. The iPhone has a retina display and is pretty fast, with an A5 processor, so it is still very useful and I have not jumped on the iPhone 5. Which is good, since I don’t have a lot of disposable income and am not sure I want to get sucked into another two-year contract with AT&T, given its disdain for its customers (eg: charging for using the iPhone as a hotspot).

The original iPad: not very fast and the display is often very pixellated, especially if dealing with iPhone apps that have not been redesigned with the iPad’s display specs in mind. But it’s been usable, even as a laptop replacement for short trips to the EU. Still, watching apps like FaceBook take 30 seconds or more to load, and having each tab in Safari load content when selected due to a lack of RAM, makes it clear that the iPad’s limitations are a daily reality. For reading Kindle books and watching videos, it’s great. For most other things, it is often slow. And forget even thinking of running iOS 6, since it isn’t supported on that iPad.

So I have been very interested in the (then-rumored) iPad Mini for some time, since while smaller, it would run iOS 6, be less expensive than a 9.7″ iPad, be more portable, and would have to be much faster than the original iPad. When it was announced earlier this week, I was very keen on preordering the 32 GB model with cellular coverage (Verizon) tomorrow on the 26th. It’s light, has the same A5 processor as my iPhone 4S, the smaller non-retina display screen would probably be good enough (it has a bit higher pixel density than the same display on the iPad 2), and typing probably would be reasonable, at least with thumbs.

But then I started comparing prices with the iPad 4. Yes, the iPad 4 is more expensive, but there is some overlap with iPad Mini prices. At first, I was pleased to realize I could get a 32 GB Mini with 4G for a bit less than an iPad 4 without 4G ($559 vs $599). While I don’t use my 3G very much on my current iPad, since I’m usually within range of WiFi or else am in Europe where I have a data plan for my iPhone and don’t need a redundant one for my iPad, I could see scenarios where having 4G would be useful, especially if it were a Verizon iPad Mini and I set it up as a hotspot for my MacBook Pro on a train without WiFi.

And then I started realizing that while the iPad Mini isn’t a smaller iPad or a larger iPad Touch, other than the form factor and the addition of 4G, it is basically a larger iPhone 4S, the same iPhone I bought over a year ago. And that’s where it starts to fall down. Yes, the iPad Mini has more robust WiFi (it can connect to a 5 GHz WiFi network whereas my iPhone 4S can’t), but for common use, that is not going to be a deal-breaker. But at $559 for innards that are largely last year’s iPhone, I’d rather spend the extra $170 and get an iPad 4 (32 GB, 4G) with a retina display, a very fast processor (faster than the iPhone 5), and a larger screen that is more usable when I want the iPad to serve as a laptop replacement. And more and more, it will serve as a standalone computer, not just as a content reader.

I know the iPad Mini is more portable and would probably make something like Modern Combat 2’s multiplayer mode usable on a device larger than my iPhone (it is not very usable on the full-sized iPad, at least for my hands). But I was really hoping it would have been priced around $250 to start. This time next year (or earlier), when Apple comes out with an iPad Mini that has a retina display and a faster processor, I’ll be stuck with a $559 device that might not hold its own with more recent apps that require higher CPU capabilities. If a 2-year-old+ iPad is now so obsolete as to not even load the latest version of iOS, what will happen to the iPad Mini when it is one or two years down the line?

If I’m going to spend over $500 for a tablet, I’d rather it not have a CPU that is the same as the phone I bought a year ago and a worse display to boot. As an investment that I’d want to use for 2-3 years, I’m not seeing the iPad Mini as a smart purchase, at least for my needs. For an entry level device, it is a beautiful thing from what I’ve seen on the Web, and wil serve a lot of people very well as an e-book reader and as a way to watch videos. But for gradually serving as a device that is easier to write with on a regular basis, this is not that device. Had it been either less expensive or had a more compelling processor (such as an A6) and a better display, that would be a very different value equation. But consider the iPhone: while it is very usable and preferable to maintain an iPhone for two years, we’re also talking about a device that is also generally under $300 for most folks (even under $200). For nearly double that cost, I’d want something that I know will not feel very underpowered in a year. And the iPad Mini is somewhat underpowered for 2012. When an iPod Touch has a retina display but Apple’s new small tablet computer doesn’t, that just seems odd.

So in the end, I’m likely going to grab the iPad 4 tomorrow as a preorder. If someone thinks I’m misjudging the iPad Mini, please let me know in the comments. I’m not saying the iPad Mini is a bad thing; it’s not. If it were, this would not be a tough decision. But for my needs, I’m not sure at that price point it makes much sense to not spend a bit more on a comparable iPad with better overall specs.

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