This Is Not an iPad Review

As I’ve mentioned on Twitter, I’ve been trying to make a decision between Apple’s new iPads. In the past, this hasn’t been an issue: the first three years, there was only one in existence; last year, much to my surprise, the weight difference between the mini and the fourth-generation iPad made the call an easy one. But this year, with both products coming much closer together in features and weight, I’ve had to make a decision on which way to go.

I’m not entirely sure the value of iPad reviews, so I’m going to steer away from telling people what they should buy. From my experience, people use them in so many different ways that codifying what is valuable is probably impossible. You can compare between similarly functioning devices, but stating that “this is the iPad that everyone should buy”, kind of misses the point. What I can do is tell you what I value in an iPad and how I picked which one to use.

With no (or very little) choice in actual iPads previously, the only real decisions were in storage size and whether to go WiFi/Cellular or WiFi-only. Even these decisions are colored by the way you use it. I don’t store music, videos or photos on the actual device (instead, I rely on cloud storage solutions like iTunes Match, Netflix/Air Video/StreamNation and Flickr), so I always bought the lowest storage capacity. Similarly, I can tether the Internet connection from my phone to my iPad, so there was very little need to pay the extra money for a cellular-capable iPad.

These preferences changed this year. As most of you know (if you don’t, you soon will), I’m taking five weeks to travel around the world in March. When I travel, the only devices I bring are my iPhone and iPad; this means, that this iPad will be my main computer during that time. While I’m devising ways to swap out movies and offload trip photos, I’d rather err on the side of having too much storage. So, this year I’m going with a 32GB model.

As for cellular capability, there’s several reasons why it makes sense for me to go that way this time. First and foremost, some of you may have heard that T-Mobile is offering 200 MB of free data every month. The only catch is that you have to purchase the device outright as opposed to financing the device through T-Mobile (something I wouldn’t have done anyway). Second, for the first time, all iPads run on all carriers, so if I wanted to run it on my current AT&T plan, it’s as easy as swapping out the SIM card. Finally, since iPads are unlocked, when I travel abroad, I can buy a SIM card from a local carrier and gain Internet access abroad. Are these worth the $130 premium? For most people, probably not. But in tandem, they solve several problems that I may face this year.

So, having decided to go with a 32GB, cellular-capable model, the only remaining decision is whether to go with the mini or the Air.[1. Apple’s recent naming conventions drive me crazy. Why is the A in Air capitalized, but the m in mini is not? Don’t even get me started on the s not being capitalized in the iPhone 5s] My gut reaction was to stay with the mini, especially since the only complaint I had with the device– the lack of a retina display– was rectified in this release. But, with weight being the reason I chose the mini over the fourth-generation iPad and the Air only weighing in at about a third of a pound heavier than mini, I thought it would be worth my time to seriously consider both devices.

Luckily, Apple has a fairly generous return policy: a full refund if the device is returned within 14 days. Also, with the Air debuting on November 1– before the new retina mini– I could sell my old mini and give myself a full two weeks to use the Air without being tempted to go back to the smaller device.

Today (November 15) marks the end of the two weeks with an Air. While I’ve realized that I do miss many things about a larger-screened iPad, with Tuesday’s surprise launch of the retina mini, I didn’t even hesitate; I returned the Air and jumped right back to the iPad mini.

My personal usage of the iPad tends towards reading: Instapaper, books, Twitter, RSS feeds, web browsing. But with this round-the-world trip, I realize that I will probably be doing quite a bit of movie watching, trip-report writing, and photo editing on long flights. In all honesty, that’s the only thing that made this decision truly difficult. For my money, the absolute best device for watching videos and looking at photos is a full-sized iPad. As far as touchscreen devices go, the full-size iPad is also the best for typing and photo editing. But, the two things I do the most on the iPad are best served by the mini.

Not to be cheeky, but the single thing I and everyone else does the most with the iPad is carry it. Whether I’m transporting it from room to room or country to country or simply holding it to look at the screen, the size and weight of an iPad is the single biggest factor in my decision. It fits in my back pocket for when I need to put it away for a second, it slips into the tiny pocket at the top of my travel backpack, it disappears into my bag with my work laptop; these and a thousand other instances are why weight was the deciding factor last year, but size is the deciding factor this year.

As I mentioned before, the biggest use of an iPad for me is reading. While size/weight may be my most important factor, it’s meaningless without the device performing well in other areas.[2. If size/weight is the only factor, why not buy a piece of paper instead of a laptop?] All things being equal, reading on a mini is exactly the same as an Air; the quality of the screen and the distance I hold it from my face provide the exact same experience on both devices. When it comes down to it, the way I hold a mini while reading is much more comfortable for longer periods of time than the way I hold an Air.[3. I recognize that some may say that what I’ve listed as two reasons is actually one (smaller size=smaller weight=better able to hold it to read). But for the same reason I don’t believe you can tout the larger screen size of the iPad as a feature, I think “smaller size/weight” and “easier to hold because it’s lighter” are distinct features. There’s nothing inherently better about a larger-sized iPad; there’s no instance where you’d rather be carrying an iPad Air in your bag than an iPad mini. In that state, both are simply taking up space and weight, so of course you’d choose the smaller/lighter version. The iPad Air’s larger screen has benefits when it’s on and being used, but when you’re transporting it from place to place, it doesn’t.]

Final Thoughts

As the title states, this isn’t an iPad review; I’m not trying to convince you to buy one or the other or trying to compare all the features of these iPads and other tablets. I’m giving you a very specific set of things that I do and try to explain why the iPad mini makes more sense for me. It may seem like this was an easy decision, but for most, it certainly will not be. Don’t kid yourself here: these are the two best tablets on the market and you will be very happy no matter which one you buy.

Jordon Wadlington @jordon