Once again the iPad Mini rumours are reaching critical mass, and once again I’m getting pretty tired of hearing about them. The question of whether Apple can do a particular thing is at this point totally redundant. From a hardware point of view, Apple can do pretty much whatever the hell they please; they have the designers, the supply chain, and the funds to build devices that surpass previously perceived limits of portable technology, and they can make a profit doing it.
A better question, and the one that Ben Brooks is the latest to ask, is this:
What is demonstrably better about a 7 inch tablet?
Bingo. Apple already sell the iPad 2 at a reduced price, and as time goes by that should become even cheaper to produce, so why not just work to drop the price of that one? What does the 7 inch form factor offer that a cheaper version of the 10 inch doesn’t?
Having used a 7 inch Samsung Galaxy Tab for a few months, I feel qualified to weigh in on this. Because qualifications always stop people weighing in on the Internet, right? I’ve ordered Google’s Nexus 7 based on the experience I had with Samsung’s offering, despite owning the latest generation iPad. Why?
The two main reasons are portability, and preciousness.
Let’s tackle portability first. Commuting by train takes me roughly ten minutes, so I don’t bother sitting. I’ve tried to use my iPad to read on during that time, but it’s too bulky to hold one handed while I hang on to something so I don’t flatten the person next to me as the carriage bumps along. I ended up going back to using my phone to read on, which does the job. I could read on the Kindle, which is probably the best point of reference for the 7 inch form factor, but I don’t want to read a novel for such a brief amount of time. I want to hit my Instapaper queue, or catch up on my RSS.
It goes beyond the commute. Anyone that’s worked away from home on business will know what it’s like to sit alone in a restaurant night after night. Sitting with an iPad in a restaurant is pretty awkward. The smaller form factor fixes that. I’ve found the iPad is too big to use comfortably during long periods of air travel too, certainly when flying economy. It’s just too big and too heavy. Same thing in bed. I can’t comfortably sit and hold my iPad for extended amounts of time when reading in bed; it needs to be propped up on something, either my chest or the bed next to me.
Ben Brooks himself mentioned on his podcast a few weeks back that the iPad was impossible to hold while nursing his new born daughter. There’s another area where the 7 inch form factor would help. There are lots of use cases where your phone (unless you’re using something freakishly large, like a Galaxy Note) is probably too small for extended comfortable use, and your iPad is too big.
And so to preciousness. I would never, ever, under any circumstances contemplate taking my iPad to the beach with me. Not that I frequent the beach, being a pale and pasty developer type with an aversion to simple daylight let alone the sun’s scorching rays. But sand is to beautiful glass screens as Kryptonite is to Superman; it will mess him up good and proper. The iPad, despite offering superb value for its capability, is too expensive to encourage careless use. I always feel like I’m using a substantial, expensive piece of equipment that deserves to be looked after.
Did I care with the Galaxy Tab? A little, but nowhere near as much. But by the same token it felt less precarious, less delicate. I could carry it around with one hand without worrying about it slipping to the floor. Adam Lisagor mentioned something similar when he appeared on John Gruber’s The Talk Show recently: he’s not found a tablet that he felt could be carried around with there being an real risk of dropping it.
Would a 7 inch device encourage people to be less precious with their iPad, or would simply lowering the price of the existing 10 inch tablet have the same effect? A cheap 10 inch could still feel like it’s easily droppable.
It seems to me like Apple could solve a lot of the above by simply making the existing iPad lighter. Except, it’s not simple. Not by any stretch of the imagination. With the retina screen, the latest generation iPad needs a significant chunk of battery, which makes it heavier. It needs a certain kind of glass, which makes it heavier. There’s no easy way to make the current generation iPad lighter. There will be, that’s almost certain. Over time newer battery technology, better glass, maybe even a different material for the case will serve to make the iPad lighter. But not in the immediate future.
And so the simplest, cheapest way for Apple to make a lighter iPad is to make a smaller iPad, with a non-retina screen so it needs less battery and less processing grunt to power it. Maybe it serves as a test for a new case material which could ultimately make its way to the larger iPad - I seem to recall Apple tested a new kind of glass on the original Nano, much to the annoyance of pretty much anyone that owned one.
Apple can then kill a number of birds with one 7 inch stone: they overcome any objection about the iPad being too heavy (“buy the smaller version”), or too expensive (“buy the smaller version”), and they manage to offer at least something to buyers on the market for a smaller tablet.