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The Great (failed) iPad Mini Experiment

Many people try to compare the Android versus Apple ecosystems

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A few weeks ago, I swapped out my Nexus 7 for an iPad Mini. I forced myself to grab the iPad Mini at every turn, and I have to say I am overwhelmingly disappointed. While it was fun to check out Infinity Blade and other similar titles, I found more and more that it is a crippled device. I’m a big Google user, and I found that the lack of dedicated apps for Google services (most notably Google Voice) to be obnoxious. I had to jump through hoops just to get my contacts synced to the device. But here are my major gripes (and a few shiny points).

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People talk about the app ecosystem, but if it’s not HD it’s a hunk of junk

Many people try to compare the Android versus Apple ecosystems, mostly by saying that Android apps are not “optimized” for the tablet experience. If an Android app is not the right size for your tablet, the OS automagically scales it to the screen, and it works. If an iOS application isn’t made for the tablet, it can at best “double in size” which looks AWFUL. For devices in which the screen is the primary way to interact, the jacked up way that Apple handles non-HD apps is awful. Also, any allegations of X number of apps is a farce, because many apps (especially those for services Google doesn’t offer their own app) are just basically glorified bookmarks. There are some apps which are better (Facebook App seems to work smoother), but that’s about it. You can find a lot of games for the iPad only, but to be honest, if you do your research there are viable Android alternatives (that more often that not) play exactly the same. Apps are expensive in the Appstore (which is probably why they sell more). But they are not better. There might be more of them but they are limited to Apple’s walled garden, limiting what they can do. Apple also charges money for, well their own apps. Things like Garage Band and more cost $5 just to play.

The Ergonomics are awful

One of the things that Apple keeps doing is making things prettier and skinnier. I think along the way they’ve forgotten how to create things that are useful. The 7″ tablet is my favorite form factor, because I can use them one handed. Nothing about the iPad Mini is comfortable for me to use one handed. It’s just a little wide, that holding it across the back is not comfortable. The thinness of the device makes it somewhat sharp when you are trying to hold, it just does not seem to fit well in my hand. I’ve heard people describe as one handed operation, I can only seem to figure out how to do it one handed on very few applications, for most I need two, and I am constantly tapping the top left corner to get “back” or to just control the device.

The worst keyboard. period.

I honestly do not even know what the default Android keyboard looks like anymore (I’m entirely on SwiftKey). But as someone who uses a variety of characters in my passwords (security people!), I find the keyboard useless. I’m always switching from the numbers to the letters, unable to input any passwords without having to toggle the keyboard. I immediately turned off the autocorrect, before I threw the device against the wall. The keyboard on the iPad makes it harder to use.

An operating system that doesn’t make sense

As slick looking as iOS might be, it doesn’t always make sense. When I’m using an Android device, I know what the back key does, the home, long pressing, swiping and searching. The lack of multi-tasking stinks. The settings app is a horror show and notifications/badges are so atrocious as to just be obnoxious. The fact that you are stuck just doing what Apple wants you really ruined the experience for me. I like to customize my experience to work for me. Whether it’s moving things around, widgets, or changing things, Apple doesn’t let me do it, and it ruins my experience. The other thing that totally ruins iOS for me is the lack of sharing. Any application you add to Android can partake in sharing, from Pocket, to Twitter. Pocket is so powerful for Android directly because of the sharing, anything you are reading can be instantly saved for later. Sharing items directly to Dropbox, or sending via app X is all possible on Android, and all but impossible on iOS. One of things that made me want to try iOS so much was the insistence of all users that it was just plain buttery smooth. I found apps crashing, lagging and stuttering all over the place.

The need for new cables.

This is a little unfair to the iPad, but it is more than a little obnoxious to have to buy new (extra) cables. While I think the move to the lightning cable was a necessary evil for iDevices, many of my universal chargers and battery packs have old 30-pin connectors, which would have saved me (some) money, and lots of hassle.

So what is good?

The iPad Mini does have a few shining points. The larger screen is sometimes nice when reading articles, and gives you more game playing area. While very few productive/valuable apps are iOS only, some games are. I don’t see much of a difference between “optimized” apps, but Apple’s inability to scale apps is completely inexcusable.

The iPad Mini’s battery life is unparalleled in the Android world. My Nexus 7 lasts a long while, but not quite as long. On a device that you might only use an hour or so a day, it is possible for the iPad Mini to last for almost a week.

Some apps are smoother, the Facebook app certainly is, though I don’t always like the need to touch the screen to find controls (getting out of a picture you have to touch or swipe…how am I supposed to know this?). It was sometimes nice that apps such as Facebook and Gmail opened links in “in-app” Safari browsers; however sometimes I wanted everything to be opened in Chrome, my browser of choice.

All in all my thoughts on the iPad Mini

Even if you’re caught in the Apple ecosystem, I would hold off on the iPad Mini just now. As Apple is changing their refresh cycles you might find yourself purchasing one (only to have it be replaced in scant few months). I was glad that Apple finally saw the value of the sub 8″ tablet world, yet the sacrifices they made with this device leave me frustrated. While product replacement is always a problem with technology, I feel the hamstrung iPad Mini is ripe for a refresh, only scant months after it was released. Right now, the Nexus 7 is still a far superior tablet (in terms of ecosystem, ergonomics, speed and display), so why pay a premium for a device that will be soon replaced? While I will keep the iPad Mini so I can still test iOS applications, it will no longer be my go to device, for that I have my trust Nexus 7.

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More Stories By Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley, former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), is Founder and CTO of Crucial Point LLC, a technology research and advisory firm providing fact based technology reviews in support of venture capital, private equity and emerging technology firms. He has extensive industry experience in intelligence and security and was awarded an intelligence community meritorious achievement award by AFCEA in 2008, and has also been recognized as an Infoworld Top 25 CTO and as one of the most fascinating communicators in Government IT by GovFresh.