By John Gruber
Build web apps, iOS apps, and workflows with Retool.
I’ve been a fan of the iPad Mini form factor ever since the first one. The only thing I didn’t like about the original Mini was its non-retina display. (The iPad 3 went retina earlier in 2012, and the original iPad Mini debuted alongside the iPad 4 in October 2012.) The conclusion of my review then:
If the Mini had a retina display, I’d switch from the iPad 3 in a heartbeat. As it stands, I’m going to switch anyway. Going non-retina is a particularly bitter pill for me, but I like the iPad Mini’s size and weight so much that I’m going to swallow it.
That original Mini didn’t have a retina display because that model served two purposes: it was smaller and it was the cheapest (or, in Apple’s parlance, “most affordable”) iPad in the lineup. The original iPad Mini also saved on cost by including a then-year-old A5 chip; the iPad 4 had the then-brand-new A6X chip.
This week’s new 5th generation iPad Mini doesn’t make any technical compromises. It has the same A12 CPU as the iPhone XR and XS (with 3 GB of RAM on the system-on-a-chip, like the XR, not 4 GB, like the XS models — but those XS models need extra RAM for their 3× retina displays). The new Mini supports Apple Pencil, has a laminated display (which puts the pixels closer to the surface of the glass), and very thankfully supports True Tone.
The new Mini is exactly like the new iPad Air, just smaller — and the new iPad Air is in almost every way the replacement for the 10.5-inch iPad Pro, which until now was still hanging around in the iPad lineup. As I wrote Monday, Apple “could have just called them both ‘iPad Air’ and had one be mini-sized and one regular-sized, similar to how the two sizes of iPad Pro have the same product name”. It’s my understanding that this naming scheme was actually considered, and ultimately rejected simply because everyone would call the 7.9-inch model the “Mini” anyway.
I’ve been testing the new iPad Mini since Monday afternoon and I am deeply enamored. Is it as good as today’s iPad Pros? No — see below. But it costs so much less than an iPad Pro. I think of the iPad Pros as the iPad Nexts, and these new iPad Air and iPad Mini models as the iPad Nows. A 64 GB 11-inch iPad Pro costs $800, the 64 GB new 10.5-inch Air costs $500, and the Mini is just $400. You even save on cellular models compared to the Pro — it costs $150 to add cellular to an iPad Pro, but only $130 to an iPad Air or Mini.
Technology-wise, the iPad Mini is missing obvious things that make the iPad Pros so much more expensive: no edge-to-edge display, no inductive (and magnetic) charging port for the superior Apple Pencil 2, no Face ID, no tap-to-wake. I own and use an 11-inch iPad Pro, and it’s been a bit hard to adjust to losing those features. But people who already own a new 2018 iPad Pro aren’t in the market for a new iPad. Again, it’s iPad Now vs. iPad Next — it just so happens that I’m already used to iPad Next.
Basically, it really comes down to the most obvious attribute: size. The iPad Mini hits a sweet spot: it’s way bigger than any phone and way smaller than any laptop. It’s the physical manifestation of what Steve Jobs in 2010 said the iPad set out to be: something between a phone and a laptop. He was speaking conceptually but the iPad Mini takes it literally. If you want to use your iPad as a laptop replacement, the iPad Mini is probably too small, and it definitely doesn’t fit as well with physical keyboards. There’s a reason why Apple doesn’t make a Smart Keyboard Cover for the Mini. The iPad Mini is meant to be in your hand. But if you use your iPad as something in addition to your laptop, it’s a marvelous size, and no competitor has a tablet even close in terms of performance or quality. And the addition of Apple Pencil support works perfectly with its hand-held size.
A lot of the complaints we in the commentariat have lodged against iOS as a tablet OS are washed away when using an iPad Mini. You can split-screen multitask etc., but who cares if it’s a kludge? With a 7.9-inch display you’re almost always going to be using one app at a time, and that feels right on this device. Really, in a lot of ways, the iPad Mini feels like the one true iPad, and the others are all just blown-up siblings that don’t quite know how to take advantage of their larger displays.
Look, I really like my 11-inch iPad Pro and I’m not going to replace it with a new iPad Mini. But damn, it’s a surprisingly close call, simply because I like this size so much.
Here are some cons. The old Pencil 1 feels greasy in hand because it’s glossy, not matte, and the silly caps and charging story are so inferior. Also, the Pencil 1 rolls around annoyingly. ProMotion (which the Pro models have and the new Air and Mini don’t) is nice, but not essential.1 The 11-inch iPad Pro has way better speakers. Tap-to-wake combined with Face ID is so much better than Touch ID.
But here’s a really big pro in the iPad Mini’s column that I didn’t fully anticipate until diving in with it this week: it’s so much better for thumb-typing. Honestly, I hate typing on the on-screen keyboard on my iPad Pro. I hate it. I really do. If I have to do it I’ll put it in landscape and set it down on a table or counter and try to touch type with all my fingers. But holding the iPad Pro in portrait, I literally can’t type with my thumbs. When I try, everything comes out garbled. I can’t reach all the keys, and inexplicably, the iPad Pro keyboards no longer support splitting them into two smaller more reachable halves. I don’t understand that decision at all. Whereas thumb-typing on the iPad Mini is a joy. I type better with the on-screen keyboard on the iPad Mini than I do on any other iPad because it is perfectly sized for thumbs, and my thumbs have been trained by my iPhone usage. Why in the world does the small iPad Mini support split keyboards and the much bigger 11- and 12.9-inch iPad Pros don’t? I don’t even need the split keyboard to reach all the keys with my thumbs on the Mini, but the Mini supports a split on-screen keyboard and the iPad Pros don’t.
Once again, I’ll refer back to my review of the original iPad Mini from 2012:
Typing is interesting. In portrait, I actually find it easier to type on the Mini than a full-size iPad. All thumbs, with less distance to travel between keys, it feels more like typing on an iPhone. In landscape, though, typing is decidedly worse. The keyboard in landscape is only a tad wider than a full-size iPad keyboard in portrait. That’s too small to use all eight of my fingers, so I wind up using a four-finger hunt-and-peck style with my index and middle fingers.
This is even more pronounced now, at least between iPad Mini and iPad Pro (as opposed to iPad Mini and iPad Air) because iPad Pro — inexplicably, as I said — does not support split keyboards, even though they’re bigger devices. I honestly don’t know how anyone is supposed to type on an iPad Pro while holding it in their hands. It’s crazy.
Basically, the iPad Mini knows exactly what it is and the iPad Pros do not — the iPad Pros are lost between the iOS world of conceptual simplicity and the complex world of competing with desktop OSes.
The iPad Mini puts the “pad” in iPad. If you want a device that is bigger than a phone, but smaller and more holdable than a laptop-screen-sized thing for reading and just walking around with, the iPad Mini is it. It’s in no way a laptop replacement and doesn’t aspire to be. It just is what it is, and what it is is great.