Several years ago I was walking to a local convenience store. On the way there, I saw a relic that I thought had gone extinct: a payphone. When I was a kid, the payphone was everywhere. Especially in the age of the beeper, the payphone existed as a tool to make a quick phone call to whoever paged. This functional payphone felt like a remnant of a bygone era, a piece of living history right before my eyes. At this moment I recall thinking “I wonder if anyone uses this payphone”. I was reminded of this moment when Apple announced a redesigned iPad Mini at their fall hardware event. With this release, Apple is showing its commitment to the small tablet, a product category that has seemed to be long forgotten by its rivals.
The Forgotten Form Factor
There was a brief moment in time when the small tablet was the must-have gadget. Phones had not yet ballooned to the large sizes that we know today and laptops were just starting to get ultra-portable. The small tablet (usually ranging between 7-8 inches in screen size) solved this problem for many people. It had a large enough display to enjoy multimedia content on, was good for some light web browsing and email, and was just enough to stay productive without having to bring a laptop around. Plus the battery life on these devices made them ideal for on-the-go computing that wasn’t too resource-intensive.
This era saw devices like the Dell Streak, Google Nexus 7, and the original iPad Mini come to prominence. These devices were beloved by reviewers and users a decade ago. But then something started to happen: phones got bigger and more powerful. As the Samsung Galaxy Note started to usher in an era of supersized smartphone displays, the need for a small screen tablet became less and less necessary. This is especially true today as many smartphones have inched closer and closer to the 7-inch screen size mark. Apple’s iPhone 13 Pro Max for example has a 6.7-inch display and Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra has a 6.8-inch panel. Large screen phones have become the norm and in that sense make having a small tablet with a mobile operating system feel a bit repetitive.
The tablet as a whole has seen a bit of a decline in recent years due in large part to the increasing dimensions of the phones in our pockets and with the proliferation of laptops that are thinner and lighter than ever with long battery life. The modern tablet landscape has been dominated by slim and light devices that are intended to replace smaller laptops. Devices like the iPad Pro, Surface Pro, and Galaxy Tab S7 are all larger tablets that are designed to be used when attached to a keyboard to create a lightweight computing experience. Meanwhile, the smaller tablets (outside of Apple’s efforts with the iPad Mini) have been relegated to devices designed for toddlers and children to play games and watch videos on. Devices like Amazon’s Kindle Fire 7 and Samsung’s Tab A-line come to mind here. Yet Apple continues to be committed to all of its iPad devices and is the last manufacturer to offer a high-end experience in such a small form factor.
Commitment to the Category
For many years now, people have asked me why I think the iPad is so dominant. My answer for the most part has always been the same tongue-in-cheek answer that is laced with some truth. Apple is the only company that seems to care about tablets. Many of its competitors are content with producing one-off solutions with poor update support and next to no accessory support. Tablets, unlike phones, tend to have a longer life cycle with their owners so this sort of long-term support is incredibly valuable. Apple seems to understand this better than seemingly every other tech manufacturer.
In the hierarchy of the iPad structure, Apple has always had a clear definition of what each iPad is intended to do. The standard 10 inch iPad is the entry-level iPad that gets a consumer into Apple’s tablet ecosystem. This iPad is the device that Apple positions against Chromebooks and is designed for web-based activity and entertainment for a younger demographic.
The iPad Air presents a higher-end experience over the 10-inch model with a thinner chassis, better display, Magic Keyboard support, and better performance that can be something of a laptop replacement for the right user. Not surprisingly, Apple positions the iPad Air in the same way that it positions the MacBook Air: a device that can do most of what 90% of people would want an iPad to do. Think web browsing, document creation, email, and content consumption at a very high level.
The iPad Pro is intended to be a full-blown laptop replacement. It is designed to compete with a device like Microsoft’s Surface Pro and this is why Apple markets it with pro-grade photo editing and video editing applications. The iPad Pro is Apple’s vision of the modern future of computing, a statement that the traditional laptop form factor is dead and that this is the future.
The iPad Mini is in many ways a smaller iPad Air. But beyond this, it is the small tablet that gives a big-screen content consumption experience to people that perhaps are not comfortable with a phone as large as the iPhone 13 Pro Max. It is the ideal companion for someone that opts for an iPhone SE or iPhone 13 Mini as their smartphone. A powerful tablet that is still incredibly portable and can handle light workloads just as well if not better than its larger sibling. Apple has committed to making the Mini the de facto powerful small tablet, a product that has been forgotten by the likes of Google and Samsung. It is ultimately a niche product that nails down its niche incredibly well.
The Last of its Kind
It is this commitment to tablets and a diversification that has allowed the iPad Mini to exist. Instead of simply shipping an underpowered small device it has made its small device nearly as powerful as its larger siblings. It is a formula that Apple also employs on the iPhone mini-series where a few sacrifices are made due to the form factor limitations of a smaller device. But despite some of those sacrifices, these smaller devices are incredibly capable and powerful.
The iPad Mini is equipped with Apple’s latest processor and supports its newest Apple Pencil, which magnetically attaches to the side of the tablet. There are very few concessions made and the messaging is clear, Apple made sure to give a premium experience to customers that simply want a small device. A device that is powerful enough to accomplish more demanding tasks despite a smaller footprint.
Simply put there is no other device like it on the market. The iPad in a broad sense has become feature-rich and powerful enough to be the primary computing solution for many people. It is not too much of a stretch to suggest that the iPad Mini can be that computing solution for casual users. These are not devices meant for “serious work” whatever your definition of that term may be. They were never meant to be that. But if your definition of computing entails utilizing the web, communication, and using apps that you are already familiar with then who is to say that the iPad Mini isn’t a viable solution?
It would be easy for Apple to follow in the footsteps of other companies and give up on the small tablet, but it has chosen not to. And this dedication to the form factor is what makes the iPad Mini a special device, a unique value proposition. Far too often in modern consumer tech, we associate size with quality. A TV is perceived to be better if it is 65 inches instead of 55, larger phones are perceived to be better phones than smaller ones, and small tablets are considered inferior to larger ones. The iPad Mini shows that small can still be powerful, which makes it a very important device indeed.