After five days of using the iPad Mini, it became obvious: sometimes an iPad is not just an iPad. Confused? 

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If you are a regular reader, then you are familiar with my workflow. I switched my entire workflow to the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. I own a Mac Mini (attached to an XDR Display) because I use Photoshop to edit my photos. Adobe Photoshop is subpar on the iPad.

Unlike many who find faults in the iPad and its OS, I am quite satisfied with my own device. Big screen, big battery, great camera, great speakers, nice external keyboard, ability to use a Pencil as an input device, and most importantly, built-in LTE connectivity. 

The Mega iPad does everything I need to do — from Zoom calls to writing documents, answering emails, reading articles, watching videos on various streaming services, and indulging in Twitter.

The availability of alternative browsers such as Brave and Firefox allows me to use most of the services I previously used on the MacBook. The newest version of the iPadOS has some solid improvements that have made me appreciate my iPad Pro even more. 

And you can see that most of my iPad use during the day (and sometimes in the evening) is akin to a traditional computer — keyboard-based inputs, and very rarely using alternatives such as Pencil. In the evening, I remove the keyboard, put on the softcover, and watch some YouTube, baseball, cricket, or an occasional TV series on Amazon Prime or Apple TV+. I do my reading in the morning — with the iPad sitting on the kitchen table and coffee steaming. You get it — I don’t really need another iPad or any other device in any other configuration — that is up until the new version of the big iPad Pro comes to market. 

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That is why I was quite confused when Apple sent me a review unit of the brand new iPad Mini

Unlike those who review gadgets for a living, I prefer to write about things long after using them. I can’t really offer a decent opinion unless those devices are part of my daily workflow. And if these devices (or services) can’t become part of my daily workflow, that reflects poorly on them as ongoing utility is a key criterion in assessing the true worth of a product. So, consider this post as my short-term impressions of the iPad Mini. For the past few days, I have been using it as my primary iPad. 

It has an 8.3-inch Liquid Retina display, comes in four finishes, and is powered by Apple’s latest mobile chip, the A15 Bionic. It has a new USB-C port (thank god) and has 5G, and supports Apple Pencil (2nd generation). It has two new cameras, but the front-facing 12 Megapixel ultrawide camera is the most useful one — its larger field of view enables Center Stage for better video calls. In short, it has all you need from what is a good modern tablet.  It is a good accompaniment for those of us who carry smaller phones, such as the iPhone Mini. 

The size (7.69 x 5.3 inches) and the weight (297 grams) make it diminutive compared to my mega Pad, which weighs 685 grams. It is effortless to hold it in hand without getting a wrist cramp. It is small enough to be held inside my palm — although I don’t have huge hands. Even holding it at the edge puts no strain on the wrist. Ergonomically it has what the 12.9-inch iPad Pro lacks — the ability to be a “near view” device. 

Let me explain: the screen size and utility should be proportional to the screen’s distance from the eyes. If you are too close to the big screen, you can’t experience the benefits of the size. 

In my case, to enjoy the biggest iPad, I need to keep it at a certain distance from my eyes. I find it comfortable to use when it is 3 to 5 feet from my eyes. When working on an article or responding to emails, I can pull it forward to three feet. When watching the Yankees get their tushy spanked, I push the device back by a foot or more. It makes eyes adjust and appreciate the bigger screen. It is good to put some distance between the device and my face for Zoom calls or FaceTime chats. 

The iPad Mini, on the other hand, is meant to be enjoyed closer to your eyes. Especially when it comes to reading — and I do a lot of that. I use the Apple News app and Feedbin app (for reading RSS and aggregating various newsletters I subscribe to) in addition to apps from The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, the Financial Times, and The Economist. My daily reading diet also includes Kindle, which is for eBooks. 

The iPad Mini screen is about 18 to 24 inches from the eyes. By keeping the brightness below 50 percent, my eyes don’t get tired despite a long reading session. It is quite pleasant to read on the iPad Mini, thanks to its upgraded screen. I can lounge in my Eames chair, a cup of coffee on the side, and skim through morning reading relaxed and without hunching over. I much prefer this lean-back mode of consuming the words. The screen is on my desk. I can listen to a podcast in the background, but it doesn’t feel like work again. It feels more of a relaxed consumption of information. 

The iPad Mini turns out to be an excellent lightweight device for light work and casual activities. However, when it comes to heavy-duty work such as answering lots of emails and writing longer pieces, the device is hard to use, even with an external keyboard. You simply need a bigger keyboard and extra screen real estate to be more productive.

I tried pairing the Mini with the new magic keyboard. I found the distance from my eyes to the screen is large enough to make the screen’s smaller size pretty obvious. My eyes had to work hard to focus on the smaller screen, and the experience was uncomfortable. I also tried thumb-typing but gave up after a few paragraphs. I don’t intend to damage my hands to get work done. 

The best way to extract the most out of the smallest iPad is to think of it as a device enhanced by non-keyboard input methods — Scribble with Pencil, snapping photos with the cameras, or using Siri/voice input. The improved “Scribble” allows you to make notes, do quick searches, and even find directions. It is a very addictive way to use the iPad, especially in the smaller size.

I enjoy the ability to clip and store relevant bits of information in the new and much-approved Apple Notes app. I am also using the Pencil to make things easier. Pencil is quite handy when it comes to casual editing of photos on Lightroom and Darkroom apps. I also find doodling on Procreate on this tiny screen easier as well. 

And there is the camera — which, when used with LiveText — becomes a tremendous visual input device in itself. With LiveText, you point the camera at a photo or image with text, tap the indicator icon, and quickly act to make a phone call, translate the text, and more. I found LiveText easier to use on this smaller iPad versus the big iPad Pro that I own. 

The more I use the device, the more I realize that most computing has been defined by a singular idea of work and productivity. Mobile devices have and will continue to redefine our work. In the past, most of the computing involved being in the office. Now, non-office tasks have access to computing resources and thus offer an opportunity to make them more productive. Devices like the iPad are about making non-office work a bit more productive. Whether it is doctors, field engineers, or delivery drivers, devices such as the iPad in general and iPad Mini, in particular, could help change the very notion of productivity.

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So, after a few days of using the iPad Mini, I have to admit, it is no slouch. It can do whatever its big brothers can do. The lighter weight, lower price, and Pro-matching capabilities make it a worthy purchase for any iPad buyer. But to get the best out of it, one has to reimagine how we interact with computers. I find myself scribbling and talking to this piece of glass. That’s not a bad start.

You may have read the news that the University of Nevada, Reno, will give every member of its incoming freshman class an iPad Air (along with a keyboard and a pencil.) In and of itself, this development isn’t all that newsworthy, but it does hark back to something I have been thinking about for a long time: the coming — and necessary — paradigm shift in how we compute. 

Apple was once a much-beloved part of the US education system. Lately, Google’s Chromebooks have been taking over. They are cheaper, which may appeal to cash-strapped school districts. (By the way, kudos to Sarah & Ev Williams for giving $10 million to help the San Francisco school system.)

Now, suppose we can forget the politics of Google versus Apple. Personally, I don’t care either way. Chromebooks (like their Apple or Microsoft counterparts) are simply an extension of the old paradigm of computing — one that is heavily reliant on a keyboard, a mouse, and a semi-tethered setup. Sure, Chromebooks live on and benefit from the cloud, but they still pretty much rely on traditional computing. Whether it is Google Docs or Google Slides, nothing about them is remarkably novel. 

Essentially, the kids in school are getting trained on the classic model of computing. Meanwhile, at home, many of the same kids are growing up with touch devices — iPads, iPhones, and Androids. They are also growing up talking to (mostly) Alexa, (maybe) Siri, or (sometimes) Google Assistant. Every time I interact with my goddaughters — both are below five-years old — my jaw drops. They know FaceTime, iMessage, and other apps inside out, including stickers and other fun features. They are well versed in making a video call and having a chat.

And it is not just my goddaughters. I see kids who are handling kid-centric content on their touch devices with fantastic dexterity. Their engagement with interactive apps is higher than with static books, and they have more opportunities for visual learning. Swiping left or right for accessing or navigating through information is already part of their mental model of interacting with the digital world. I remember hanging out with some kids in Ladakh, and they were entirely at ease with their Android phones, typing, swiping, and taking selfies. 

The point of my soliloquy is this: we have a generation that is growing up with modern computing interfaces. Instead of creating new tools for education, we are still pushing the “classic” models onto them. Why? If computing has to become modern, then we have to use modern models for everything — from play to teaching and learning. 

Giving iPads or other tablets to kids will not achieve this goal on its own. It will require a complete systematic overhaul of the proverbial educational food chain. This must start with teachers, who need to become adept in teaching with new technology, not just the old paradigms. App developers, app store operators, and parents also need to internalize the idea of moving beyond the traditional interfaces for computer-based learning to more modern methods. That is how the paradigm will change. 

PS: I, for one, would love to see Apple introduce a program where, whenever I buy a new iPad (or any Apple device), I can give an iPad kit to a student. Sort of like what Toms did for footwear and Warby Parker did for eyeglasses.


Updated on July 12, 2021: California State University system will give a similar package to 35,000 of its incoming and transfer students in 2021. More here