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Last week was the iPad’s tenth birthday. An elite group of Apple fans celebrated the date with a barrage of criticisms centred  on the iPadOS operating system.

For many people and some tasks Apple’s tablet is the best computer ever made. It is more mobile than any laptop and, despite the high-powered whinging, for the most part is easy to use.

Yet a surprising number of high-profile Apple fans took to their blogs and news outlets to criticise the iPad.

In The iPad Awkwardly Turns 10 at Daring Fireball, John Gruber writes of his disappointment:

“…Ten years later, though, I don’t think the iPad has come close to living up to its potential.”

Gruber has a lot to say on the subject. His blog post runs to 1100 words.

He isn’t the only high profile Apple commentator to criticise the iPad. His piece is here because it was the trigger for others to join the pile-on. If anything Ben Thompson’s Stratechery post is more critical.

Apple Ipad showing iPadOS multitasking

Apple geeks dislike iPadOS

The nub of Gruber’s point is the iPad’s operating system. He explains here:

“Software is where the iPad has gotten lost. iPadOS’s multitasking model is far more capable than the iPhone’s, yes, but somehow Apple has painted it into a corner in which it is far less consistent and coherent than the Mac’s, while also being far less capable. iPad multitasking: more complex, less powerful. That’s quite a combination.”

The words, especially the last two sentences, are damning. Gruber may have focused on multitasking because his blog’s audience tends towards geeks and computing professional. For them multitasking is a big deal.

Of course iPads are not computers for the geek elite.

Until the last couple of years they were simple, lightweight, handy devices best suited to media consumption and basic tasks like dealing with email or writing.

That’s changed with the iPad Pro, they are now far better tools for media creation. In many cases they are now the best tool for media creation.

Multitasking

Multitasking is a nice thing to have on an iPad. It is not essential. It’s unlikely even half the people who own iPads ever use multitasking.

Moreover, iPads enjoyed their best sales in their early days long before anyone gave much thought to multitasking. It is something Apple has bolted on in recent times.

And that brings us to an oddity. It was the geeky, elite iPad users who constantly complained the iPad couldn’t do multitasking. When Apple delivered, they decided this was not the multitasking they had been calling for.

Few everyday users would choose or not choose an iPad because of multitasking. For that matter, few everyday users go for full multitasking on their laptops and desktops. It’ i a subject that matters most to a small segment of users who might be better off with other devices anyway.

Doing more than one thing at a time

That said, iPad multitasking is handy.

iPad multitasking is still relatively new. Apple added a basic form of multitasking in 2017. Then last year multitasking was bumped up to become more powerful and usable. This 2019 multitasking is what upset Gruber and the other Apple commentators.

That was in September. We’ve barely had time to come to terms with the new features.

If, like many iPad users, you often switch between a more conventional computer and Apple’s table, four months is not a lot of time to learn all the nuances of a major operating system update. It’s only a couple of days since I found a hitherto undiscovered multitasking feature. That is already paying off in terms of increased productivity.

There are some complexities to the multitasking user interface in some circumstances. But there are simpler ways to work with the functionality.

Where iPadOS scores

Some computing tasks still work better on a laptop or desktop computer. Few of them affect me in my daily work as a journalist. Many, many other iPad users have similar usage patterns. In my experience, I get through most of my work faster and with fewer roadblocks on an iPad compared to any laptop or desktop computer.

There is a clear productivity advantage.

The list of tasks iPad does not do well has now dwindled to the point where I could keep my MacBook in the cupboard and do most of my writing, website managing and other tasks with my iPad Pro.

For my needs, the iPad Pro is the productive choice.

Shortfalls

Where there are shortfalls, it is often because of poorly designed apps that have yet to adapt to the hardware. This is also true for touch-screen Microsoft Windows. There are iPadOS apps that are not as complete as their desktop equivalents, but a lot of desktop applications are bloated, over-featured and unnecessarily complex.

Gruber’s criticism is damning, but it’s not all negative. He finishes writing:

“I like my iPad very much, and use it almost every day. But if I could go back to the pre-split-screen, pre-drag-and-drop interface I would. Which is to say, now that iPadOS has its own name, I wish I could install the iPhone’s one-app-on-screen-at-a-time, no-drag-and-drop iOS on my iPad Pro. I’d do it in a heartbeat and be much happier for it.

“The iPad at 10 is, to me, a grave disappointment. Not because it’s “bad”, because it’s not bad — it’s great even — but because great though it is in so many ways, overall it has fallen so far short of the grand potential it showed on day one.

“To reach that potential, Apple needs to recognise they have made profound conceptual mistakes in the iPad user interface, mistakes that need to be scrapped and replaced, not polished and refined. I worry that iPadOS 13 suggests the opposite — that Apple is steering the iPad full speed ahead down a blind alley.”

In simple terms Gruber’s criticism boils down to the iPad not being a Mac. He takes us back to the computers versus tablet debate that went underground for a few years before coming back. In the Windows world this is answered by laptops that are also tablets.

Apple’s iPad is great. It is not perfect. There are questions to ask. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, sales have dropped away. Something needs fixing for sales to recover. It is unlikely that something  is the “profound conceptual mistakes in the iPad user interface”. After all, that update only happened four months ago, long after the sales decline started.

https://brooksreview.net/2019/11/why-you-should-ditch-your-laptop-for-ipad-pro/

Ben Brooks argues that you should ditch your laptop for an iPad Pro. He says the iPad has shown it is a better tool than a laptop.

Up to a point I agree with Brooks. The iPad Pro can be a better work tool than a laptop in many circumstances. One day it may always outperform the more traditional computer format all the time.

The gap between what you can do on an iPad compared with what you can do on a laptop has almost closed. Every new version of iOS makes the gap smaller. That will accelerate now Apple has split iPadOS from iOS.

iPad Pro not there yet

But we’re still not all the way there yet. Some tasks are still better done on the laptop. Take, for example, troubleshooting a web page. Despite there being excellent iOS web inspection tools, my favourite is Inspect Browser, this still works better on a laptop with a desktop-style browser. Doing this work on an iPad is clumsy and feels wrong. 

Apart from anything else, some web pages still force the iPad to a mobile version. This makes troubleshoooting hard. Although you can now demand the desktop page.

On the other hand, there are tasks that are better on an iPad Pro than on a laptop. I’m a journalist, I write for a living, all day most days. Writing is arguably better on an iPad Pro than a laptop.

I was surprised to find the iPadOS version of Microsoft Word is a better user experience than the MacOS version. This could be in part because the iPad version is simpler.

I no longer use my MacBook as a portable. When I’m on the move the iPad is my preferred device. I fly with it, take it cafes and to meetings. Soon I will drop the MacBook, but not yet.

Apple’s fifth generation iPad Mini packs the power of the iPad Air in a smaller case. That compact size is the secret of the Mini’s appeal.

You may wonder if there’s a market for a 7.9-inch iPad when you can buy a 6.5-inch iPhone. After all, the iPhone XS Max is almost a tablet.

Apple say iPad Mini sales have been steady since the format was first introduced. It’s not for everyone, yet some people who like the Mini are fanatic about their favourite tablet.

One reason is the cost. At NZ$680, the base model iPad Mini costs less than one-third the price of the cheapest iPhone XS Max. It’s not the cheapest iPad, but it’s good value.

Sweet spot

Price is not the only explanation for the Mini’s popularity. The size hits an important sweet spot.

At 7.9-inches, Apple’s 2019 iPad Mini comes in about halfway between the iPhone XS Max and the 10.5-inch iPad Air.

While having a bigger screen than a phone is an advantage, the iPad Mini is still small and light. It weighs 300 grams. It’s handy and very portable.

At a pinch you can fit it in a pocket. OK, a big pocket. Cargo pants could come back into fashion to accommodate iPad Minis. It also slips into a handbag or any other bag. You can hide it in a car glove compartment.

Pythagoras understood

We measure screen sizes across the diagonal. Thanks to Pythagoras’ theorem a 7.9-inch display has 50 percent more viewing area than a 6.4-inch screen. In other words, it’s a big leap.

Among other reasons, the iPad Mini is the right size for people who work on the move. Think of police officers or health professionals. It helps that most people can grip it in one hand.

IPad mini fits one hand

I also find typing on the larger iPad Mini glass keyboard is easier than tapping on a phone screen. That’s because I’m a big bloke with big fingers.

Thumb typing

Apple’s bigger 12.9-inch iPad Pro keyboard works well when laid flat. The Mini keyboard is at its best when vertical. If you hold it up with your hands and hit the keys with your thumbs.

The action is like phone typing, but there’s more room.

This is an effective way of typing when you’re on a crowded bus, train or airplane. I haven’t had the chance to test it on a plane yet. I’m sure if I did I could be productive even in a cramped seat.

The extra screen real estate makes it better than a phone for reading complex information and maps or for inspecting photos. It’s roughly the same size as an e-book reader like the Kindle.

iPad Mini beats phone for web

There’s no question the iPad Mini does a better job of displaying every kind of web or app content better than a phone.

Although you can, at a pinch, run side-by-side apps on the iPad Mini, that’s not its strength. In practice I found I only ever used one app at a time.

In all other respects except the screen, the new iPad Mini uses the same technology as the current iPad Air model. It even has the same A12 chip as the iPhone XR. That means there’s a lot of computing power.

There’s a laminated screen, support for Apple Pencil and True Tone. The last of these means the iPad will adjust screen whites to compensate for lighting conditions. Apple says you get 10 hours battery life. We found that’s about right when we tested the Mini.

Lightning strikes

A couple of quirks: there’s a headphone jack and a lightning port for charging. New Apple devices don’t all have the jack and prefer USB-C over Lightning.

At times the Mini feels more like a big phone than a small iPad1.

The new iPad Mini costs NZ$680 for the basic wi-fi model with 64GB of storage. Boosting the storage to 256GB takes the price to NZ$929. Adding cellular puts another NZ$120 on the price. You might also consider the Apple Pencil at NZ$160.

iPad Mini verdict

My few niggles with the 2019 iPad Mini are minor. The design is the same as seven years ago. There’s less screen and more bezel, the case edges around the screen, than on more modern looking iPads. It also supports the old first generation Apple Pencil, not the new version.

Should you buy the iPad Mini? It’s not the right thing to buy if you’re looking for a laptop replacement. If that’s your goal, get an iPad Air or a iPad Pro model.

If you want a tablet for reading and writing while you’re on the go, it’s ideal. The iPad Mini is a good choice for taking notes and consuming media. It’s also a great upgrade for owners of long-in-the-tooth first generation iPad Minis. I suspect this will follow its ancestor to become another classic.


  1. For perspective, Huawei’s Mate X folding phone has an eight-inch screen. ↩︎

Earlier this week Apple announced new iPads and refreshed iMac models. Both product lines needed an update and, for the most part, Apple delivered. Yet there are some odd choices.

2019 iPad update

While there are two iPads in the announcement, they are, in effect, two different sized versions of the same hardware.

The 2019 iPad Mini is functionally the same as the 2019 iPad Air. In place of the Air’s 10.5 inch screen, the Mini has a 7.9 inch screen. Prices for Air models start at NZ$850. You can buy a Mini for NZ$680. Otherwise they are much the same.

That’s not the only confusing Apple product name to emerge from this week’s announcements. Both the new iPads work with the Apple Pencil, not the new flat-sided Pencil that works with iPad Pro models, but the older round pencil. You’ll need to be careful if you order one to go with your new iPad.

Adding a Mini model that can work with a Pencil is a smart move. There’s a clear need for this with some customers.

The new Air model’s screen is larger than the older Air. A move from 9.7 inches to 10.5 inches might not sound like much, but because we measure screens across the diagonal, any increase is a squared. In plain English, the new screen is a lot bigger than you might otherwise expect.

While I’ve chosen to use an iPad Pro as my main on-the-move computer these lower-powered iPads are a more affordable choice. For most everyday work, such as writing, dealing with email and so on, they are more than enough computer.

2019 iMacs

Apple’s 2019 iMac upgrades are nothing other than speed bumps. You’ll get a faster machine this week than the one you could have bought last week.

The computer’s external design remains much the same as before. This isn’t a problem, the iMac is perfectly formed and there’s nothing obvious that needs fixing on the outside. The gorgeous big displays remain gorgeous.

Inside the case is another matter. The new iMac models still include old school hard drives. The technology is now past its sell-by date. Apple doesn’t offer old style hard drives anywhere else. It pushed hard to show solid-state-only portables were the way to go at a time when other computer makers still relied on hard drives, but hasn’t extended this to its new iMac models.

Sure, there are Fusion drives, which combine some solid state storage with a spinning drive. This will speed up many apps, but even so, they are slower than pure SSDs. No doubt the argument if that iMac buyers are price sensitive.

Next week Apple is holding a media event in Cupertino, California. Company watchers expect Apple to launch one or more new subscription services including TV streaming.

iPad Pro 12.9-inch 2018 with PencilThree days in to using the latest Apple 12.9-inch iPad Pro as my main computer I canned plans to buy a 2018 MacBook Air.

The new iPad Pro is all the mobile computer I need for journalism on the move.

It’s light. It’s always on and ready to go. It goes all day and then some on a single charge.

Add a SIM card and it’s always connected.

At a pinch it can take photos and video. There’s something uncool about holding up a magazine-sized glass-metal slate to take shots. Yet it works a treat.

The iPad Pro also does a good job recording audio. You can do that without looking like a dork.

Writing, editing

There are great iOS writing tools that work so much better on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro than on smaller iPads or iPhones.

While I prefer a Markdown editor for my writing, most of my clients prefer to get Word documents. Converting Markdown to Word is easy enough. But on the iPad Pro it’s easy to work in Word and not stuff around with converting files.

For some reason I’m yet to fathom, Word works far better on iOS than on MacOS anyway. On the iPad Pro it’s a far better experience than on any MacBook. At least for my work.

Worth buying

If you think I’m enthusiastic about the new iPad, you’d be right. It’s rare for any new hardware to capture my imagination as much as the last two 12.9-inch iPad Pro models.

They are amazing. Despite the high cost, we’ll come back to that point, they a good investment. I get a fast productivity pay off. So might you.

For my first two days with the iPad I was out-of-town working from a hotel room and cafès. That gave me an opportunity to road-testing the iPad with the kind real tasks that make up my bread and butter. I had a newsletter and a feature to write.

Before going further, I should point out an older 12.9-inch iPad Pro has been my main mobile computer for a year. There have been times when I needed a Mac, few times, but enough to mention.

I’m familiar with the basics of living an iOS only existence. Much of the rest of this post is about my first impressions moving from one 12.9-inch iPad Pro to another.

iPad Pro 2018 showing orientations

Size matters

Size is the most visible change. As the 12.9-inch name makes clear, the screen is exactly the same size as before.

The edges around the screen; bezels in geek-speak, are smaller. This means the iPad is smaller. When looked at in the portrait orientation, the 2018 model is only about 5mm less across its width. It’s height is around 20mm shorter.

In practice this is a bigger deal than you might expect. At the airport on the way home I had to unpack the iPad to go through security. Taking a dozen or so millimetres off the case means I could slip it in an out of my bag with less fuss than my older iPad.

Space is at such a premium when flying that this helps. The smaller 12.9-inch iPad Pro size works better on Air New Zealand tray tables.

It is a few grams lighter too. If, like me, you watch streaming sports coverage on an iPad, it means you can hold the device for longer in a single hand.

I spent part of Thursday and Friday moving from place to place, often cafès, carrying the iPad. It felt more comfortable.

iPad pro 2018 thin

Powerful

Apple uses a faster A12X processor in the newer iPad Pro. You may see this referred to elsewhere as a system on a chip. It is getting on for twice as fast as the processor in last year’s iPad Pro.

You wouldn’t buy an iPad Pro based on something as esoteric as processor speedtests. I’m not going to waste your time discussing benchmarks, they are meaningless for most of us.

Even so, you might choose the new iPad based on what that faster A12X chip means for your productivity.

Raw speed doesn’t make any difference to my writing. I don’t type a Markdown or Word document any faster with a better chip.

The speed comes into its own if you do photo or video editing. Next year, Adobe plans an iPad version of Photoshop. That will push the A12X harder than anything I’m using at the moment.

For now, one bonus of the faster processor is that it runs the Face ID software at a clip. It works in no time.

This means you don’t need a home button, hence the smaller bezels. It also means security is less of a productivity burden. At times I still instinctively reach for the home button, but I suspect that won’t last.

Smart Folio Keyboard

The Smart Keyboard Folio is better than the Smart Keyboard Cover used with the earlier iPad Pro. It still lacks backlighting, which I find essential on a night-time plane flight even though I’m a touch typist.

Speaking of which, I can touch type all the alphabet characters without a problem. Yet I struggle to find the apostrophe key without peeking. In touch typist circles, that feels like cheating.

Likewise, I need to look at the arrow keys use them. The keyboard is exactly the same width as on my old, 2012 MacBook Pro, but shallower.

Keys have a pleasing amount of travel and a comforting click. The typing experience is good. This is more important when you consider Apple’s new MacBook keyboard comes in for criticism. I prefer using the Folio.

Kickstand tease

I’m not excited that Apple now offers two screen angle positions. Microsoft Surface users will jeer that Apple hasn’t gone down the kick-stand route. Long-term happy iPad users will wonder what the fuss is about.

The back part of the Keyboard Folio covers the entire back of the iPad. It would be a little harder to remove in a hurry than the earlier KeyBoard Cover. That’s not a bad thing, my old Keyboard Cover often detached when I didn’t want it to.

Also I slipped and bashed my older 12.9-inch iPad Pro. If that had happened with the newer Folio, it would have protected my tablet.

New Apple Pencil

Apple’s new Pencil is marvellous. I like the way it looks and feels in my hand more than the earlier one which was too shiny and slippery for my taste.

The new Pencil has a far less awkward charging mechanism. You sit it on the top of the screen when the iPad has its keyboard attached in the landscape orientation. While it is there, the Pencil will also pair with the iPad. It feels almost like magic.

When the Pencil is in this place, a strong magnet holds it to the side of the iPad. I walked about 5km around Wellington in windy, wet conditions. The Pencil stayed stuck in place.

Sounds good

Apple has done something remarkable to the speakers. When I first heard them cranked up during a demonstration the clarity surprised me. It’s amazing given the small amount of space the engineers have to play with.

Later when I listened alone, the wide stereo separation was more obvious. There’s enough sound here for two or three people to watch a movie or sports game on the device in comfort.

12.9-inch iPad Pro Issues

I’ve run up against a couple of frustrations. Using WordPress is hard work on the iPad Pro. The WordPress iOS app is incomplete and inconsistent. I usually prefer to use the web to edit and manage my site, but this is difficult on a touch screen device.

WordPress has a poor designed for touch screen users. There’s a simple fix for this, find an alternative to WordPress.

Not having a Touch ID home button presents a minor, very minor challenge at first. I use a couple of apps which don’t always switch off when they are in the background.

With the old home button, clicking it twice gets a screen showing all the active apps. Swipe the misbehaving ones up and they would stop. If I didn’t they chewed through processor cycles or battery life.

Now there’s no button, the double swipe-up gesture is a little harder to use. It could be a case of getting use to it.

iPad Pro 2018 with smart keyboard folio and pencil

Value for money

Make no mistake, the new 12.9-inch iPad Pro is not cheap. The basic model is NZ$1750. That version only comes with 64GB of storage, which is less than most people will need.

Few users will need to go all the way to the MZ$3049 model with a terabyte of storage. To me even the 512GB for NZ$2350 seems excessive. The sweetest spot is the NZ$2000 model with 256GB.

Adding cellular capability adds NZ$250 to the price. This seems a hefty premium given that you can tether an iPad to a phone in a jiffy. After all, no-one goes out without their phone these days.

Is this a lot to pay? That depends on what you want it for.

If it makes you more productive and lets you work where you otherwise might not. If it makes better use of your travelling time then its a bargain. You’ll recover the price premium in no time.

When you compare the price and performance of an iPad Pro against any laptop, they don’t look like a bad deal. The same goes for comparisons with the Microsoft Surface. For a while I could have gone Surface or iPad Pro. My recent experience puts me in the iPad Pro camp, but, remember, my needs are not your needs.

If you think you can’t justify the price, there’s always the non-Pro iPad. It does most things its big sister can do at a fraction of the price.

Prices start at NZ$540 for a 32GB model. I recommend you either find a little more and get the NZ$700 version with 128GB or accept you’ll move plenty of data on and off your tablet.