I bought a Nexus 7 nearly a year ago to, perhaps unconsciously, prove the point that you could sell a good tablet at $200. Amazon’s efforts to dip below the $499.99 entry barrier for the iPad with the Kindle Fire were critically lukewarm, even if people bought a number of the things. I didn’t even really need a tablet, but it finally got me out of hauling out my Chromebook or new laptop while I sat in bed, waiting to fall asleep. It’s the perfect nightstand device. Of course, since I’ve been doing the FleshEatingZipper thing for real, I felt a little left behind in the mobile gaming scene, so I finally bit my lip and picked up my first iOS device, a 16GB iPad Mini. So how does it feel to be on the other side? More and less, more or less.
The iPad Mini
I was pretty unsure about tablets, but after Samsung sent us a Galaxy Tab a few years back, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about the 7″ form factor either. Then with the Nexus 7, I kinda fell in love with it. It resides in that valley between casual and full business, making it perfect for movie watching, some gaming, a little reading, so on. On top of financial constraints, not having a 9.7″ iPad was a pretty good trade-off in getting the Mini, which only really came to fruition because the iPad was so physically big and the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire had made such an impact in the hearts and minds of consumers.
I kept the setup simple, which isn’t something I usually do, and I only walked out with the iPad and a pink touch cover, which means I’ll always know it’s mine. Before I dive into the iPad – and I should note, this isn’t a review by any means, but some thorough first impressions – I’d like to say that the Touch Cover is pretty nifty. I don’t have a case for my Nexus 7 and I take care of my hardware, so I wasn’t hardcore about having a microfiber protector cleaning it as I used it, but its utility is pretty awesome. It’s also slim, acts as a prop, keeps right on there and having the tablet wake by peeling it off is incredibly clever. Being able to turn it off by flipping the cover back on? Just as clever.
The iPad Mini is wonderful and over-designed, perhaps to a fault. This feels like hardware that’s going to outlast your grandchildren. The only plastic feature is the front-facing Home button and the rest was obviously prepared with the highest of standards in mind. That said, while it’s certainly substantial, having a metal device after owning so many plastic phones for years feels like a trade-off. The metal is always cool to the touch and slightly uncomfortable. The knife edge between the Mini’s narrow 45-degree chamfer and the screen always makes me uneasy, as if I’ll slice myself open at any moment. The metal function buttons are sturdy, but feel pretty severe compared to the mushy, subtle buttons I’m used to. In chasing art, they left some ergonomic subtleties at home. Then again, anyone who starts with an iPad must think every other tablet is a piece of shit.
One last note about the hardware, being that this is the first generation of their Mini line, the display is almost fantastic. I generally hate LCDs because of the backlight bleed, but there’s hardly any here to speak of. I say almost fantastic because in a post-Retina era, the 1024×768 resolution makes things look a little crunchy at times. It’s not a deal breaker, but it’s noticeable. Flipping back and forth between the iPad and my Nexus 7, I also enjoyed the latter’s 16×9 display over the iPad’s boxier 4:3. I don’t know why they had to be different, but they did.
I’ve blasted iOS before for being stale and old, but in reality I’d only had a sample of it while either messing with a store display or Kelly’s old iPhone. Now that I’ve got my hands on a “for real” iOS device and spent some time with it, I can say with some guarantee that iOS is definitely stale and old.
I bought an iOS device primarily for games and there it succeeds in spades. Even though Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store are evenly matched in terms of a sheer number of apps, Apple’s codified standards and strict hardware lines have allowed indie games to flourish on here. I’m a soulless contrarian who can’t stand the gaming zeitgeist, so having access to the most active marketplace with experimental (and cheap!) titles finally became a mandate. I have been thoroughly impressed by the selection so far and I’m just digging in. Star Command was the first one down, then Infinity Blade and Starbase Orion to follow. (Watch for my new impressions of incredibly old games coming soon!) I know I’m just scratching the surface. I also had access to all 450+ songs I’d downloaded on iTunes when I still thought that was cool. I even managed to procure a Dane Cook album at some point, which is regrettable.
iOS also leaves an incredible first impression. I don’t ride the skeumorphic hate train as much as the others do (where the Notepad app looks like an old note pad, the Calendar app looks like a paper calendar, etc.), but I’m happy that Jony Ive’s supposedly making a “flatter” look for iOS 7, which is due out this fall. iOS flies at every possible moment, rarely hitching. Jobs said it was magic, it feels like magic. Transitions are always amazing. Refresh animations are incredible. Things slide, glide, and move without any sense of friction or computational restraint. The Camera preview is smoother than silk. I actually had to turn off auto-rotation because the iPad would respond far too quickly as I moved it. Using Android, I thought that Apple had cracked some proprietary algorithms that made their OS feel so smooth, because what was the answer otherwise? That it was amateur hour over at Google, even on their Nexus devices with the latest updates? My Galaxy Nexus (yes, I’m replacing it after the summer) is weighted down with apps and it will hitch, heave, and chug without prejudice from time to time. Google’s working really hard to fix these issues, but after using iOS, I see where the trade-off is happening.
I’ve heard so often about how simple iOS is and between its single persistent interface button – compared to three on Windows Phone or Android – and a slimmed down list of system options and customization choices, it’s easy to be lulled into that belief. In reality though, I found myself making far too many extra clicks as a result of iOS’s age and slow response time on software features. Not having a persistent back button immediately threw me off as each app handles navigation differently with different buttons in different areas. When returning to the home screen from an app, any expanded folders will remain expanded, which is dopey. The notification center is terrible compared to Android’s with apps first prompting you to deliver push notifications (a legacy issue), then iOS clumping all of them by app, rather than by event. They are so far behind the ball in that regard, it’s awful. In trying to be simple and extremely modal, rather than really tackling multiple tasks at once, iOS feels bound by its lack of options, creating more trouble as workarounds come into place.
Then there are other quirks. Why do I need to tap in my password to download a free app? Why are buttons so small? Even Google got scaling right. Why do icons keep shaking when you move stuff around home screens until you hit the Home button? The lack of widgets or Notification Center controls means you have to drill into any music app you have to pause a song. Then again, why does tapping the speech-to-text option in Chrome stop my music entirely? Why can’t I elect to see that password as I type it out? Most notably, why is the keyboard so absolutely terrible; not in any technical sense, it’s very responsive, but rather in how spartan it is. Why are numbers tucked away in a sub menu? Why do the letters on the keyboard not shift case as you shift cases? Where’s the word prediction? (No, automatically fixing some typos is not what I’m getting at.) Why is multi-tasking and closing out apps so ugly to look at and perform?
iOS needs a drastic update and I’m left fortified in my original opinions about it. I’m glad I don’t need to use iTunes to set my dock apps anymore, but it’s not enough. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to enjoy Android’s better features, you just need to use it. Flipping between my iPad and my Android devices, it was freeing to be in Google’s ride, even if it was prone to sputtering. Overall, I’m very impressed with the iPad Mini and hope iOS 7 brings the changes I desire so much. Look forward to more iOS coverage going forward!