Why the iPad‘s rule will last a bit longer
The iPad is the odd man out in the Apple family, a device that doesn’t quite seem to know what exactly it is. The iPhone is a smartphone, the iPod a music player, the Mac Pro a workhorse... but what is the iPad?
Steve Jobs believed the iPad would replace the PC, as his famous ‘post PC era’ quip would seem to indicate. But that never did happen. In fact, the iPad’s share of the global tablet market started dropping from 2014 though the iPad Pro reversed that trend. (The iPad is still a money minting machine for Apple as it has sold over 350 million iPads so far.)
So who exactly is buying those iPads and for what?
Layman: viewing content and media
Let’s start with me, as there’s no guesswork involved. Apple launched the iPad in 2010, and I got the third gen iPad 3 in 2012. I’m a typical layman as I don’t have any clue about how to use even mildly complex apps like Photoshop or iMovie. And even if I did, I don’t have the artist’s eye to tell the difference between good and excellent. Without that skill, there’s not much point in fiddling around with design and look.
So I use the iPad mostly for reading and viewing content as its portable format makes it very handy to carry around the house or outside. Like I can have it on my crowded breakfast table to catch up on the news, or in the kitchen to get a few tips while cooking, or to view a video (with headphones) while travelling. I also use it to a lesser extent for games, social media interaction, and music.
I do occasionally use the iPad for work related stuff like shooting off a quick email reply at the dinner when I have already turned off my Mac. But generally if I’m working, I almost invariably work on my Mac as it’s more convenient in many ways. The whole system is designed for multitasking with quick keyboard shortcuts, multiple open windows that are accessible with a quick gestures, and a powerful OS that’s gets things done faster. All my files are just a few clicks away via the Finder, and a larger screen and the ergonomic setup make it far less tiring for long hours of work.
For me, an iPad is definitely not a replacement for a Mac or PC.
Semi-Professional: a work tool
So what kind of person buys an iPad Pro? Oddly enough, my brother did. He’s into sculpting, and a bit of a technophobe. The kind who calls me up every now and then to sort issues with his iPhone. Like me, he has no clue about imaging apps like Photoshop. But he had observed most of his peers at his sculpting workshop using technology to improve their sculpting skills. So he got himself the iPad Pro around a year ago. I’m not too sure how useful it has been but the last time I checked his iPencil had failed and he hadn’t bothered to replace it. Actions speak louder than words.
Professional: a minor work accessory
Next, I checked with a designer friend. He’s a multitalented individual, a professional designer who’s worked on advertising for big brands like Pepsi, a world class photographer, an accomplished calligrapher, an amateur videographer, and an interior designer with a touch of flair. His workhorse is the Mac Pro (trash can). He does have a 2016 model iPad but says there’s no way any iPad can quickly handle the intense processing required for his work on images and videos. He does use his iPad professionally occasionally, like to store and view images when he’s out on a photo shoot. But otherwise, his iPad usage is more or less similar to mine.
Different things to different people
To conclude, the iPad is not good enough to be the main workhorse of a professional but it can play a role as a useful accessory. However it can be the main tool for a semi-professional or student. Whereas for the layman, it’s just another convenient large screen device to view media and content. My guess is most of those 350 million iPads out in the wild were bought by laymen like me.
iPad demand is levelling off
I found an interesting chart on a site that showed how iPads have been selling every quarter since their launch in 2010. The red indicates iPad minis which seems to be going out of fashion after the arrival of the larger iPhone S series. The blue indicates the rest of the iPads. Sales seem to have been falling since early 2014 (I’m guessing due to competition from other tablets) but it’s been more or less holding steady since the end of 2016.
Longer life of tablets
The other reason iPad sales are not going up is because most people who want an iPad may have already bought one. And people don’t replace their tablets as often as their phones. I think a typical tablet replacement cycle might be around 4–5 years as compared to a phone’s 2–3 year cycle.
The Decision (apologies to Lebron)
Though there may be new iPad users coming into the market, I think the largest pool of buyers for iPads will come from the replacement market. These people are already sold on tablets, and will need to replace their existing models that are nearing the end of their lives. All those iPads sold in the past eight years must be due for their first or even second replacement cycle.
The billion dollar question as far as Apple is concerned is, “Will an existing iPad user replace it with a new iPad or will he go Android?”
Well, I’m one of this typical iPad users seeking to replace my iPad and the rest of this post is about my decision. Alright, it may not be as earth shaking a decision as Lebron James’ decision. But I think it will give a fair indication of how other iPad users will decide on what to replace their dying iPads with.
The Long Goodbye
My iPad 3 has given me many years of absolutely trouble-free service but its age is beginning to show. It’s a May 2012 model, which makes it pretty ancient in tech years. Apple stopped support for this model so it’s stuck in iOS 9.3 and has a disconcerting habit of displaying a frozen lockscreen while starting up. I need to patiently wait a couple of minutes for its invisible wheels to stop spinning before I can swipe and enter my password.
Hardware-wise, the iPad 3’s old bluetooth version is not compatible with Airdrop or handoff, while the pre-lightning connector means an extra cable to carry around. The Home button too has become cranky, and rarely works so I use the workaround of the assistive onscreen (software) buttons to keep it functioning. I use my iPad mostly for reading and viewing content, and occasionally for typing stuff, all of which still works. Though it can sometimes be painfully slow with page refreshes taking forever to happen. NightShift isn’t available, which makes night reading a strain. It also randomly disconnects from my wifi, and has to be manually reconnected. Overall, I’m impressed my iPad is still functioning, but it’s hard to ignore its many quirks.
The hunt is on
I started looking for a replacement for my low end iPad over a year ago. I ruled out the iPad Pro as it’s an overkill for my needs, and way out of my budget. The 2017 basic iPad is a capable tablet but it was selling at that time for nearly ₹29000 ($450). This was beyond what I wanted to spend for a device that I use primarily for reading and viewing content.
So I decided to make another of my periodic explorations into the world of Android. Around the same time last year, I had got myself the Redmi Note 4, an Android which is now India’s top selling phone. (My primary phone is an iPhone 6S Plus so this was just me indulging my nerdy side.)
Here’s what I found about the current state of Android phones though it doesn’t necessarily apply to Android tablets. More on that as we go on.
My Redmi currently runs a modified version (fork) of Android called MiUI 9, which is based on Android Nougat. It does some fancy stuff that my iPhone can’t. For instance, the split screen that the iPad does, is possible on the tiny 5.5" screen of my Android.
This feature is useful and I assume available on all tablets, so it won’t really affect my decision on which tablet I will opt for. Most of the other bells and whistles on the new Android OS are not really going to influence my decision.
Hardware and Software
Apple’s software and hardware integration seems to make it work more efficiently than an Android phone. My Android (Redmi Note 4) has 4GB RAM while my iPhone 6S Plus has half the RAM, but there’s no noticeable difference in everyday performance. I’ve also noticed the same app often works better on iOS as compared to Android. Like the time a screen recording on my Android had audio-video sync issues when I tried to send it by WhatsApp. The same recording, when compressed and sent by WhatsApp on my iPhone came out fine. I’m guessing that developers may be putting in more effort and resources for iOS app versions as they may be generating more income.
There are other interesting features like dual SIM card slots, memory expansion slots, the ability to run multiple versions of apps like WhatsApp. MiUI also offers the ability to have two profiles/logins on my Redmi phone via the Second Space feature.
I don’t use SIMs on my iPad as I can always tag on to my phone’s hotspot. Multiple versions of the apps (like WhatsApp) might be of use on a phone, but not on a tablet. Though the dual login is an interesting feature, it’s more important to have a trouble free OS that operates seamlessly. So on this front, I think the iPad does have an edge over Android tablets.
My iPhone camera shoots better pix than my Android especially in low light. But it’s not really a fair comparison as the Redmi cost around ₹12000 ($185) as against my ₹53000 ($800) iPhone. If I really wished to compare cameras on an Android and iPhone, I should compare it with the Google Pixel, which is in the same price range as my iPhone. Beside both phones are similar in that they have the synergy of having hardware and software created by one company, unlike my Redmi whose hardware is by the Chinese company, Xiaomi. The Pixel was too pricey to buy just to check out Android. However the word on the street is Google’s mix of hardware and online software processing of images in the Pixel 2 makes it the best smartphone camera. Sadly, camera aside, the Pixel does not seem to really justify its high price.
Cameras won’t affect my choice of tablets as I almost never use the camera on my iPad.
Voice Assistants have taken off in the last year. Microphone technology on cell phones are nowhere as advanced as those on on dedicated voice speakers like Amazon’s Echo or Apple’s HomePod. But it’s still a pretty useful feature.
Google Assistant is the runaway winner here as Siri is still a work in progress. In fact, she’s a non-stop source of amusement with her constant goofs up. For any serious voice work, I never use Siri, except like when I’m driving and need to make a call, or ask it to play music on my car’s stereo. And even then, Siri usually needs a couple of attempts before she gets it right. Though I can set up Google Assistant on my iPhone, it has to work with iOS restrictions, and can’t do half the stuff that Siri is supposed to do, like setting alarms, launching apps, or sending messages via WhatsApp. I say ‘Siri is supposed to do’ because it makes far too many mistakes as it struggles with my Indian accent, so much so that I gave up on Siri a long time ago. What’s surprising is how Google Assistant (and Alexa) can effortlessly pick up the same accent and words.
If voice becomes an important factor in choosing a tablet, then Android would definitely have an edge. As of now, it’s not for me. I have had the Alexa Echo for a few months now. It’s very good at picking up whatever I say unlike a phone, but I have still not managed to integrate it into my life. The fault is probably mine because I’ve not really got into Alexa skills and stuff.
My Redmi has the mini-USB and not the upgraded USB C. But it’s still better than the iPhone’s lightning connector as I can easily expand my Android’s capacity by connecting a pen drive with the help of a cheap dongle. The base model iPad now comes with 32Gb and that’s more than sufficient for my needs so this is a non-issue on the iPad. The same holds true for bluetooth as the recent iPads have the latest version.
Connectors are not a factor in deciding on a tablet for me, but this may be a deal breaker for those for whom space is important.
The Redmi has a 4100mAH battery as compared to my iPhone’s 2750 one but again iOS seems to be more efficient, getting more uptime from less battery capacity. Fast charging isn’t yet available but it looks like the feature will soon be standard in most mid range Android phones.
This is not really a big deal in tablets as the large size means most tablet batteries easily last the whole day.
Speakers and Screen
These are more or less the same from a user point of view. You need to connect to an external speaker or screen to get better sound and big screen viewing. I have the Chromecast instead of Apple TV. The one downside to that is Chromecast does not allow screen mirroring in iPhone unlike Androids. But I’m fine with that as I use Chromecast for playing YouTube and videos and that works fine with my iPhone. Apple TV would have allowed mirroring but it was a lot more expensive than the Chromecast.
My owning a Chromecast does favour Android but screen mirroring is not really that important to me. So this is again a non-issue in tablets.
Tablets are not big in Android
Once I started looking into tablets, it became obvious that they are not a priority in the Android world. Among the mid-range Androids, tablets are not as advanced as phones. I guess there’s not much market for them as people just go for one of the larger screen Android phones. In fact, Xiaomi, the maker of India’s top selling Android phone, doesn’t even have a tablet out in the Indian market.
Samsung’s new tablets have good reviews but they are priced in the same range as the more expensive iPads. The older Samsung models are lower priced, but they have the same issue as my iPad 3 as they are running older versions of Android, which may not have the new features like that split screen to run different apps. There were other cheaper brands of Android tablets, but the problems was they all felt ‘cheap.’
Old habits die hard
Though mid-range Android phones give good value for money, the mid-range Android tablets seem to be behind the times. And if I’m going to be paying the same price as an iPad for an outdated Android, I’d rather stick with Apple.
Finally, it’s a question of habit and comfort with a system that you are used to. I have been on the platform for so long that I’m more comfortable with iOS for a daily use device because of the minor differences in the way Android works. For instance, I often use the Notes app, and know that whatever I save in it will be easily available in the same app on any of my other devices. I’m sure the same minor differences would probably have the reverse effect on a long time Android user (Google Keep comes to mind). So this is a personal choice.
iPad wins this round
The fortunes of the iPad were turned around by Apple’s decision to reduce the price of the base model iPad. Considering that my iPhone’s screen size has gone up, and my usage being mainly for content viewing, I won’t be able to justify buying a higher priced iPad.
Since my iPad is still working, I decided to hang on, and wait to see if I could get a good deal on a new iPad. I did spot one on an Amazon Big Sale some time ago, going for around ₹19000 ($300). At that price range, I think it’s far better deal than any Android tablet in the market both in terms of hardware and software. And as long as Apple can hold that price-value equation, I think the iPad will completely rule the mid-range tablet market, and possibly even grow the market.
Waiting for Godot
Unless one of the Androids comes out with updated tablet that matches or undercuts the iPad (say a tablet equivalent of the Redmi Note 5), it’s highly unlikely that I will switch from the iPad brand for this tablet replacement.
The only reason I didn’t go for the Amazon deal was that it didn’t make sense to buy an early 2017 model in 2018. Also, the word was out in the market that Apple is expected to launch an economy model of the iPad this month. The Indian government did increase taxes on imported electronics in the meanwhile. But I’m still hoping this 2018 model will be reasonably priced, and have a few of the iPhone X features when it’s launched.