The original iPad mini should be dead (but it isn’t)

Allen Pike, talking last week about Apple keeping the original iPad mini around for another year:

Apple still sells the [2012] original iPad mini…If they follow their usual pattern of leaving the iPad line as-is until next fall, the iPad 2’s internals will live on for 4.5 years.

I’ve been thinking about this move over the past few days, and like Allen, I’m not a fan. Sure, it sounds great for Apple to have a $249 iPad in a market with budget tablets from Amazon, Google, and the like. But as much as I loved the original iPad mini two years ago, it’s filled with early-2011 technology and an Apple A5 chip—the same three-generations-ago processor used in the iPhone 4S.

The 2014 iPad line in "iPad technology years"

The 2014 iPad line in “iPad technology years.” (The iPad mini 3 has Touch ID, but it’s otherwise the same as the 2013 iPad mini.)

From a consumer standpoint, this means that if you buy a $249 iPad mini today and expect to get the “full” iPad experience, you’ll likely be disappointed. Sure, the original iPad mini will run iOS 8, but performance is noticeably inferior to that of more-recent devices—in fact, a good number of demanding games and apps simply won’t run on it. The camera performance isn’t as good as that of 2010’s iPhone 4. And, of course, the original mini doesn’t have the Retina display that’s come to define Apple’s recent iOS devices. In short, as good as it was when it debuted, the original iPad offers an inferior iPad experience today—and that experience will likely be even worse under the next version of iOS, as if past patterns hold, iOS 9 will be more demanding of our devices than iOS 8.

For developers, Apple keeping the original iPad mini in the lineup means that apps have to either continue to support the A5, or require a bunch of disclaimers and caveats in their App Store descriptions (that many users will never read). In a perfect world, developers would be able to drop support for the original mini by requiring a particular version of iOS—say, iOS 8 or next year’s iOS 9. But with the 2012 iPad mini being a “current” product, Allen points out that developers probably won’t be able to use this approach until iOS 10 in 2017.

Given that the iPad mini 2, the 2013 model with a Retina display and upgraded hardware across the board, is just $50 more ($299), keeping the original iPad mini feels like a checkbox approach to product lines (“We sell a $249 tablet!”), and Apple hasn’t been a checkbox-marking company since the days of the Performa.1 (The closest thing was the iPod line, but while it hit a nice range of price points, each model was distinct and compelling in its own way.)

You could argue that the budget tablets from Apple’s competitors aren’t best-in-class products, either, but that’s not a compelling argument to me—I don’t think Apple wants to get into the “It’s not nearly as good, but it’s cheap” business.2 Apple has long been about providing a premium experience, even if that means charging a premium price, going relatively cheap only if the experience is still great (see: Mac mini). In fact, that’s the stock comment Apple’s execs give when asked about the lack of a particular Apple product at a lower price point. Which is why I’m puzzled by this move.

I’ve got a bunch of related thoughts about Apple continuing to support older devices with newer versions of iOS, but I’ll save those for another article…

  1. Speaking of Performas: As I tweeted last week, Apple now sells 22 different iPad models. When you include color options, you get 56 models—and that doesn’t account for different SKUs for different cellular carriers.
  2. Sure, Apple has been keeping two-year-old iPhone models (or at least models with two-year-old internals—the iPhone 5c this year) in each year’s product lineup, but (a) this year’s “old, free” iPhone is still using an A6 processor; and (b) I would argue that the mobile-phone market, with its subsidized prices and lower performance expectations, is very different from the tablet and computer markets.