Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of marketing, spent roughly 29 seconds talking about the brand new iPad mini 3 today. Schiller is a man who's normally eager to showcase his company's latest hardware achievements, but this afternoon he sped over the 7.9-inch tablet in record time. There was a single slide dedicated to what's gone into the "upgraded" iPad mini. Apart from the addition of Touch ID, nothing looked different from last year. Apart from Touch ID, nothing is different from last year. And yet by the end of today's event, Apple somehow wound up with five iPads in its product family. Something's gone wrong.
A clear case where last year's model is the right choice
There's a clear reason for Apple's hurried pace when it comes to the mini 3. Apple has decided it no longer wants to keep its two "current" iPad models at parity, but that's something you'd never hear discussed on stage. Last year, things were different. Both new iPads stood on the same pedestal with equal power and speedy performance. It was great. Sure, the iPad Air's Retina display was a bit nicer. (It displayed a slightly wider range of colors, but few people complained about the mini's screen.) Everywhere else, the mini could do everything the Air could. If Apple's smaller iPad was right for you, you didn't have to compromise. No matter the screen size, you were getting the company's latest and greatest technology. As of today, those days are officially over. Some speculated this would be the case, or that Apple wouldn't bother updating the mini at all. It did, but barely.
Apple likely has its reasons for creating this gulf between the iPad mini and iPad Air. Maybe it's rooted in demand. If the larger iPad is outselling the mini, Apple has every right to put more focus and resources there. But should it? After striking a perfect balance last year, the company has quickly revised its strategy to the dismay of customers. And you can bet the competition will be all over Apple for what many will see as a lazy product revision. This is Amazon's chance if ever there was one.
There's also the iPhone 6 Plus to consider. Many people (myself included) see little need to jump up to a 7.9-inch device when we're now carrying a 5.5-inch screen in our pockets every day. Before I had a 6 Plus, I owned an iPad mini with Retina display. I loved it. But everything's changed now. If and when I buy another iPad, it'll need to be the iPad Air (or perhaps this iPad Pro we keep hearing about) that grabs me. Still, that's not everyone. Maybe you've got an iPhone 5S or iPhone 6 — or any other phone that's not giant — and the iPad mini still offers an experience that's worth the investment.
Touch ID is great, but not $100 great
If that's the case, you should buy an iPad mini 2. Buy it now while you still can. It's at a great price. Touch ID is a valuable security tool, but I can't imagine anyone telling you it's worth $100. Nor do you gain all that much from the half-baked implementation of Apple Pay these new tablets offer. Those are the only things you'll miss out on by choosing the iPad mini 2.
Admittedly, the storage situation isn't great. Apple is still indefensibly building its base-model tablets with just 16GB of storage. Even the iPad Air 2 gets shortchanged here. People have criticized Apple over these decisions, which seem aimed at improving profit margins instead of bettering the customer experience. It's more egregious when we're talking about tablets. You put movies and tons of games on these things. You watch them on flights. You play them on the subway. How is anyone supposed to do that and install the next major iOS update? Your only real option is buying the mini with 32GB of storage. That'll run you $349 for Wi-Fi or $479 for the LTE-compatible model. If you need more space, buying refurbished is an excellent deal.
Picking the right iPad is likely to be a challenge for most people since the entire lineup now looks like some sort of maze. There are five models to choose from. You must pick between three iPad minis. That's just too many, and this product line has officially grown unnecessarily large. You'd be crazy to buy the original iPad mini for $249 right now. Better and more powerful tablet options exist on Android, even if the app ecosystem there isn't up to par. Running iOS 8 and the latest apps on the original iPad mini is asking a lot — probably too much — from an aging device. It's also a drag for developers who aren't allowed to leave that old hardware and its constraints behind. That crosses the list down to four, but it's really a choice between three: the iPad Air 2, the iPad Air, and the iPad mini 2. Stay away from the iPad mini 3. It's overpriced. The end. The iPad mini 2 it's based on is a fine product, but it's last year's product. If you want the most powerful iPad, get the iPad Air 2. If you want the best small iPad, that's still the iPad mini 2.
Until next year.