Why I Switched to an iPad Mini

In my October 24th post I talked about who the iPad mini would work well for and who it might not work so well for. I firmly put myself in the category of not being a "good candidate” for an iPad mini because of the large amount of content creation I do on my iPad (specifically at work).  I am now using a brand new iPad mini (64 Gb white Verizon) as my one and only iPad. What happened?

Why I needed to make an iPad Purchase

Until last weekend I was using an iPad 2 and my wife had a 1st generation iPad. My wife’s 1st gen was, well, becoming non-functional. So it was time to do something. I tried (I really did) to talk her into getting new iPad, but I have a practical wife. She knew I was running out of space on my iPad and that I had been talking about really wanting to have cellular data with the amount of traveling I was doing for work...so she inherited my iPad 2 and I purchased a new iPad. So what changed my mind about me doing too much content creation to be able to go to a smaller screen? 

Two main reasons for my change of heart: my main work laptop and the situations I use my iPad for instead of my laptop. 

Why the iPad mini form factor was appealing for me

My main work laptop is a 13” MacBook Air which is not that much larger than my iPad 2. My main work use for the iPad is to use it in meetings instead of a laptop. I find using a laptop in meetings with the vertical display being up and open between me and the people I am meeting with to be a bit distracting. The whole purpose of a meeting is to MEET with people, not to insert a screen between you and them. I also don’t like people having to use their imagination about what I am doing on my laptop during meetings. Is he really typing away and taking notes or is he doing an internet search on how to beat the level he is stuck on in Angry Birds? Because the iPad is nearly horizontal when being used on a conference room table vs the vertical screen of the laptop there is less perceived privacy with the iPad, therefore less of a mystery on what you are doing on your iPad.  The iPad is much more like just carrying around a pad of paper and is, at least in my opinion, a lot less likely to be seen as something that is distracting me during a meeting rather than aiding me to be more productive. The iPad (and all iOS devices) after all operate in the mode of one app at a time. For me, true multi-tasking on-screen is a real distraction. For example, I only get email if I open the email app (and have hidden the mail app to keep me from being able to read email with 1 tap) so the iPad is not a distraction in a meeting for me like a laptop can be. So given that my iPad 2 and my 13” Mac Book Air were so similar in size, there wasn’t a huge portability factor in me choosing to grab one over the other. Not the case with an iPad mini. Choosing to grab an iPad mini over my laptop WOULD be a big difference in the size of device I was lugging around.

Why the smaller iPad mini screen is big enough for me

So for my use cases for an iPad the iPad mini seemed to make more sense, but would it be big enough? I had 2 main concerns...work and music. From a work standpoint the iPad needed to be big enough to take notes (both typed and hand written) and big enough to be able to do diagraming and graphics work on the go in OmniGraffle. So I headed up to my local Apple reseller down the road and started playing with the iPad mini. Typing wise, the on-screen keyboard worked just as well as on the full size iPad (at least for me and my hobbit sized hands...they really are quite small). I did some tests typing a full paragraph on both the mini and the full sized iPad and I was able to type just about as fast with the same amount of mistakes on the mini as I was the full sized iPad. In fact, I am writing the last half of this blog post on the mini while on an airplane. For handwritten notes I use Notability and on the mini I actually like hand writing notes better than on the larger screen. I’m not sure why that is, but it seems more natural to physically write on the smaller screen (maybe because it’s closer to the size of  a small pad of paper than a full 8 1/2” x 11” sheet of paper). Also, because the screen is smaller the issue of accidentally resting your hand on the screen while writing is greatly reduced. So typing and writing worked great for me. Diagraming in OmniGraffle also seems to work just fine. My workflow with OmniGraffle tends to be to start on the iPad and using a stylus to sketch out what I want in one layer and they add the stencil items on top of my sketch. From there I tend to move over to the Mac to do the more “fiddly” things like creating and moving the text and doing the formatting. So again. the iPad mini worked really well even for diagraming in OmniGraffle. So how about music?

Is the iPad mini big enough for sheet music?

By music I mean sheet music. I play piano every weekend at our church’s contemporary youth mass (catholic church) and I use my iPad to display all of my sheet music. I really struggled with trying to find enough information on the internet to determine if it was going to work. So I bought the mini before I really knew if it would work. I did this because I wasn’t going to make the decision on such an expensive purchase just based on one use case. I could always use my wife’s iPad 2 for 2 hours every weekend if the mini didn’t work out. So I pulled the trigger and last weekend I played with the mini at church and it worked great. The iPad in general works extremely well as a sheet music reader. I use an app called DeepDish GigBook with a bluetooth pedal, the PageFlip Cicada. Because I play a lot of contemporary Christian music I tend to read mostly lead sheets (chords and lyrics only), and the mini is more than big enough to clearly read lead sheets. We also play a lot of music out of a small form factor (9" x 7") spiral bound book, which isn't much larger than the iPad mini. So far the only problem I see with using the mini for sheet music if you sight read a lot of really complicated musical pieces or don't have the best vision, then you are going to want the extra real estate of the full-sized iPad. For me, I don't read a lot of intense piano sheet music and when I do I quickly memorize the piece (because I am a poor sight reader) and use the sheet music as more of a guide or visual reminder. To give you a better idea of how well the mini works as a sheet music reader I took a few photos:

Example sheet music from a 9" x 7" music book in PDF form on the iPad mini

Full sized sheet music shown next to PDF version on the iPad mini

Which pre-paid carrier & data plan to choose?

Now for the big question...which carrier to choose and do I sign up for a dedicated plan, go with a shared data plan or go pre-paid? 

First the carrier choice. For me, it was between AT&T and Verizon because I wanted LTE and I wanted to use the iPad for travel. My iPhone is with AT&T, but I am currently grandfathered into the "unlimited" data plan. So was it worth it for me to move to a shared data plan? The answer was no. My wife also has an iPhone with AT&T but she has the smallest data tier, so we would need to buy a shared data plan big enough to cover what we generally use per month combined plus what I expected to use with the iPad while on travel. A 1 Gb shared data plan would have actually been enough for my wife and I to comfortably share (yes, surprisingly I don't really use much of my "unlimited" data plan). So in order to to comfortably add the iPad on to that I would have to bump up the shared data pool to the next tier, which is 3 Gb. It ended up costing me an extra $30 a month to do that, which would buy me 3 Gb of pre-paid with AT&T. So why would I want to lock myself into any kind of contract or shared data plan? Better to stay flexible. Although I did seriously consider going the 2-year contract route given the current $100 rebate AT&T was offering when you buy an iPad and sign a 2-year contract. But my travel isn't constant enough that I will always need to buy data every month so it didn't make sense. So with the shared data plan out the window my choice of carrier was wide open.

Coverage and price per Gb

 It really ended up boiling down to who had the best coverage and the most attractive data plans. As of right now Verizon has the better LTE coverage, but AT&T has the faster network when you are in areas that don't have LTE coverage (AT&T 4G is faster than Verizon non-LTE). However, given the places I travel to the Verizon coverage for LTE is excellent and even more important...locally I have LTE coverage with Verizon and not with AT&T. Although, 2 days after I purchased my iPad AT&T rolled out LTE in the Melbourne, Florida area! In the end it wouldn't have change my choice of carrier. I went with Verizon because of the better overall nationwide LTE coverage and even more importantly the more sensible data plans. I plotted up the cost per Gb for the AT&T and Verizon pre-paid data plans and the low end data option for AT&T on a per Gb cost basis is off the charts!

Price per Gb for Pre-Paid Cellular Data

At the low end of the data usage spectrum Verizon is clearly the more economical choice with being able to pay only $20 per Gb (with the $20 1 Gb plan) verses the $60 per Gb with AT&T (with the totally ridiculous $14.99 250 Mb plan). Once you hit the 2 or 3 Gb amount or greater the cost per Gb is comparable between the two. I've found that 1 or 2 Gb tends to be more than enough in one month for the average user, but 250 Mb is just not enough. For example, on the business trip I just came off of I used about 150 Mb over 2 days. It was a pretty light use of data with my only need being light email use and some web surfing (no video streaming or music streaming). So a data plan as small as 250 Mb just doesn't make any sense unless you are an extremely light data user and the $5 more to get 4 times the data on Verizon breaks your budget. Now, by purchasing the 1 Gb plan I have enough data left over to use for my next trip (which occurs before my 30 days on this pre-paid plan expires). That does bring up one important point...wifi hotspots. The AT&T pre-paid plans come with free access to AT&T wifi hotspots and Verizon pre-paid plans do not get you free access to their wifi hotspots. When I travel I'm not near enough AT&T wifi hotspots to make it worth considering, but depending on where you go it might make a difference for you.

I know this was a long post, but since I really struggled to find any really good write-ups on how well the iPad mini worked as a sheet music reader and then trying to put all the pieces together to figure out the best carrier and data plan for me I decided to post why I made the decisions I did. Hopefully others find it helpful. I plan to write a post In a few weeks or so that talks more about how well the smaller iPad mini is working for me.

Should you buy an iPad mini?

I'll start off by saying that I personally don't need to buy an iPad mini for myself (don't tell my wife I admitted to that). I have an iPad 2 and because I use it quite a bit for content creation at work (writing short documents, taking notes and creating diagrams and outlines) I really do need the extra screen real estate of a 9.7" iPad. Speaking of screen real estate, I also use my ipad at work as a 3rd monitor using an app called Air Display (yes, I said 3rd monitor...I know I'm spoiled). Additionally, when I am using my iPad at work I am almost always at a table or desk where I can comfortable sit and work with the iPad propped up on its Smart Cover (so the benefit of being able to hold the iPad in one hand really isn't needed).

So who is the iPad mini really made for then?

For people that use their iPads the vast majority of the time to consume content (books, email, Internet, videos and music) the iPad mini is going to be a HUGE hit. Yes, it has a significantly smaller screen, but I think Apple found the sweet spot in size for this smaller device...big enough to be useful but small enough to be extremely lightweight in the hand and portable. One of the biggest complaints about the size of the 9.7" iPad is when using it to read for a long period of time. The weight of the device starts to wear on you after a while if you aren't propping it up with something. With the iPad mini this will no longer be the case. Now you can comfortably read the news in one hand while having a quick breakfast or drinking a cup of coffee. You can read an iBook on the subway morning commute while standing and still have one hand free to grab the hand-hold. You can walk around the house straightening things up while having a FaceTime chat with your Mom. And last but not least...it is now even easier to toss in your purse, bag or suit pocket and take your iPad everywhere you go without that extra bulk and weight of a full-sized iPad.

Notice I haven't mentioned the price. While the cheaper price will be a factor to some, I think the biggest factor is that the iPad mini is (in Apple's words) "every inch an iPad." The iPad mini's biggest feature is that is has all the same functionality of a full-sized iPad with a brand new feature called enhance portability. If Apple had wanted to make price the main selling point they could have priced it at $299 or even less and still had reasonable profit margins, but they chose to keep the price structure such that the iPad mini fits nicely just below the iPad 2.

So should you buy an iPad mini? 

If you don't have an iPad at all right now but have been thinking about it...yes. If you already have an iPad and it is heavily used by multiple people in the family and you would like to have an additional one...yes. Heck, even if you already have an iPad and are the only person using it, but always use it on the go and mostly use it to consume content...sell or hand-down your existing iPad and upgrade to the iPad mini. Yes, I said upgrade. It can be considered an upgrade, even when going from a larger device down to a device with a smaller screen, if you use that smaller device more now because it is that much more portable and comfortable to use on the go. 

Those are my thoughts. Who knows, if my wife doesn't read this post maybe I’ll get away with getting me one!

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