I recently compared the HomePod mini with the Google Nest Audio and came to the conclusion that we’re rapidly running out of differentiating features from devices at this level.
I feel it’s the same with smartphones. The people behind this tech are smarter than I’ll ever be, but they’re all on level playing fields. This results in superb products across the board, but, ironically, less interesting competing factors.
It’s a bit like the car industry. As one expert recently pointed out to me, “there’s no such thing as a bad car these days”.
This week, rumours of the next-generation iPad Pro began to surface, and they’ve left me feeling similarly disillusioned. More importantly, my time with the new iPad Air suggests that Apple is on the wrong path if Mini-LED is their next headline feature.
As recently reported by MacRumors.com, the next 12.9” iPad Pro is likely to hit the market during the first quarter of 2021.
Its defining feature? A Mini-LED screen.
What HiFi? describes Mini-LED as an “evolutionary rather than revolutionary technology”. They point to the fact that it offers a wider contrast ratio, deeper blacks and a higher peak brightness than OLED technology.
The result for normal humans? A more vibrant, colourful image that ‘pops’ off the screen. It’s like the difference between a Samsung smartphone’s screen and the iPhone. It’ll just look better because it plays to what humans find most visually pleasing.
It does this by relying on much smaller LEDs than traditional LCD technology, which can brighten and dim far more impressively. However, despite this, What HiFi? concedes that Mini-LED won’t be able to produce the same “lights-off blacks” as OLED screens.
Even these comparisons between OLED, Mini-LED and LCD (and that’s before we get to Micro-LED) bore me to tears if I’m honest.
Again, we find ourselves in the realm of tiny differentiating factors which make little to no difference to our lives. Certainly, 99% of the people I know have zero idea that Mini-LED exists, and I doubt they’d care much if they did. I don’t even think they know what OLED is, and that screen tech has been in the Apple Watch since its inception.
But Apple is seemingly heading into this new screen technology, big time, with its next iPad Pro.
The problem is, I want them to do something else.
My iPad Air 4 revelation
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been testing an iPad Air 4. I love it. Which is odd, because I’ve been using a 12.9” iPad Pro, fully decked-out and with the Magic Keyboard for the last year or so.
I’ll be offering more in-depth thoughts about this switch soon, but the thing I love the most about the Air is the smaller form factor. In comparison to the 12.9” Pro, it’s beautifully portable and a joy to grab and consume content from, no matter where I am or what I’m doing.
Sure, I miss Face ID a little bit, but Touch ID is just as secure and intuitively placed on the power button.
However, there was another element of the iPad Air 4 which concerned me: the screen. Unlike the iPad Pro’s 120Hz ProMotion display, the Air features a 60Hz panel.
Having used the Pro for so long, the difference between the two devices was immediately noticeable. The 60Hz screen made the Air feel slower than its super-fast A14 Bionic processor suggested it should be and, if anything, actually made the new device feel older.
That bothered me. For about ten minutes. Then, I continued to use the Air as my main iPad, and the difference in Hz soon became less evident (even when occasionally switching to the iPad Pro). After a while, it simply wasn’t a ‘thing’ any more.
This fascinates me. ProMotion is a brilliant feature when you first discover it. An iPad with a 120Hz screen feels more buttery-smooth than ever… but, with hindsight, that’s only when flicking through your app screens or scrolling web pages. I know it also comes into play during video playback, but I can’t say I’ve ever noticed a difference.
Just like 60Hz, 120Hz quickly disappears as a tangible user benefit or disadvantage. By comparison, Mini-LED is likely to have less of an immediate impact during that first encounter, which means it’ll be even less likely to impress the uninitiated.
This begs the question: what should Apple be doing with the next iPad Pro if Mini-LED is going to be such a non-event?
“I just want an iPad I can use with one hand.”
That was one of the comments on the aforementioned MacRumours.com article, and it was met almost immediately with the inevitable rebuke, “that’s called an iPhone”.
No, it’s not. It’s called an iPad mini, and we’re in desperate need of an update. This is where I think Apple should be investing their time if they’re not already.
As noted, I love the Air almost solely because of its dimensions, but it still feels cumbersome at times. For my hands, it’s not quite small enough to enable iPhone-like typing and it still doesn’t provide the comfort needed for prolonged one-handed consumption.
The iPad mini nails both of these requirements, but the current generation is looking dreadfully outdated. Imagine if it was replaced with the new form factor and gained compatibility with a smaller version of the Apple Pencil. It would be a brilliant digital note-taker and possibly the ultimate consumption device for a significant number of people.
That’s the kind of innovation I want. It’s what excites me.
Mini-LED? It’s about as exciting as LiDAR and 5G (which aren’t exciting at all, just to clarify).
As always, I’m willing to be proved wrong, but I have a feeling Mini-LED will arrive as nothing more than a press release update that goes under the radar for the vast majority of ‘normal’ iPad users.
Ain’t that a shame?