Saturday, 9 March 2019

iPad Mini 2 in 2019: Malarkey, or Effective Way?

Let's have a look at the Apple iPad Mini 2. It's a small tablet released way back in 2013, before many of you were born. It's ancient in tablet terms, but as of March 2019 Apple still supports it. It runs iOS 12, which is the most recent version of iOS. In fact it runs iOS 12 surprisingly well, better than it ran iOS 11. A few features aren't supported, notably Apple Pay and any form of fingerprint recognition, but in my opinion Apple Pay makes more sense on something smaller.

The Mini 2 is available cheaply on the used market so I decided to try it out. I wanted a small, well-made tablet to take on holiday, preferably a tablet that wouldn't be bent out of shape by my luggage. The Mini 2 is made out of aluminium and has a glued-together unibody design that's apparently a nightmare to open, but this is more of an issue with laptops. I don't mind having a sealed tablet, it's not something I expect to upgrade.

iOS has a terrific range of virtual instruments. Shown here is iVCS3, a simulation of the EMS VCS3. Surprisingly the Mini 2's Lightning port delivers enough power to drive a small MIDI keyboard without the need for a powered USB hub. It also powers the Arturia Beatstep featured in the previous post.

Why not an Android tablet? I have nothing against Android. My first tablet was an Asus Transformer. The problem is that long-term support with used Android tablets is a minefield - manufacturers tend to shove out a single Android upgrade, then give up - and I'm bored with rooting things, and Google seems to have given up on the Nexus range, and I'm not going to pay a lot for an Android tablet, and at the same time cheap Android tablets tend to be rubbish, that's why.

I also wanted a device with masses of battery life. I get nervous when my phone's battery meter goes below 96%. My phone has given me a psychological aversion to certain numbers. The number 89 interferes with my digestion. When I see the number 78 I can no longer hold my hands steady. I have been unable to drive for several years because the speed signs cause me to involuntarily cry out and shield my eyes.

Imagine the most terrifying horror film ever made. It doesn't have alien monsters or vampires etc. Instead it consists of a battery meter slowly counting down from 58% to 1%, at which point the screen goes blank.

Do mobile phone battery meters ever hit zero? How can the phone show a battery meter if there's no power? These thoughts and many more swirl through my head in the early hours of the morning.

I smell bacon / I smell pork / run little piggy / I've got a fork

The Mini 2 remained on sale for an unusually long time. It wasn't discontinued until mid-2017. Judging by the serial number mine was made in January 2017. In theory it was replaced in 2014 by the Mini 3, but the Mini 3 was a very minor upgrade - a fingerprint sensor, plus a gold-coloured case. The Mini 3 was discontinued in 2015 so the Mini 2 actually outlived it.

Historically the first iPad Mini was launched in 2012. It was essentially an iPad 2 squeezed into a smaller case, with a 1024x768 display and half a gigabyte of memory. The Mini 2 was launched a year later with a faster processor, twice as much memory, and a high-resolution Retina display.

The Retina display was the big selling point, in fact the Mini 2 was originally sold as the iPad Mini with Retina Display. The Mini 2 has a 2048x1526 LCD panel, which would ordinarily result in teeny-tiny text too small to read, but iOS scales everything up so that it still looks like 1024x768 but much sharper.

Retina in action. At the top a 1280x800 Linx 10, admittedly not the leading edge of tablet displays even when it was new; at the bottom the 2048x1526 Retina display in a Mini 2. I found that I could read small text more easily on the Mini 2. My eyes didn't get as tired.

At 100%.

I've never used a Retina display before, at least not for any length of time. As mentioned elsewhere in this post Apple gets a lot of stick for selling overpriced products that have a few good features but are internally behind the curve, but the Retina technology works well and is worth the extra money. On the Mini 2 some websites look tiny, but I can still read the text, and even when the text is large the display is simply more attractive to look at. It took Android and Windows several years to catch up but even today Apple's implementation of high-DPI displays is slicker.

The Mini's leather smart case is like Apple in miniature. The design is neat - you can fold out a little panel to see the battery and wifi status, and when you fold it around the the back of the iPad there's a subtle bump that acts as a handhold, and you can fold it into a triangular stand, and it reliably makes the iPad go to sleep etc - but at £50 it's very expensive and the use of leather feels at odds with Apple's progressive image, comma, and furthermore it picks up scratches and bumps more than a simple plastic case.

As mentioned the Mini 3 was a very minor upgrade. The real true Mini 2 replacement was the iPad Mini 4, which came out in 2015 and is still on sale today. The Mini 4 has a more powerful processor, twice as much memory (2gb vs 1gb), and slightly more advanced wifi, but conceptually it's not all that different. If you're prepared to buy new the Mini 4 is awkward because it's surely on the verge of replacement, and yet it's a pretty good tablet that should hold its value on the used market.

This is Patterning, a drum machine, notable for its clever implementation of probability - instead of programming a separate fill pattern you can just set the probability of a snare hit to 5% or so, and you get periodic fills. The interface looks like a Designer's Republic album cover. You can make each layer revolve, which is good for random-sounding hi-hat lines, and I wonder what would happen if you threw out the drum sounds and loaded a piano or birdsong instead.

When it was new the Mini 2 was often compared with the iPad Air (2013), which was Apple's full-sized-but-thinner tablet; a common criticism of the Air was that it was more expensive than a contemporary iPad but larger and heavier than an iPad Mini and no more advanced internally, so why bother with it?

This tune uses Patterning for the drums, and the Behringer Model D from the previous post driven by an Arturia Beatstep, all kept in sync by the iPad.

The Air made it to a second generation before being discontinued. The iPad Air 2 (2014) is also a good used choice - it's more advanced the the Mini 2, and isn't much more expensive on the used market. Of course it's larger, with a 9.7" display versus 7.9".

EDIT: I spoke too soon about the Air being discontinued. On 18 March 2019 Apple relaunched the air, with the new iPad Air - just that, not Air 3, just iPad Air. They also launched a new iPad Mini, which again is just called iPad Mini. The new machines are similar to the previous generation but with more advanced processors, a wide colour gamut for the display, and Apple Pencil support.

My hunch is that iOS 13 won't support the Mini 2, if only because it only has 1gb of memory, and that by the end of 2019 the Mini 2 will be shifted to Apple's obsolete/vintage range. On the positive side all the apps I use should remain compatible with it for several years to come (Patterning, for example, still runs on iOS 8, ditto OSMAnd). I also have a hunch that iOS 13 won't support the Air 2 either, not for technical reasons but just because the Air 2 is very old.

OSMAnd running on an iPad Mini 2 (left) and a Motorola Moto G 2 (right). The bigger screen is nice, but the Mini 2 has one key flaw as a navigational tool - the wifi-only model doesn't have a GPS chipset! It relies on wifi location finding, which is naff even in a major city and useless otherwise.

I'm platform-independent. I only care about the software. The killer app. I own and still occasionally use a thoroughly obsolete Power Macintosh G5, because it runs Logic Express and works with my Mark of the Unicorn 2408 audio interface. The strings pad in the tune above was made with Logic Express running on a G5. I own an Android mobile phone because it runs OSMAnd, and a Windows tablet because it's widely compatible with lots of software.

On that level the iPad, and Apple's ecosystem, is both good and bad. If you're interested in music it's essentially the default choice, because there are far more synthesisers for iOS than Android and the general recording and sequencing infrastructure is more extensive. On a technical level I had no problem surfing the internet, sharing files with Google Drive, editing pictures with Photoshop Express, playing music, running OSMAnd etc, albeit that with only 32gb of internal storage and no card slot I can't download the entire world.

Apple Maps is a mixture of pleasure and pain. As on the desktop it looks wonderful, but it's not as extensive as Google Maps and doesn't feel as slick.

Safari is better than I remembered.

It has a tablet-optimised "Reader" view that strips out all the crap and turns web pages into miniature eBooks. Beyond that there doesn't seem to be a way of enlarging text on a standard website; you can zoom in, but then you have to swipe left and right all the time to read things.

I love The Daily Mail. It makes people angry and I love that. I admire it on a professional level. Notice how it runs stories about Meghan Markle that seem perfectly ordinary on the surface but are cleverly calculated to make the readers angry. It reminds me of The Sun during that newspaper's imperial phase in the 1980s; it is on top of the game.
It's also far more representative of contemporary Britain than any other newspaper. You might not like it, but it's true. Britain isn't intellectuals reading books in cafes.

You will discover, sooner or later, that wishful thinking is not enough, and that if you want to change the world you have to get your hands dirty, and then your arms, until eventually you think nothing of putting tyres over the heads of teenage kids and setting them on fire. There is no good or bad, only power, which in the case of the iPad Mini comes from the tablet's one and only Lightning port, which is where the bad starts. If you want to connect anything you need to use a dongle, and even then the Mini 2 only recognises USB devices that don't require drivers. In that respect my Windows tablet is much better because it supports essentially everything.

As far as Apple is concerned, if you want more storage you should use iCloud, and if that's not enough you should pay Apple for more space. The company's share price has taken a battering of late because Apple relies too much on hardware sales and not enough from services, although ironically Apple's revenues from iTunes and so forth are larger than e.g. all of Nike and General Dynamics (for example). I wonder if Carl Icahn will try to pressure Apple into spinning off iTunes as a separate company.

The Mini has a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, but the smart case is designed so that you need a long thin plug - I had to buy a short extension because my non-Apple headphones didn't click into place.

The River Po in Turin, which is where I went last week. It was February, it was 21c, all the Italians were dressed in winter gear, I went around barechested eating an ice cream because it was so hot.

Beyond that the iPad has some odd omissions. There's no built-in calculator app. The onboard photo editor lets you draw shapes, but doesn't let you resize images. I had to download Photoshop Express just to resize an image. The iPad has a files browser, but Apple greatly prefers for you to manipulate photos and music etc with iCloud, which isn't much fun if you don't have a mobile data connection.

In general desktop computers have a file-centric approach - you copy and paste files, click on files to open the application, move files with the Finder or Explorer etc - whereas Android and iOS have an app-centric approach whereby you open the app first, then open the file, then save it somewhere else etc; in this model files don't exist independently. I prefer the former approach. In Apple's defence Android is like that as well, they both try to abstract the file system into nothingness.

What else? Safari and Chrome both insist on using mobile versions of websites, even though the hardware is powerful enough for the full desktop experience. Adblock support is awkward with mobile browsers. You'd think Apple wouldn't mind, given that they make their money from direct sales to the public; I can understand Google wanting to force people to look at adverts, Apple should be better than that.

On the whole however I liked the Mini 2. The case is extremely well-made. It doesn't flex or creak. The battery life is such that while on holiday I didn't feel a compulsive need to charge it every night. It takes a while for my mind to "feel" a device's battery life, but with the Mini 2 78% still feels like plenty. I can cope with the storage limitations, or work around them, and fortunately Kindle eBooks don't take up much space.

What else? It has stereo speakers. They're surprisingly good. No bass, but there's a noticeable stereo effect. They're on the bottom of the machine, so the stereo stops working if you turn it sideways, but they're better than I expected. The screen has a 4:3 aspect ratio, which means that widescreen films have black bars at the top and bottom - just as God intended. There's a little switch on the right that mutes the iPad or locks the rotation. The switch only does two things and feels underutilised. It was eliminated from later iPads, comma, the end.