Why you should wait for the iPad Mini

In this Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon explains why waiting to see if Apple introduces a small iPad may be worth your while.

Amazon and Google have opened the market to a whole new class of tablet customer with their 7-inch tablets priced affordably at $200. But the attractive price tag is only one reason to like these mini-tablets.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I explain why I like smaller tablets and why I think readers interested in buying a tablet should wait to see if Apple also introduces a tiny, affordable iPad.

I also explain the ins and outs of buying a new iPhone directly from Apple or from your wireless carrier.

Good things do come in smaller packages

Dear Maggie,
I am thinking about getting a tablet. But I am unsure about which one I should buy. Several people have recommended the Apple iPad to me. I have an iPhone so I am familiar with the software and I have some apps already. My husband has an Android smartphone. And I also have a Kindle e-reader. I'll probably use my new tablet for reading as well as watching some videos and to let my son play some games.

I'd really rather not spend $500 plus on a tablet. I know there are smaller ones available for less money. But I'm not sure if I'd regret not getting the bigger tablet. Anyway, I'd love to hear your thoughts on what you think I should get.

Thanks,
Jaime

Dear Jaime,
The first piece of advice I'd offer is that you shouldn't do anything for at least the next few weeks. Rumors have been swirling around for a while that Apple is planning on introducing a mini-iPad or a maxi-iPod Touch. Whatever the device is called or modeled after, it's likely to be a touch device with a screen around 7-inches. And because of the size, my guess is that it will be priced lower than the $500 that Apple charges now for the 10-inch iPad.

Google's Nexus 7 tablet.
Google's Nexus 7 tablet. Josh Miller/CNET

Of course, I don't know whether Apple will, in fact, announce this new mini iPad/oversized iPod Touch. The company hasn't made any formal announcement yet. But there has been talk about such a product for several weeks now, which often indicates something might be cooking.

Word on the street is that Apple will likely announce the next iPhone on September 12. And the new iPad could follow in October. Since we're already well into August, it makes sense for you to wait at least a few weeks or even a month or two to see what gets announced.

With that in mind, it's hard to say for certain which tablet is right for you. If a new smaller and lower-priced iPad comes on the market this fall, it will be a game-changer. Recommending whatever Apple offers compared to the Google Android Nexus 7 or the Kindle Fire will depend on the new features and functionality of this new product as well as the price.

That said, I can tell you without much hesitation that I personally like the smaller 7-inch tablets when compared to the bigger 10-inch tablets. I know that millions of people love the 10-inch iPad. And there are definitely some instances where the bigger screen really is better. For example, some people prefer using the bigger screen to watch videos. And of course, Apple is the tablet leader, so there are tons of apps optimized for the iPad.

But here's why I think it might be worth waiting to see if Apple introduces a smaller version of the iPad.

For one, the price of the two most popular 7-inch tablets is around $200 compared with the cheapest version of the iPad, which is $500. So right off that bat, that gets my attention since I'm kind of cheap when it comes to gadgetry. I can justify spending $200 on something I don't necessarily need. It's a little harder for me to stomach spending $500 on something that I can live without.

Again, I don't know if Apple would go as cheap as $200. But if it got close, I might consider it.

But cost is just one reason I prefer the smaller tablets. The main reason is that I just think they are easier to use.

In my household, we have a Samsung Galaxy Tab and a Google Nexus 7. The Galaxy Tab is the bigger 10-inch tablet and the Nexus 7 is the smaller 7-inch tablet.

My fiance and I have discovered since owning the Nexus 7 that we actually use the 7-inch tablet much more than the older Galaxy Tab. Part of the reason is because the Nexus 7 is a newer and better tablet. But I think the form factor also plays a role.

Here's why:

Typing on a 7-inch screen is just easier. A tablet this size is definitely bigger than a smartphone, but it's not so big that you can't use your thumbs to type. Even though I am a decent typist on a physical keyboard, I don't ever type on the 10-inch tablet's virtual keyboard like I do on my laptop. On the tablet, I still hunt and peck with my index finger. But on the smaller 7-inch screen, I can use my thumbs much like I do for my smartphone, which is actually faster than using my index finger.

The small and light form-factor makes it more portable and more appealing for reading. The Nexus 7 is considerably lighter than the Galaxy Tab or even the iPad. And you can hold it easily in one hand, which makes reading a book, magazine or even a news Web site much more comfortable. I also like to use the Nexus 7 in the kitchen to look up recipes when I am cooking. While I could use the 10-inch tablet for that same task, it just seems easier to have the smaller tablet around for that job.

It's actually easier to play games on the smaller screen. I know it may seem counter-intuitive, but playing games on the 7-inch tablet is easier than on the bigger screen. My fiance, Mark, said he thought playing Angry Birds on the big 10-inch screen was going to be great compared with his 4.5-inch smartphone screen. But he said it felt unwieldy on the bigger screen.

The small size means you'll use it more places. Another thing we use our 7-inch tablet for is listening to Pandora or other streaming audio services. The 7-inch tablet is smaller so it just fits better in the area where we plug our devices into our stereo. While we could use the 10-inch tablet for the same thing, it just seems bulkier and we never really used it in this way. Also, we tend to leave the smaller tablet on the coffee table or side table next to the couch. And we use it much more often to check email or look things up on the Internet while we're watching TV.

I'm not alone in thinking that the 7-inch form factor for a tablet is a good size. Even though Apple's Steve Jobs may have poo-pooed the idea initially, according to court documents uncovered in Apple's lawsuit with Samsung, it looks like the company spent some time discussing the idea. And as I mentioned, Apple is supposedly now building a smaller version of the iPad.

While there may have been problems with early 7-inch tablets that made Apple's Steve Jobs think they were inferior to bigger 10-inch models, it seems like many of those issues have been solved. CNET blogger Danny Sullivan recently wrote a post discussing these issues . Specifically, he said that the issues Jobs had with 7-inch tablets back in 2010 were that they were

  • Too expensive
  • Too small for good touch control
  • Too big to be mobile
  • Android's software wasn't tablet-ready
  • Lack of tablet apps

He goes on to discuss in his story, how each of these very valid criticisms of early 7-inch tablets is no longer true.

Amazon and Google have set the standard for pricing for these devices at $200. And the popularity of the Kindle Fire and the Nexus 7, shows that consumers are willing to buy these devices at that price.

As I described above, I think the 7-inch size lends itself more easily to a lot of tasks than the bigger 10-inch tablet. And Google's Android 4.1 Jellybean version of software, which is available on the Nexus 7, makes the tablet easy to use. And there are now plenty of apps for Android apps. What's more Sullivan points out in his story how many apps developed for Android smartphones, can be used on the 7-inch Nexus 7 without any issues.

I predict that if Apple introduces a smaller iPad at the right price point, it could be an even bigger hit than the original 10-inch iPad.

So my advice to you is that you should wait. See what, if anything Apple announces in this form factor. If Apple does announce a product that competes with the Nexus 7, take a look at each of them. I think your decision will likely come down to these two devices.

I hope this advice was helpful. Good luck!

Does it matter where I buy my next iPhone?

Dear Maggie,
I love your column and articles! I will be purchasing the new iPhone when it comes out next month, and I plan to pay full price for the device in order to keep my unlimited data package on Verizon Wireless. What are the pros and cons of buying from the carrier versus buying directly from Apple?

We purchased an iPhone 4S at an Apple store earlier this year, and the sales people at our favorite Verizon store were pretty upset that we didn't buy it there. Why is that? Lastly, if purchasing directly from Apple, is there any advantage in going to an Apple store versus buying on their Website?

Thanks,
Kevin

Dear Kevin,

As I mentioned in my column last week, all versions of the iPhone 4S sold in the U.S. have the exact same hardware. But the carriers have locked these devices via software so they only operate on certain networks.

I don't know for certain that this policy will continue with the next iPhone. But my guess is that it will.

So unless things drastically change when Apple introduces the new iPhone later this year, it makes no difference whether you buy the iPhone at full price from Verizon Wireless or you buy it from an Apple store. The device will still only operate on Verizon's network here in the U.S. It can be unlocked to operate overseas, but when you use it in the U.S. it will likely be locked to Verizon's CDMA/EV-DO and 4G LTE networks. (The next iPhone is supposed to support 4G LTE.)

If you were an AT&T customer, my answer would be different. AT&T customers willing to pay full price for an iPhone, should buy the unlocked version from Apple. An unlocked version of the iPhone 4S is ready out of the box to be used on any GSM network, whether it's AT&T's or T-Mobile's network or an overseas GSM carrier.

By contrast, if you buy an AT&T iPhone 4S from AT&T even at full price, the phone will not be unlocked.

Unfortunately, for you and other Verizon Wireless or Sprint customers, the unlocked iPhone 4S sold by Apple is only unlocked for GSM networks. You can buy Verizon and Sprint versions of the iPhone 4S from Apple, but it will be locked to those specific carriers in the U.S., even if you pay full price for the device. Apple doesn't sell an unlocked CDMA version of the phone.

This means that as far as I know there is no benefit to buying your Verizon iPhone in an Apple store versus buying it at a Verizon store. If it's more convenient for you to go to a Verizon store then I'd suggest buying it there. But if it's more convenient to go to an Apple store purchase it there.

There isn't much of a difference if you purchase online or in the store.

That said, if you're planning to get the new iPhone the day it launches, you might want to pre-order the device online so you don't have to wait in a long line at either an Apple store or a Verizon store.

If you are going to wait in line, carrier stores tend to have fewer people standing in line than Apple stores. But they also get fewer devices to sell the day of the launch. Apple stores are usually well-stocked with enough devices to satisfy demand. And they typically get restocked with new inventory more quickly than most carrier retail locations.

I'm not sure why your local Verizon store would be unhappy with you for buying the iPhone somewhere else. Verizon actually has to pay Apple money every time someone buys a subsidized iPhone.

Verizon makes money on the monthly recurring service fee you pay rather than on the devices you buy. That said, the sales reps in the stores may have sales quotas and other sales incentives. So an individual associate may have wanted you to buy the device from him or her rather than from Apple.

I hope this explanation was helpful. Thanks for reading Ask Maggie!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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