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Apple's iPad mini solution: Just add Air

The iPad upgrades that Apple unveiled at its September event go a long way toward solving their long-running value disparity.

iPhone 13 wasn't the biggest star of Apple's California Streaming event

After offering tributes to the Golden State and promising its streaming subscribers a golden slate, Apple turned the attention of its California Streaming event to what have been its least glamorous iPads: the baseline model and the iPad mini. The specs for both have long lagged behind the company's stages for advancing the tablet, In its divergent upgrades for each, though, Apple set a new roadmap for the products by resolving a longstanding conflict in their related histories.

Also: Why the iPad Mini 6 is Apple's most exciting new product in years 

First came the iPad. With its classic Home button planted in the center of a bezel expanse just above the glacially fading Lightning connector, the baseline iPad's design remains the last to bear the design DNA that defined the modern tablet. To be sure, the way Apple talks about the iPad has evolved 180 degrees in the decade since the original Pad. First positioned as something for tasks that fell between the smartphone and laptop, Apple now touts the device's "amazing versatility," a more grounded variation of its characterization as "a magical sheet of glass." (Fret not, fans of silicon sorcery. Apple calls the iPad's panning Center Stage camera functionality "magical.")

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With the iPad family's proliferation over the years, the baseline iPad has become something the company had sought since the days of the eMate 300 -- an inexpensive computer that could serve schools. However, unlike that banished, translucent green oddity, the iPad has served as an entry point to the company's broader product line. Like virtually all computing products, but particularly those that cater to students, the iPad line saw 40% growth last year. In a defense of the baseline more modest improvement, Apple played up the value message in part by noting that the new model would remain compatible with accessories such as keyboard cases for older iPads. But it also acknowledged the pandemic-fueled Chromebook explosion that allowed Google's laptop platform to surpass Mac sales and eat into Windows' market share.

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While Apple tablet history extends to serving as a key prototype in developing the iPhone, the iPad mini has more of an outsider origin. Apple avoided a smaller iPad; such a device might challenge the company's ultimately successful developer strategy of encouraging apps to take advantage of the iPad's display size advantage versus simply running enlarged iPhone apps. However, the company's long-running lawsuit versus Samsung revealed that Apple was swayed in part by former ZDNet columnist Kevin Tofel's praise of Samsung's smaller Galaxy Tab. As products like Amazon's Fire tablet pushed down the price of those products, the iPad mini not only left the ballpark of 7" and 8" Android tablets, but settled in above the price of the baseline iPad as Apple honed that product's suitability for education. Why, came the question, would anyone buy a product with a smaller screen that costs more?

Its prospects often doubted as it represented a small slice of iPad sales, the iPad mini saw slowed product introductions. In 2017, rumors swirled that Apple might discontinue the product. And just months ago, PhoneArena picked up a report that this might be the iPad mini's last hurrah as Apple ramps up to produce a folding phone. That displacement seems highly unlikely. For one, there's no way such a device would be priced low enough to immediately threaten the mini. Indeed, Samsung's Z Fold has not replaced its 8" tablets.

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But if the 6th generation iPad mini is the last, it's going out with a bang. In upgrading the mini's processor, display, Touch ID sensor and raising its price, Apple has effectively turned the iPad into an iPad Air mini. The $100 premium now takes the iPad mini out of the entry-level discussion by making it no longer an entry-level product. Apple may be motivated by increased interest in the mini as a corporate tool. Again, turning to Samsung as a comparison point, the Android vendor has released three generations of its 8" Galaxy Tab Active. While the iPad mini isn't ruggedized, some of the difference can be made up with hearty cases.

The new iPad mini resolves the mini's losing proposition as an entry-level device by pushing it out of competition with the baseline iPad. As a now de facto iPad Air at $499, it now costs $100 less than the 10.9" model. It all makes sense, at least for now. At some point, the baseline iPad will pick up at least some of the iPad Air features, causing the kind of product line bump-up that Apple faced between the iPad Air and iPad Pro when it overhauled the former. That could force some tough decisions if Apple wants to keep it the value champion among its computing products.

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