The Refresh: The Device

In the last piece, I explained my thinking on the platform we're choosing for our refresh. We're sticking with iOS, not just because we're already on iOS but because I don't see compelling reasons to switch to any other platform.

A few people got in touch to ask why I hadn't considered Chromebooks in my analysis. There are a few reasons. I know there are several "Chromebooks" available but the one most people are talking about is the Samsung Series 3. From a hardware point of view, I was surprised that the Series 3 only claims 6.3 hours of battery life. That's pretty poor for an ARM-based device. Heck, I can get better than that from my Core i7-based MacBook Air. Long battery life is not something to be sniffed at - it's genuinely transformational in the classroom.

I also think the laptop form factor is limiting compared to a tablet. I don't disagree that a laptop can be a very strong form factor for document production but the laptop still generally requires a surface to work on, is difficult to use standing and lacks functionality as an integrated media capture device (i.e. shoot video on the device then edit it).

I'm also not totally convinced about ChromeOS. We use Google Apps, so actually adopting Chromebooks wouldn't be particularly hard for us. I just struggle to conceive how we would do the range of things we want to do with computers using only web apps. If your main uses are office-type applications, the web and email, I'm sure the Chromebook does a pretty good job. Right now, I think I'd need to see the platform mature significantly and reach into areas like video editing, audio editing, rich art tools and so on.

So, with that out of the way, let's talk iPads. The one question I got after the last piece that beat out the Chromebook question was why I had not written about iPad vs iPad mini. The reason I didn't include that discussion in the last piece is actually interesting in itself: last time, I was writing about platforms. The iPad and the iPad mini are not two distinct platforms to be considered separately. They are two embodiments of one platform and should not be considered separately from one another.

Of course, they are different devices and they are not direct substitutes for each other. Each does a different job, and that's what I want to consider now.

We have learned over the past couple of years that, in school, an iPad can handle everything we've thrown at it. As a result, our school now looks significantly different to most other schools that have "a few iPads" scattered around. We don't have a computer suite any more. We don't have fleets of desktops or laptops to fall back on if the iPad can't handle the task - mainly because it's impossible to justify the cost of fixed infrastructure for such rare occasions.

So, where does the iPad mini fit in? I look at this from the point of view of the job we are hiring these devices to do. We are buying them to be a pupil's only computer for three years. Where does that lead us?

For some time now, I have used the following framework to think about 7"-class tablets:

A 7" tablet makes a great adjunct to a computer; a 10" tablet can replace it.

I first wrote that about the Google Nexus 7 and, having used an iPad mini exclusively since release day, I'm fairly happy to say the same applies to the iPad mini. My experience has been that I use the mini as much as I ever used my 3rd-generation iPad - and I take it with me to more places - but I've also noticed that my laptop has become more important to me.

Two years ago, the iPad mini wasn't practical. Today it is. Why? The cloud got good. Let me explain: in 2010, the options for fluidly moving between a laptop and an iPad on one task were pretty limited. In fact, it was initially near-impossible. Today, this is much, much easier. iCloud is working well and applications like Evernote are increasingly powerful on iOS. Two years ago, iCloud didn't exist and complex applications like Evernote and the iWork suite were not close to parity with their desktop counterparts.

If I had the budget to provide two computers to each pupil, those two devices would unquestionably be a MacBook Air and an iPad mini. Unfortunately I don't, and there's no way I could persuade people to give up their iPads, so we're going with the device we know can handle everything: the full-size iPad.

Another consideration is the internals of the iPad mini. Last year, the A5 architecture looked like it was history. It had a good run in the iPad 2, which is still on sale, but clearly the future looked A6-based. The iPad mini, being essentially an iPad 2 in a smaller case, changes that. The A5 architecture is going to be a major part of the iOS landscape for the foreseeable future.

That said, it wasn't the A6 processor or the 1GB RAM specification or even the retina display that led me to decide on the 4th-generation iPad. Basically, it's about buying the newest and most capable technology we can get. We're signing a three year lease on these devices and, given how fast the mobile world is moving, I feel we need to at least start our leases on the leading edge of technology. To start with older specifications and hardware - even if that device is brand new - is something I'm wary of. We have no roadmap for how things are going to develop so I intend to equip our kids with the best kit we can put our hands on today.