Apple's lost control of its product line. The company now offers 17 different iPads thanks to a new group of 9.7-inch devices announced on Tuesday—and boy, that's really too many iPads.
So we're clear, there are four distinct iPad models, but there are several versions of each, which means consumers are faced with a mountain of options when they're shopping for one. You can get an iPad Mini 4, a regular ol' iPad, or one of two sizes of iPad Pro.
This sort of thing is turning into a trend for Apple. Consider the current MacBook line: Each of the three models has certain tradeoffs and benefits, but not in the ways you'd expect. The "regular" MacBook is lighter than the Air, which has better battery life than the Pro and so on. Apple's branding isn't straightforward, which forces consumers to do a frustrating amount of research only to arrive at an imperfect choice.
Perhaps the onslaught of choices is there to railroad people into spending a little more money. Let's think about the most budget-conscious consumer: Do you get the new iPad, which is $329 for a 9.7-inch screen with 32GB of storage, or the smaller iPad Mini 4 for $399? That seems kind of obvious: Get the bigger thing for less money. But that 7.9-inch iPad Mini 4 actually comes with four times the storage space — 128GB.
Tablet customers probably want more than 32GB of storage — these devices are basically made to be multimedia machines, which means you'll want the space to download movies, games, pictures, comics and music. Suddenly, the 128GB iPad Mini 4 looks more appealing ... except then you realize the 128GB iPad is "just" $30 more at $429, so maybe you just throw your hands up and get that one. And voila, you've moved from the $329 iPad that started this whole thing to the $429 one.
Sure, this is a hypothetical situation —certainly there are people who just want the "cheapest" iPad, or the smallest one — but Apple has long leveraged those gigabytes as a way to steer customers toward pricey upgrades. Storage is cheap: Apple only pays $12 more to make a 64GB iPhone than a 16GB one, according to an analysis from IHS Technology, but the device with more storage sells for $100 more.
In other words, it's not a mistake that there are so many iPad options.
Anyway, we could harp on storage pricing all day, but the issues with the iPad are more fundamental. The four-device lineup includes two units (the 12.9-inch and 9.7-inch iPad Pros) that are specifically targeted to business users. Case in point, Apple's recent string of advertisements that show how efficient its tablets are for things like word-processing.
I'll tell ya: I have a 12.9-inch iPad Pro with Apple's "Smart Keyboard," and it's better than a laptop in the same way that walking through waist-high water is better than running on a track. Which is to say, it's not.
Still, the Apple Pencil is kind of neat, the gigantic screen rules and there's certainly a market of first-class-flying business people who just want a light tablet they can use to type on their tray tables. Fine, let's keep the 12.9-inch Pro.
What suddenly makes zero sense, with Tuesday's announcement of the new iPad, is the 9.7-inch iPad Pro that's already on the market. The two devices are strikingly similar: The screen is the same size, its resolution is the same, the battery life is identical and the two iPads are very close in overall weight and dimensions.
The most meaningful differences? The Pro is compatible with the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard, and its camera is much nicer. Apple also says its A9 chip is a bit more powerful, with a CPU that's 1.85-times rather than 1.6-times faster than the A8 chip in the iPad Mini 4, but we can't imagine anyone's obsessing over that.
Chances are, the camera isn't super relevant to you — your phone probably has one that's just as good or better. Jumping from the new iPad to the Pro version means a $270 leap in price for the privilege of using Apple's proprietary keyboard and stylus. That just doesn't make much sense (there are plenty of Bluetooth keyboards that work with the new iPad!).
Let's face it, Apple should kill the 9.7-inch Pro. True Enterprise customers would be left with one Pro model to choose — the largest iPad — and lighter business users could connect a keyboard to the new 9.7-inch iPad and go happily on their way.
While we're cutting things: 32 is the new 16. A tablet should have a higher amount of storage as a baseline option. The iPad Mini 4 starts at 128GB — in fact, that's all it comes in — which makes a lot of sense.
Eight options, not 17. A couple of storage options for that super-big, 12.9-inch iPad Pro, a 128GB 9.7-inch iPad and the 128GB iPad Mini 4. (While we're at it, we could probably kill the 128GB iPad Pro and just assume anyone who's willing to drop that much money on an iPad Pro would go ahead and buy the 256GB version.)
Tablets are a really basic product. They're essentially giant phones you use less. They're good for kids, they're good for schools and they're fantastic leisure devices, but there's really no reason for them to come in so many permutations. If you're buying an iPad, the question you should be asking yourself is, "How big do I need my screen to be?" Not: "Eek, do I need the A9X processor, will 32GB be enough," yadda, yadda, yadda.