The Boy Genius Report: iPad mini, iMac and the Microsoft Surface

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iMacImage Source: Apple Inc.

It’s time to bring the name back. Boy Genius Report officially changed its name to BGR back in 2010, but I am  going to be doing a periodic column here called The Boy Genius Report that will be my space to rant about supersized phablets, my love for Apple (AAPL), overpriced accessories, and honestly… whatever I want.  While our reviews on BGR are always the individual author’s personal opinion — that’s why we don’t do ratings or scores, it’s just too subjective — I wanted a place to recap my thoughts on the week’s news, or something interesting I found that I wanted to share. And above all, who can resist a column called The Boy Genius Report? And now, here’s the first installment.

Who would have thought Apple would announce a smaller, lighter, thinner, and less expensive iPad called the iPad mini? Well, everyone. Who would have thought that this iPad mini would sell for $329 instead of $249 or $299? No one, besides 9to5Mac. The iPad mini pricing situation isn’t out of left field. As we found out later on Apple’s Q4 earnings call, the iPad mini’s gross margin is way lower than the other products the company sells. This is going to be a product that Apple will sell more of to make the same level of profit that the company does on iPhones, iPods, Macs, and existing iPads.

The fact that people were disappointed that the iPad mini was not priced lower is split between people covering the stock and the company, thinking that the price umbrella Apple has left below $329 is going to let competitors continue to build momentum underneath them. The other group of people disappointed were journalists, bloggers, writers, and people that generally treasure specs over experiences. Apple has always made products that were higher priced than competitors in every way. This was because consumers understood that even though something Apple sold was priced higher, there was way more value in the item compared to something a little less expensive.

When you look at the tablet landscape, it’s just god awful besides the iPad. To this day there isn’t a single true competitor to the iPad in terms of hardware, software, ease of use, experience, manufacturing, apps, accessories, or ecosystem. Some may have some of these (may), but none has all of the parts. When you realize that the closest competitor to the iPad mini is Google’s Nexus 7 for $249, a tablet which I personally thought was the best lower-priced tablet I have ever used, does an $80 difference actually sound like a lot of money over when you’re talking about two to three years of usage? Is $80 worth bitching about when you get a product designed to be the best product possible instead of the least expensive? A beautiful aluminum tablet that’s thin and light, compared to a cheap plastic tablet that’s bulkier and heavier? A tablet that offers the best app library on the planet, a tablet that features the best music store in the world? The list can go on and on, but to complain over $80 just feels short-sighted, even for the bearish Apple guys.

I don’t think there’s actually ever been an announcement from any tech company which delivered so many new products as Apple’s from last week. If the company only announced the iPad mini, it would have been a smash. Instead, we saw a 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, refreshed Mac mini, brand new 4th-generation iPad, iPad mini, and the all new iMac.

I am the first to admit that the computer is not anywhere near as thin as Apple portrays it to be. The edges are 5mm thin, but there’s a bubble in the middle of the backside. Even so, this is the most impressive desktop computer I have ever seen in my life, and once again it is Apple pushing the envelope of engineering here. There is no company on earth that is set up for the next ten years in the technology space like Apple is, and that’s mostly because Apple is one of the few companies to embrace the fact that to move forward, you have to compete with yourself and your own products. The iMac loses the optical drive and also brings a FusionDrive to the table where another legacy component will soon be put out to pasture. By combining a traditional spinning hard drive and a solid state drive together with the right software, Apple will be able to minimize the usage of regular disk drives in favor of solid state.

Soon there won’t be anything but solid state drives on Apple’s entire lineup, enabling the company to focus on smaller computers and devices that run faster, cooler, and have longer battery life. Also, even though the iMac isn’t available for purchase yet, it seems to be one of the most uncompromised Apple products in recent memory. It’s amazingly tiny, yet it really does still pack a punch. So much so that it now really competes with the company’s only desktop tower, the Mac Pro (it already did, but this just solidifies it). There’s ethernet, Thunderbolt, USB 3.0, the latest Intel Core i7 processors, up to 32GB of RAM, enhanced video card, new screen technology to reduce glare 75% and make the picture look even better, and so on. We’re used to sometimes compromising with Apple products until the company can finally reach it’s vision that it set out to achieve, but with the new iMac I don’t think we have to.

Lastly, my thoughts on the Microsoft Surface. I have been talking reckless about the Surface and Windows 8 for months. Zach went to Redmond to see up close how Microsoft (MSFT) put this entire project together, and he was impressed with both the company and with the Surface. And look, this is a brand new product category for Microsoft, and really a brand new time too. Microsoft was the original tablet visionary. Bill Gates was the one who desperately wanted the tablet space to take off, but for one reason or another — and of course, the company’s unwillingness or inability to sunset old technology — the tablet vision Microsoft put forth was never realized. With the Microsoft Surface, Microsoft has been taking notes from the best tablet company on the face of the planet, and it shows, kind of.

I do like the concept of the Surface. I like how it’s positioned as a tablet you can do more on, even if it doesn’t fully fulfill that promise. I have not used this tablet (or PC, as Microsoft keeps calling it) for more than two hours, but there are still many things that I can’t overlook. Like the story of how an analyst met with Microsoft’s senior team and went over how the Surface would feature a full-size USB 2.0 port. The company was so stubborn to have a USB port on the Surface, it admitted they could have made the tablet lighter and thinner without it, but they feared their business customers would be unhappy with an adapter. There are multiple things that are nerve-wracking there, but the standout to me has to be the fact that Microsoft has another version of the Surface, the Surface Pro which will appeal to way more business customers. If the company is so insistent on a USB port, why not include it there instead of on the RT, which is a consumer-focused variant? And why are we so reliant on a USB port again in this day and age? Is it that important and that essential to the hundreds of millions of tablet users that are already happily using tablets without USB ports? I just don’t understand.

Something else about the Surface that is frustrating is the fact that it allows you to use the Surface as a handicapped PC in desktop mode. You have what looks like a regular Windows computer, but without Microsoft’s Touch Cover attachment, you are stuck using your finger to navigate, and it’s not at all optimized for finger input. In addition to that, you can’t run any Windows applications on here, so you’re limited to Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office (without Outlook).

Microsoft building their own hardware is an issue in and of itself, but I do like the hardware here. Microsoft put a lot of time and engineering effort into the Surface and it shows. The aspect ratio of the tablet is a poor choice to me, but I understand why Microsoft favors a landscape orientation over portrait. Landscape signifies content creation, with the keyboard, like a normal computer. Portrait signifies content consumption, like the iPad’s 4:3 aspect ratio. The thing is, I like a 4:3 aspect ratio even in landscape, compared to Microsoft’s ridiculously wide tablet. Using it in portrait just feels downright strange. And all this talk of this amazingly magical life-changing kickstand hinge! There are actually two hinges built in! One as a mechanism for the kickstand, and one for the assuring click when you retract the kickstand. Let me spoil it for you, it sounds like one hinge to me. I also don’t like the fact that there is only one cutout on the left side for the hinge, as opposed to being on both sides.

I am fairly impressed with the app selection, though. There are some big name apps in here, in every category, and it feels like real progress is being made. For a launch with a basically new platform, Microsoft appears to have tremendous success with apps on the Surface. And at the end of the day, it’s not Apple and Microsoft competing with each other. Both companies have a common enemy in Android, which does not care about making money off of tablets and which instead wants to win by increasing Google (GOOG) search traffic and providing more data about users to itself.

The Surface is not a bad start, and it’s a different vision than the iPad, but the thing is the iPad will, and has, started to transform more and more to a computer replacement for many people, and it’s not stopping. Apple will eventually offer one OS, and I feel like the company has a more cohesive strategy there. Microsoft’s strategy seems to be no compromise, but as I’ve written above, compromises are the key to success in the tech industry.

The Boy Genius Report is a periodic column written by BGR founder Jonathan S. Geller. It offers insights and opinions on various products, companies and trends across the consumer electronics business and beyond.

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