When iPad mini rumors started, the focus was more on Apple's market opportunity and less on any dire need for a smaller iPad. After all, we have small iPhones, and we have big iPads. Is something in between going to change anything?
After testing and playing with the iPad mini, though, I found myself enjoying this new product more than I expected. Apart from one big exception, it may epitomize the purpose of the tablet more than its larger sibling.
It's nice to hold the title of (Almost) Ultimate iPad, but the big question is whether it's worth an extra US$130 over its rivals, the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD. Let's see if we can help you to answer that.
Design is the iPad mini's forte. It's incredibly easy to hold with one hand. It's light. It makes a full-sized iPad feel like a heavy brick.
At just 308 g (0.68 lb.), it's much lighter than any rival seven-inch tablet: 32 g lighter than the Nexus 7, and a whopping 86 g lighter than the Kindle Fire HD. Considering that the iPad mini sports nearly an extra (diagonal) inch of screen real estate over its rivals, it represents a big step forward in budget tablet design.
The iPad mini is also incredibly thin, measuring at 7.2mm (0.28"). Its competitors don't come close: the Kindle Fire HD is 3 mm thicker, and the Nexus 7 is 3.25 mm thicker.
The iPad mini's side bezels are narrower than those on other tablets (including the full-sized iPad). Though your thumb will rest near the display's edge, Apple added touch correction technology to iOS 6. I didn't experience any accidental touches, and every touch I did intend registered immediately.
There are reasons to hesitate about buying the iPad mini, but design is not one of them. From this perspective, Apple hit a home run.
If design is the iPad mini's monumental achievement, display resolution is its Achilles heel. It has the same 1024 x 768 resolution as the first two iPads. To keep things simple for developers, Apple likes to increase resolution in even multiples. 2048 x 1536 resolution on a 7.9-inch screen isn't yet cost-effective, so half of that is what we get.
The result? That 1024 x 768 resolution looks a bit sharper on this shrunken-down display than it does on the iPad 2, but it's a far cry from its big brother's Retina Display. It looks a lot like the screen of an iPhone 3GS ... you know, Apple's flagship phone from 2009.
The iPad mini's display is also a far cry from its rivals' displays. The Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD each have 1280 x 800 resolution. Their 216 pixels per inch (PPI) are much sharper than the iPad mini's 163 PPI. The Nook HD's 1440 x 900, 243 PPI display obliterates it.
If you've never used a Retina Display, you won't complain. But, for those who have spent the last seven months enjoying 264 PPI, 163 PPI is a huge step back.
The display's bright spot, though, is its size. At 7.9 inches, it's significantly more spacious than its 7-inch rivals' screens, and it lends itself well to the App Store's library of tablet apps. Typing is great in portrait mode, and tolerable in landscape. Icons and buttons are all a bit smaller, but nothing felt too small.
The question, then, is whether the nice size outweighs the dearth of pixels. For those accustomed to near print-quality text and images, it's a tough tradeoff.
I was prepared for mediocre performance, as the iPad mini's A5 chip is growing a bit long in the tooth. It surprised me, though, with sufficient processing.
It isn't blazing fast like the iPhone 5 or 4th-generation iPad, but the iPad mini performs on par with the iPad 3. Geekbench tests yielded a 757 score for the iPad mini, identical to the early 2012 iPad. The iPad 4, meanwhile, scored 1766.
It's far from mind-blowing, but I didn't experience any performance problems. Most app developers tailor their software to run on several generations of iOS devices, so there aren't many applications that will push the A5 chip to its limits. Basic iOS tasks like opening apps, panning, and scrolling all have ample zip.
The iPad mini has cameras that are identical to those in the new 4th-generation iPad. Though the 5 megapixel rear camera isn't on par with the latest high-end smartphone shooters, it works well enough for basic photography.
The front-facing (FaceTime HD) camera makes for sharper video chat, as its 1.2 megapixels are an improvement over the iPad 3's VGA front camera.
Who is it for?
The iPad mini is for almost anyone who wants an iPad. It's a near-perfect blend of comfort, portability, and great software. It delivers nearly everything that a full-sized iPad does, while approaching the portability of an iPhone. But rather than diluting those two extremes to some mediocre compromise, the iPad mini hits a refreshing balance point.
The big exception is that display. Customers looking for ultra-crisp text and images need to look elsewhere, or wait for the inevitable sequel that adds a Retina Display.
Is it worth it?
Apart from that one huge reservation, my response to the iPad mini is glowing. But is "glowing" enough to justify paying US$330, when the excellent Nexus 7 and improved Kindle Fire HD only cost $200?
For some customers, that answer will be "yes." These would be customers who prioritize premium build quality (anodized aluminum vs. plastic), industry-leading design, and – most importantly – a far superior app library.
For, as much as the iPad mini is defined by its design, the biggest reason to buy one is for its software. The App Store has over 275,000 tablet-specific apps. Google Play and the Amazon Appstore house plenty of upscaled phone apps, but their tablet app selections still pale next to the iPad's.
Apple's tablet dominance is now largely perpetuated by, well, its tablet dominance. The first iPad's head start kickstarted a chain reaction that has frustrated rivals. Developers flock to the iPad because of its market share, and customers keep buying the iPad (partly) because it has the best software. It may be a catch-22, but competitors have had almost three years to catch up, and their tablet libraries are nowhere close.
Right now your choice is simple: jump into that superior library, or suffer through Early Adopter Syndrome on another platform. Putting your tablet faith in either Android or Windows RT may help it to grow, but, in the meantime, be ready for sparse selections or stretched-out smartphone apps.
The iPad mini feels more like a new device than a shrunken-down iPad 2. Even if its display is a generation behind, Apple probably has another hit on its hands. I often find myself reaching for it in place of the iPad 4 – just because it's a pleasure to hold.
Miniature tablet shoppers have a decision to make. Pay more for the best software selection and design, or pay less for a sharper display and a faster processor. This holiday shopping season, it will be fascinating to see where those cards fall.