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iPad Mini : Review

The perfect size, but at a price

The good: The iPad Mini’s ultra-thin and light design is far more intimate and booklike than the larger iPad, and its cameras, storage capacities, optional LTE antenna, and general functionality offer a full iPad experience. The display’s dimensions elegantly display larger-format magazines and apps.

The bad: The iPad Mini costs too much, especially considering the lower resolution of its 7.9-inch non-Retina Display. The A5 processor isn’t as robust as the one in the fourth-gen iPad and iPhone 5. Typing on the smaller screen is not quite as comfy.

The bottom line: If you want a tiny tablet to do everything but make calls, the iPad Mini is worth the $130 premium. For an e-reader plus apps, choose a cheaper, higher-resolution 7-inch tablet.

 

The tablet landscape, at the smaller-screened end, has become about pricing. Or so it seems. Don’t tell that to the iPad Mini. Apple’s long-awaited, and finally real, tinier tablet is remarkably thinner and lighter than its big-boned newly arrived fourth-gen iPad sibling, but it also starts at $329, a price that’s well above the bargain-basement $199 target floated by devices like the Nexus 7Amazon Kindle Fire HD, and Nook HD.

Certainly, the tablet playing field — especially when it comes to media — is leveling. The Kindle’s book, video, and app ecosystem is impressive in its own right. The Nook has made gains with its apps and services. Android has Google Play. Regardless, none of these can truly compare to the breadth of content from Apple’s App Store and iTunes. The App Store is Apple’s great gold mine, and the iPad Mini’s price seems to be banking on you knowing that. And, in that sense, the iPad Mini may be worth its price.

But, the original iPad hit a sweet-spot $499 price that few competitors could match. The Mini’s price is about $130 higher than many similar 7-inch tablets that undercut it. It’s even more expensive than some newly-arriving 8.9-inch tablets from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

The iPad Mini is really a shrunken-down iPad 2. Or, a larger iPod Touch. The original iPad was a larger iPod Touch, too, in a lot of ways. That didn’t make it any less appealing. Here, the use case isn’t laptop alternative — it’s Kindle alternative. This is a compact reader/viewer. Of documents, magazines, movies, games. Maybe even of editing or creating. And it’s spectacular at being portable.

What’s unique about the Mini? Without a doubt, it’s the design. It’s cute, it’s discreet, and it’s very, very light. It feels like a whole new device for Apple. It’s light enough to hold in one hand, something the iPad was never really able to achieve for extended periods of time. It’s bedroom-cozy. Other full-fledged 7-inch tablets feel heavier and bulging by comparison. This is a new standard for little-tablet design. It makes the iPad feel fresh. After a week of using the iPad Mini, it seems to find a way to follow me everywhere. It’s extremely addicting, and fun to use.

But oh, that screen. It’s not bad, not at all, but it’s not Retina Display. It’s not even as high-res as other 7-inch tablets. If you’re an obsessive over crisp text, you’ll notice the fuzziness. If you’re comparing the Mini to a laptop, you won’t. I wanted that display to be as good as the one on the iPhone 5, iPod Touch, and Retina iPad. It isn’t, not now. It mars the product for me, because otherwise, the screen size and its aspect ratio is perfect for handling comics, magazines, and reading apps.

Is the iPad Mini worth its premium, at nearly $130 more than some of the competition? If you’re looking to invest in an iPad for the least amount of money, the answer is yes. If you’re investing in iOS-land for the first time, this is a very good starting point.

A Retina Display and a lower price would have made the iPad Mini perfect. The fourth-gen iPad, in contrast, is a superior device under the hood, with much faster performance and a better-quality screen. Still, for many people, the Mini will be preferable because it’s less expensive and perfectly portable. For others, it’ll be the second iPad — the kid iPad, the beach iPad. I love this iPad, I’m just not sure I need to own it.

(Editor’s note: we’ll continue updating this review with additional tests and full battery life results.)

Design
Regardless of your feelings of the Mini’s price, or its A5 processor and non-Retina 7.9-inch display, here’s what you’ll notice when you pick it up: it’s really shockingly nice to hold.

The iPad Mini is a design shift from the iPad, and perhaps the biggest one in the iPad’s entire history. Despite how popular the iPad’s been, it’s not really a device that’s very comfortable to use when not sitting down or at a desk. It’s a use-when-you-get-there device, or use-when-comfortably-seated. An iPhone or iPod Touch is truly mobile, and the iPad is only halfway there.

That’s no longer the case. The iPad Mini is an extremely easy-to-hold tablet that, despite its wider form, feels as light as a Kindle. Not a Kindle Fire, but a Kindle. At 0.28 inches thin and 0.68 pounds (0.69 for the LTE versions), it’s the slimmest and lightest 7-inch-range tablet around, although it has a larger footprint (7.87 inches by 5.3 inches). It’s thinner than an iPhone 5, and seems proportionally as razor-thin as the new iPod Touch.

In fact, the iPad mini feels very much like the new Touch, even down to the curved wrap-around aluminum shell and flat back. It lies down far flatter than the fourth-gen iPad, more like a wafer. The headphone jack at the top and Lightning connector and speakers at the bottom are carved into less-tapered, more-curved side edges. Around the front glass is an angled aluminum bezel like on the iPhone 5. The white model, which I reviewed, has a standard aluminum back. The black model has a slate-colored anodized aluminum, giving it that same stealth look as the iPod Touch.

Fourth-gen iPad, iPad Mini, iPod Touch.

With its extremely whittled-down side bezels, the iPad Mini’s not covered in large bezel like the larger iPad, which always made it resemble a MacBook screen that floated away from its keyboard. The Mini truly feels like a large iPod Touch, which is exactly what we used to call the iPad back in 2010. It’s far more apt now.

You probably won’t think that, though, because the iPad Mini won’t fit in your pocket, or even your jacket pocket. It’s more of a purse, small bag, or large-jacket pocket device. It’ll fit wherever you’d fit a softcover book.

The construction feels solid, stellar, fun to hold. The home button clicks crisply. It doesn’t feel like a lower-priced product in your hands. It might be, in terms of form, the most addictive iOS product in existence. And it’s perfectly sized for kid hands. It’s a far easier car device and travel device.

But, the Mini shouldn’t be a surprising product. A device smaller than the iPad that can run apps? That’s always existed. That’s called the iPhone. The really impressive feat of the iPad Mini, the surprise, is that it seems to handle all the iPad’s normal duties while being shrunken down. All except effortless onscreen typing, although it comes close.

Gripping, swiping, and typing: Thumbs and fingers
So, what about that smaller bezel? Holding it suddenly becomes a delicate-seeming proposition. I worried I’d accidentally start an app with my big palms, or turn a page by accident. That didn’t happen to me. Apple’s worked finger-rejection technology into the hardware and software of the iPad Mini that’s context-dependent. All I know is that when reading books on the Kindle app or iBooks, holding on the side wasn’t a problem. When I typed, the entire edge-to-edge surface became sensitive to my entire hand.

In landscape mode, the longer and thicker top and bottom bezel come in handy: it offers more of a grip when viewing videos, and I found that it also helped make the iPad Mni more comfy when playing games.

The tweener size of the Mini means you can hold it in portrait mode and thumb-type like on an iPhone or iPod. It works pretty well, for the most part. I was even able to thumb-type in landscape mode, with a little stretching. Typing more traditionally works better than I expected, although I became more of a finger hunt-and-pecker than a spread-finger typer. The 7.9-inch display certainly isn’t as wide as the average laptop keyboard, and the virtual keys, while well-sized, require a bit of adjustment to use.

You can also hold the iPad Mini in one hand and thumb-swipe, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s not as intuitive as on an iPhone, although it could be fine for simple page-turning taps.

The screen: Retina-free
Your feelings about the iPad Mini’s screen will all depend on how much time you’ve spent with Retina Displays or high-pixel-count devices. If you own a recent iPhone or the last iPad, you’ll feel that this screen is blurry. Text isn’t as sharp. The pixels per inch don’t even match what’s available on a Kindle Fire HD or Nook HD. The iPad Mini has a 1,024×768-pixel display, just like the iPad 2’s, but writ smaller with a denser pixel count per inch. However, the smaller-screened Kindle Fire HD has a 1,280×800-pixel display. So does the Google Nexus 7. The Nook HD has an even higher-res display at 1,440×900. All three cost considerably less than the iPad Mini, and all three have much higher, denser pixel counts. The iPad Mini’s 7.9-inch screen has more physical real estate in terms of square inches (let’s just call it an 8-inch screen, because it very nearly is), but fewer pixels per inch. You’re trading size for high-res crispness.

So, the iPad Mini not only has a lower-resolution screen than much of the competition, but it’s probably the least-impressive screen of Apple’s 2012 stable of iOS devices. The iPod Touch, iPhone 5, and fourth-gen iPad all seem brighter, more vibrant, and far higher-definition.

However, if you’ve used an iPad 2, the text is crisper. It’s readable, even with smaller fonts like e-mail. With games and videos, you won’t notice quite as much because graphics and videos are often in constant motion. Even there, though, I could see a clear difference playing HD videos and a variety of games. The IPS display has excellent wide-angle viewing, and it’s very bright. It may not be as good as a Retina Display, but it’s every bit as good as the iPad 2’s screen. I held both up side-by-side and found the colors and vibrancy to be similar, although the iPad Mini is less bright at its highest setting.

Even if, for all the incredible design that the iPad Mini has going for it otherwise, that screen feels like a comparative letdown, there’s big ace in the iPad Mini’s hole. A huge one, actually. It has to do with aspect ratio.

This 7.9-inch display isn’t 16:9 like the iPhone 5 or most Android tablets. That means the screen width is wider, more like a page of a book. It’s the same as on the iPad, but on this smaller screen, with the iPad Mini’s shrunken-down side bezels like an iPod Touch, it feels extra-wide. Web pages fit more across the screen, allowing the text to be bigger. More importantly, digital magazines and illustrated books can be rendered without squishing down too much.

Apple’s made a big deal of this, but let me tell you the real killer apps here: the future of digital publications. Textbooks. Basically, any layout-sensitive graphically intensive e-books. The iPad Mini doesn’t squish that content down like it often is on 16:10 7-inch screens. An iBooks version of DK’s “Dinosaurs” book looked wonderful and engaging. So did the kids’ book/app “Bobo Explores Light.”

Maybe most impressively, nearly every larger iPad app I’ve thrown at it feels usable and comfortable at this smaller screen size. Board games with tiny buttons, media-editing apps, games with virtual control pads, and even using the onscreen virtual keyboard. It’s book-size, but the apps feel largely the same.

iPad Mini as e-reader
You could be of two minds about this. Yes, the non-Retina Display means text that’s less sharp. It feels like a disconnect on a device so clearly targeted at reading. Yet, hold the iPad Mini back a foot and increase the font size, and you probably won’t notice.

The more booklike 4:3 aspect ratio and its more natural compatibility with PDF files, comics, magazines, and layout-sensitive graphic books give it an edge over other 7-inch tablets. For pure text, the iPad Mini may not be the best. For other media, it has its advantages, even without Retina. I never found myself unable to enjoy a magazine or book, although I did find myself wishing the resolution were sharper (reading the “Dark Knight Returns” comic, in particular).

One big advantage of the iPad Mini and iOS: it’s compatible with all the big services (Kindle, Nook, Google Books). It’s the closest to a universal e-book reader.

iPad Mini as video player
That 4:3 aspect ratio has a drawback, of course, and that’s video playing. Movies and HD TV shows will inevitably be more letterboxed than on a 16:9 tablet like the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD. On a Retina Display iPad, you at least have enough pixels to make for sharp video viewing in the space provided. On a 1,024×768-pixel display, it means the letterboxed video has an even lower resolution.

Most shows still look very watchable, no worse than on the iPad 2 (and a little better since the pixels are smaller), and there are plenty of apps and services that the iPad Mini’s compatible with, from subscription-based streaming to cable accessory TV apps to video stores like iTunes and Amazon Video on Demand. The iPad Mini has the greatest flexibility for apps and services among competing tablets, which is its huge edge.

A mono speaker tucked under a grill on the bottom edge pumps out decent volume for such a small device. It’s good enough to listen to music and videos with. Two aluminum volume buttons on the right side edge are flat like on the iPhone 5, but longer, and not tapered like the plastic iPad’s volume button. They’re easy to feel for and press.

iPad Mini as game handheld
The smaller dimensions of the Mini make it a more comfortable two-handed gaming experience. Games with virtual joysticks and buttons feel much less awkward than they do on the larger iPad. Games like N.O.V.A. 3, Geometry Wars, and Galaxy on Fire 2 HD felt much more like handheld games, as opposed to games grafted onto a tablet. Board games and games with lots of little buttons still held up well, too. Kingdom Rush, a tower-defense game with lots of little icons, held up great. So did the relatively complex board game Ticket to Ride. The Mini’s design and weight also makes it a surprisingly comfortable device to hold in landscape mode.

Even though Apple touts the iPod Touch as a great gaming handheld, you could make the argument that the iPad Mini, because of the extra screen real estate, is even better. Consider it the Apple version of the Nintendo 3DS XL.

Hardware features: Nothing really left out
Many of the more-affordable tablets out there have missing features that are more common in higher-priced alternatives: expandable storage, HDMI video-out, rear-facing cameras. That’s the case on the Google Nexus 7. The iPad Mini has all the same features, essentially, as found in the larger iPad: Bluetooth 4.0, front- and rear-facing cameras, video-out and SD card (for loading photos) via the Lightning connector, AirPlay compatibility, and optional LTE via Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T models. As always, storage isn’t expandable, but the same storage options are offered as on the fourth-gen iPad: 16GB, 32GB, 64GB.

Performance: Welcome back, A5
The venerable dual-core A5 processor has been around since 2011, and has been seen in everything from the iPad 2 to iPhone 4S, fifth-gen iPod Touch, and Apple TV. The version in the Mini most closely matches the iPad 2’s, with the same 512MB of RAM. The non-Retina screen has the same iPad 2 resolution: 1,024×768 pixels. The iPad Mini is really a shrunken-down, redesigned, enhanced iPad 2. Or, it’s a bigger fifth-gen iPod Touch, which has very similar components and actually costs $30 less for twice the base storage (32GB). However, keep in mind that the iPod Touch’s 4-inch screen, even in Retina Display, isn’t the same as the new iPad Mini’s. It’s more cramped, it’s not as ideal for reading, and you certainly can’t access larger documents and media-editing apps as easily.

What does that mean in terms of performance? I loaded up a bunch of games and apps, ranging from GarageBand to graphics-intensive games like Gameloft’s N.O.V.A. 3, Real Racing 2 HD and The Room, as well as standard apps like Ticket to Ride, Tweetbot, Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pages, iMovie, and Flipboard.

Apps loaded and played at the same speeds as on the iPad 2: good, but not blazing. Apps tended to load a few seconds slower on average than on the fourth-gen iPad, with its generation-and-a-half faster A6X processor. Web pages loaded, on my home Fios network, a few seconds behind the third- and fourth-gen iPads.

On Geekbench, a popular benchmarking app on iOS, the iPad Mini got a score of 752 versus the iPad 2’s 755. Comparatively, I found the iPhone 5 got up to around the 1,600 range (higher is better), while the fourth-gen iPad hit above 1,700. That type of score doesn’t really reflect the feel of average app performance, but the iPad Mini is definitely not a speed demon.

However, the iPad Mini’s Wi-Fi connection speeds are, on a whole, better. Dual-band 2.5GHz and 5GHz 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi is an improvement over previous iOS devices. The iPhone 5 and fourth-gen iPad both have dual-band.

iOS 6
For more on all the various features of iOS 6, read our full review All the iOS 6 features you’d expect are here, including Siri, which is curiously absent from the equally well-equipped iPad 2.

Apple’s controversial Maps app is also present, with 3D Flyover and direction capabilities. I haven’t been able to test whether turn-by-turn works on the LTE version.

iPad Mini as camera
One improvement on the iPad Mini versus the iPad 2 is its camera. It has a 5-megapixel iSight rear-facing camera and a FaceTime HD front-facing camera, the same cameras that are on the third-gen iPad and later. The fifth-gen iPod Touch has a better camera, with more features and an LED flash. The Mini lacks app features such as HDR and Panorama, although other apps from the App Store have those functions.

The point is, the Mini’s cameras are more than good enough for snapshots, 1080p video recording, and high-quality FaceTime calls. They’re above-average compared with the budget tablet competition.

Photo taken with Mini back camera. My taste can be discussed later.

Holding the iPad Mini is an easier affair, so it’s also feasible that you’ll actually use this device to take photos and video, something I’ve yet to see a normal friend of mine do with a larger iPad. It’s not your next point-and-shoot, but it could do in a pinch. Photos taken with the Mini turned about about as good as any iPad photo I’ve ever seen.

Smart Cover, gone mini
The iPad Mini even has its own little Smart Cover ($39) available in six colors, although the design is different from the larger version available for the 9.7-inch iPad. The all-polyurethane design doesn’t have an aluminum latch, so it grips more softly to the Mini’s side. The cover also has one fewer folding segments in its design.

The Smart Cover still folds up to be a stand or a keyboard riser, but it joins into a similar triangle with no fold-over. It’s just strong enough to support the iPad Mini, working equally well for typing and for picture-stand use. And it feels a bit more fun on a smaller device.

Unfortunately, just like with the larger iPad, the Smart Cover doesn’t protect the iPad Mini’s back. People will be tempted to buy a full-body case or a back cover as well.

LTE
For an extra $130, the iPad Mini can be outfitted with LTE cellular, in either Sprint, Verizon, or AT&T variants. I haven’t tried an LTE iPad Mini yet, but this fall’s LTE iPads are compatible with a wider range of international LTE and 4G networks than the March third-gen iPad. It’s a good time to consider adding cellular. How it affects battery life, I couldn’t say. Hopefully we’ll get one soon to test.

In the box: Lightning and charger, no headphones
The included gear is — always — limited when it comes to the iPad. The iPad Mini includes a Lightning cable and an AC adapter, which is actually the smaller version that comes with the iPhone 5. The two are cross-compatible. No larger AC brick is needed.

EarPods, Apple’s newly designed headphones, are not included. Earbuds never came with any other iPad, either.

The new Lightning connector, introduced with the iPhone 5, is easier to plug in and takes up less space, but most other gadgets use Micro-USB. Extra Lightning cables can add HDMI-out and camera/SD card slot input capabilities. If you have older 30-pin connectors you can use a separate adapter, although it’s not guaranteed that it’ll mean a fit with older accessories and devices.

Battery life

Apple claims 10 hours of battery life on the iPad Mini, 9 using LTE. That’s equivalent to the claims on the larger fourth-gen iPad, and iPads in general going back to 2010.

How does it compare? Stay tuned for a full GNz test, but so far over a week of use it seems to last well over a full day of use, and then some. Playing games, streaming videos, downloading large files, and using the Mini for everything I could think of, I had a hard time fully depleting the Mini over the course of a single day.

Conclusion
The iPad Mini is one of the few new product lines that Apple has unveiled this year, yet it’s really just an incredibly shrunken-down redesign of the iPad 2. It’s a perfect size and weight and works exactly as advertised: it’s a truly portable iPad with nearly no compromises, except for lacking the most cutting-edge Retina Display technology and fastest processors. And it’s priced beyond the budget range that’s already represented by devices from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Google. For a rundown on the iPad Mini versus the competition, read Jessica Dolcourt’s comparison.

If the iPad Mini had a Retina Display, a newer A6 processor, and a slightly lower price, it would be the must-have Apple gadget of the year. Even without that, it’s still incredibly appealing. Its $329 price still makes it one of the least-expensive iOS gadgets Apple makes. Does it make more sense than a $299 iPod Touch with the same processor, twice the storage, and a sharper, if smaller, screen? The Touch is a tiny thing; the iPad Mini can be used at a distance, to read and even to type. So can a Touch, but it’s not as comfy. It comes down to choice. The iPad Mini works with all of Apple’s apps. It’s superior for magazines and news, and for illustrated books.

I’m not sure who the iPad Mini is for. The budget-minded, perhaps, or kids, or those who want a second iPad. Businesses that want a more portable onsite iPad. People who want to mount an iPad in their vehicles. Actually, I guess I know exactly who the iPad Mini is for. With iOS having such reach, this is another use case, another form. It’s as simple as that. The iPad Mini probably isn’t for everyone, and that’s exactly the point. Like the iPod and Nano, it’s another style for another crowd. I will say this: when you see it, you’ll desire it. Just remind yourself you may not need it.

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