Regardless of your feelings about the iPad Mini's price and 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 tablet has been, it's not really a device that's very comfortable to use when you're 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 not the case with the Mini. It's an extremely easy-to-hold tablet that, despite its wider form, feels as light as a Kindle. At 7.2mm thin and 308 grams, it's the slimmest and lightest 7-inch-range tablet around, although it has a larger footprint (7.87x5.3 inches). It's thinner than an iPhone 5, and seems proportionally as razor thin as the new iPod Touch.
It's the first thing you notice: the Mini feels great to hold.
In fact, the iPad Mini feels very much like the new Touch, even down to the curved wraparound aluminium shell and flat back. It lies down far more flatly 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 aluminium bezel like on the iPhone 5.
The iPad Mini's extremely whittled-down side bezels are much less conspicuous than the larger iPad's bezels, which always made it resemble a MacBook screen that had 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 easily fit in your pocket, or even your jacket pocket. It's more of a purse, small-bag or large-coat-pocket device. It'll fit wherever you'd fit a soft-cover book.
The construction feels solid, stellar and 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 far more suited for use in cars and when travelling.
But the Mini shouldn't be a surprising product. A device smaller than the iPad that can run apps? That's always existed. It's called the iPhone. The really impressive feat of the iPad Mini, the surprise, is that it seems to handle all of the iPad's normal duties while being shrunken down. All except effortless on-screen 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. We worried that we'd accidentally start an app with my big palms, or turn a page by accident. That didn't happen to us. Apple has worked finger-rejection technology into the hardware and software of the iPad Mini that's context dependent. All we know is that when reading books on the Kindle app or iBooks, we found that holding on the side wasn't a problem. When we typed, the entire edge-to-edge surface became sensitive to the entire hand.
In landscape mode, the longer and thicker top and bottom bezel come in handy, offering more of a grip when viewing videos, and we found that it also helped make the iPad Mini comfier when playing games.
The 'tweener size of the Mini means that you can hold it in portrait mode and thumb type like on an iPhone or iPod. It works pretty well, for the most part. We were even able to thumb type in landscape mode, with a little stretching. Typing more traditionally works better than we expected, although we became finger hunt and peckers more than spread-finger typists. 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.
The Retina-free screen
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 iPad Mini has a 1024x768-pixel display, just like the iPad 2's, but smaller with a denser pixel count per inch. However, the smaller-screened Kindle Fire HD has a 1280x800-pixel display. So does the Google Nexus 7.
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, it's also 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.
Even if for all of the incredible design that the iPad Mini has going for it otherwise the screen still feels like a comparative letdown, there's a 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. This means that 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.
The screen could be crisper, but its aspect ratio has advantages.
iPad Mini as video player
That 4:3 aspect ratio has a drawback, of course, and that's video playing. Movies and HDTV shows will inevitably be more letterboxed than on a 16:9 tablet, like the Nexus 7. On a Retina display iPad, you at least have enough pixels to make for sharp video viewing in the space provided. On a 1024x768-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 is 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.
Two speakers tucked on either side of the Lightning connector on the bottom edge pump out decent volume for such a small device. They're good enough to listen to music and videos with. Two aluminium volume buttons on the right 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.
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 essentially all the same features as are 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 3G models. As always, storage isn't expandable, but the same storage options are offered as on the fourth-gen iPad: 16GB, 32GB and 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 the 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: 1024x768 pixels. The iPad Mini is really a smaller, redesigned, enhanced iPad 2. Or, it's a bigger fifth-gen iPod Touch, which has very similar components and actually costs AU$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? We 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, Pages, iMovie and Flipboard.
Apps loaded and played at the same speeds as on the iPad 2: good, but not blazingly fast. 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 our home Fios network a few seconds behind the third- and fourth-gen iPads. Booting up the iPad Mini straight from full shut-down took 31 seconds.
Definitely decent performance for the price.
The iPad Mini's Wi-Fi connection speeds are, on the whole, better. Dual-band 2.5GHz and 5GHz 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi bring an improvement in speed over previous iOS devices. The iPhone 5 and fourth-gen iPad both have dual band.
Apple claims 10 hours of battery life for the iPad Mini, and nine hours when using 3G. That's equivalent to the claims for the larger, fourth-gen iPad, and iPads in general going back to 2010.
Our battery test told an even better story: the iPad Mini held up through 12.1 hours of video playback, which is remarkable for such a small tablet. The Nexus 7, comparatively, only lasted 8.4 hours on the same test. Over a week of use, the Mini seemed to last well more than a full day of use, and then some. After playing games, streaming videos, downloading large files and using the tablet for everything we could think of, we had a hard time fully depleting its battery over the course of a single day. The new fourth-gen iPad lasted an hour longer, at 13.1 hours, but you'd expect it to.
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 excellent battery life and nearly no compromises, except for lacking the most cutting-edge Retina display technology and fastest processors.
We're 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 on-site iPad. People who want to mount an iPad in their vehicles. Actually, we suppose we know exactly who the iPad Mini is for. With iOS having such reach, this is another way to use it, 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 the iPod Nano, it's another style for another crowd. We will say this: when you see it, you'll desire it. Just remind yourself that you may not need it.