Rumors of Apple developing a smaller tablet have been going around since the release of the very first iPad. Four generations later, the iPad mini has arrived in what is now a highly competitive market in the tablet world. Apple currently reigns supreme with each reincarnation of its iconic 9.7-inch tablet, but it faces tough competition from devices such as the Kindle Fire, Nook, and the Google Nexus 7 at very attractive price points and more portable designs. Apple has now fired back with the release of the iPad mini.
At 7.9-inches, with a lower resolution and slower processor than the retina iPads, and at a non-competitive starting price point of $330, does this current iPad have any relevance in this market? Lets find out.
Build and Design
I'm just going to go ahead and say it...the iPad mini is a very beautiful and well-designed device. Making a judgment call based on pictures and videos without even holding it in your hands first was one of the mistakes I made. When I first held this in my hands, right away I fell in love with how well its constructed; it made other tablets feel cheap. The color scheme and design is very similar to the iPhone 5 -- both are built with a smooth metal housing with rounded edges and well done paint job. I have the version with a black casing with the dark bezel and black back to match.
Phil Schiller at the iPad mini press conference said "You can hold it in one hand." Well I can hold the larger iPad, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro in one hand, but that says nothing about its usability. The iPad mini is pretty much a two-handed device, but even then, it's still a joy to use. Just don't expect it to be as one-hand friendly as the iPhone.
Weighing at only .68 lbs at 0.28-inches thick, it actually made my iPad 4 feel like a brick (which is in no way a heavy tablet). I find myself picking this one up more over the larger iPad just because of the size and weight. It's just more comfortable to hold than its big brother and a much better "grab and go" device.
Let's not beat around the bush. The screen is nowhere near the quality of the gorgeous Retina display that we've been used to since the iPhone 4. Text is not as sharp and photos don't pop out like they do on the Retina iPads. Going from the Retina display's 2048x1536 resolution with 264ppi to the Mini's 1024x768 with 163ppi was a fairly big shocker for me.
If you read a lot of magazines from the Newsstand, my suggestion is to wait for the next generation iPad mini or at least wait for Apple to optimize it for this device because it's fairly bad. Bad to the point where some articles are unreadable or VERY difficult to read. The text is blurry and you have to make some effort to make out the words.
Websites, PDFs, emails and text messages aren't as horrible. They're actually quite acceptable, and I had no problems doing some actual work such as writing part of this review on the iPad mini using the WriteRoom app. The same is true of Facebook, Twitter, and reading news from Flipboard.
The iPad mini's screen is mediocre at best when compared to other tablets such as the Nook, Kindle Fire, and Galaxy Nexus -- all with higher pixels per inch on their display. That said, not having a Retina display is a disappointment, but it's definitely not a deal breaker if you're looking for a smaller tablet.
Typing on the iPad mini was a surprisingly good experience. I thought it would be awkward because it was a device halfway between an iPhone and iPad, but thanks to the excellent construction of the iPad Mini, using the touchscreen keyboard was very comfortable in both landscape and in portrait modes.
It helps a lot when you're able to split the keyboard into two sections or even move it higher and lower, which makes typing much easier. I have medium sized hands so your experience may be different from mine.
Other Buttons and Ports
Like the newer iOS devices, the overall layout of the iPad mini is very simple. You have the Home button, Volume Up and Down, Lock/Mute Switch (you can change it to either one in the Settings), Power/Sleep button on the top left hand corner, and the headphone port on the top left hand corner.
Let's not forget that moving forward starting with the iPhone 5, iOS devices will include the new Lightning connector port. If you were as frustrated as I was to carry two chargers for your phone and tablet, this will ease the pain a little bit!
Usually with every new Apple device that's released, we usually expect faster performance. Unfortunately for the iPad mini, this is definitely not the case. The iPad mini is powered by the iPad 2's A5 processor that came out a year and a half ago.
When using this tablet in comparison with the third-generation iPad, there is a difference in feel on how fast the apps launch and how they run. The difference is much more clear when you compare this with the latest iPad when playing graphics-intensive games such as NOVA 3 and Modern Combat. They both work fine on the iPad mini, but you will experience slower load times, and they don't run as smoothly. Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja both work perfectly on the Mini.
In terms of real world, day-to-day usage, it's not that big of a deal -- despite some people are crying bloody murder. If you are mainly using the iPad mini to go online, read books or check Facebook, then you probably won't even notice a difference. Navigating through the OS and switching in between apps and screens was as snappy and responsive as the Retina iPads.
The iPad mini comes in two flavors in terms of wireless capabilities. The WiFi-only version supports 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi (802.11n 2.4GHz and 5GHz) with Bluetooth 4.0. The Cellular model supports all of the above, plus GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900MHz)
UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz) and LTE. If you are on Verizon and Sprint, add CDMA EV-DO Rev A and B on top of all of that.
Connecting to my wireless network was very simple, and thanks to the new Advance Wi-Fi technology, data speeds were noticeably faster than my third-generation iPad.
At the time of this writing, Apple has not yet released the LTE version SO I can't test the 4G access yet, but on other device in the Los Angeles Metro area, I normally manage to get 16MB down and 3.5MB up on AT&T. With Verizon, I can get up to 30MB down and 18MB up; it's just a matter of how good your network coverage is. But based on my tests, Verizon seems to be the best choice for most people.
The iPad mini runs on this year's iOS 6, so anyone who is currently running this on their iPhones or iPads should be no stranger to the operating system. Apple's operating system is very responsive and snappy on the Mini, even on the A5 processor, and it more or less feels as quick as the Retina iPads.
The tablet comes with the standard iOS 6 apps including Scott Forstall's greatest hits: Game Center, Maps, and Siri. Photo Stream and iCloud are also present, along with all the other apps you would find on the Retina iPads so you won't be missing anything.
Apple's reasoning for having the 1024 x 768 was for the apps. According to them, a Retina display would not be ideal for a tablet of this size so they went with the iPad 2's resolution, which supports over 250,000+ apps and counting.
Apps in general ran without a hitch, as expected. Everything runs exactly as it would on an iPad 2, it just looks smaller -- but that was expected and it definitely wasn't an issue. What was an issue, as I mentioned earlier in this review, was the text on some of the apps optimized for Retina display and the larger iPad screens. They look blurry and muddled, like the Newsstand magazines. Luckily, books and PDFs in iBooks are more readable, and the text is satisfactory and not so hard on the eyes like the magazines.
Again, there are 250,000+ apps for this device, so chances are there is something for everyone. Aside from the apps, with a lower resolution, lack of Retina display, and slower A5 processor, does it make the iPad mini less fun? Absolutely not.
The Mini handled all my entertainment apps just fine. I streamed videos from my desktop to my Apple TV using Stream to Me, which handled HD videos without any hiccups. I watched anime on Crunchy Roll, and listened to music with Slacker Radio.
While we are on the topic of sound and music, the iPad mini has built-in stereo speakers that sound fairly good, like the fourth-generation iPad, which was something I didn't expect. If you don't have external speakers handy, the iPad mini's speakers are adequate enough to accommodate a small conference room.
I have no real complaints on watching videos on the Mini, which handled streaming and pre-loaded just fine. Of course, having a Retina display would help a lot, but when I was watching movies and anime on this, I didn't even think about it.
I don't really use the camera features on tablets. Even with the vast improvements Apple made to the cameras on the third-generation iPad, the camera was seldom used. I think it's weird when I see people take photos with their iPads in a museum, but taking photos with tablets seems to be a trend these days.
The smaller form factor of the iPad mini makes taking pictures on a tablet less awkward looking than it does on larger tablets. Powered by a 5MP rear-facing camera, the Mini does very well for a tablet in capturing photos and videos at 1080p. It's no iPhone 5, and doesn't have a built-in flash, but it does take decent pictures even in low light situations.
The front-facing camera is something that I do use on the tablet. In order to conserve the battery on my iPhone, I sometimes resort to FaceTime on an iPad. Being as small as the Mini is, it's a great device for video chat, and it helps even more having a FaceTime HD camera for video chatting.
Like all the other iPads, the mini has fantastic battery performance. I took the iPad off the charger on Friday morning and have used it excessively through the weekend in writing this review, surfing the Web, watching videos, Facebook, Twitter, listening to music, and talking to some relatives in Hong Kong. It's Monday afternoon right now and I still have 20% battery life left without even charging it.
Apple claims that the iPad mini will last 10 hours and I totally believe it based on what I've seen so far.
When I was testing the iPad mini this weekend, I pitted it against my 11-inch MacBook Air and third-generation iPad to see what device I would use more around the house and would take out on the road to do some work on. The clear winner was the iPad mini. Despite the fact that it runs on a slower processor, lacked the Retina Display, and had a lower resolution than the iPad and competing tablets, this was the device that I enjoyed picking up to work on.
The iPad mini wasn't meant to be a secondary tablet nor was it meant to be a "budget" device as we all thought it would be. With the starting price of $330, the cost is a bit more than what we expected, but the premium build quality and design of the mini justifies the price. That said, those who have a budget of less than $200 should look at alternatives such as a Nexus 7 at $200, which is also a great device.
The design, build and size outweigh the cons that I described above, but everyone's needs are going to be different. I can understand that quite a few people are going to need the bigger screen, the higher resolution, and faster performance of an iPad 4th-Gen. In fact, I won't be surprised at all if these are going to be deal breakers for some, especially with the lack of the high-res display.
Once Apple updates the next generation Mini with everything that this is currently lacking, it will be an invincible device. However, regardless of what it is missing, the iPad mini stands very well on its own, and is a nice start on what Apple will have in store for us in the future.