The iPad Mini Feels Good in Your Hands
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Imagine an alternate universe where it’s the summer of 2011 and Apple has introduced a $199 iPad mini. Apple Fan boys explode. Non Apple-fans start lining up to get their hands on the first truly affordable and obviously awesome tablet. And it’s game-over for the 7-inch Android tablet competition.
This however, is not that universe and the iPad mini, for all its charms, is not a game-changing device. Instead, it’s a tinier iPad 2 that is facing a world of more powerful, higher-resolution 7-inch tablet competitors that all cost at least $100 less than the $329 7.9-inch iPad mini.
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The iPad mini is beautiful. At 10.68 ounces, the Wi-Fi version of the iPad mini (which I tested) is light, lighter even than the Barnes and Noble Nook HD (which is just over 11 ounces and Kindle Fire HD (13 ounces). It’s thinner, too, and by a wide margin. It simply looks and feels nothing like any other 7-inch tablet on the market. Instead, the iPad mini is a visual mash-up of the iPad (Retina, iPad 2, take your pick) and the fourth-gen iPod (with a little iPhone 5 thrown in for good measure). It’s thinner than the iPad Retina and a bit thicker than the fourth Generation iPod and has a smooth aluminum unibody that makes the back virtual seamless and affords the entire frame a comforting rigidity.
This is the first iPad I can fit in my back pocket. Mind you, I have man-sized pockets and when we tried the same experiment with Senior Tech Analyst Christina Warren, she couldn’t fit it in her skinny jeans. Even so, we all agreed the tablet feels almost paper light and when someone handed me an iPad Retina, it felt brick-like by comparison.
Aside from the unibody construction, the iPad mini chassis is unremarkable. It has a 5 MP camera on the back and a 1.2 MP FaceTime camera on the face. There’s a tiny slot on top for the microphone and a pair of grills in the base for powerful speakers. Where the iPad has a volume rocker switch on the edge, the iPad mini features two discrete metal buttons. Similarly, the mute and power buttons are, while in spots similar to their iPad counterparts, also made of aluminum.
As you may have guessed, the iPad mini jettisons its larger brother’s 30-pin connector for a tiny Lighting port. Apple handed me a bunch of adapters, including the precious, though pricey ($29.99!) lightning-to-30-pin adapter, an SD-Card reader and a USB-in cable adapter. Having them afforded me a level of flexibility I might not have had otherwise. I especially enjoyed using the SD-card reader to add media to the iPad mini.
Because Apple chose to essentially shrink down the iPad 2 screen, the iPad mini is unique among 7-inch tablets. First of all, it’s not a 7-inch screen, it’s a 7.9-inch one in a 4:3 aspect ratio. This makes the screen (if held in portrait mode) slightly wider and roughly an inch deeper than the Barnes & Noble Nook HD and Amazon Kindle Fire HD screens.
The Bigger Picture
For as similar as the iPad mini and full-size iPad 2 screens are, the faces of the two devices are not exactly the same. Apple trimmed the side borders so the screen is a mere quarter of the inch from the edge. Doing so obviously helped Apple keep the iPad mini’s size and weight down, but it also means that when you hold it in reading mode, your thumb may overlap on the touch screen. Apple, however, accounted for this and when you read with your thumb sitting on the virtual page, the page won’t turn unless you flick your thumb to the left or right. This worked perfectly for me and I appreciate that extra bit of programming and engineering effort.
The 1024x768 screen looks good, but doesn’t fare so well if you hold it side-by side with an iPad Retina or even one of the competing 7-inch devices like the 1440x800 7-inch display on the Barnes and Noble Nook HD.
It’s worth noting, however, that because the iPad mini pixels are squeezed into smaller screen, the iPad mini’s display is somewhat crisper than the iPad 2, and makes some of the text, like labels under app icons and the time, super tiny. While that may bothersome with weaker eyesight, I didn’t mind because most of your time is spent within apps, where text and visuals are usually larger or, as in the case, of iBooks customizable.
As you would expect, movies, games, taking pictures and editing them all worked well. Every app that works on the iPad 2, works here and looks just as good. The virtual keyboard is almost as comfortable to use as the one on the full-sized iPad. Also, you look a little less silly holding up the iPad mini to take photos or videos (720p).
Web browsing is one area where I prefer the iPad mini over other 7-inch devices. Even though the iPad mini is squeezing fewer pixels on the screen, the 4.6-inch-wide screen offers more screen real estate for the web pages (Apple says the display is 35% larger than 7-inch tablets). By contrast, if you view a web page in landscape mode on the 7-inch Nook HD, browser chrome (menus, tabs, etc.) eats up too much of the screen.
I could tell you more about the iPad mini interface, but if you’ve ever seen an iPad, you know it well. The iPad mini changes nothing here. Likewise, your experience with the iPad will vary depending on the apps you use.
Instead, I spent a lot of time in Newsstand and iBooks. The iPad mini is clearly Apple’s one-handed reading device and I wanted to see how it held up against the competition. It’s actually thinner than Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite e-ink reader (.28-inches verses.36-inches), though the iPad mini weighs more.
Holding the iPad mini for extended periods of time and reading books on iBooks or the Kindle app is a pleasurable experience, though I did find the aluminum back a bit more slippery than I’d like. Barnes and Noble’s Nook HD has a slightly rubberized back that never slipped from my grip.
Apple’s Newsstand has a wide variety of magazines, though most are actually apps. For me, this over-complicates the reader experience. This is not to say that publications like Esquire and National Geographic do not look good on the iPad Mini. They do, but I prefer the magazines on the Kindle Fire HD and Barnes and Noble Nook, most of which are beautiful, but not encumbered by too much interaction and bizarre, multidirectional navigation (up down, left right).
Magazines also look better on the higher-resolution screens. There is nothing wrong with the way they look on the iPad mini, but if you see content side-by-side with any of the other higher resolution devices, the iPad mini’s display simply lacks that certain pop and crispness you find on the Nook HD and the mini’s Retina big brother.
With a half GB of RAM and a 1GHz dual core processor, the iPad mini is not the most powerful 7-inch competitor, but its A5 CPU handles pretty much any task you throw. In fact, I’d say the performance is just as good as the iPad 2 – which makes perfect sense since the specs (CPU, memory, Wi-Fi, screen resolution) are exactly the same.
Battery life was as good as advertised. I started with a full charge and used the mini for at least 10 hours.
Why the Mini
Apple told me that the iPad mini is not a competitive response to existing 7-inch tablets. I almost believe them. If Apple truly wanted to compete, it would have priced the iPad mini at $199 and, potentially, dealt a serious blow to the competition. As it is, this is the iPad for those who are already deeply immersed in the iOS ecosystem, but always thought the iPad was too large and too expensive. For them, this is a gorgeous, highly portable (almost pocketable) and more affordable option.
7-inch tablet buyers who are not wedded to the Android or iOS platform will certainly consider the iPad mini, it is the most aesthetically pleasing device, so maybe it wins. However, these are price conscious consumers and don’t see how they can justify the iPad mini’s $329 price tag when competitors are offering more powerful, extensible and higher-resolution alternatives for $120 less.
This story originally published on Mashable here.
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