A Week With The iPad Mini

The iPad is too expensive. The Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 are too cheap. That seems to be the logic behind the iPad Mini, the filling of a crucial void in our tablet lives. But after spending a week with it, I'm pretty sure the Mini is less Goldilocks than it is Rapunzel: beautiful, flawed and ultimately not worth the trouble.

Editor's note: This review is from Gizmodo US. If you'd like to read Gizmodo Australia's take on the iPad Mini, it can be found here.

Why It Matters

Just a year ago, small tablets were an aberration, a frontier trod by the cheap and flimsy likes of the original Kindle Fire, the Galaxy Tab and a dozen other fun-sized failures from companies who couldn't — or just didn't want to — go head to head with the iPad on its own turf. Why hang out with Jaws when there's plenty of room in the kiddie pool?

But then some strange things happened. In late June, Google's Nexus 7 managed to pack unprecedented horsepower into the first tiny tablet that was actually good. Then, in September, Amazon's Kindle Fire HD stuffed the full force of its colossal ecosystem into a gorgeous seven-inch display. Neither is perfect, but at just $US200, they're both appealing enough that seven-inchers — famously laughed off by Steve Jobs — started to take a huge bite out of Apple's market share. And that, in turn, forced Cupertino to respond with a tiny tyke of its own.

Forget the corporate implications of that for a minute, the fact that Google and Amazon are on a kamikaze pricing run, and that Apple's most important product in years was born in a fog of anxiety and resentment. Forget that small tablets, thanks to a potent combination of lower prices and added convenience, will be the most fiercely contested technological battleground for the foreseeable future. All of that matters, and some of it will even affect you directly in the long run. But that's not the question we need to answer right now.

The iPad mini matters today because small tablets are going to change hands at a ferocious rate this holiday season, and many people will buy the wrong one. It matters because Apple has the gall to to charge more than half again as much for its mighty mite as the Google and Amazon do. It matters because in many ways, it's the best iPad Apple ever made.

Design

The iPad Mini is the most attractive tablet. That's an inarguable point. It transcends personal preferences and matters of taste. It just is, and if you disagree you're either a liar or some sort of sentient butter churn.

Tim Cook argued that the iPad mini wasn't a 7-inch tablet, which was either misguided spin or deep-seated denial. While it offers more display real estate than the Kindle Fire HD (7.9 versus 7 diagonal inches), the two devices have a surprisingly similar footprint. Both those and the slightly narrower Nexus 7 look like they'd be at home as a monster truck's on-board display.

The difference is that, much like on the iPod Touch, Apple has virtually eliminated the vertical bezel. There's not room for a fingernail along the sides of the iPad mini, much less an entire thumb. It's jarring, but also a tiny thrill. It feels like your tablet has gotten away with something.

That's not the only part of the iPad Mini that seems like it has no business working. At 7.2mm, the device is thinner than it has any right to be. In the same way the iPhone 5 feels too light to accommodate all of its components, the iPad mini feels too narrow. But don't confuse that for flimsiness; it's solid, firm, thanks largely to that just-grippy-enough anodized back.

The one questionable design choice is that the (tinny, thin-sounding) speakers are crunched up next each other on the bottom of the iPad mini, standing guard over the lightning connector. Which means that any time you switch to landscape mode, you cover them with your palm. That's not great for movies and games.

Everything else is what you're familiar with by now: home button front, volume rocker side, headphone jack and power button top. You know, an iPad. The prettiest iPad that's ever been built.

Using It

The first thing that hits you when you pick up an iPad Mini is that it's deceptively easy to use one-handed. That might seem like an obvious point, but it's not; the thin bezel/wide display gives the illusion of width and unwieldiness when it's sitting on a coffee table. But the iPad Mini is less broad than it looks, and terrifically light, and balanced to a perfection that artisan swordsmiths would envy.

Apple has made the iPad Mini smart enough to know when a thumb is just resting on the display and when it's trying to tap or swipe. It's a thoughtful touch, given how little room there is to manoeuvre on the borderlands of portrait mode, but my default grip was simply resting the tablet in my palm, bolstered by my thumb resting along the gently curved side. You can't hold a Kindle Fire HD or Nexus 7 that cavalierly. I couldn't, at least.

If you've used an iOS device before, you know how to navigate the iPad Mini. There are no product-specific tics or quirks here. The biggest concern I had going in was that more involved gestures, like four-finger swipe, would fall victim to the smaller display. They don't. There's plenty of room to manoeuvre; you could high-five it if you had to.

Once you start really digging in, though, it doesn't take long to notice that the iPad Mini is playing with an outmoded processor. The A5 is no slouch, but it's more than a generation behind, and it's starting to show its age; apps can take several seconds longer to open than on the Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HD, or the newer full-sized iPads. The overall user experience is very fluid, but I ran into occasional sputters on everything from the graphically intensive Infinity Blade to a basic pull-to-refresh. This wasn't enough to bother me, and it likely bother you, either. But you'll notice it.

The iPad Mini is too big to fit into your pockets, unless you're wearing Hammer pants. I did manage to squeeze it into a pair of my old man jeans, but felt pretty certain after that if I moved, something would rip. It's not like the Kindle Fire HD or Nexus 7 are pocketable either, but don't assume that this is a device you can just get up and go with.

And that's fine; the iPad Mini works best as a second screen, a coffee or bedside table companion for when you want to check Twitter, email, an article, a quick round of Reckless Racing. It's your go-to device for when your go-to device isn't handy.

Do we have to talk about the camera? Fine. The iPad Mini has the same 5MP camera as the third and fourth generation iPads, which is to say a decent one that you should never ever use in a public setting. Your phone's camera is better. Your phone's camera is less obtrusive. Use your phone's camera.

If you insist, here is a picture I took with the iPad mini of my dog. She is refusing to look at me, because I'm acting like an moron:

Like

I'd been a vocal critic of the iPad Mini's price since the day it was announced and couldn't fathom how Apple thought it could get away with charging so much more than the competition. But as soon as I picked it up, I got it. Kind of.

I've said this before but I'll say it again: the iPad Mini wins the tablet beauty pageant in a landslide. The Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 don't feel cheap in and of themselves, but putting them against Apple's offering, on a purely superficial level, is like comparing Jimmy Dean's frozen sausage links with fresh sopressata.

And the iPad mini's not just a looker. The 4:3 ratio — the same as an 21.6 x 27.9cm sheet of paper — brokers a compromise that enables easy browsing, reading, and game play; after the iPad Mini, the web feels claustrophobic on the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7, and manoeuvring the full-size iPad's chassis around Temple Run feels ridiculous.

This might also be one of the only gadgets I've ever tested that actually outshines its listed battery life. Apple says it'll last 10 hours with average use; I got over 11 with continuous video playback. That's nuts, and makes the iPad Mini a strong travel companion.

But beyond looks, the biggest iPad Mini advantages have little to do with the iPad Mini itself. By now it's boring to point out that Apple has by far the most coherent tablet operating system, populated by the best and most bounteous apps. It's still true, though, and painfully noticeable every time you switch between Android or its heavy Kindle skin's muddled wasteland and the lush, green pastures of iOS. Android's catching up, but it's still not even close.

Don't Like

Let's start with the little things first. The keyboard is small enough that you'll miss keys. If you have iPad magazine subscriptions, you should cancel them before you squint yourself to death trying to read the tiny, non-adjustable typefaces here. Ditto comic books. In fact, be ready to have to adjust the letter sizing on any app that allows it; everything is pinched here by default, because it's optimised for the iPad's larger display. The Kindle Fire HD gets around this tiny type problem with its text view mode. The iPad Mini has no such workaround.

Those nitpicks, along with the relative sluggishness and weird speaker placement mentioned above, don't add up to much. But then you get to the display.

If you want to get technical about how disappointing the iPad mini's display is, it has 163 pixels per inch versus 216 for the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7. If you want to get even more technical, here are a thousand words explaining how much much it sucks in intricate detail, based on rigorous testing.

All of that is true. The iPad Mini's display is technologically and noticeably inferior. But here's the thing. It's not bad. It's fine. But it's also insulting.

The resolution is what you hear about the most, and it's true that you'll notice the difference between it and true retina. Letters look slightly jagged, not perfectly smooth. Videos, because of the 4:3 aspect ratio that was so good for reading blogs, look downright bad. They play in 1024 x 576, which is basically standard definition. This is where the difference between the (1280 x 720) Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 is most stark.

And it gets better! Because of the iPad's reading-friendly dimensions, when you watch a movie in landscape there's almost more letterboxing than actual video. Seriously. It. Looks. Ridiculous.

Wait, we're not done. Do you like to read outside on a warm spring afternoon? Good luck, chuckles. The iPad mini has one of the most reflective displays I've used. Even with brightness cranked all the way up, I could barely make out the NY Times on my (shaded!) porch on a sunny morning. What I mostly saw was my big stupid face.

The most common apology made for the iPad Mini's weak display is if you've never used retina, you won't notice the difference. And that's true enough, in the same way that Hyundais drive pretty great in a world without BMWs. Ignorance of a better option doesn't somehow make the worse option acceptable. Especially in when worse is so much more expensive.

Should I Buy It

If you are in desperate need of a small tablet, and already have thousands of dollars sunk into iOS, and don't watch much video, and have never used a retina display, and have Scrooge McDuckian levels of disposable income, then yes. You should buy the iPad Mini.

But what most of us should do is wait. The iPad mini costs a fair bit more than the competition, but there's no way that it's that much better. That doesn't mean you should go off and buy a Kindle Fire HD or a Nexus 7. But by next year, it's almost guaranteed that the iPad Mini's performance — and display — will live up to its looks. Take this form factor, add a retina display, optimise typefaces for the smaller screen, give it some processing power and you've got yourself a device worth the cash. And all of that is just a year away.

Full disclosure: I bought a Kindle Fire HD and an iPad Mini for this review and borrowed a friend's Nexus 7. My original thought was that I'd just keep which ever one I liked best. I'm returning all of them today.

iPad Mini Specs

• OS: iOS 6 • CPU: A5 processor • Screen: 7.9-inch 1024 x 768 IPS • RAM: 512MB • Storage: 16GB • Camera: 5MP Rear, 720p Front • Battery: 4400mAh • Price: $369 RRP in Australia • Giz Rank: 3.5 stars


Comments

    Thanks for your review. I have pre-ordered a mini ipad 64GB LTE version. I have checked the wifi only version at the Apple shop. I am used to my 4S retina display and yes I can see the difference in the display. Waiting a year would be a good idea... I am sure the mini will be even better the year after. I will upgrade next year and either my wife or daughter will gladly take the mini over. I spend 2 hours a day on the train and I am sick of staring at a tiny phone screen. I dont gamble, drink, smoke or spend much on clothes. I think I can spend a few hundred dollars on a device per year. :) I will stick to Apple because their products are of high quality and lets face it....cool. ;)

      ''Let's face it... cool''...?

      To each his own, but when I see an iPad, ''cool'' is not what first comes to mind. More ''meh'', and ''me too'' and ''not technically savvy''.

      Which is perfectly FINE for the many people who just want something that works out of the box and integrates seamlessly with the rest of their iThings. For those people, devices shouldn't be about ''cool'', it should be about getting on easily with their e-life.

      But ''cool''...? Maybe five years ago. The world has moved on, Apple is mainstream, and cool requires something more niche. For example, the Galaxy Note is more cool than an iPad Mini, IMHO.

      Last edited 10/11/12 6:35 pm

        Agreed. Apple products have a bit of a "Volvo" feel now- reliable, solid, well made. "safe" and samey... Not cool.

      Apple products are the last thing i associate with being cool. my 60 year old parents use Apple products and while they work well cool just doesnt go with it. A product used by people who regularly wear light blue denim jeans and white sneaker is the opposite of cool in my books lol.
      Each to their own I guess.

    I guess what I'm saying is that the ipad mini is not perfect, but still pretty good and the second generation will be better etc. I have been a long time sceptic of Apple, but have been won over by the iPhone 4 S. The Apple experience in the Apple Store is awesome and in a country like Australia wherr customer service is an afterthought, I'm a fan. :)

      Just out of interest, what was your previous phone? Last time I was in an Apple store I was given short shrift by their demo guy for daring to ask him if the iPad I was looking at was a new Retina display version or an iPad 2. I get much better service from Harvey Norman and JB Hi-Fi.

    Well it'd be nice if I could read the article - someone has put a Peugeot ad across the text. I've tried reading this in Firefox, Safari and Chrome and it persists - all this on OS X but I guess they share the same rendering engine.

    Can this be fixed please?

      Apologies -- there was a problem with some missing HTML. Fixed now.

    Why is there not more voice recognition technology yet? I mean we have ipads, they look like what Picard uses on his enterprise, but you see him mainly interfacing with the ship computer via chit chat.
    I know Siri etc, but when we have devices like iphones, ipads and we're critical of the inbuilt keyboards etc, shouldn't it be time we talk to the devices more instead of typing slowly on it?
    Strikes me as the better way to send txt, write notes etc. Of course there will always be the need for a keyboard for privacy/noise issues... but still.

    "The iPad Mini is the most attractive tablet. That’s an inarguable point." This comment will, simply by existing, invalidate the second point, thus throwing doubt over the veracity of the first. I spent quite a few hours in computer stores this week and had a play with the iPad Mini. I think it looks incredibly generic. It's aspect ratio and uneven bezels make it look very dated/obsolete. I'd rate it as one of the least attractive tablets you can buy. The most attractive tablet I saw was a Transformer with a dark bluish anodised finish. All the Transformers have a lovely curved back with a beautiful texture that makes the Mini look flat, dull and boring. Even Luke's local Mini review admits that the Nexus 7 looks better.

    Unlike my Playbook, and therefore the Nexus 7 and Fire HD, the Mini wouldn't fit in any of my pockets, either. That comment seems like a big assumption on the part of the reviewer because the Playbook will fit in most of the pockets - front, back or cargo - on most of my shorts and trousers.

    I also find it amusing that honest reviews of Apple products invariably include an apology. This time around it is in the form of assurances that the next one will be really good, despite there being absolutely no evidence whatsoever that this will be the case. If you don't believe me, compare it to the Surface reviews, filled with "if"s and "maybe"s, which is exactly as it should be here, too.

    Last edited 10/11/12 3:42 pm

      I love that my Nexus 7 fits in my back pocket, but only just. The iPad mini wouldn't stand a chance.

      I also agree that saying the next version will be great is a needless apology for a bad first try, and it also seems to assume that the competition won't improve either.

      The screen sucks, and Apple's strict screen resolutions mean it's almost impossible to fit the next resolution up in there which only means more fragmentation, which in turn means bigger app downloads.

      Finally, I'm amazed how often we're told about how great Apple's apps are, but never reminded how much iTunes, the istore, iCloud and core Apple apps like mapping suck.

      Apple are stagnating, put that in your next years version will be better bonnet, while others are leaping ahead. I'll take my chances elsewhere.

      I agree that the Nexus 7 looks a lot better. The bezel ratio between the top/bottom and sides just pleases my eye more. Especially when the screen is on. I like that the headphone jack is on the bottom and the power button is on the side. Every time I try use one of the ipads and now the ipad mini, it just feels so unnatural reaching all the way up to the top (I don't mind that so much on mobiles as they are small enough). That and if someone else is looking down at the top of the Nexus 7 from infront of you they don't see a button and a hole for the headphones, just a nice clean rounded edge.

      I get where he's coming from with "inarguable", it means that he's very emotionally invested in the whole Apple experience and aesthetic. But yeah, that fact should really disqualify him from reviewing such products.

    " Why hang out with Jaws when there’s plenty of room in the kiddie pool?" comedy gold! love it!

    I went to the apple store yesterday for a hands on. and after all he talk. all the reviews I was a bit disappointed. it is still a bit heavy. it's not featherweight as the reviews made out. perhaps all the reviewers are men bigger hands, more strength in the arms. certainly heavier than an A4 pad of paper from my experience.

    what really surprisede was how much the non-retina display bugged me. you do have to pinch in to the text you want to read all the time. I really didn't think I'd notice. but. ow I'm seriously thinking to wait till mini 2.

    also the A5 is significantly slower if you have anything on a faster processor. I really wanted to love this thing. by found myself far more impressed with the new full size iPad which I will never buy.

      retina is a marketing gimmick you know. It doesnt matter as long as you cant see the pixels and the normal viewing distance. Past a certain point the human eye can't tell the difference. Sure if you put your eye right up to it you can probably see the pixels.
      BTW not an apple fan boy actually a bit of android fan boy. Just dont let the "retina" marketing get in the way of your purchases if the product is good.
      I personally didnt like the mini thought it was a tad big for a on the go tablet.

      Just out of curiosity, rather than zooming the text, did you think to turn the Mini on its side? It surprises me that Apple persist with the portrait orientation in iPads, when every other screen, except for eInk readers and phones, is landscape. I always browse in portrait mode on my phone but switch to landscape whenever I want to read anything.

    I got one yesterday, I like it. I read that it has slightly better specs than the ipad 2 my previous device. Also it has smaller pixels as mentioned by Giz.
    I can view it with one hand and I have a HP48 emulator running on the iphone which was too small and fiddly but on the ipad mini fits perfectly depending on what skin you use.
    I don't play games on it so I'm not too fussed with the performance as it's not much different to the ipad 2 which I intend to give to my niece.

    I think that the mini really hits a sweet spot. I have over invested in ios applications so the move to another platform isn't that appealing. Not only is the mini perfect for reading on the go but finally brings the perfect form factor for gaming. Yes the screen might not be as great but im willing to sacrifice that for a form factor that just works for me.

    Its just a small Ipad..... does it really need a write up? Why don't other products get this level of attention?

      Yes this is a mystery to me too. Android and Kindle lovers often are very passionate in attacking the Apple product when a new product is released. I could care less about reading up on their new products. I resently used to own a Android phone and it did not move me. I'm pretty sure I will get a pasionate and negative remark from them on this comment. Lol

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