It’s here, the iPad that the world thought Apple would never make. Yet barely three years after bringing the modern day tablet category to life, we now have possibly the biggest change to the iPad since its inception: it got smaller.
The original iPad took the tech world by surprise, launched to a mixed reception, it was a product the world didn’t know it needed yet and the sales proved it. Apple sold 15 million in the first year despite initial predictions by tech pundits that it would not be successful.
In true Apple style, they take a product that is great, refine it and make it even better. We’ve seen Apple do this with the iPad 2 with its faster processor, new design and front/rear cameras then subsequently with the 3rd gen iPad, which boasted a stunning Retina display all this while maintaining the legendary all day battery life.
The iPad mini is no different, packaging the iPad 2 into a smaller form factor whilst at the same time including upgraded camera parts from the 3rd/4th gen iPad, the new Lightning connector and even stereo speakers.
Whilst the iPad is a featherweight compared to most laptops, there are still many who find its size and weight unwieldy. I’ve talked to many people who love their iPads but don’t bring it around as often as they imagined at first because of the size. This is a case where smaller really is better and with the iPad mini, Apple took the original concept of the iPad and refined it into a more compact package.
At 308g, the Mini is less than half the weight of the 4th gen iPad and is far easier to hold with one hand. The mini feels more like a thin paperback or an A5 notebook whilst the full sized iPad feels like a magazine, luxurious but you won’t bring it everywhere with you. It is 23% thinner than the full sized iPad and at 7.2mm, it is actually thinner than the iPhone 5, which is absolutely remarkable.
Although the iPad mini is the cheapest iPad you can buy, the build quality and design is anything but. In fact, it feels like a more expensive product than the full sized iPad. Apple’s obsession with detail is legendary and it shows here; from machining the entire chassis from a solid block of aluminium to the beautifully polished diamond cut chamfers, its easy to see why the iPad mini has a relatively higher price tag than other competing tablets. You do get what you pay for.
The rounded edges are also a big design win for me, making it remarkably comfortable to hold during long use. The iPad mini also has smaller side bezels but this is not an issue as it is smaller and lighter, you tend to hold it by supporting it fully with your palm and your thumb resting lightly on the edge of the bezel. However, if you prefer to rest your thumb on the screen, iOS is smart enough to recognise that and lets you use the screen as normal.
Personally I love the iPad mini’s size, so much so that during my time with it, I chose to pick up the iPad mini instead of my 3rd gen iPad. It’s perfect for reading in bed or on the couch and certainly feels more immersive and book-like than the full sized iPads ever were.
Bringing the iPad mini out is also a far easier decision than it was before and I no longer have to think if its worth carrying out or not. I just toss it into my sling bag and go.
The design of all iPads always converges back to one thing: the display. After all, it is the main thing that you look at and interact with when using an iPad. Sporting a 7.9-inch display at a resolution of 1024×768 pixels, the iPad mini shares the exact same screen resolution of the iPad 2, making it instantly compatible with the 275,000 iPad optimised apps on the App Store. This is what makes the iPad stand out from all the other tablets in the market; I’ll cover more of that later on.
Whilst the iPad mini does not have a Retina-class display, the 7.9-inch screen is still very good. In fact, it is better than the iPad 2 when it comes to pixel density (163ppi) so text is crisper and images look sharper than they do on the iPad 2 (132ppi). Colours are vibrant and accurate and the viewing angles are great as well.
However, if you have a 3rd/4th gen iPad or even an iPhone with a Retina display, you will find the screen on the iPad mini quite jarring with very visible pixels. That being said, I found that after a few minutes of use, my eyes quickly adjusted to the screen and it’s no longer bothering me.
In fact, I think this would not be an issue for the majority of people and even a few that I’ve shown the iPad mini to could not really tell that this was not a Retina display. They even remarked how good the screen looked.
Where the iPad mini screen presents a problem is when you are trying to read small text. These portions would be rendered fuzzily and sometimes almost illegible but thankfully iOS makes it easy to just pinch and zoom in which solves the problem. This could be a real issue for people with lower visual acuity so the full sized iPad with Retina display would be a better choice in this case.
Whilst reading on the iPad mini display is perfectly fine, it’s hard to match up to the experience of reading on the near print quality of iPads with Retina displays but the iPad mini’s form factor more than makes up for it.
HARDWARE & PERFORMANCE
Usually when something is made smaller, features are also dropped in the process but Apple relentlessly refused to compromise and what we have here is a miniature iPad that performs and works just like the full sized one. No small feat of engineering considering that we’re still getting performance levels of the iPad 2 and by extension, the 3rd gen iPad. The iPad mini was snappy and responsive and was able to handle everything I threw at it in its stride.
However, with less RAM than the 3rd/4th gen iPads, the iPad mini’s smaller amount of RAM becomes visible when multitasking. Although not aggravating, it is noticeable when you are trying to switch between many apps or have many tabs open in Safari. As iOS automatically removes apps and Safari tabs that are no longer needed in memory, you’ll find that apps and webpages have to reload more often than when using 3rd/4th gen iPads.
Once again, this would not affect the majority of iPad mini buyers who are first time owners or upgrading from the original iPad or iPad 2. Performance is definitely on par with its bigger brothers which is impressive for something so small and light.
Battery life for the iPad mini is impressive, although Apple quotes it to be 10 hours of active use; many reviewers online have found that it is actually quite a conservative estimate. Although I did not perform a run down test, I was able to use the iPad mini for nearly 12 hours of web browsing, reading and playing Letterpress at various brightness settings and with Wi-Fi on. Across the week however, I only needed to charge the iPad once every 3 days or so but your mileage may vary depending on usage. Overall I find that the battery life is consistent with my 3rd gen iPad.
The iPad mini also has improved Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity over the iPad 2 and 3rd gen iPad. Wi-Fi speeds are now 150mbps versus the 65mbps previous iPads could muster and Bluetooth 4.0 is now available.
I was not able to test the LTE version of the iPad mini as it was not available at the time of writing. However, this would bring about a marked improvement over the 3rd gen iPad’s LTE connectivity as the iPad mini is a world band LTE device and will work with Australia’s LTE networks. The LTE variant will also come with GPS capability on board which I can foresee being very useful on the iPad mini for navigation, as it is not obtusely large.
The rear 5-megapixel iSight camera on the iPad mini is largely inherited from the 3rd/4th gen iPads and whilst not ground breaking in quality, it is perfectly serviceable for that quick shot. One thing to note is that with the iPad mini’s size, taking photos is much less awkward and silly looking than with a full size iPad (something which should never be done). The upgraded FaceTime HD front camera is far more practical with FaceTime calls looking better than ever.
The iPad mini comes out of the box with iOS 6, the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system. The iOS experience on the iPad has come a long way since iOS 3.2 that was specially modified for the original iPad. It has since matured and grown into easily the best tablet OS that is available in the market.
With Apple being the pioneers in bringing mobile app stores into the mainstream, its no surprise that the iTunes App Store is home to the largest collection of tablet optimised apps available on the planet. All 275,000 of them, and they all work on the iPad mini. Although quantity does not always equal quality, the chances of you finding quality apps that suit your needs will certainly be higher when there’s a larger quantity available.
This is the iPad mini’s trump card.
All my favourite iPad apps work just fine on the iPad mini although physically smaller, they retain their functionality and my initial worry of touch targets being too small is quickly allayed. Unless you have really large fingers, you shouldn’t have any problems using the iPad mini, or put it another way, if you can use the iPhone without problems, the iPad mini would be fine too.
Typing on the iPad mini will take some adjusting to if you’re coming from a full sized iPad. With the iPad mini’s smaller size, I find that I’m able to thumb type in portrait mode just like the iPhone, which is nearly impossible on the larger iPads. In landscape mode however, typing is a bit more of a challenge with the smaller keys but not impossible, you just need patience and practice.
A bonus feature you get with the iPad mini is Siri and it works as advertised although I find that having Siri on the iPad somewhat less useful than on the iPhone but still its there if you want to use it.
Overall there isn’t that much more to say about the software experience on the iPad mini apart from the fact that it’s definitely the full iPad experience and that is saying a lot.
PRICING & MODELS
The base 16GB model is priced at AUD$369 which makes it the cheapest current model iPad you can buy. The 32GB and 64GB models are AUD$479 and AUD$589 respectively. If you want LTE, add on another AUD$140. My personal recommendation is that if budget permits; go for the LTE models, as an iPad without a data connection is quite restricted in utility.
The iPad mini comes in two colours: black & slate or white & silver. The choice will largely depend on your preference although the black models will tend to show wear and tear far more visibly as the anodized colour will give way to show the raw silver aluminium underneath.
If you are deciding between the iPad mini and other cheaper 7-inch tablets, do consider that you are paying for a higher quality product with a larger app and accessories ecosystem. After all, a general-purpose tablet is really defined by its utility, which is in turn realised by apps.
I was also able to test the iPad mini Smart Cover that is much like the larger iPad Smart Cover but have some few notable changes. The side magnetic hinge that clasps to the edge of the iPad mini is now lined with the same suede-like fabric of the inner lining of the Smart Cover. This is a great improvement over the aluminium hinge of the larger Smart Cover, which tends to scuff the sides of the iPad after repeated latching on and pulling off.
Once fastened, the mini Smart Cover is very secure and is even able to support the weight of the iPad mini fully on its own. It takes a couple of good yanks in mid air to cause the cover to detach from the iPad. It even sticks to the back of the iPad when folded flat around the back, a small but very nice touch.
The mini Smart Cover retains all the tricks of its bigger sibling, you can fold it up into a triangle and it will stay in place thanks to cleverly placed magnets. Once folded up, you can either set your iPad up to watch a movie or read in landscape or lay it down to type like a keyboard. When propped up as a keyboard, the iPad mini is surprisingly sturdy and can keep up to hard typing without flexing or giving.
Of course, like the larger Smart Cover, it is able to automatically wake or put the iPad to sleep when the cover is opened or closed.
This is a deceptively well-designed cover.
However, with an asking price of AUD$45 I think it is a bit high for an accessory that only covers the screen but not the rest of the device. You would likely find better cases out there for the same price but if you’re after something ultra lightweight and don’t care about the back of the device, then this is definitely a good choice.
When Apple promised that the iPad mini would deliver the full iPad experience, it was a tall promise and certainly not an easy one to meet.
In fact, many in the tech world are sceptical that this iPad would be successful considering that it is priced at the lower end of the tablet market but yet costing so much more and have some specs that are lesser than other competing 7-inch tablets.
But Apple delivered on their promise and because this is an iPad in every aspect, it is going to be another hit, not because of the Apple brand or blind loyalty but because it’s a great product and people get it.