Gadgets

iPad Mini: All big tablets, please go home (review)

The iPad Mini is proof positive why technical specs don’t matter anymore. It’s slower than both the third and fourth-generation iPads, and it features a significantly lower resolution screen that doesn’t even meet HD video standards.

And yet, its miniscule size and overall convenience makes it the best iPad I’ve ever used and the best tablet on the market.

The original 9.7-inch iPad basically created the modern tablet market, and Apple’s iPad line still accounts for more than 50 percent of new tablets sold (according to IDC). But I’ve never felt truly comfortable using any iPad for prolonged periods of time — and the same goes for every other tablet I’ve used that’s around 10 inches. They’re tough to hold with one hand, and even with two hands, it’s not exactly effortless to hold large tablets for hours on end.

Smaller tablets don’t have any of those issues. You can throw a small tablet in a bag and forget it’s even there, and they’re generally light enough to hold with little effort, like a paperback book. Given their size and flexibility, they’re naturally more focused on content consumption.

With its 7.9-inch screen, the iPad Mini is slightly larger than its 7-inch Android counterparts. But it still has all the makings of a small tablet, and that extra screen real estate actually makes it far better for reading.

Apple has struck a balance between size and performance with the iPad Mini — and it’s one that will resonate in the tablet market for years to come.

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The good: Smaller really is better

I can go on and on about the iPad Mini’s thinness and lightness — but really, you have to hold this thing to understand why it’s so special. At just .68 pounds and 7.2 millimeters thick, it weighs about the same as a typical paperback book, and it’s thinner than the already ridiculously thin iPhone 5.

Holding the iPad Mini makes it clear that the sheer size of standard iPads are an issue, even though that didn’t stop more than 85 million consumers from making that tablet a huge success for Apple.

For a device that we’re holding in our hands most of the time, it makes sense that being more comfortable trounces having the better hardware. Together with the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire, the iPad Mini shows that smaller tablets are the ideal tablets.

The obvious benefit of going small is cost: The iPad Mini starts at $329, making it the cheapest iPad option yet. It’s still significantly above its $200 Android competitors, but the higher price is well worth the bigger and better iPad app ecosystem. Apple’s decision to go with a 7.9-inch screen also makes the iPad Mini more versatile than 7-inch tablets — you can see more content from web pages, and games feel as if they have more room to breathe.

It’s almost as if the bigger iPads are just a beta test. It was likely too difficult for Apple to successfully build something like the iPad Mini back in 2009 — for one thing, hardware components probably weren’t small enough (just look at how thick the first iPad was). And while the bigger iPad isn’t going anywhere any time soon, the unceremonious way Apple revealed the fourth-gen iPad alongside the iPad Mini is telling.

Over the next few years, expect far more innovation from the iPad Mini than the standard iPad.

For me, great technology should be both uncompromising (which Microsoft’s Surface, sadly, wasn’t) and effortless. The iPad Mini hasn’t cracked the uncompromising nut just yet (more on that below), but it’s by far the most effortless tablet I’ve ever used.

Even though it has a bigger screen, the iPad Mini is 32 grams lighter (for the Wi-Fi model) and noticeably thinner than the Nexus 7, which has been my favorite small tablet so far. Ultimately, this means that everything — reading, watching a movie, or playing a game — simply feels better on the iPad Mini because it’s not a chore to hold. It also helps that the tablet feels so solid — you can feel all of Apple’s experience with building the iPad and iPhone in the iPad Mini’s strong body.

Movies and games don’t look as sharp as they do on Retina Display-equipped iPads, but it’s a more than worthy tradeoff. It takes a discerning eye to notice the benefits of Apple’s Retina Display, but anyone can immediately recognize how much more convenient the iPad mini is. (And naturally, that’s a problem that will be fixed in future models when Apple brings Retina Display quality to the iPad Mini.)

With the iPad Mini, you’ll never think twice about taking it along when you leave the house or grabbing it to peruse Twitter while watching TV. And the device itself becomes practically invisible as you use it.

In the end, isn’t that exactly what a tablet should be?

The bad: Yes, we’re evolving backward (for now)

The iPad Mini is basically running the same hardware that powers the iPad 2. It has the same dual-core A5 processer and 512MB of RAM. And for the screen, instead of the lush Retina Display resolutions of 2048 by 1536, we get the same 1024 by 768 resolution we were so happy to run away from two years ago. (Since the iPad Mini’s screen is smaller, its resolution still looks sharper than on previous iPads.)

It’s difficult to recommend the iPad Mini to someone who’s already shelled out for a third-gen iPad. But in my experience, I still end up reaching for the Mini more than the sharper-screened iPad.

For most of the apps I’ve used — including Twitter, news readers apps like Pulse, and Instagram — the iPad Mini performed admirably. Games suffered the most with the older hardware, but most consumers won’t notice the slightly lower-res and less-detailed graphics, even with graphics-heavy titles like Infinity Blade 2.

It’s a shame that Apple couldn’t at least deliver a Retina resolution, but this makes sense. It would have required a more powerful processor and graphics capabilities, which probably would have made the price of the iPad Mini even higher. For now, it’s a tablet that’s ideal for most consumers — but those looking for Retina sharpness should wait for the inevitable upgrade in next year’s model.

The verdict: The best iPad experience yet

The iPad Mini is all about tradeoffs. Instead of a sharp Retina screen and powerful hardware, you’re getting a slimmer device that’s far more convenient. For me, the tradeoffs are worth it.

Big tablets certainly have their place, but I think we’ll see those becoming increasingly specialized. Most consumers would be better off with the size and price of the iPad Mini than splurging for the iPad fourth-gen. And as for big Android tablets, the Nexus 10 is really the only one worth considering.

I’ve been recommending the iPad Mini without hesitation over the past week. If you’ve been holding out on getting a tablet, it’s almost a no-brainer. You can save a bit by going for the $200 Nexus 7, but you’ll be giving up a far better tablet app ecosystem.

If you can’t swallow the compromise with the iPad Mini, then hold off until next year’s update. And if you already own one of the Retina Display iPads, then you’re probably better off waiting as well (or just starting pricing your iPad on a gadget reseller service like Gazelle).

If anything, I feel vindicated by the iPad Mini. Here’s a device that proves, once and for all, that smaller slates are far better at fulfilling the promise of tablets.


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