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Stephen Hackett's weblog about Apple, Apple history, technology, journalism and design.

The iPad mini: Good Things Come in Small Packages

It’s become a familiar cycle, these things. First, we see a single rumor, then photos of camera cables leak from China, then a Best Buy employee sends a screenshot to 9to5Mac with price points. Back housings and screens pop up, and before we know it, someone’s assembled a product that hasn’t been announced.

Then, Apple gets on stage, announcing the very thing we all know is coming, leaving some people underwhelmed and disappointed at the lack of anything surprising.

The iPad mini came in to the world last month under these circumstances. While it was less documented than the last several iPhones, Apple nerds pretty much knew what to expect from Phil Schiller’s time on stage in San Jose.

I — like a lot of nerds — ordered an iPad mini on day one. I’ve been using it consistently since, and these are my impressions.

Hardware

Above: An iPhone 5, Kindle Paperwhite, iPad mini, Moleskine notebook and iPad 3

The iPad mini takes Apple’s category-leading tablet and makes it just a tad bit smaller, but a lot lighter. This weight decrease is one thing I’ve really come to enjoy using the mini, especially in bed or on the couch.

The iPad mini is also thinner than its bigger cousin, but the difference doesn’t make a big impact, day to day, like the weight does.

Like all iOS devices, the iPad mini experience is all about the screen. Like the larger iPad 2, the mini sports a 1024x768 display, but unlike the iPad 2, it does so with a 7.9-inch panel.

This puts the iPad mini at 163 pixels per inch, right in between the iPad 2 at 132 ppi and the iPad 4 at 264 ppi.

When I unboxed the iPad mini, the screen turned me off right away. It’s less clear than the Retina iPad, and the pixels aren’t as close to the glass.

However, I — like most other reviewers — have already grown accustomed to this step backwards in quality. Yes, it’s not as good as the Retina display, but it’s also totally usable. I haven’t had to adjust the text size in any apps, and it doesn’t generate any eye strain, either.

For Apple to include a Retina display in the iPad mini, the company will have to get the price down, and be able to support it in a chassis this thin, with a battery this small. While I’ll be stoked to see it, I don’t think we’ll get a Retina mini any time soon.

The screen’s colors and viewing angles are just great. The thin bezel on the sides is weird to get used to at first, but iOS 6 does a good job at ignoring a “resting” thumb. I think I’ve already adjusted.

The rest of the iPad’s construction is stellar. My model is of the “Black and Slate” variety and resembles an iPod touch in iPhone 5 skin. The full-sized iPad really does seem like its due for an overhaul sometime soon.

The buttons on the iPad mini are metal, not plastic like on the larger tablet. While the feel is much-improved, I miss the volume rocker. It was much easier to use without much thought.

The stereo (!!) speakers flanking the Lightning connector are the best I’ve heard on an iOS device. Of course, that’s not saying much.

Performance wise, the iPad mini is no slouch. As it has the same internals as the iPad 2, and same CPU as the iPad 3 (but not the “quad-core” graphics), I don’t have any concerns about this thing slipping in to obsolescence as quickly as the first iPad did.

The only time I notice the iPad mini’s 512 MB of RAM is in Mobile Safari. It loves to dump tabs quickly. I really wish Apple would work on that, as it’s annoying to have to re-load a page after leaving it for just a few moments.

Software

Even though all of the iPad apps in the iOS App Store work on the mini out of the box, iOS can be weird at this resolution. I haven’t come across anything that’s unusable, but the smaller touch targets do take some getting used to. I’d like to see Apple address this in an update to iOS, but I can see that the company doesn’t want to fragment the OS anymore than it already has.

I was initially concerned about typing on the iPad mini. Turns out, this really hasn’t been an issue for me. I have larger hands than some, but I can type easily in portrait mode with my thumbs, since it’s just like typing on the iPhone 5 in landscape.

While I can thumb-type on the iPad mini in landscape, it’s not super comfortable. I can hunt and peck pretty quickly, though. Like before, I’ll be pairing this thing with an Apple Bluetooth keyboard when I need to get some serious words down.

In Conclusion…

The iPad mini doesn’t add anything to the iOS experience feature-wise, but it does make using iPad apps out in the real world far more likely. I never felt comfortable using my iPad outside the office or house, but I think I’ll be taking this smaller, lighter iPad with me more often.

That said, I’m returning mine and upgrading to an LTE model. The size makes the iPad mini feel much more like a digital notebook than the regular iPad ever could. I see myself carrying it with me far more often than I did with any previous iPad.

Lots of people have compared this iPad to the iPod mini, which was famous for being a huge seller for Apple thanks to its smaller frame, despite it’s decreased storage space. With the iPad mini, Apple has come up with something that’s as full-featured as the larger product, in a smaller package for less money. It’s a win all the way around. I won’t be going back to the larger iPad.