Thoughts on the iPad mini (after a week+ of use)

With the release of the iPad mini, Apple has finally entered the small tablet market. Much has changed since the first iPad ushered in a new era of mobile computing, as tablets like the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD have become even more portable, with higher resolution displays to boot.

And so with great expectations, it’s somewhat strange to find the mini to be one of the most polarizing Apple iDevices ever. It’s beautifully crafted, extremely light and fun to use, and yet, it also houses the same A5 processor from the iPad 2 and a display with a resolution of just 1024 x 768 pixels . That said, after a week of using the mini, these initial concerns have been put to rest and I’ve come to love this 7.9-inch iPad.

Design and hardware

For the very first time, the iPad mini doesn’t quite look like the iPad we’ve come to know and love. Resembling more like a giant 5th generation iPod Touch, the mini’s back is made of anodized aluminum (though unlike the two-toned back of the iPhone 5, it’s just one single color here) and its sides much rounder. This makes it significantly easier and more comfortable to hold, whereas the iPad 3/4 tends to dig into the palm of the hand due to its edgier form factor. Coupled with its impressive weight (just .68 lbs/308 grams – more than half as light as the new iPad), the mini is an absolutely joy to pick up.

Holding the mini with one hand almost feels natural, like you would with any ebook reader. It’s certainly light enough that you practically won’t feel any strain to your hand and arm, which the same can’t be said with the full sized iPad. At 5.3 inches wide, its also fairly easy to palm the back of the mini with one hand. I have (what I assume are) average sized hands and I’ve had no issues palming it from its rear – a nice change from simply holding it from its side or lower left corner.

On the outside, the mini comes with the new lighting port (lighting cable and iPhone-sized charger are included), similar speaker grill as the iPhone 5, an earphone jack located at the top left corner and sleep/volume/side switch buttons found on previous iPads. The rear sports a decent enough 5-megapixel camera, while the front has a 1.2 megapixel FaceTime HD camera. While I haven’t gone all around taking pictures with the mini (and I don’t think I ever will with my iPhone 5 and Sony NEX-5N close by), the camera is quite capable from my test shots, similar to the quality of the iPhone 4 in fact. Just don’t expect much when shooting in low light.

The Display

Much to the dismay of diehard Apple fans around the world, the mini’s (non-retina) 7.9 inch display packs 163ppi (pixels per inch), a small jump from the iPad 2’s 132ppi. By comparison, the iPad 3/4 has 264ppi and the iPhone 5 a whopping 326ppi. Naturally, the higher the ppi, the less discernible the individual pixels to the human eye.

Since the official unveiling, I seriously questioned whether I could comfortably go back to a non-retina iDevice after having spent so much time with my iPad 3 and iPhone 5. After all, this was the very reason why I was ecstatic to upgrade from the original iPad to the 3.

Upon powering on the mini for first time, I was mildly surprised by the display – it actually wasn’t all that bad, or at least as bad I’d initially imagined. Sure, text is more fuzzy and less crisp than its retina siblings, but I didn’t find it to be a deal breaker, like it has been for some early adopters. The thing I’ve found with the mini – and tablets in general – is that unlike on the iPhone (which I normally bring closer to my face), I tend to hold it at arms length for the most part. As a result, the display is slightly further from these 34 year old eyeballs and the pixelation isn’t as obvious.

Brightness wise, it’s comparable to the iPad 3, though sadly, the colors are less rich and vibrant. DisplayMate recently did an in-depth study of the mini’s display and found that it has a smaller color gamut than the new iPad (62% vs 100%). This is pretty evident when placed next to the Retina iPads. I noticed too on my mini there’s a warm yellowish tint on the whites, though again, not completely noticeable unless viewed right next to the iPad 3. But other than the fact that it’s not a retina display, I’d agree with DisplayMate’s assessment: the iPad mini’s screen is ‘very capable’, though not great by any means.

Using the iPad mini

Without a doubt, the most endearing thing about the mini is how light it is. Just like the iPhone 5, you really have to pick it up and see for yourself just how little this tablet weighs. Because it is 53% lighter and 23% thinner, the iPad mini feels so much more portable. After a little more than a week of use, whenever I pick up the iPad 3, it just seems to be much heavier; almost as if I were holding a jumbo netbook. Given all the traveling I have to do for work, I most definitely appreciate having an iPad that’s easy to slip in and out of my bag (or even large coat pocket), not to mention one that’s much lighter to hold onto. Here are several observations I’ve found while using the mini for different tasks:

Typing – On the full sized iPad, the average user should be able to comfortably place both hands above the virtual keyboard in landscape mode. On the mini, this is still possible, though it’s much more cramped and the keys are of course smaller. I can still type with both hands like I normally would, but I find myself making quite a bit more mistakes. So far, I’ve found that typing in portrait feels more natural, where I hold it with both hands and type with my thumbs (without splitting the keyboard). Depending on how big your hands are, you may likely have a different preference. One thing’s for sure: typing on a full sized iPad is a better experience than on the mini. That’s why it’s mighty handy to have a bluetooth keyboard like the ZAGGFolio laying around for any serious typing.

Web Browsing – This is where it can get tricky for many users. Seeing how iPads are often used for surfing the web, there’ll be some getting used with text appearing even smaller on websites, particularly those that are not mobile friendly. And since there’s no retina display, the text will appear smaller than you’re used to. With the smaller viewing area, zooming in (either by pinching or double tapping a column with text) is pretty much required. A slight pain at first, though after a while, it almost becomes second nature. Also, because the mini has less RAM than the previous two iPads released this year (512mb vs 1GB), you will see the occasional “checkerboard effect” and pages refreshing when jumping between open tabs.

Gaming – This is one area I’ve enjoyed much more on the mini than on the iPad 3. I never was a huge iPad gamer before, mainly for the reason that it was too big (and heavy) to hold for extended periods. Certain games are great on it no doubt – like strategy and board games – though I mainly play most of my games on the iPhone 5. On the mini however, the 7.9 inch screen seems perfect for mobile gaming, and even more importantly, it being so light makes it possible to game longer without feeling arm/hand fatigue. Games like Infinity Blade 2 and Real Racing HD 2 performed well, though the lack of retina means the visuals won’t look as spectacular as on the iPad 3/4.

Reading eBooks – Even though I’ve been listening to a lot more of audiobooks over the past several months, I still take pleasure in reading a good ebook. Most of it was done on my Kobo Touch, and while I love its easy to read e-ink display, I now see myself using the mini as my new main eReader (if for no other reason than being able to read in the dark) It’s light enough to hold with one hand and when held at semi-arms length, you can’t really see the pixels on the text anyway. So far I’ve been reading Hugh Howey’s The Wool Omnibus on iBooks and it’s been a good experience.

PDFs, Comics and Magazines – Using my trusted PDF Expert app, reading PDFs and Magazines on the mini works quite well, though it’s hard to beat the full sized iPad in this regard. With a smaller screen, you’ll have to zoom in to get a better view of the text and because of the A5 processor, rendering pages is slightly slower – especially with larger magazine files. As for comics, they’re completely fine on the mini. Reading The Walking Dead on the 7.9″ screen is still fun, and I was still able to do so without having to zoom in. If you dread small(er) text, be prepared to do some pinching and dragging with your fingers.

Watching movies and tv shows on the iPad mini – For the first time ever, the mini has been given stereo speakers, which is great news for those who love to watch their flicks on a tablet (guilty). Compared to the iPad 3’s mono speaker, I found the sound to be a drastic improvement – it’s not only louder, but also more clear. Now on the mini, I don’t feel as though I absolutely need to bust out my Logitech Mini Boombox to ‘pump up the jam’ during those video sessions. On the flip side, high def movies (1080p) won’t look nearly as awesome as on the Retina iPads. Still, I’ve really enjoyed watching movies (and catching up on Modern Family) on the mini while in bed. Again, those measly 308 grams in weight have definitely not gone unnoticed when having to hold it for longer periods.

mini Smart cover – Like its bigger brother, the mini Smart Cover is composed of polyurethane panels and a magnetic hinge to snap onto the iPad’s side, though the biggest difference is that there are just 3 panels (instead of 4) and the hinge is now covered in fabric. Personally, I prefer this design as you won’t have to worry about the metallic part possibly scratching the iPad, and I’ve also found it easier to snap on. And once attached, it does a good job of sticking to the mini.

Basically it works just like the original Smart Cover for the 10″ iPad. At $40 though, it’s a rather hefty price tag for a (smaller) cover that doesn’t protect the backside. One thing I have noticed is that it’s a bit too easy to move the cover while it’s protecting the screen. As such, the Smart Cover will invariably wake up the device when slipping it into a not-so-empty bag. If you were never a fan of Apple’s Smart Cover to begin with, I’d say look elsewhere to protect your shiny new iPad mini.

The iPad mini sitting atop the ZAGG Pro Plus Keyboard

Final Thoughts

I didn’t think that I would come to love the iPad mini as much as I have – especially not when in the back of my mind, I’d nearly convinced myself that it’s retina-or-bust. But then a funny thing happened; I picked up it up and started using it. Being able to hold the tablet in one hand and not feel any strain is quite the eye opener. And to top it off, everything I did on the iPad 3 can also be done on the mini, remarkably with little performance difference. The battery life is equally impressive, considering how thin it is. I’ve gotten over 10 hours of use from a full charge and when gaming or watching movies for extended periods, a little over 9 hours.

That’s not to say that it’s the perfect iPad. Its weakest link – the display – is disappointing, especially coming from a retina iDevice and considering that the competition all have considerably better screens. Perhaps not everyone can overlook the non-retina issue, though I know for a great deal of others (myself included), its light weight and overall package have trumped this fact. The mini certainly isn’t for everyone, particular those who can’t live without a high resolution display or think bigger is better. Photographers, designers, hardcore gamers and those who need the latest and greatest specs will probably want the iPad 4 anyway. But as a do-it-all tablet, the iPad mini is pretty spectacular.

I can’t wait for what’s in store when the iPad mini 2 is released in 2013. Will Apple give it a Retina display? I  sure hope so, because a Retina iPad mini in this gorgeous body would make it the best iPad yet – at least for me it would. As for the fate of my iPad 3, it’s looking like it’ll be finding a new home soon.

The Good

  • Extremely light
  • Easy to hold (even with one hand)
  • Beautifully made
  • Great battery life
  • Stereo speakers sound respectable
  • Rear camera is fairly good for a tablet
  • Size great for gaming

The not so Good

  • Non-Retina Display (low ppi and color gamut)
  • Typing is less comfortable due to smaller screen
  • $329 price tag
  • Have I mentioned the display already?

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