iPad mini In Depth: Thin, Light & Charming

| In-Depth Review

Apple’s iPad mini is Apple’s newest size iPad with a 7.9-inch display and weighs just 11 ounces (312 grams). It has Apple’s traditional attention to fit and finish, has few compromises, and is easy for most to hold in one hand. Read on to find out if this new iPad is right for you.

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The iPad mini weighs half as much as an iPad 4 and has a size that’s designed to be used by people with smaller hands or used in situations where there is less space available. These two scenarios will have an impact on whether you might consider an iPad mini for yourself or a child.

How Does the Size Matter?

For example, my wife commutes to work via the Denver bus system. She loves to read Kindle books during that 30 minute ride. But her regular iPad 2, in its case, is just too large, bulky and heavy to hold while riding. Plus, it takes up a lot of room in her tote bag.

Image Credit: Apple (Case is optional)

On the other hand, when she’s home, it’s more likely she’s browsing the Internet with Safari or news apps. When used that way, the text and screen on the mini is a bit on the small side for her. Pinch/zooming to increase the size of the text cuts off part of the page.

As a result, the iPad mini isn’t just a device that’s easier to use because it’s smaller. The context of what you’re doing with it is also important.

A second example: Physicians will likely find that a regular 9.7-inch iPad, especially with a case, is too large and heavy to carry around in a coat pocket. However, an iPad mini is small and light enough to carry around all day long. Extreme portability invites more frequent use in this case -- and may in others.

L-R: iPad 3 (w/ gel case), iPad mini, iPhone 4S (w/ case)

Here’s a third example. I know from previous experience that carrying around a 5.5 pound MacBook Pro at WWDC or Macworld Expo is a real pain. It makes a backpack tiresome on the neck. But the change to, say, a MacBook Air makes all the difference. The same would apply to kids. That is, a full sized iPad would be a hassle to lug around at the bus stop and at school. But at 312 grams, especially for really young kids, it wouldn’t be so much of a problem.

I saw a tweet from a writer who planned to install one in his car for turn-by-turn driving directions. (He didn’t say if it was a Mini Cooper.) A 7.x-inch display is just the right balance: an iPhone is too small and an iPad is too large and hard to fit gracefully into most cars' instrument panel area.

Finally, the weight has an impact on people who like to read in bed before going to sleep. I’ve talked to some people who have to rest the iPad on their stomach; holding it in the air isn’t an option. The iPad mini can be comfortably held in one hand for a long time. That applies to extended FaceTime sessions as well. FaceTime sessions with a regular iPad are best when it’s sitting upright on a stand.

The net result of this is that one has to have a very clear idea about the anticipated environment. You wouldn’t buy a 15-inch LCD HDTV unless you had a very specific need and application: say, a cramped RV. Similarly, the purchase of an iPad mini should be a solution to a problem, not a purchase on a whim. Plus, an iPad mini might supplement a regular iPad. One is used, say, at home or local travel. The iPad mini might be thrown into a briefcase for business travel or for an extended time on vacation -- where only casual connectivity is of interest perhaps supplemented by book reading or inspection of online restaurant menus.

Along those lines, there might also be unintended consequences of having an iPad mini. For example, on a field trip, remote astronomy session, or a photo shoot, one might need to take a MacBook for advanced image processing. Throwing an iPad into the side pocket of a carry bag would add a lot of weight. But at 312 grams, it would be easy to supplement a MacBook with an iPad mini.

What About the Apps?

Another question to ask is: how will the display size affect apps that you use? For example, I found that the iPad mini is perfect for book reading (Kindle, iBooks) because they are primarily text -- and the font size is adjustable. However, my wife doesn’t plan to put Zinio on it because magazines, with complex layouts, small captions, and perhaps a fixed font size are hard to see on a 7.9-inch screen. I think a 9.7-inch display is barely large enough to read a regular magazine.

In general, apps that provide simple information, like world clocks, a compass, stock quotes, and system utilities will be just fine. The same goes for action games. However, complex, technical apps like virtual sextants or star char programs, designed for the iPad, just aren’t going to work as well because all that detailed information is compressed. This is why our family isn’t syncing apps to the iPad mini: a fixed set of apps that are appropriate to the size of the device make more sense than cluttering it up with a mirrored set of everything purchased for other iOS devices.

In the middle of all these considerations are video apps, such as Apple’s video player or Netflix. I put a copy of the latest Star Trek movie on the iPad mini, and while heavily letterboxed, it still looked great. (See below.) Sure, the resolution of the display (1024 x 768) isn’t technically high-definition (1368 x 720), but it doesn’t seem to matter. The video is condensed onto a small screen. Even though it’s not a Retina class display, it still looks great to me. That’s because the iPad mini pixels are physically smaller. I don’t think this would be a serious area of concern for casual movie or TV watching. Here is more technical detail on that if you’re interested.

The fuss about display not being pure HD is phony. HD movies still look great.

This goes back to the preamble above. If you buy an iPad mini because it’s a solution to a particular set of problems, ones that don’t involve long term video viewing, then it’s pointless to complain that it doesn’t also have a Retina display. (Although that may come in the next generation.)

Perhaps the biggest visual issue with the iPad mini is iPhone apps when viewed at 2x. On the iPad 3 (or 4), they look very nice indeed. However, an iPhone app blown up to 2x on the iPad mini, especially one with lots of text, will have jagged edges. This is just one of those engineering compromises, and there no clear way out until the mini goes Retina. I view it as something to be aware of but not a critical factor in the design.

iPad mini has visible jaggies on large text with iPhone apps in 2x mode.

Technical Specifications

The iPad mini has the same Dual-core A5 processor as the iPad 2, which is still for sale. It also has the same high quality cameras, in principle, as the iPad 4: 1.2 megapixel FaceTime camera and 5 megapixel iSight (rear facing) camera. However, in a real-world tests, some differences have been found compared to the iPad 4 in resolution and color rendition. (More below in the Performance section.)

According to tear-down reports, the A5 is running at 1 GHz and the mini has 512 MB of working RAM.

Of course, because the display is not Apple’s Retina-class display, you only get 163 pixels per inch (ppi) compared to 264 ppi on the iPad 3 and 4. But see the discussion just above about video viewing.

Finally, the iPad mini is Apple’s first iPad with stereo speakers. I’ve been complaining about that for years, and this is a welcome change by Apple.

According to iFixit, the battery capacity is 16.5 W-h (@3.72 volts) or 4400 mAh. The battery in the iPad 3 is 11,666 mAh. Thus, the mini's battery is small, but much more substantial than the iPhone 5’s 1423 mAh battery. Accordingly, one would think that the iPad mini would be accompanied by a full-strength, 12 watt charger. Instead, Apple supplies a small 5 watt charger that will take longer to charge the mini. The initial thinking is that Apple cut an unnecessary corner here, but the final verdict isn’t in.

Once you see how thin the iPad mini is, you'll understand why Apple developed the Lightning connector.

As with all iPads ever shipped, no earbuds are included.

Handling the iPad mini

I found the iPad mini to be delightful to hold and handle. There is something about the 7.2 mm thickness that has a kind of sensual, and, if I may overuse the term, magical feel. That is, how can something so beautiful and technical exist in a tablet that’s so thin? Perhaps we see the influence of Jonathan Ive here. The tactile feel creates a specific emotion, and part of it is seeing the full iPad experience on a smaller device. (I didn't get that feeling on an iPhone.)  It’s hard to describe but it does bring a smile to your face.

7.2 mm thick (thin!) is incredible.  It just feels awesome.

In addition, when a device like this is small, any slack in tolerances for fit and finish show up more dramatically. I must say that the mini is exceptionally well made, and the chamfered edge is amazing. It's a tool that will provide pride of ownership and zero buyer’s remorse.

That said, the iPad mini also feels vulnerable. The full size iPad could, in a pinch, be used for self defense -- it has that kind of heft, like a frying pan. An iPad mini feels delicate. (But I’ve dropped it on hardwood once, and it didn’t blink.) It seems to cry out for a case, and I find that to be fascinating technical irony, considering what I just said about handling it. Plus, the back of the mini is very, very smooth. If placed on a table (or the box it comes in) at even a very slight angle, it’ll slide right onto the floor in an instant. I’d buy a good case.

Recently, I reviewed a lot of different styluses, so I had a desk littered with them. What I found, in my case, is that the smaller heft and display of the iPad mini invites -- but does not require -- a stylus. That is, there are occasions when a stylus might help and seem more natural. However, when the keyboard is in landscape mode, they keys are plenty large enough to type on.

In portrait mode, the size of the virtual keys is barely adequate. I had no trouble setting up email without making typos. However, this is not a keyboard for writing a novel. And that brings up another issue. The iPad mini, more so than the iPad, is a content consumption device. While one can think about writing a short article on an iPad’s virtual keyboard, and I know people who could (I can’t), the iPad mini is far from a writer’s tool. No doubt, some will press it into service as such anyway. But then, some people fantasize about a jet engine on a bicycle.

Finally, I would suggest that older people with less than excellent vision and accommodation may want to weigh screen size against the heft of various iPads. That is to say, the iPad mini is certainly light and easy to hold, but it’s a small display and bright backlighting could strain the eyes. That’s the appeal of the Kindle devices for book reading: they use a different technology that’s easier on the eyes. Let your smartphone be your guide. If you have no troubles with your smartphone display, the iPad mini will be just fine.

Performance

In everyday use, I didn’t notice any particularly annoying slowdowns or performance issues. However, I did do some FaceTime testing with a friend in Atlanta. Over a period of just a few minutes, he called me on my wife’s iPad 2, my iPad 3, and the iPad mini. He reported that the sound and video from the full size iPads were terrific, but both the sound and video from the iPad mini were choppy for a bit, then cleared up. Back to the iPhone 5, and all was well again. Because the test was done over a short period of time there was nothing to suggest any change in our Wi-Fi status. It’s hard to say whether this was indicative of anything real. The iPad mini has essentially the same specs and expected performance as an iPad 2. More testing is order.

Other sites have tested the iPad mini in game, Real Racing 2 and N.O.V.A. 3, and found respectable performance and no frame drops.

Despite the identical specifications for the rear-facing camera in megapixels and lens design compared to the iPad 4, Boinx Software found significant differences in the performance of the two iPads. Also, Derrick Story, a professional photographer, has done some tests at The Digital Story and also found the camera in the mini less capable in some respects to that in the iPad 4. It’s not yet known if this is hardware or software related.

Image Credit: Boinx Software

I did a short test of the battery life. After four hours of viewing Netflix movies, the battery charge went from 100 percent to 90 percent. That’s not to say that one can expect a lot more than Apple’s claimed 10 hour battery life. Your mileage will vary. Even so, that informal test impressed me.

What I Liked

  • The feel in my hand. Thin, dense, high quality materials, fit and finish.
  • Easy for one-handed book reading.
  • Great size, weight for FaceTime sessions.
  • Stereo speakers.
  • Significant savings over an iPad 4 for first time buyers on a budget.
  • Cellular data on AT&T, Sprint and Verizon.

What I didn’t Like

  • Anodized back is too slippery.
  • Size and weight makes it easy to knock around -- a protective case is essential.
  • A less capable 5 watt charger is included.
  • The persistent Apple money grab of $100 going from 16 GB to 32 GB of user storage.

Image Credit: Apple. If you feel the need for small, go for it.

Conclusion

The iPad mini is a device that cries out for a clear understanding of how it will be used. And accepted for what it is capable of and designed for. It’s not simply a matter of deciding whether you want a 9.7 or a 7.9-inch screen. The iPad mini has about half the CPU performance of an iPad 4 with it’s A6X processor, and so the mini is geared more towards certain very specific kinds of activities where its small size pays off. Because it is ultra-portable, you will also want to seriously consider whether you'll need a cellular model in the kinds of places you may want to take it. The bottom line is that if you’re not clear about your motives for buying an iPad mini, you could end up being disappointed.

There has been some initial discussion here at TMO whether the iPad mini would, at some point, be a better seller than the standard size iPads. Others have also speculated about this. At first, I thought it might do so over the next year. However, after pondering further, and soberly looking at projected sales, I think the iPad mini fills an important product niche, but won’t ever sell in larger numbers than its big brothers. Given its design point, I think that’s exactly what Apple had in mind. And so should you.

Product: iPad mini

Company: Apple, Inc.

List Price: US$329 (16 GB, Wi-Fi)

Pros:

Very thin, very light, easy to hold in one hand, 10 hour battery life, awesome fit and finish. Beautiful, magical to handle. Stereo speakers.

Cons:

No Retina display. iSight camera suspect. Corners cut on power adapter. Some iPhone apps at 2x may not look great. More expensive than most had hoped.

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Comments

Andhaka

I cannot really muster much excitement for the MiniPad… for mobilty I prefer the iPhone for simple things or a full iPad if I have to work with it.
And as for reading.. no serious reader would prefer a tablet to an e-ink Kindle in 99% of the cases (magazine are not reading for me).

I’d really like to.. well, like it, but not really in my camp. smile

Cheers

Lee Dronick

I was skeptical of the rumored size, but after I had a chance to try out one at the Apple Store I am pleased with the form. I can two thumb type nicely on yet it has more real estate than my iPhone.

I will buy one for my wife as Christmas gift, better than the new vacuum cleaner that I was planning to get her. I will until the next model before I consider getting myself one.

MOSiX Man

My wife has the iPad 3rd gen and I really like it. However, we just purchased my daughter an iPad mini, just for school use (yeah, right!), and now, if I had to pick one or the other for myself, I’d go with the mini. The form factor is so easy to handle and extra portable that it more than makes up for the smaller display size. Also, I’m used to just having to deal with a iPhone 4-sized display, so the iPad mini seems more than adequate to me. The best analogy I can come up with for the difference between the iPad and iPad mini is that the full-sized iPad is like a nice, hard-back book and the mini is a paper-back copy of the same book. One is bigger, and the pages are bigger and nicer to look at, but the other is much more portable and easy to handle, and is still sufficiently well printed to read easily. As for the mini not having the retina display, I think you’d have to see them side-by side, or be really used to looking at a retina iPad display, to really be able to notice the difference in the real world. I don’t see jaggies unless I look pretty closely.

Oh, and yes, I think Apple could really slam their competitors’ sales if they priced the iPad mini at $279 or even $299. The perception of it being a <= $300 device, rather than a > $300 device, would have convinced a lot more consumers to consider the mini over a 7” tablet from a competitor. Yes, I know that Apple will keep selling out of the mini, for a while, but with if they sacrificed $30 of profit on each unit, it would go a long way towards hurting their competition. The question then becomes, do they really care about their competition in this market if they keep selling iPads by the ton?

Gary Wons

Your article was very good.  The question that formed for me was:  If I have an iPhone already, would it make more sense to have the larger iPad or the mini?  I use my iPhone with many apps and so I have that small form factor and portability.  On the other hand, I also have a MacBookPro that I carry around most of the time. 
I have not yet been able to justify the iPad in any size.  I looked at both sizes in the local Apple store and like both.  The mini impressed me and I liked its size and feel, its just that I don’t know if it brings that much more to what my iPhone provides.

geoduck

I will be replacing my iPod Touch in the next year, and I have three options: Another iPod Touch, the iPad Mini, or the iPad. You are right about it coming down to a question of uses and value. Bang for the buck.
I like the iPod touch, it does most of what I want but it’s getting to be a strain for these old eyes to see fine details. I find myself taking my glasses off more often to read the screen, gaming is limited, and star charts, and such are a non starter. I do like the portability though. The full sized iPad (we have an iPad 2 at the house) would be a huge advantage for games and writing and all sorts of things but the price is significantly higher. The new iPod Touch has a bigger screen than what I have now, can run all the apps I need, is more portable than the iPad, all for a very appealing price. This leaves the iPad Mini. It’s specs are more like a larger iPod Touch but it’s price ($130 more than the iPod Touch for the same storage and $170 less than an iPad4 for the same storage) leaves it at the bottom end of the iPad range.
At this point I think it will come down to a much more capable but heavier, larger and more expensive system (iPad4) or an small portable system that is much better than what I have now, has a screen that limits what I can do with it, but is much more economical and easier to use (the iPod Touch). the Mini seems to have some of the drawbacks of the iPod Touch and the issues of the full sized iPad. I’m not sure if it would fit my needs well.

Caveat: I will have to handle one to be sure and the Rev-2 iPad Mini if it has a stronger chip and Retina screen might change the equation significantly.

Jeff Butts

John, you said: “In portrait mode, the size of the virtual keys is barely adequate.”

My mileage varies somewhat on this. I actually LIKE the virtual keyboard in portrait mode. Perhaps I have smaller hands than you, but I find it quite natural to type with both hands, using my thumbs to type and the rest of my hands to hold the mini. Perhaps a novel might be daunting this way, but I find it quite handy for typing emails and short documents.

Other than that, I think I agree with you on just about every point. The iPad Mini is terrific for a number of things, but there are definitely functions that are better served by my 3rd-generation iPad.

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