Over the last two months, Apple has updated almost all of its core product lines, with the addition of a 13” model to the Retina MacBook Pro line and new silicon for the iPad and Mac mini to go with ground up redesigns for the iPhone, iMac, iPod touch, and iPod nano. But the biggest story from the “little more” event was definitely the introduction of the iPad mini, a 7.9” counterpart to the 9.7” tablet that started it all.

We’ve been hearing whispers of a 7” Apple-built tablet since even before the original iPad was shown off in January 2010. By late 2011, the speculative consensus seemed to center around a 7.85” iPad targeted at the then-new Kindle Fire, with a 1024x768 resolution that would give it the same pixel density as the iPhone 3GS and a resolution that matched the regular 9.7” iPad. We’ve basically been hearing about this new device every two weeks since then. Apple’s “veil of secrecy” is almost entirely gone at this point, something that is getting more obvious with every new product launch and a fact I think is worth mentioning because we’ve essentially known what the iPad mini was going to be, design and component-wise, since late summer.

The result is a healthy blend of parts-bin engineering, a device that shares features and components with many other iOS devices. The design language is nearly identical to that of the fifth generation iPod touch, as is the SoC (the 32nm shrink of A5, also shared with the iPad 2,4) and camera - a 5MP sensor with Apple’s five-element, f/2.4 optical system. With the same aspect ratio and screen resolution as the iPad 2, the iOS software stack is pretty straightforward too.

The Retina display technology is one that very prominently didn’t trickle down to the iPad mini; with seemingly the entire rest of Apple’s mobile lineup going Retina, from the iPod touch all the way up to the 15” MacBook Pro, the lack of a super-high resolution panel is noteworthy. We’re left with a 7.85” IPS panel (rounded to 7.9” in Apple’s marketing material) that runs a 1024x768 resolution and a pixel density of 163. That’s the same as the first generation iPhone (as the 3G/3GS), which was cutting edge back in 2007, and half that of the iPhone 4/4S/5. I’ll talk more about the display later on, but it’s safe to say that the Retina display is the single biggest omission from the iPad mini feature list.

iPad Specification Comparison
  Apple iPad mini Apple iPad 4 Apple iPad 3 Apple iPad 2 Apple iPad
Dimensions 200 x 134.7 x 7.2mm 241.2 x 185.7 x 9.4mm 241.2 x 185.7 x 9.4mm 241.2 x 185.7 x 8.8mm 243.0 x 190.0 x 13.4mm
Display 7.85-inch 1024 x 768 IPS 9.7-inch 2048 x 1536 IPS 9.7-inch 2048 x 1536 IPS 9.7-inch 1024 x 768 IPS 9.7-inch 1024 x 768 IPS
Weight 308g (WiFi) 652g (WiFi) 652g (WiFi) 601g (WiFi) 680g (WiFi)
Processor 1GHz Apple A5 (2 x Cortex A9, PowerVR SGX543MP2)

Apple A6X (2 x Swift, PowerVR SGX 554MP4)

Apple A5X (2 x Cortex A9, PowerVR SGX 543MP4)

1GHz Apple A5 (2 x Cortex A9, PowerVR SGX543MP2) 1GHz Apple A4 (1 x Cortex A8, PowerVR SGX 535)
Connectivity WiFi , Optional 4G LTE WiFi , Optional 4G LTE WiFi , Optional 4G LTE WiFi , Optional 3G WiFi , Optional 3G
Memory 512MB 1GB 1GB 512MB 256MB
Storage 16GB—64GB 16GB—64GB 16GB—64GB 16GB—64GB 16GB—64GB
Battery 16.3Wh 42.5Wh 42.5Wh 25Wh 25Wh
Starting Price $329 $499 - $399 -

Unlike previous releases of the 9.7” iPad, which have all come with new SoCs or otherwise significant internal upgrades, there’s not much in the way of silicon-level innovation. Each iPad has come with a new SoC, with A4, A5, A5R2, A5X, and A6X all showing up first in the various iPads, and the only major Apple SoC release in that time to not ship first in an iPad was A6, which of course came alongside the iPhone 5 two months ago. The iPad mini, on the other hand, is on paper basically just an iPad 2,4 in miniature form, plus better cameras, optional LTE, and new industrial design.

The mini is available with the same color schemes as the iPhone 5, with the black or white bezels being joined by slate and silver anodized aluminum chassis, respectively. NAND options are the usual 16/32/64GB, with LTE-enabled models available through AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint. Pricing starts off at $329, with NAND going for $100 per step and $130 for LTE, as on the other iPads. This is a major point of contention with the mini, because the most obvious rivals in the Android world, the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD 7”, start at $199 and charge less for NAND upgrades. A 32GB Nexus 7 will run you $249, same with the 32GB Kindle Fire HD, while a 32GB iPad mini goes for the rather princely sum of $429. You could buy two 16GB Nexus 7s and a bundle of paid apps for the same as a 32GB mini.

But here’s the thing - I don’t consider the iPad mini a competitor to the Nexus 7. The Nexus 7, to me, is what I buy if I’m in the market for a $199 tablet or I want a 7” Android device. It’s a completely different experience than the iPad mini. In my mind, the closest competitors for the iPad mini are, in order, the iPad 2, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9”, and the Nook Tablet HD+. The iPad 2 is obvious because these are the two lowest priced iOS tablets right now, and with similar underlying hardware, they’re actually pretty closely matched. I think the latter two are especially interesting comparisons to make, because all three exist in the ~$300 “small premium tablet” niche that has suddenly appeared.

Consider it like the Mini Cooper equivalent in the tablet world - a premium experience offered at a very attainable (if not particularly value-oriented) price point. Obviously, that game plan has worked very well for BMW in the automotive world, and certainly if any company could use it successfully in consumer electronics, it would be Apple. The business case for it almost writes itself, but does it result in a truly stand-out product or a half-hearted me-too attempt by Apple to grab a share of the budget tablet market? With relatively little in the way of new hardware to talk about, a lot of this review will center around the user experience, and that’s really what will determine how successful it is. Let’s start with the major differentiating factor brought by the iPad mini, the new form factor.

Ergonomics
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  • Magwitch - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - link

    Am I the only person who thinks Anand is just another Apple shill who just falls over himself supporting any and every Apple product out there? Please. What ever happened to the objectivity that once was the hallmark of Anandtech? I've watched the same thing happen to Tom's Hardware over the years. I guess it must be the koolaid they drink. Reply
  • uhuznaa - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - link

    Well, maybe this *is* objective and what you want to read is something subjective that starts and ends with "everything Apple is crap"?

    This review points out all the weak points of the device, comes with a lot of objective numbers and benchmarks -- what do you miss exactly?
    Reply
  • andrewaggb - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - link

    I really don't think it's necessary to make personal insults against the staff. Yes anand clearly likes apple. But look around. So does half the continent. Reply
  • edsib1 - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - link

    You state that the mini display is great but, in your own tests...

    Pixel density - 5th of 7
    brightness -13th of 17
    contrast - 17th of 17
    calibration - 6th of 7
    grayscrale - 3rd of 7
    saturation - 4th of 7
    GMB - 6th of 7

    I dont understand your conclusion. Doesnt add up to a great display to me.
    Reply
  • admiralpumpkin - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - link

    The answer is two-fold.

    FIrst, the tests were against other rather good screens. So coming in "average" is actually quite good. Here's the key statement, near the end of the review, "It pains me to say it, but compared to most similarly priced notebooks, the iPad mini's display is amazing."

    Second, often times the margin of difference must not have seemed significant to Anand. For example, if two screens are 1% apart on a particular metric (pulling a number from nowhere) then which came in 1st vs 2nd is a relatively meaningless.
    Reply
  • jonjonjonj - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - link

    i personally dont get it. i have an ipod touch, iphone and ipad and pretty much never use the ipod or ipad. the ipad is only good for checking an email quickly or looking at a youtube video. anything beyond that and its frustrating to use. personally i would rather have a laptop/ultrabook. not sure i understand making the mini other than just to have a cheaper "i" product to complete with kindles and androids. i didnt think apple was about going cheap. Reply
  • Jumangi - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - link

    I can't see how any tech enthusiast site could look at the Mini and be impressed at the overall product. A 1 1/2 year old SoC. A screen resolution that goes back even farther and skimping out at 512MB or RAM. Any other manufacturer tried to pull that off would get slammed on all points but because the Mini has a nice case well all is good I guess... Reply
  • drx11 - Sunday, November 25, 2012 - link

    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    How does this thing get positive reviews?....Oh wait its Apple. by Jumangi on Wednesday, November 21, 2012
    I can't see how any tech enthusiast site could look at the Mini and be impressed at the overall product. A 1 1/2 year old SoC.
    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    You can not see it, because it is in the software... the SoC the apps, etc... you miss the forest for the trees. You miss the computer (system or tablet) for the specifications of the various parts...
    Reply
  • jb14 - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - link

    Hi Anand thanks for the article.

    I was wondering if you had any plans to review the new B&N Nook HD 7" tablet? It would be interesting to read your findings on it's higher resolution screen. Also any plans for a tablet round up pre-xmas, as they are a nice size/price for potential presents? It seems the choice comes down to Nexus 7 vs N&B Nook/Kindle fire HD or the mini Ipad for iOS.
    Reply
  • Shadowmaster625 - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - link

    "I don’t consider the iPad mini a competitor to the Nexus 7"

    What the heck? I jsut do not understand the continuous worshipping of this company's garbage products. It is almost like people dont even actually use these things. In reality, ther eis no difference between this and something like a nexus 7. They're both going to be extremely limited, extremely frustrating devices. iPoopa are anything but buttery smooth flawlessly running devices these biased reviewers make them out to be. I can make my iPoop crash just by opening webpages. Every time I'm scrolling thru the app store it lage like hell. The thing is really unbearably slow in jsut about everything. I only have about 100 apps installed. (58 of which want to update right now, but hell if I'm gonna bother.) I hate this thing. I only use it as a remote control nowadays. Even that crashes. It's really terrible. I refuse to believe that it is something unique to my device. What's more liekly to me is that the people who never have any problems with these things are the people who never actually use them.
    Reply

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