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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  • MadMan007 - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    Here's another display-related thing to fix: the charts for Brightness (black and white) and contrast don't include the Nexus 7 for some bizarre reason..hmm...but the later charts on the same page 4 do. Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    Fixed, thank you :)

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • ksherman - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    While I understand where you're coming from, the reason the Nexus is zoomed in is because the Nexus "fakes" it's resolution in the web browser to about 603 so that responsive web pages render elements larger so they're easier to use on the Nexus 7. So the side by side photo is simply comparing the default view on load.

    In fact, this is actually somewhat of a negative for the iPad Mini on responsive sites because it means it's rendering pages designed for a much larger display.

    Source: http://www.lukew.com/ff/entry.asp?1663
    Reply
  • MadMan007 - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - link

    Now this would be something interesting to investigate and inform readers about. I didn't know about different devices presenting different resolutions and am not sure what the differences really mean. Reply
  • Galatian - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    As a medical student I fast pretty fast in preordering the cellular white iPad mini here in Germany. It is the perfect size to fit into a white coats pocket. I will read a lot of books on it, so it was a hard decision between this and the 4th Gen iPad. But size does matter and eventually Retina will come to the mini line. For right now I just have to live with the resolution. Reply
  • Granseth - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    This is a big issue for me with the Ipad 2, and it will be the same with Ipad mini. When I try to use the Ipad2 as a productive device I often lose information I write because the webpages and apps has to reload when the device gets out of memory and have to free something to load the next app/webpage. And this has become much worse as the Ipad has aged, so it's terrible that they are selling a new device with only 512MB of RAM.

    But hopefully people will use this smaller device as a consumption device, and not a productivity device.
    Reply
  • ratte - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    Excellent review as always, balanced and informative.
    It's a pity that Apple can't easily go to an intermediate resolution like 1600 x 1200, like Android can, but is stuck with the rezdoubling. For me the mini would have felt more futureproof if they had used an A6 with 1Gb memory. but then this is Apple....
    Reply
  • MadMan007 - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    Yeah, they need something obvious but AWESOME to make sure everyone buys a new one next year. Reply
  • Gaugamela - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    Now it's easy to understand why Apple wanted to ban the Galaxy Tab 7.7. The iPad Mini is a rip-off of it. With a much worse display since the GT7.7 had a Super Amoled + display of superior resolution.
    Samsung was a year ahead of Apple and it still holds up great, if Samsung updated it to Jelly Bean.

    I would like to see a new Galaxy Tab 7.7.

    And the display is a disapointment. It makes it a no buy device instantly, it's 130$ more expensive than the Nexus 7 and offers a worse display. Anyone that picks the Mini should only do it by the form factor or preference by iOS.
    Reply
  • ltcommanderdata - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    The form factor is why I'm considering the iPad Mini over the Nexus 7. It has great build quality, is thinner, lighter, yet has battery life that is similar or better and has a screen that's a third larger. The Nexus 7's advantage in screen resolution in itself is not as important for me because the screen is smaller so showing more tiny content isn't useful. The lower pixel density is a concern for clarity. The CPU may be weaker, but the GPU is stronger which given good GPU acceleration for UI responsiveness is a reasonable exchange. $130 more maybe worth it if the better form factor makes the device more useable so that it sees more use. Reply

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