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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  • Zink - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - link

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MMmLQlrBws Reply
  • twtech - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    I hope Google keeps the same screen size for the next 7" Nexus, but trims into the border a bit on the sides. Right now it's right at the limit for wrapping a hand around it, and I have pretty big hands. Reply
  • Crocography - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    And also its all metal back is too slippery compared to the Nexus 7. I waited for both to be release before I bought the Nexus 7 32Gb. (bought one by selling my iPad 2013 model -- never really used it much) Reply
  • jjj - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    If Apple is Apple they should have made this higher end and price it at 400$, and that still is what Job's Apple would do.Next year with the ipad 2 gone,they would need to drop the ipad 4 to 400$ or retire it so covering the 400$ range with the mini would make more sense.The cost of the SoC is a relative thing,32nm yields will get better by then,keeping it thin could be problematic if they double the res.

    PS; i am in no way suggesting this would be a price worth paying, just sayiing what would Apple do.
    Reply
  • dishayu - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - link

    Is it possible Apple made the iPad mini worse than they were capable of, right now, just so that they can effortlessly update it and make more money out of it? Reply
  • ltcommanderdata - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - link

    Like any product designer, Apple has got to optimize for a variety of factors including component availability, component cost, final sale price, what features customers want, what features customers can tolerate not having, etc. If they just cared about maximizing profits they might as well have just thrown in the A4 from the iPhone 4 and a larger version of the TN panel used in the iPhone 3GS since they share the same dpi anyways.

    The iPad Mini already has worse battery life than the iPad 2 even without a retina display. Adding a retina display and a faster SoC to drive it will make this even worse unless a larger battery is included. One of the main features of the iPad Mini is how thin and light it is, even thinner and lighter than competing 7" tablets despite having a larger screen. Gaining a retina display in exchange for a thicker, heavier tablet may silence some complaints but will only create new ones. What's worse, a thicker, heavier design might make the iPad Mini difficult to hold given it's thin bezel design with limited grip area, so is a non-starter given current technology in 2012. Hopefully Anand is wrong in his prediction that a Retina iPad Mini isn't possible in 2013 either and that improvements in display tech, battery tech, and a move to the Samsung 28 nm process for the SoC will make it happen.
    Reply
  • marcolorenzo - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - link

    Whilst I'm sure it was possible for Apple to include the retina display and the A6 SoC, it's more likely that they chose not to since it would make the device bigger and heavier due to the bigger battery it would require. Apple was simply not willing to make that sacrifice. Next year when the technology is more mature, they will implement it. Reply
  • drx11 - Sunday, November 25, 2012 - link

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------
    RE: On purpose by marcolorenzo on Wednesday, November 21, 2012
    Whilst I'm sure it was possible for Apple to include the retina display and the A6 SoC, it's more likely that they chose not to since it would make the device bigger and heavier due to the bigger battery it would require....
    --------------------------------------------------------------------------
    Exactly - this is the iPad 4 (gen)!
    Reply
  • aravenwood - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - link

    Anand,

    Thanks for the article, but the most interesting thing you mention never gets explored at all in the article. On the first page you say:

    "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."

    You say that the comparison with the Nook HD+ and Kindle are the most interesting comparisons, in a small premium tablet niche, but you never come back to this. Can you elaborate on this, maybe in a followup article? I for one have basically discounted the iPad Mini, and the kindle in favor of the Nook HD+. I haven't bought it yet, but I am leaning heavily - the only drawback is the lack of camera and GPS. The price, quality of screen build quality is compelling. In general I feel that Nook HD/HD+ doesn't get the respect it deserves. I have been holding off because I can't any serious (e.g. Anandtech type) reviews of the device and i want to read some real discussion of it's qualities and get a no-bs assessment of the good and bad and comparison to the Kindle and nexus 10.

    So that's my Thanksgiving wish - if you have down time, can we please have a review of the Nook HD +?

    Thanks,
    Michael
    Reply
  • MadMan007 - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - link

    Seconded. The Nooks and Kindles may be some of the more popular tablets among the less tech savvy. They aren't the fastest or most up to date, but they do have nice feature sets, and B&N doesn't overcharge for built-in storage upgrades. The Nook HD+ and Fire HD 8.9" both have very high resolution screens. Maybe the custom software makes them harder to review? I still think it's worth it even if they aren't directly comparable to other tablets for that reason, plus you could explore loading custom ROMs if possible (I didn't bother to look up whether they are hackable) Reply

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