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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  • Greg512 - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    I haven't read through the whole review, just the conclusion, but the side-by-side photo with the Nexus really accentuates how much larger the Mini is. Other than that difference, I think ecosystem is the only significant reason to buy the Mini over a competing tablet. The hardware just doesn't impress like the iPad 3. Reply
  • Jorange - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    But is it too wide to hold one-handed for long periods? Reply
  • Greg512 - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    I tried it out at a store and my impression is holding it one-handed is pretty uncomfortable. I also find the Nook tablet pretty uncomfortable to hold one handed, but the Mini is certainly no better, probably worse. Plus, holding it one-handed in portrait (if you grip from the side) blocks some of the screen. Reply
  • Pantsu - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - link

    I'd have to agree. While the mini is thinner and has perhaps somewhat better build quality compared to the nexus 7, when comparing them side to side, I'd have say my Nexus 7 was more comfortable to hold in one hand. Also it just happens to fit in my jacket pocket while the mini is too wide.

    Even though the aspect ratio in the mini might be preferable for web, you still end up zooming, and then again video is better with a 16:9 display.
    Reply
  • DERSS - Thursday, November 22, 2012 - link

    But yes, it is 15 mm (1.5 cm, 0.6 inch) wider, it has to be taken into account. Though most of its width is compensated by lesser thickness, so overall perimeter just a little bit bigger than that of Nexus 7. Reply
  • DeciusStrabo - Thursday, November 22, 2012 - link

    I think the backside material of the Nexus 7 is what makes it so comfortable to hold, next to the size. Unlike my iPad 2 it simply doesn't feel uncomfortable at any point. Can't get to cold or hot or be slippery.

    Oh, a Nexus 7 with the hardware of the Nexus 10 and a 1600x1200 8" screen and the Nexus 7 backside... My dream tablet. Alternatively a iPad Mini with a full Retina screen and a A6X/2 GB RAM (the 512 GB is the worst part of my iPad 2 and I can't believe they did it again in 2012 with the Mini).
    Reply
  • Solandri - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - link

    Standard paperback book sizes are:

    A: 110mm x 178mm
    B: 129mm x 198mm
    Trade: 135mm x 216mm

    Nexus 7: 120mm x 198mm
    iPad mini: 135mm x 200mm

    The A format paperback is the kind you can shove in your back pocket. Easy to hold in one hand. The B is slightly bigger, and most people can hold it in one hand. The trade paperbacks are the bigger more expensive kind, more like a hardcover book but with a soft cover. Most people have to bend them to hold in one hand.

    The Nexus 7's width falls between A and B paperbacks in width. The iPad Mini is trade paperback size in width, even with the reduced bezel. Personally I think Apple goofed here, picking a size larger than what the publishing industry settled on as ideal for one-handed carrying and reading after decades of product testing.

    I'm pretty sure Apple chose to make the iPad Mini 7.9" instead of 7" because the 4:3 aspect ratio would've made movies on a 7" iPad smaller than on 7" 16:9 Android tablets. By making the iPad Mini 7.9" they make movies on it slightly bigger than on a 7" Android tablet. But the cost in one-handed holdability isn't worth it IMHO.

    They tried to make up for it by cutting down weight, which makes it easier to hold by one edge. But that carries its own drawbacks:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MMmLQlrBws#t=0m30s
    Reply
  • Jakers Ugly Brother - Thursday, November 22, 2012 - link

    Actually, the iPad mini is almost exactly the same size and shape as the Amazon Kindle 2 (the old white keyboard one), differing only in slightly higher weight. The dimensions are so close that I have to believe that Apple was using the K2 as a reference for the mini.

    Most K2 users agree that it is extremely easy and comfortable to hold one-handed for hours, and very easy to carry.

    Put a $5 silicon or TPU case on the mini, and it too becomes extremely comfortable to hold for hours.
    Reply
  • darwinosx - Friday, November 30, 2012 - link

    Apple did nothing with 7' Android tablets in mind. Reply
  • stfuyolo - Sunday, February 17, 2013 - link

    no i own one and if your hand gets tired then you can balance it on one hand, i can grip it for a while and I have a case aswell on it so that is thicker!! Reply

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