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Review: Despite flaws, iPad Mini more than just small iPad

The iPad Mini - Exactly same as full-sized iPad through through...just 80% size. Why make things more complicated?

The iPad Mini - Exactly the same as the full-sized iPad, through and through...just 80% the size. Why make things more complicated?

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The Sun-Times for iPad
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Updated: December 11, 2012 6:08AM



There are several full-sized tablets on the market, and several different compact tablets, too. But at the end of the day, there’s only one iPad.

There’s only one multitouch tablet with a design that thrills the senses; a build quality that leaves no doubt as to its status as the premium entry in the category; a level of simplicity and reliability that ensures the least amount of confusion and glitches; and a deep, plentiful catalogue of powerful, tablet-optimized apps.

A week with the iPad Mini underscores all of those observations, and adds a new shade.

I always imagined that when Apple produced a more compact edition of the iPad, they’d consider the differences in how people use and respond to a small tablet versus a large one, and then they’d adjust the interface accordingly. Instead, the iPad Mini presents the exact same experience . . . all the way down to the number of icons in the standard application launcher.

There’s still “only one iPad.” The iPad Mini is an iPad that’s just a little smaller and a little less expensive. It’s 80 percent the size of the full-size iPad 4, and the most affordable model costs $329 versus $499.

(Yes, yes: I’m aware that Apple also sells the 2011 iPad 2 for $399 as a budget option. But does anyone seriously believe that it’ll still be around next year? The Mini seems to be a better solution to Apple’s need to sell a less-expensive iPad.)

“Smaller” and “less expensive” are two things that many folks have yearned to see in a new iPad since Day One. Don’t expect the iPad Mini to feel especially new or thrilling (again: it’s almost exactly the same as the iPad 2, at 80 percent the size). But the size means that you can project an iPad into a far wider range of your experiences. That’s good. And the fact that it’s “just another iPad” means you can expect it to be one of the most compact, powerful and valuable computers of any kind that you can buy for less than $400. And that, my dears, is fantastic.

Am I saying that Apple has a slam-dunk win on its hands? Not quite. Two genuinely thrilling mini tablets preceded it, and they run Android, of all things. Google’s Nexus 7 and Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD are compact tablets that cost a whopping $130 less than the iPad Mini . . . and they actually outperform it in a couple of important areas.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s dive on in.

The Shape, The Screen

Although the iPad Mini is far from the first compact tablet to hit the market, it’s emphatically the first one that’s built like an Apple product. It’s as thin and light as a nonfunctional movie prop. Those are great, primary features, given the unique intimacy of a compact tablet. It isn’t like a phone, which you dabble with for a few minutes and then drop back into your pocket. Nor is a compact tablet going to be used like a full-sized tablet, which you’re likely to prop up on an easel or rest against your lap as you use it. I held the iPad Mini during a 45 minute commute into the city and when I put it back in my bag, my hands were no more tired than they feel after holding an e-Ink Kindle.

And it’s built like a movie prop, too. If the iPad Mini were only designed to look great when held in James Bond’s hands, it would be exceptional at that job. It’s “as thin as a pencil,” according to the marketing materials. Alas, that’s both completely accurate and a crystal-clear comparison, so I’ll just go hang my head and cut-and-paste what Apple said.

The entire shell is a single piece of aluminum. The screen looks like the water in an infinity pool; the glass doesn’t interface with the shell through an edge . . . it just seems to end in your hands. It’s a marvel.

The Mini is bigger than you’re probably imagining, if you’ve never held one. There’s no one right answer to the size question. Every mini tablet designer needs to decide how to balance a large, more attractive screen with a smaller, more pocketable body.

Apple favored a zaftig screen over a waspish body. Whether you’re reading books, magazines, or webpages, the iPad Mini can present a luxurious, hardcover-esque quantity of text per page, instead of the paperback experience of other compact tablets. And when I watch movies and videos with it, it feels like I’m making few sacrifices for the sake of portability.

The iPad Mini’s 7.9-inch screen appears to sit right at that sweet spot: small enough that you don’t necessarily need to carry this device in a special bag, while large enough to deliver a satisfying “big tablet”-sized slab of content.

It comes at a price: the Mini isn’t as portable as an e-ink Kindle, or even a Nexus 7. I took a trip through my wardrobe with the iPad Mini and the 7-inch Nexus 7. The Mini fits into the inside pocket of many, but not all of my winter coats, and the back pockets of most, but not all, of my pants. The Nexus 7 isn’t that much smaller than the iPad but it does fit into every coat and back pocket. It even slides into the inside pockets of most of my blazers and casual jackets.

It’s unreasonable to demand a pocketable iPad . . . Apple would point out that the iPod Touch runs iOS apps and fits in a shirt pocket. Still, I do want a pocketable iPad (in the same way that I “want” Christopher McQuarrie to be one of the screenwriters on the final Star Wars trilogy). It’s a bummer that I can’t just automatically take this iPad Mini with me everywhere I go whether I plan on using it or not.

The iPad Mini is roughly the same size as the Kindle Fire HD, whose display is just 7-inch diagonally. What does the Fire HD do with all of that extra space on its front bezel? Why, nothing at all. I regard that as a feature, in a device that’s meant to spend much of its uptime as a handheld reader and media player. The empty space around the screen gives you lots of “safe” places to rest your fingers during that hour or two you’re on the sofa, holding the Fire, turning pages.

There’s no such “safety zone” on the iPad Mini. Its screen stretches out to within about 7 millimeters of the edge of the device, which means resting a thumb on the side of the screen will result in accidental page-turns.

Though it must be said that if I were offered my choice of two devices of the exact same physical size and the exact same screen quality, I’d choose the one with the much larger screen over the one with the comfy margin. If a compact tablet is too big to stick in my pocket, then I want to reap the benefits of size: I would want it to have a luxuriously large screen like the one on the Mini. And regarded on its own, the Mini isn’t hard to hold. It just isn’t super-comfortable, like the Fire.

Alas, the iPad Mini doesn’t feature the same screen quality as the Nexus 7 and the Fire HD. The raw number: 163 pixels per inch on the Mini, compared with 216 ppi on the Nexus and the Kindle. Yes, it’s noticeably inferior. This is the first time in months that I’ve noticed jagged text and buttons on an iOS device. It’s quite jarring, honestly, when you look at these three devices side by side (by side). I mean, no contest: I’d much rather spend a five-hour flight reading a book on a 216 ppi screen than a 163 ppi one.

I’m a tech columnist and I get paid to notice and report these things. Done. Then, I need to move another step forward and look at the question “Does the inferior clarity make for an inferior display?”

I’ve concluded that no, it doesn’t. Once I stopped using my Retina iPad for a day or two, I stopped being distracted by the lower definition in the Mini. It’s a dang shame that Apple couldn’t put a better display in the iPad Mini and still hit its price point (and its target profit margin), but the benefits of the larger screen balances out the bummer of the coarser resolution. I didn’t say “more than makes up for…” but it’s definitely not an overall strike against the Mini.

Though it does prevent the iPad Mini from being a good comic book reader. Any device -- even an iPhone -- can be a good comic reader if you zoom in from panel to panel. But the iPad Mini’s coarse screen resolution, coupled with its small size, puts the Mini rigggghhhhht under what I’d consider a minimum acceptable clarity for reading comics in full-page mode. The iPad 2 (132 ppi display) is rigggghhhhht above that line.

My test comic: “Batgirl” Annual #1. The text used for Barbara Gordon’s narration is slightly smaller than the dialogue text. On the Mini, I can kinda-sorta read the dialogue but I kinda-sorta can’t read the narration. On the iPad 2, I can kinda-sorta read everything. On the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD, all of the text is small, but clear.

And on the iPad 4, I can even read the narration when a piece of artwork intended to splash across two printed pages is shrunk down to fit the short width of the screen. Which is why the Retina iPad remains the best device for reading comics.

(The first question about the iPad Mini I received from a reader was “how well does it work with the Comixology app?” This pleases me. I feel like it’s a solid indicator that (1) digital comics have become a permanent part of the mainstream, and also (2) I might be no more than a year or two away from bamboozling the Sun-Times into covering all of my travel expenses for the San Diego Comic-Con.)

The Software

The iPad Mini runs the exact same OS as the fullsized iPad, and the exact same apps. They’re just scaled down to 80 percent of their size. Apple has made no modifications of any kind. Even when you download and launch the iBooks app, the type size is set to something appropriate for a 9.7-inch Retina iPad by default; you then have to change the size to something comfortable.

As with the Mini’s “bigger but not as sharp” screen, there are pluses and minuses to this choice. Oh, but this time it’s completely lopsided! The iPad has the sole, blue-chip catalogue of tablet software, and that’s an immense upside. It’s the reason why I would never recommend a 10-inch Android tablet to anybody, except perhaps out of spite.

If it works on the iPad 4, it works on the iPad Mini. Gorgeous, immersive magazine-style newsreaders like Flipboard; wondrously stylish music players like Track 8; productivity apps like iPhoto and Keynote and Pages, which are true, desktop-class in their power and range.

It’s not as though the Android-based mini tablets lack a decent app library. All of the basics are there: Kindle, Evernote, Netflix, Pandora. Some of them are even pixel-for-pixel identical to their iPad cousins.

For the most part, though, the Android library consists of phone apps that have been stretched by the operating system to fill a larger screen. Put the two editions of Flipboard next to each other and there’s no question as to why someone would spend $130 more for a tablet.

And though the Nexus 7 or the Kindle might be a nicer device for reading a book during a five-hour flight across the country, and they’re certainly handy for checking your mail when you’re inside the terminal, the iPad Mini shifts easily from “content and entertainment device” to “real computer.” The iPad app library is so strong that you could conceivably pack just the Mini and a VGA adapter for a three-day business trip.

The downside? Most iPad apps truly feel “scaled down” on the iPad Mini. Buttons are 80 percent of the size that Apple apparently deemed “optimal” when they were originally designed for the iPad. An app that feels a little cluttered on the iPad 4 seems very cluttered on the iPad Mini. Hitting buttons in iPhoto, for example, requires that I either exercise a little extra concentration, or consume a little less caffeine.

Apps that ambitiously take advantage of multitouch are also a little tougher to use. Keynote (Apple’s own presentation app . . . it’s so good that I actually prefer it to the desktop edition) has some clever multitouch gestures for grouping slides and moving them around. Scaling these touch targets down 80 percent makes these targets damn difficult to hang on to while I perform that operation.

Make no mistake, here: Apple is certain that iPad apps work just as well on a 7.9-inch screen as they do on a 9.7-inch one and that no modification for the difference in size is required. The proof is in the iOS development process. Developers of iOS apps can build a universal app that can be purchased and installed on either an iPad or an iPhone. The developer builds two separate views into the app and the OS chooses the correct one, depending on the device type.

Apple’s added no such special support for the iPad Mini. I’ve spoken to lots of developers about how they’re adapting to the new iPad. Most of them are backing Apple’s take on things. They’re testing their apps out on the Mini and then making adjustments to the UI when necessary (moving buttons away from the extreme edges of the screen, for example). Many are indeed wiring up their apps to detect an iPad Mini, so the app can present a user interface tuned for the smaller display.

I reiterate that the iPad Mini’s access to the full library of iPad apps is a profound upside that transmogrifies the whole device. Further, “clutter” is only an issue with apps that either were badly designed to begin with, or are top-tier productivity apps (like Keynote and iPhoto). Nearly all of the apps that are instinctively useful on a compact tablet work just fine. Sure, I wish that Pages (my day-to-day word processor) were easier to use on the Mini. As is, the buttons are too small, selecting text with my fingertips is hard to do with precision, and the text is scaled down below a comfortable reading size.

But honestly, how many people are buying an iPad Mini as a regular word processor? This is a compact device, you know. Overall, I’m made more happy by the fact that the iPad Mini doesn’t present me with a dumbed-down app experience. I reject my disappointment regarding Pages and replace it with a more appropriate sense of gratitude that the Mini can be pressed into service as a “real” word processor when I’m in a pinch.

That said, I’m certain that the app world -- and even iOS itself -- will adapt to better accommodate the Mini. Look at the App Store app, for example. The labels of the Store sections are almost illegible, thanks to both their size and the relative coarseness of the display. I’ve no doubt that an adjusted version of the app will come out before too long.

Other apps will follow, once their developers have had a chance to test them out thoroughly on the new iPad. It’ll make a great device even better.

Over the summer, when considering the as-yet-unannounced iPad Mini in the abstract, I wondered if Apple would do what Google and Amazon had done with their mini tablets. Both of these companies had reached the same shrewd conclusion: mini tablet users are going to spend a greater percentage of their time in content apps (readers, video players, etc.). So when you wake the Nexus 7 or the Kindle Fire HD, you’re presented with a screen that always presents thumbnails of your most recently-used content. You don’t need to bring up an application switcher to go back to reading Kevin Pollak’s new book; you just tap on the book cover.

The center of the iPad Mini experience is the standard iOS Springboard app launcher . . . which is no prize-winner for user-friendliness. That’s the lone missed opportunity of Apple’s “an iPad is an iPad is an iPad” strategy for the iPad Mini, methinks.

The Specs

Moving on to basic specs: the iPad Mini’s battery runs just as long as it does on the 9.7-inch iPad (about ten hours). Its benchmark results aren’t terribly impressive. They’re close to that of the iPad 2. The Nexus 7 scores nearly twice as high; the new iPad 4, more than two and a half times.

But benchmark scores are only important when you’re trying to win pointless arguments online. The iPad Mini feels plenty fast. It only stuttered slightly when I was downloading and installing multiple apps simultaneously. Video playback was smooth and sprightly, even when I streamed video to an AppleTV.

I also want to throw an anonymous shout-out to the engineers who worked on the iPad Mini’s speaker system. I’m amazed that a device this thin can produce such rich, full, sound, and with such true presence. For podcasts, audiobooks, and video, the built-in speaker is terrific. It’s even adequate for music listening; I mean, this thing has actual bass! And in a quiet room, you won’t even want to crank the iPad Mini up to its max volume to get the full effect. Overall, the sound is amazing.

(Added: I started some music playing while I wrote that paragraph, just to make sure that my memory wasn’t embellishing the quality of iPad Mini’s audio. When I finished that bit and moved on, I forgot that I was testing the audio and just kept right on listening to “Abbey Road” while I worked, all the way to the end. This, friends, explains how good the sound is. I hope the engineers who designed this subsystem show these paragraphs to their bosses and get a free burrito or something out of this.)

Apple loves putting great cameras on everything they make. Boy, do I love them for that. The iPad Mini’s five-megapixel camera has the same resolution as the one on the 9.7-inch iPad 4 and it takes the same great, “real” photos. For now, no other tablet can make that claim.”

I joined the chorus of self-righteous tech nerds in mocking the idea of using a tablet as a camera. I pronounced that you look like an idiot when you take photos that way. But I admit that I was wrong. I see tourists shooting photos with iPads all the time.

I mean to say: I was wrong about nobody would ever wanting to use a tablet that way. I was spot-on when I said that it makes you look weird. The same thing goes for you people who wear the shoes with the individual toe capsules, incidentally. Well, regardless, I perform my penance for my arrogance by going out and looking foolish myself, while taking tourist photos with these tablets as part of my regular test scheme.

The photos I shot with the iPad Mini look fab, as good as a “real” camera and with great low-light performance. Meanwhile, the front-facing chat camera shoots in 720 HD.

The iPad Mini’s WiFi radio uses all of the new standards and its wireless speed is about as fast as fast can be.

I don’t have an LTE model for testing, so I couldn’t check out its mobile broadband speed. The real shame is that this also means I couldn’t test the iPad Mini as a GPS-enabled device.

What a pity that Apple stuck to iPad tradition, and only includes GPS in the cellular edition. Any device smaller than a fullsized tablet is minimized by a lack of GPS. The Mini is a terrific size for a dashboard entertainment center and in-car navigation system. It’s also a handier thing to take out when you’re trying to walk somewhere and you’re thoroughly lost, or when you’re reading a book on a bus or a train and you don’t know how much farther you have to go before your stop.

So the WiFi-only version of the iPad Mini isn’t as useful to you in any of those situations. Just as with the 9.7-inch iPad, that feature (along with LTE data) will cost you another $130.

***

The Bottom Line

I continue to have great respect for the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire HD, and I anticipate a certain respect for the (as yet untried by me) Nook HD. They’re well-made, they have plenty of useful apps available for them, and they deliver tremendous value. They’re all $130 less expensive than the most affordable iPad Mini.

It needs to be said: not every potential buyer of a mini tablet will ever see $130 of additional value in an iPad Mini. Nor can every potential buyer even afford the extra $130. I read one discussion online in which some elitist dismissed such buyers as “unsophisticated.” It made me so angry that it was important that I not add my own comment to the thread, if you follow.

The signature difference between these devices and the iPad is that they are, honestly, “big phones.” This describes a very useful device, in fact. What if you’re happy with the apps you have on your iPhone, or your Samsung Galaxy, or your Droid . . . you just wish the content were presented on a bigger screen? The Nexus 7 is actually a bit more ambitious than that, and the Kindle Fire HD is more keenly optimized for the acquisition and presentation of content, but overall . . . yup, that’s a good loose description of the case for these other compact tablets.

Yes, at the end of the day (and at the end of the column), only an iPad is an iPad. An Android compact tablet will have completely defined its role in your life after about a month. An iPad, even a small one, continues to find new roles beyond its immediate and obvious functions. That’s what makes it worth the extra cash.

The iPad Mini is a smaller iPad . . . but by no means is it a lesser iPad. That’s what makes it such an exciting product.



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