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Ihnatko: First-look - iPad Mini makes tablet experience intimate

The iPad Mini next its big brother.

The iPad Mini next to its big brother.

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Updated: November 2, 2012 5:11PM

I got the new iPad Mini this morning. I’ll have a full review ready to go after the weekend, when I’ve had a few days with it.

My very first impression: “It’s just a smaller iPad.” Which is certainly not a complaint. It’s just an observation . . . and it’s the biggest surprise of Apple’s most expected product of 2012.

The iPad Mini’s screen measures 7.9-inch diagonally, compared with the classic iPad’s 9.7-inch display. The whole device is 5.3 inches across, compared with 7.31 inches. So the iPad Mini is smaller for sure, but it’s probably not as small as you might expect.

Let me explain that in different terms. Mike Myers’ height is five feet, eight inches. Vern Troyer is almost exactly three feet shorter. When you put Dr. Evil next to Mini-Me, the “mini” version looks half the size. When you put the iPad next to Mini-iPad . . . it looks more like Dr. Evil next to his son, Scott (Seth Green, five feet four; and yes, it’s kind of remarkable that Google will provide you with that information in boldface, right at the top of the search results).

Still, that’s certainly small enough to make the iPad Mini a standout. It’s too large to fit into a jacket pocket but it’ll fit into a back pocket of a pair of casual pants easily.

But the fundamental difference between large tablets (the iPad, Surface RT) and small ones (iPad Mini, Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HD) isn’t size, exactly. It’s the increased level of intimacy between yourself and the software. You arm hugs an iPad . . . but your hand holds an iPad Mini. The screen is merely a part of your field of vision; it doesn’t dominate your focus. And unlike using a full-sized tablet, when you pull an iPad Mini out of your purse or back pocket to try to figure out where the hell you are and where the hell your meeting location is how the holy hell to get there, you won’t feel like either a colossal nerd to your social betters. Or, a massive target to highwaymen and ne’er-do-wells.

Good luck using the Maps app with the WiFi-only model, though: it lacks GPS and can only pip your location by matching the ID of a local WiFi hotpot to a database. Onboard GPS is only included in the cellular models, as with the fullsized iPads.

That makes sense. The Mini is, once again, “just a smaller iPad.” It’s no more complicated than that. The proportions of the screen relative to the bezel are different (there’s no room for empty space to the left and right) but otherwise, nearly anything you can say about the big iPad is true here. Including the battery life (still a lush 10 hours) and build quality. Its trim, aluminum unibody construction screams out “premium device.” Its front-facing camera is HD. The rearfacing camera is 5 megapixels, not 8, but unlike every other small tablet I’ve tried, the iPad Mini’s camera takes actual photographs. It’s not just there for Skype and FaceTime.

The most important element in this “just a smaller iPad” observation is the user interface. A month ago, I would have bet money (only print-journalist money...but hey, a cup of coffee is a cup of coffee) that Apple was going to scale the iPad interface up to suit the smaller screen.

Nope! The iPad Mini delivers the iPad experience...just smaller. The Springboard app launcher is still six icons high by four icons wide.

I have to say it: a scaled-down iPad interface looks just plain weird. The buttons and labels look tiny and I’ve been trying to adjust to it all morning. But I’ve been using iPads since January of 2010 and it’s quite possible that my brain is just having difficulty making that adjustment. I’m reserving judgement until after I’ve had a few days of intensive use with it.

I do wish Apple had found a way to ship this with a Retina display, however. It’s a definite jump back for anyone who uses a Retina iPad. Today was the first time in months that I noticed jagged text in an iPad app. It’s way too early for me to say whether the iPad Mini’s 163 ppi display is functionally better or worse than the Nexus 7’s or Kindle Fire HD’s (both are 216 pixels per inch).

Apple’s “scale it down” approach means that the iPad Mini gets to run every standard iPad app. And while one can argue that not every user needs all of the iPad apps available on the App Store, it’s impossible to deny that the best-in-class tablet apps are all owned by iPad. Result: there’s little question that this mini-iPad won’t be a lesser iPad.

Real conclusions (the kind that I can defend with the full might and authority of researched-backed arrogance) will have to wait until next week. I certainly like what I’ve seen so far.

Most of my thoughts this weekend will be about how radically different a smaller tablet is, simply due to its size. A smaller iPad can be projected into so many places and situations where a full-sized iPad just would never work; it spreads the iPad Love around. On the other hand, countless children are reminded every Halloween that making a delectable treat smaller doesn’t automatically make it “fun-sized.”

Tune in next week.

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