Apple knows how to sell products, so it’s very good at talking down anything it doesn’t sell itself. 7-inch tablets have been on the receiving end of that system, but it doesn’t seem to bother Apple that it now sells a product that it once deemed worthless. The iPad mini may have been born more out of the growing competition from Android than anything else, but that still leaves us with a new iPad on the market. It has the same chip and screen resolution as the iPad 2, and its only selling points seem to be the price and size. Starting at $329 for the 16GB WiFi model in the US, it’s cheaper than other iPads, but is it cheap enough for what you get?

Quick Specs

The iPad mini is somewhere in between the iPad 2 and iPad 3/4 when it comes to specs. The screen resolution of 1024 x 768, 512MB of RAM, and the Apple A5 chip both identical to the iPad 2. I’ll cover the screen in a bit, but as for the chip and RAM, it’s not really an issue that the hardware is now two generations out of date. The upgrade from the iPad 2 to the iPad 3 was just as much to keep up with the extra resolution as it was to give it more power, and the iPad 2 has never really had a problem with newer software. The doubling from the iPad 3 to 4 is also not much to write home about, as it’s not fixing a slow device. Truth is that the iPad mini does very well with the A5 chip, and even though I would of course have liked something faster if it didn’t end up costing me anything, it’s definitely not causing any issues.

The iPad mini isn’t all iPad 2 technology though. The 5 megapixel camera is definitely an upgrade from the iPad, and I actually tend to use the cameras on my tablets. Both the 5 megapixel still camera and the 1080p video recording is going to come in handy for my personally, and I’m glad that this feature was included. The mini also has Bluetooth 4.0, which means it’s compatible with some neat accessories that are coming out. GPS is absent in the WiFi-only version, and so is obviously 3G/4G. Last, but not least, the mini has Apple’s new Lightning connector.

Physically, the iPad mini is 200 x 134.7 x 7.2mm, and weighs in at 308 grams. I’ll talk more about this later on, as these specs are why the iPad mini exists to begin with.

Packaging

The size of the box is the first indication of the size difference we’re dealing with here. It’s tiny. It’s about a quarter the size of the iPad 2 box, and a lot of that has to do with the power adapter. Obviously the iPad mini is both shorter and narrower than a full size iPad, but the fact that it comes with a very thin 5W power adapter means you don’t have a bulky charger in the box. The iPad mini has a 16.3Wh battery, whereas the iPad 2 has a 25Wh battery and the iPad 3 and 4 have 42.5Wh batteries. The iPad 2 and 3 have 10W chargers, while the iPad 4 comes with a 12W charger. What that means in practice is that the iPad mini charges slower than the iPad 2, just like the iPad 3 and 4 charge slower – but because of the charger, not the bigger battery.

I’m fairly sure that this decision has more to do with bulk than cost savings, which is the reason some people online cite when they attack Apple for this. The iPad mini (/iPhone) charger is significantly smaller than the normal iPad charger, and the whole point of the iPad mini is to provide a smaller iPad. In that respect it frankly makes sense. I’m not sure if using the 10W charger with the iPad mini charges it faster or if the device is locked at 5W either way, but I imagine you’ll see a difference there.

Other than the charger and the iPad mini itself, the box contains the new Lightning to USB cable as well as a bunch of quick start cards. I’m not exactly a fan of the new connector, since it means I have HDMI, VGA, SD, and USB adapters that no longer work, but the size difference is impossible to ignore. While the 30 pin connector could easily fit in the iPad mini as far as the thickness goes, the fact that the Lightning connector is only about a fifth of the volume of the 30 pin connector is sure to free up valuable space on the inside. I still wish there was a second connector on this thing, though.

Notably absent are the Apple Earpods, or any form of headphones. You don’t get that with any of the iPads, and I’m not quite sure why. It wouldn’t kill you to include a pair, Apple, as that’s the only way I’m ever going to be able to test them – I don’t buy Apple headphones on the side.

Hardware

The iPad mini’s big selling point is the physical dimensions, so the design is very important. The closest existing tablet to the iPad mini is the Galaxy Tab 7.7, a 197 x 133 x 7.9mm, 340 gram device. In comparison, the iPad mini is 200 x 134.7 x 7.2mm, 308 grams – in other words almost identical, but more lightweight. The jump up to an iPad 4 is quite significant, as that clocks in at 241 x 186 x 9.4mm and 652 grams. The weight of the iPad 4 is in other words more than twice that of the iPad mini.

Let me get this off my chest right away: This difference in size and weight is key to the entire iPad mini experience. It is a completely different device to hold, and that’s coming from someone who has the lighter and thinner (compared to the iPad 4) iPad 2. The iPad mini comes dangerously close to where you would hold it like you do a piece of paper, i.e. between your index finger and thumb. The one handed nature of the iPad mini has as much (if not more) to do with the weight as it does the physical size, and it’s something you need to touch and feel to fully understand. The thickness also helps in this regard, as a 7.2mm thick tablet feels very different from a 9-10mm thick one. The result is an iPad that is just so much more portable and convenient to use than the larger iPads. You use it in places you wouldn’t use your full sized iPad, and you grab it in situations where you would perhaps instead have grabbed your phone. Heck, it fits in the pockets of my cargo pants!

The design also does a lot of good on the iPad mini. It’s essentially a shrunk down iPad, but there are also elements of the latest iPod touch in there. I have the black version, and it’s actually all black this time – no silver aluminum on the back. The back is instead matte black aluminum, with the same glossy black bezel around the screen on the front that you get on other iPads. It looks much better than the silver/black combo on other iPads if you ask me, and falls in with the design philosophy of the latest generation iPod touch. The mini is less rounded off around the edge than other iPads, something that’s partly because it’s so much thinner.

The back also holds the 5 megapixel camera, which together with the 1.2 megapixel front facing camera gives the mini video and image capabilities. Button-wise, the iPad mini has the same setup that other iPads have: On/off/lock button on top, volume buttons (not a rocker this time) on the side, a silent mode/orientation lock switch, and the home button on the front. The 3.5mm audio jack is located on the top, and on the bottom you have the new Lightning connector as well as stereo speakers.

One of the most noticeable differences to the traditional iPad design is the smaller bezel along the sides of the iPad mini’s screen. It’s not an edge-to-edge display, but it’s a heck of a lot closer to being that than the full sized iPads are. It helps portability quite a bit, and does put the iPad mini into the category of devices you can grab with one hand, assuming your hands are of average size. It’ not really all that comfortable, but like I said, the one handed nature of the iPad mini has as much to do with the weight. Some people have commented that the lack of a proper bezel means they have nowhere to grab the iPad, but I don’t quite agree. When I hold the iPad, I tend to either hold it between my thumb and the rest of my hand, or do a sort of L shape with my pinky and thumb, rest the mini on that, and use the remaining fingers for back support. I don’t think I’ve ever grabbed the entire back of a book when reading it, so I don’t feel a need to do that with an iPad either.

All in all I’m a big fan of the iPad mini’s design. I had a 7-inch Android tablet, and while it wasn’t that much heavier, it never felt as lightweight. There’s something about the aluminum back, thin front glass, thickness, and weight that just feels right. It’s the first tablet I’ve tried – other iPads included – that truly feels like it’s spot on with the design.

Screen

The screen is definitely the most controversial aspect of the iPad mini. It’s not a high resolution 2048 x 1536 display! Oh no, what will we ever do!

It’s true, the iPad mini’s display is inferior to that of the iPad 3/4. Even if the smaller screen size makes the PPI higher than on the iPad 2, and in turn makes everything noticeably sharper, it still doesn’t compare to the iPad 3/4. Put the two side by side displaying the same thing, and the iPad 3/4 will look better. Text is much sharper, even when you zoom the larger screens to match the physical screen size of the iPad mini. There’s no question about it, if you want the iPad with the best looking screen, you should get an iPad 3 or 4.

And you will pay the price in other areas.

The introduction of the high resolution display in the iPad 3 came at a cost. More processing power needed to run it, a bigger battery to power it, and a beefier chip to handle processing four times as many pixels. The 2048 x 1536 display impresses me, but what Apple had to do to get it in there doesn’t. It’s all about compromise, often to such a degree that people would rather stick with the iPad 2.

The thing is though, that these compromises cannot ever make their way to the iPad mini. It will completely and utterly ruin the point of the device. You make the same compromises in thickness and weight with the iPad mini, as it will no longer be a mini. It will be a thicker, heavier device, and it will likely be more expensive.

I understand the people who don’t want an iPad mini because of the screen, and that’s fine, go buy an iPad 4. I think everyone would prefer a 2048 x 1536 display if everything else was the same, but the technology isn’t there yet. Perhaps in a year or two it will be, or perhaps Apple will introduce a screen resolution in between the two current ones to solve the problem, but until then, we have to face reality. The entire point of the iPad mini is that it’s such a featherweight, and if that means we’re stuck with the iPad 2′s resolution for a year or two more, that’s fine. I’m not a fan of Apple, but it’s frankly not its fault that technology is where it’s at.

I should also mention that once you stop doing a side by side comparison to an iPad 3/4, the mini’s display doesn’t look bad. That resolution on a 7.9-inch screen is completely acceptable by pretty much any other standard, and I find that everything is fairly crisp and clear when not compared with the iPad 3/4. Seeing an iPad 3 display never made it impossible for me to use the iPad 2′s display, and it certainly won’t make it impossible for me to use the iPad mini’s display. At the end of the day, it comes down to a simple choice: Do you want to read super sharp text on a 650 gram device, or read decently sharp text on a 308 gram device? Since I never bought an iPad 3 or 4, but now bought an iPad mini, I guess I answered that question for me personally.

As for the other aspects of the screen, I have no complaints. Colors are comparable to my iPad 2, though I haven’t done a color comparison with the iPad 3/4 like I did with sharpness. To be frank, I have done a color comparison between the iPad 3 and an AMOLED screen, and I find it very hard to care about minor color differences between LCD screens when it all looks washed out like hell compared to AMOLED anyways. Brightness is also comparable to the iPad 2, and viewing angles are pretty much perfect – no distortion no matter what.

Finally, touch screen responsiveness is just what you’d expect from an iPad. Android devices seem to differ quite a lot in this area, which is especially noticeable when using a stylus. While the screen size of my now-sold Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus was about the same as the iPad mini, I could never use a stylus on it, as it pretty much only worked well with a finger. It’s therefore a relief to be back at iPad level responsiveness.

Software

The iPad mini runs the same software that any iPad does. It’s essentially an iPad 2 as far as performance goes, so whatever the iPad 2 can do, the iPad mini can – for the most part. Everything is of course smaller on the iPad mini screen, so interface elements can sometimes be hard to interact with. If the button/element was designed for a large finger to begin with, a medium/small finger will be able to hit it just fine on the iPad mini.  If you have large fingers, or if the interface element in question wasn’t as big as it should be to begin with, there’s a fairly good chance you’ll miss every now and then. It’s still nothing like the issues I’ve seen in some Android apps (*cough* ezPDF *cough*), but it’s something to be aware of.

I was originally worried about hand writing on the iPad mini, as that requires physical screen real estate, but that turned out to be less of a problem than I had feared. I realize it’s a niche use, but at the same time it demonstrates how the iPad mini’s screen resolution doesn’t really hinder the use of the device. I’m sure there are plenty of examples of situations and apps that don’t work well on the mini, but generally speaking, I don’t think many people will have issues.

Aside from that, I have to say that every app I’ve tried is an improvement on the iPad. I love to read on my iPad, so apps like Zite (news fetcher), Reeder (RSS reader), Zinio (digital magazine app) and Goodreader (PDF files) are critical for a good iPad experience for me. All those apps definitely look better on the iPad mini than on my iPad 2, and in many cases feel more natural when displayed on 7.9 inches. Like I said above, an iPad 3/4 screen is sharper than the iPad mini screen, but I’d rather read on a lighter device. There’s a reason why the normal Kindle is more popular than the Kindle DX.

As far as app selection goes, it’s an iPad. It’s not Android, where you need to book passage on the starship Enterprise to get from one tablet optimized app to the next. I had a 7-inch Android tablet for a year, and it wasn’t exactly the best experience as far as tablet optimized apps go. I love Android, and would never give it up on my phone, but I’m done waiting for something to happen for Android tablets. Sure, it’s great for games and multimedia, but what else? If you have an Android phone, a tablet suddenly has a lot less uses.  Just to take the apps I mentioned above: Zite is a basic phone app on Android, there’s nothing that I’ve found that works as well as Reeder, Zinio has to fight Android tablets’ widescreen ratio (a losing battle on 7-inch tablets), and apps like ezPDF are absolutely horribly compared to Goodreader. I envy those that can have their tablet needs met by an Android tablet, and I respect that you can, but that’s not me. I want an app on a tablet to look like it belongs on a tablet, and iOS is much better at that than Android.

The mini also comes with Siri. I’ve played with Siri before, but this is the first time I’ve had it on a device I own. I have to say, I’m not impressed. Siri is your typical lowest common denominator app, able to do a lot of very basic things, but nothing else (at least not without using special “hacks”). Sure, I can tell her to email person X with subject Y and message Z, and she’ll at least try to piece that together, but you can give up on things like “take a screenshot and add it to the email.” I also tried asking her about the mini’s specifications (“how much RAM do you have”), and that did not go too well – she brought up sports scores for the Rams!

On Android, I have a voice assistant I built myself, Nelly. She’s made using an on-device app called Tasker, doesn’t require root, and can basically be expanded to do anything from googling something to controlling my bedroom lights. It doesn’t come with any features from scratch, but I can add basically anything I want, whereas Siri comes with a lot of basic features and no expandability.  I’m sure it’s amazing for people who live and breath the stock experience of everything and never dive into third party software on any device. Personally though, when something created in a $6.50 third party Android app runs circles around Apple’s multi-million dollar creation, I’m not exactly amazed. I’d rather have Siri than not, but I can’t say it’s the biggest selling point of the device.

Typing on the mini is an interesting experience. I can type at decent speeds on the iPad 2′s keyboard in landscape mode, though I do prefer using a Bluetooth keyboard. Typing on the iPad mini in landscape mode is however a bit awkward, as the keyboard is not really big enough for normal typing, and it’s too big for thumb typing. Turn it to portrait mode, on the other hand, and it’s a different story. You can easily type with your thumbs that way, and you can also split the keyboard to make it even more thumb friendly. I have a Apple Bluetooth keyboard that works with pretty much everything, but if Logitech makes an iPad mini version of the Ultrathin Keyboard Cover, it will be hard to resist getting one.

Unfortunately, the iPad mini does ship with iOS 6. At this point, that’s frankly like shipping with an earlier version of iOS. It’s missing maps, it’s missing YouTube, and it can’t be jailbroken. That last point annoys me, as I’m used to having a jailbroken iPad now. Having that means automatic WiFi-based unlock, Android-style pattern unlock when not connected to such a network, Bluetooth mouse support, more control over the desktop, screen recording, VNC server, gestures for things like full screen mode in Safari, USB host support, and ever minor things like having a black keyboard on a completely black device. iOS is a ridiculously locked down OS compared to Android, and while jailbreaking doesn’t fix that fully, it does a lot of good.

Performance

As for performance, the iPad 2 is a very smooth device, which means that the iPad mini is too. One of my absolute biggest reasons for getting the mini is to read PDF files in my beloved Goodreader app, and it handles 1000-page PDF files like it’s nothing – just like my iPad 2. I’ve seen video of PDF files loading on the quad core 1.6GHz Galaxy Note 2, and it’s like watching paint dry in comparison. More or less whatever you do on the iPad mini, it’s going to be smooth enough that you don’t complain, which just goes to show that sometimes it’s not about stuffing as many cores and as much RAM into a device as possible.

Battery life

Apple likes the number 10, and tends to claim that all iPads can go for that long. In reality there’s a clear difference, with the internally upgraded iPad 2 winning the race, and the rest of the bunch falling in after it. The iPad mini does fairly well on the battery front, but it’s definitely no 32nm iPad 2. Expect numbers approaching 10 hours depending on what you do, what brightness level you do it on, and so on. The mini is still very much an all day device, and I’ve been impressed with the battery life so far. Part of that is due to my previous 7-inch tablet being an Android device, and Android generally doesn’t do standby too well compared to iOS. When I’ve brought it with me for a full day of lectures, I’ve come home with enough juice for the rest of the day and half of next day.

Camera

The mini’s 5 megapixel camera isn’t bad, but it’s very dependent on good lighting to take good photos. In the comparison images below you’ll see that its automatic exposure control is arguably better than that of the stock camera app on the Galaxy S II. That results in images that sometimes look better than those from the S II, as long as you’re dealing with thumbnails. Once you blow things up full size, you start noticing more differences that aren’t in the mini’s favor. The lower resolution is quite noticeable, and the asphalt texture in particular is interesting, as the mini almost seems to blur it out. It might be a coincidence or lighting related, or it may have something to do with image processing.

All in all, it’s not a bad camera for being on a tablet. A camera arguable has more of a purpose on a tablet this size than it does on an iPad 3/4 as well, so I’m glad it’s not the iPad 2 camera we’re seeing in the mini. The lack of proper camera controls and an LED flash make it perfectly clear that this isn’t a replacement for a smartphone or point and shoot camera, and if you’re shooting indoors it’s hardly a replacement for anything, but all in all it’s a decent camera.

Below are some images and video from the iPad mini, as well as some comparison shots from my Galaxy S II. The iPad mini version of each image is first, the Galaxy S II version second. Use the toggles to hide/view the images, and click for the full size version of each.

Anchor

Railing

Water 1

Water 2

Video test

Conclusion

The iPad mini is a very difficult device to describe to someone. On paper, it’s not all that impressive. There are some numbers that are lower than other devices’ number, some specs that mostly look two years old, and a price that doesn’t exactly make it the most budget friendly device in the Nexus 7 world. However, it’s much more than the sum of its parts. It takes what’s frankly the only fully app equipped tablet OS on the market right now and packs it into a form factor that I’ve yet to see someone not be impressed with when they’ve held it in their own hands. It’s a form factor that makes an otherwise inferior device the tablet that a lot of people would grab over an iPad 3 or 4, screen resolution be damned. As much as I love Android on my phone, the iPad is the only tablet I can actually use instead of a PC for both studying and for teaching, and the iPad mini is a more compact solution for that.

In my opinion, the two biggest upgrades that could be done to an iPad mini would be a screen resolution in between the current one and the iPad 3/4, and an active digitizer pen. The latter is unlikely to happen because it’s a niche feature, and I fear what will happen to the form factor if Apple is forced into adding a high resolution display without finding something in between the two options we have today. Either way, I see no reason not to recommend the current generation iPad mini, and it was personally never an option for me to hold out for a rumored second generation model with a 2048 x 1536 display. We may all want to fly, but I prefer to walk while I wait for a jetpack.