The iPad mini goes on sale 2 November, and while specs and features won’t come as a surprise to many, I’ve been enjoying an early test run over the last week, using it in place of a 3rd generation iPad – the one with the Retina display – to see how it fits into my daily life.
Just like the iPhone 5, reading about the mini only goes part way to conveying how the device really feels once you have it in your hands. Measuring 200mm by 135mm, it fits comfortably in one hand, and the 7.2mm thick case lends an air of quality, while still being quite sturdy.
Also available in white and silver, the black and slate unit we tested is understatedly attractive, although the metallic slate finish on the back does retain some fingerprint smudging.
The front edging of the ‘unibody’ chassis has the same diamond-chamfered design as the iPhone 5, and it’s light too, weighing about half that of a full-fat iPad at 308 grams. Apple has remained consistent with the button layout, so the home button, power, volume controls and mute/orientation lock switch are in the same positions as they are on iPhones and the larger iPads.
All up, the device will be familiar for those migrating from other Apple gear.
Of course, the big focal point of the mini is its screen. It’s 7.9 inches, which is larger than most tablets in the 7inch category, however another key difference is its aspect ratio. While the mini’s closest competitors (7-inch Android tablets from various manufacturers) have a form factor that follows their 16:9 ratio, the mini tracks a 4:3 form.
This is the same shape as the larger iPad 2 and iPad 3, which means all of the existing iPad apps will fit onto the mini’s screen without any jiggery-pokery. Another big plus is that the 4:3 aspect ratio is wider, which translates into a better viewing experience for web browsing, reading books and tablet magazines, mail and apps.
Also, when held in landscape mode, the onscreen keyboard doesn’t occupy most of the screen. Overall, the 16:9 shape used by Android tablets is optimal only for watching 16:9 videos, but is quite narrow when held in portrait mode, and fairly shallow in landscape mode.
The mini’s LED-backlit Multi-Touch IPS display has the same 1024 x 768 resolution as the larger iPad 2. This means the pixels are smaller and closer together than the iPad 2 (163 pixels per inch versus 132), but it’s certainly no match for the sharpness of the iPad with Retina display, which has a super-fine 264ppi.
Still, the mini’s display is fine for viewing small text on web pages. But only to a point, as some of the finer text found in some tablet magazines from the Apple Newsstand were a little fuzzy. Despite the display’s compact dimensions, however, you should be happy enough reading most things on the iPad mini, and we didn’t encounter anything that we wanted to read but couldn’t.
The screen also dictates the size of the onscreen keyboard. Yes, it’s smaller than a full-sized iPad, but larger than the iPhone, so it’s not difficult to use, especially in landscape mode. However, it’s not something that you would want to write a lengthy tome on, and the idea of connecting a Bluetooth keyboard seems a little strange for such a small device, but definitely doable via the mini’s Bluetooth 4.0 connection.
In terms of reading, the mini is a similar size to many popular ebook readers, and does an admirable job substituting print and paper. You can hold the mini comfortably in one hand, and with the recent update to Apple’s iBooks reader, you can now scroll pages one-handed rather than using your opposite hand to flip pages.
Like Apple’s other iPhone and iPads, there are only a couple of physical connections, including the headphone jack and new Lightning connector. USB and SD card connections can still be made with the purchase of Lightning adaptors. Otherwise, the case design is similar to the iPhone 5 at the bottom. The stereo speakers do put out a fairly decent amount of sound, and retain depth at higher volumes. A FaceTime HD camera is on the front, which captures 720p video for video conferencing, plus there’s a 5MP iSight camera on the back for photos and recording HD video.
While it can’t shoot panoramic shots like the iPhone 5, the rear camera does provide image stabilisation for recording 1080p, or full HD, videos. Photo quality is reasonable from the F2.4 lens system, with useful low-light performance, touch-based focus and exposure controls and face detection for up to 10 faces. Still, it’s not quite up to iPhone 5 camera’s standard, but will get the job done for most uses.
While the unit we tested did not have 4G (or LTE) connectivity, the mini will come with this option a few weeks after the Wi-Fi only versions are released on 2 November. Like the iPhone 5, the system can also revert back to DC-HSDPA, which is also fairly speedy, and then 3G if an LTE signal isn’t available. Apple has confirmed the mini will work with 4G LTE from Telstra, Optus and Virgin, and it will use the very small nano-SIM format.
Since there are few physical connections, most of the time you’ll use Wi-Fi to transfer information in and out. Apple has equipped the mini with the ability to combine two Wi-Fi streams together for improved performance – up to a theoretical 150Mbps. To do this, you’ll need to be running on an 802.11n type of Wi-Fi connection that has both 5GHz and 2.4GHz frequencies.
Inside, the mini’s brain consists of Apple’s A5 dual-core processor, which is the same class of processor found on the larger iPad 2. During our discrete testing, we found that the mini was actually marginally faster than the iPad 2, although you’d be pressed to see a difference when using apps in the real world. It’s not nearly as fast as an iPhone 5 or the 4th generation iPad, which are both based on Apple’s newest, and most powerful A6 processor.
While it would be fantastic to see the mini with a A6 chip, which includes quad core graphics, as well as a small Retina display, this would drive the price up considerably. For more on how the mini compared on our tests, check our benchmarks of the new tablet.
We did find that, while not perfectly fluid, the mini performed quite well on a suite of processor and graphics intensive games, including Real Racing 2 and Sky Gamblers – Air Supremacy. In fact, the mini’s size is just about perfect when it comes to portable gaming and is more comfortable to use as a game controller via the built-in accelerometer than a full-sized iPad. With the comparatively low price of games on the Apple App Store, the mini is probably the final nail in the coffin for the few dedicated portable gaming devices still out there.
Battery life and accessories
With portability in mind, it’s good to see that the mini has a good amount of battery life. Since its last charging our test mini has lasted two days and still has 54 percent battery life remaining. Of course, how the mini’s battery will perform depends heavily on what you are doing with it, and ours has seen a combination of gameplay, movies, Wi-Fi tests and benchmarks, so it has been fairly busy.
The mini’s battery would not last as long on the Wi-Fi + LTE version, as a cellular connection can place considerable demands on power consumption. According to Apple, the mini’s 16.3-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery is rated for 10 hours of charge, or 9 with the LTE version.
Like its bigger brother, the iPad mini comes with its own Smartcover, only this one doesn’t have the metal bits, but otherwise it works in a similar fashion. By using magnets, the case figures out just where to attach, and there’s an additional magnet that helps the folded cover stay in place. Also, since the mini is lighter, it can be lifted by the cover without falling off, and only after a good amount of jiggling did it come loose.
There’s also a reasonable selection of mini cases from third party makers appearing, and you can read more about them here. The mini’s Smartcovers come in six colours, starting from $45.
So after spending some time with the mini, would we recommend it? First off, essentially, the mini really is a ‘miniature iPad’. There are few compromises, and you don’t at any time get the feeling you’re using an oversized smartphone, but rather a fully-fledged iPad tablet in its own right. Much of this is driven by the 4:3 shaped 7.9 inch display, which lends to apps, web browsing, viewing maps, tweeting, status-updating and reading emails perfectly.
While 16:9 shaped screens do have their merits, they make more sense with larger tablets, or on smartphones. In the 7-inch tablet space, Apple has found the sweet-spot.
The mini is certainly a very easy device to like, and grows on you quickly, with its attractive design, sound ergonomics and quality metallic finishes. It is very easy to carry with you, and provides a lot of punch in a small package. You also get the undeniable benefit of Apple’s ecosystem, which provides you with around 275,000 apps, along with iCloud synching, iBooks, Newsstand, iTunes and more.
If you already have a full sized tablet, you’ll probably struggle to find uses for both, however, for those with a laptop looking for a more portable companion, the mini fills the gap nicely.
The only major drawback of the mini is its price. Apple’s competitors, the key ones being Google’s Nexus and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, are priced aggressively and start about $100 less for a similarly specified entry-level unit. For more on Google’s latest price drop, click here. Also, at the top end, at $729, the mini is not that far off a top-of-the-line iPad with Retina display, which is $899.
If you are already firmly part of the Android camp, sticking with the Google Nexus or Samsung Galaxy Tab units probably makes sense, and they are good quality devices in their own right. However, there is no overlooking the fact that the mini has the best screen shape for a device of this size, and as such, it provides a superior ‘tablet’ experience. So yes, you’ll need to pay more to put Apple’s iPad mini in your bag, but in return, you’ll be rewarded with the best 7-inch tablet experience money can buy.