It's hard to ignore the iPad juggernaut. Apple launched their version of the tablet computer back in 2010 and since then it's gone from strength to strength in almost every way. Others have joined the market since but have never really managed to replicate Apples success. A couple of months ago Apple introduced a new member of the iPad family, the iPad mini. I've owned one for just over a week now and have owned every iPad previously. Does this new model live up to the pedigree of the others?
The iPad mini has been out since the start of November and I'm sure you've all read reviews on some other sites and thats fine. What I'm going to look at it is how the iPad mini has been different in my experience and how that effects my day to day usage. First, let's start off with…
Apple has always been great at industrial design and the iPad mini is definitely not an exception to that rule. I have the Black and Slate model and, in terms of design, its almost as if Apple took the iPod touch 5th generation and pushed a rolling pin over it.
The back is aluminium and the front is glass. The edges have that beautiful chamfered edge thats present on the iPhone 5 as well.
The buttons around the edges are now metal instead of the plastic on the models that have gone before.
The bottom has stereo speakers for the first time which give decent sound and the new lightning port is in the centre.
The screen is slightly different, which I'll talk about more in a moment. The front is plain black with a small home button at the bottom. This home button is actually smaller than the iPhone 5's which came as a surprise to me. The iPad mini is also as thin and light as they come. In fact it's thinner than the already super thin iPhone 5 and it's lighter than a pad of paper. This is the first iPad I have owned where I loathe to use a case 24/7 as it adds significantly to the bulk and the weight.
Let's not beat around the bush here, If you've read other reviews then you'll know the screen isn't Retina. Apple launched the Retina iPad back in March and Macbooks in June so we assumed the future was all high PPI displays for the future but that isn't the case here. It's the same resolution as the original iPad and the iPad 2 (768×1024) and has a PPI of “only” 162. Is it an issue? Yes. I'm not going to lie to our readers by pretending that this screen is phenomenal. The retina iPad's screen is stunning for sure but I want to stress at this point that the iPad mini screen is by no means bad. It's still perfectly readable and after an hour or so I forgot all about it. I'd of course be more than happy to see a retina display in the next iteration but it's by no means a deal breaker for me. A side note from all of this is that when the Retina iPad was released the interwebs were full of people who claimed they couldn't see a difference and that it was a pointless marketing gimmick and yet, those same people are now bemoaning the lack of high density goodness in this version. Oh how fickle we can be.
Moving on and the screen is bright and colour reproduction is excellent. I have never been a fan of AMOLED screens as the colour never seems right and thankfully thats not an issue here. The bezel is something a lot of reviews have noted as a problem, citing that there is nowhere to put your thumb. This is not strictly true. Whilst the bezel (right and left when in portrait) is very thin, Apple has altered the iOS software to ignore a thumb resting on the screen. I've tested this a lot whilst reading comics, books, newspapers and whilst thumbing through my twitter feed on Tweetbot and my experience has been good. The screen still reacts to a second finger as if it was the first and has never invoked any multitouch functions nor has it accidentaly turned the page when reading a book. Try it next time you see one to understand what I mean.
Screen size also isn't a problem for any apps I have tried either. The touch targets are smaller but they aren't smaller than they would be on an iPhone or iPod so tapping them is never an issue. Developers have already started taking the new size into account and creating new UI's or tweaks to existing ones to keep the user experience as stellar as it can be and I applaud this. I've never been a fan of the “one size fits all” mentality of other Mobile OS's. It doesn't work. Developers who take them the time to create products that are bespoke for a device are usually amongst the most successful and I hope this trend continues. iOS Developers are a resourceful bunch and I have a great deal of respect and faith in their work.
What to say here? It's a camera on a tablet and should probably only be used sparingly. The front camera has been upraded to HD, so Facetime calls will be better quality and the backside is the same sensor as the iPhone 4. It takes decent shots and if you are one of those people who takes photo or video with an Tablet then rest assured that you'll a) look a little less silly with this and b) you'll get decent results.
The keyboard on the iPad mini hasn't been adjusted (none of the software has in fact) and so the keys are smaller than they are on the big iPad. This has actually improved my portrait usage massively and slowed down my landscape usage a little. In portrait mode I can now reach all of the keys comfortably with my thumbs. On the larger iPad I used to split the keyboard in portrait mode and I haven't done so once since getting the mini. In fact, I just had to check just now that it was still possible to split the keyboard. It is. As I mentioned landscape mode is a little slower but not by a huge margin. It's still better than most on-screen keyboards and after a few minutes you adapt. Think of it like going from a full-size keyboard on a laptop and swapping to one on a netbook. Not ideal but definitely manageable. How much is it not an issue? This entire review has been typed on the iPad mini.
Compared to other Tablets
When Apple entered the tablet space in 2010 it was a barren wasteland of dead or dying products. When Apple entered the Small tablet market in 2012 it was already populated by some decent alternatives. I've used most of them but the 2 I am asked about a lot is the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire. Lets start with the Kindle and I'll come straight out with it, I am not a fan. The UI is laggy, the app selection is poor and the hardware feels cheap. Compared to the iPad mini the Fire feels like a kids toy. The story with the Nexus 7 isn't quite as damning though. I bought one when they were first released and kept it for a couple of months. I used it for surfing, reading and watching movies etc but I eventually grew tired of it. The app selection on Android tablets is still poor and shows little signs of improvement. There are many things I love about Android and I crave a lot of them on iOS almost daily but not on a tablet I'm afraid. The hardware was nice but compared to the iPad mini it feels cheaper (it is cheaper, by over £100) but in comparison the iPad mini feels more expensive than its £269 starting point. The display is 30% larger on the iPad mini and whilst the Nexus 7's is higher resolution it has issues. Mine had a problem whereby when I was watching video the screen would become saturated and would take a few minutes after the video had stopped to return to normal. This is down to something the Tegra chip does to save power apparently and needed to be patched out with a flashable zip every time I booted the device. Not a great experience. The iPad mini has better cameras as well, if thats what you're into.
I have nothing to complain about here at all. Yes the iPad mini is ostensibly the same inside as the iPad 2 but there are 2 things that are improtant to remember here. Apple still sells the iPad 2 in decent volume so that ensures support for a while, the iPad mini will get at least 2 future iOS updates of that I am 100% sure. I have also yet to find a single app that had any issues running on the mini. Some may load slightly slower than its big brother but not to the point where it's glaringly obvious. This only really matters when placed side by side for the purposes of a YouTube video shootout. The mini has Siri, AirPlay mirroring and all of the other accoutrements you've come to expect from a high end iOS device, no tradeoffs have been made in the software or the user experience.
Gaming is excellent on the iPad mini. Games like Grand Theft Auto and Minecraft work really well on the screen and thanks to the size it just feels great in the hand. I've found myself playing a lot more racing and action games compared to my usual diet of puzzlers (I'm addicted to Letterpress). Controls are easier to touch than on the iPhone but the device isn't as heavy as the iPad which makes for an excellent combination. Add in AirPlay mirroring on an Apple TV and games like Real Racing 2 and this has the potential to be a game changer (pardon the pun). Why Apple doesn't put more focus on this area is a mystery. Maybe that'll change in 2013?
Day to Day
I got the Mini on the 18th of December and I haven't used a computer once since it arrived. It's light, its fast and it satisfies a hell of a lot of what I do with a computer. The iPad mini has now become my default machine and when I leave the house my iPhone now feels even more connected as its a much closer kin to the iPad than it is to a Macbook running OS X. I bought the iPad mini expecting to like it but I did not expect to fall in love with it. That may seem over the top but when I (and I suspect many of you) buy a product this is exactly the kind of reaction I hope for each and every time. The iPad mini has fit into my life perfectly and will not be going anywhere for a very long time. In fact, if it wasn't for recording the podcast for this very site then I would rarely use a computer at all anymore. Yes the iPad mini is more expensive than its competition. In fact, you could take the preceding take and swap “iPad mini” for pretty much any product Apple has launched in the last ten years and it would still be true. Apple products tend to come with an added value that goes beyond the specs of the device (which have never mattered incidentally) and in this example it is the iPad mini's superior industrial design and an ecosystem that is orders of magnitude ahead of its competition. My advice would be if you're looking for a cheap tablet that will only be used occasionally, get the Nexus 7 (I've never recommended the Kindle Fire to anyone but I frequently recommend the Nexus 7 as it does everything the Fire does and more.) If you want a great tablet experience in excellent hardware with access to the absolute best ecosystem then get the iPad mini.
If you have any questions or there are any parts of the product you would like me to go into more detail about then please let me know either in the comments, via email or on Twitter and I'll add a section above or answer your question directly if you prefer.