Editors' note (October 22, 2013): Apple has introduced the iPad Mini with Retina Display. The 2012 iPad Mini, reviewed here, will continue to be available in the 16GB capacity for $299 (Wi-Fi) and $429 (LTE and Wi-Fi).
The tablet landscape, at the smaller-screened end, has become about pricing. Or so it seems. Don't tell that to the iPad Mini. Apple's long-awaited, and finally real, tinier tablet is remarkably thinner and lighter than its big-boned, newly arrived fourth-gen iPad sibling, but it also starts at $329, a price that's well above the bargain-basement $199 target floated by devices like the Nexus 7, Amazon Kindle Fire HD, and Nook HD.
Certainly, the tablet playing field -- especially when it comes to media -- is leveling. The Kindle's book, video, and app ecosystem is impressive in its own right. The Nook has made gains with its apps and services. Android has Google Play. Regardless, none of these can truly compare to the breadth of content from Apple's App Store and iTunes. The App Store is Apple's great gold mine, and the iPad Mini's price seems to be banking on you knowing that. And, in that sense, the iPad Mini may be worth its price.
But, the original iPad hit a sweet-spot $499 price that few competitors could match. The Mini's price is about $130 higher than many similar 7-inch tablets that undercut it. It's even more expensive than some newly arriving 8.9-inch tablets from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The iPad Mini is really a shrunken-down iPad 2. Or, a larger iPod Touch. The original iPad was a larger iPod Touch, too, in a lot of ways. That didn't make it any less appealing. Here, the tablet is not intended to be a laptop alternative -- it's a Kindle alternative. This is a compact reader/viewer. Of documents, magazines, movies, games. Maybe even for editing or creating. And it's spectacular at being portable.
What's unique about the Mini? Without a doubt, it's the design. It's cute, it's discreet, and it's very, very light. It feels like a whole new device for Apple. It's light enough to hold in one hand, something that wasn't really true of the iPad if held for extended periods of time. It's bedroom-cozy. Other full-fledged 7-inch tablets feel heavier and bulging by comparison.
This is a new standard for little-tablet design. It makes the iPad feel fresh. After a week of using the iPad Mini, it seems to find a way to follow me everywhere. It's extremely addictive, and fun to use.
But oh, that screen. It's not bad, not at all, but it's not a Retina Display. It's not even as high-res as screens on other 7-inch tablets. If you're obsessive about crisp text, you'll notice the fuzziness. If you're comparing the Mini with a laptop, you won't. I wanted that display to be as good as the one on the iPhone 5, iPod Touch, and Retina iPad. It isn't, not now. It mars the product for me, because otherwise, the screen size and its aspect ratio are perfect for handling comics, magazines, and reading apps.
Is the iPad Mini worth its premium, at nearly $130 more than some of the competition? If you're looking to get an iPad for the least amount of money, the answer is yes. If you're investing in iOS-land for the first time, this is a very good starting point.
A Retina Display and a lower price would have made the iPad Mini perfect. The fourth-gen iPad, in contrast, is a superior device under the hood, with much faster performance and a better-quality screen. Still, for many people, the Mini will be preferable because it's less expensive and perfectly portable. For others, it'll be the second iPad -- the kid iPad, the beach iPad. I love this iPad; I'm just not sure I need to own it.
(Editors' note: Updated on November 30 with an added section after testing the LTE version of the Mini.)
Regardless of your feelings about the Mini's price, or its A5 processor and non-Retina 7.9-inch display, here's what you'll notice when you pick it up: it's really shockingly nice to hold.
The iPad Mini is a design shift from the iPad, and perhaps the biggest one in the iPad's entire history. Despite how popular the iPad's been, it's not really a device that's very comfortable to use when you're not sitting down or at a desk. It's a use-when-you-get-there device, or use-when-comfortably-seated. An iPhone or iPod Touch is truly mobile, and the iPad is only halfway there.
In fact, the iPad Mini feels very much like the new Touch, even down to the curved wraparound aluminum shell and flat back. It lies down far more flatly than the fourth-gen iPad, more like a wafer. The headphone jack at the top and Lightning connector and speakers at the bottom are carved into less tapered, more curved side edges. Around the front glass is an angled aluminum bezel like on the iPhone 5.
The white model, which I reviewed, has a standard aluminum back. The black model has a slate-colored anodized aluminum, giving it that same "stealth" look as the iPod Touch.
The iPad Mini's extremely whittled-down side bezels are much less conspicuous than the larger iPad's bezels, which always made it resemble a MacBook screen that had floated away from its keyboard. The Mini truly feels like a large iPod Touch, which is exactly what we used to call the iPad back in 2010. It's far more apt now.
You probably won't think that, though, because the iPad Mini won't easily fit in your pocket, or even your jacket pocket. It's more of a purse, small bag, or large-coat-pocket device. It'll fit wherever you'd fit a softcover book.
The construction feels solid, stellar, fun to hold. The home button clicks crisply. It doesn't feel like a lower-priced product in your hands. It might be, in terms of form, the most addictive iOS product in existence. And it's perfectly sized for kid hands. It's far more suited for use in cars and traveling.
But the Mini shouldn't be a surprising product. A device smaller than the iPad that can run apps? That's always existed. That's called the iPhone. The really impressive feat of the iPad Mini, the surprise, is that it seems to handle all the iPad's normal duties while being shrunken down. All except effortless onscreen typing, although it comes close.
Gripping, swiping, and typing: Thumbs and fingers
So, what about that smaller bezel? Holding it suddenly becomes a delicate-seeming proposition. I worried I'd accidentally start an app with my big palms, or turn a page by accident. That didn't happen to me. Apple has worked finger-rejection technology into the hardware and software of the iPad Mini that's context-dependent. All I know is that when reading books on the Kindle app or iBooks, I found holding on the side wasn't a problem. When I typed, the entire edge-to-edge surface became sensitive to my entire hand.
In landscape mode, the longer and thicker top and bottom bezel come in handy: it offers more of a grip when viewing videos, and I found that it also helped make the iPad Mni comfier when playing games.
The tweener size of the Mini means you can hold it in portrait mode and thumb-type like on an iPhone or iPod. It works pretty well, for the most part. I was even able to thumb-type in landscape mode, with a little stretching. Typing more traditionally works better than I expected, although I became more of a finger hunt-and-pecker than a spread-finger typist. The 7.9-inch display certainly isn't as wide as the average laptop keyboard, and the virtual keys, while well-sized, require a bit of adjustment to use.
You can also hold the iPad Mini in one hand and thumb-swipe, but I wouldn't recommend it. It's not as intuitive as on an iPhone, although it could be fine for simple page-turning taps.
The screen: Retina-free
Your feelings about the iPad Mini's screen will all depend on how much time you've spent with Retina Displays or high-pixel-count devices. If you own a recent iPhone or the last iPad, you'll feel that this screen is blurry. Text isn't as sharp. The pixels per inch don't even match what's available on a Kindle Fire HD or Nook HD. The iPad Mini has a 1,024x768-pixel display, just like the iPad 2's, but writ smaller with a denser pixel count per inch. However, the smaller-screened Kindle Fire HD has a 1,280x800-pixel display. So does the Google Nexus 7. The Nook HD has an even higher-res display at 1,440x900 pixels.
All three cost considerably less than the iPad Mini, and all three have much higher, denser pixel counts. The iPad Mini’s 7.9-inch screen has more physical real estate in terms of square inches (let's just call it an 8-inch screen, because it very nearly is), but fewer pixels per inch. You’re trading size for high-res crispness.
So, the iPad Mini not only has a lower-resolution screen than much of the competition, but it's probably the least impressive screen of Apple's 2012 stable of iOS devices. The iPod Touch, iPhone 5, and fourth-gen iPad all seem brighter, more vibrant, and far higher-definition.
In deeper, in-depth tests using CNET's TV-testing equipment, the iPad Mini's display was revealed to indeed be less bright at its highest setting, but also less color-accurate than the nearly-perfect Retina Displays on the iPhone 5 and third and fourth-gen iPads. When looking at photos or movies, you can definitely tell the difference side-by-side.
Even if, for all the incredible design that the iPad Mini has going for it otherwise, that screen feels like a comparative letdown, there's big ace in the iPad Mini's hole. A huge one, actually. It has to do with aspect ratio.
This 7.9-inch display isn't 16:9 like the iPhone 5 or most Android tablets. That means the screen width is wider, more like a page of a book. It's the same as on the iPad, but on this smaller screen, with the iPad Mini's shrunken-down side bezels like an iPod Touch, it feels extra-wide. Web pages fit more across the screen, allowing the text to be bigger. More importantly, digital magazines and illustrated books can be rendered without squishing down too much.
Apple's made a big deal of this, but let me tell you the real killer apps here: the future of digital publications. Textbooks. Basically, any layout-sensitive graphically intensive e-books. The iPad Mini doesn't squish that content down like what often happens to it on 16:10 7-inch screens. An iBooks version of DK Publishing's "Dinosaurs" looked wonderful and engaging. So did the kids' book/app "Bobo Explores Light."
Maybe most impressively, nearly every larger iPad app I've thrown at it feels usable and comfortable at this smaller screen size. Board games with tiny buttons, media-editing apps, games with virtual control pads, and even using the onscreen virtual keyboard. It's book-size, but the apps feel largely the same.
iPad Mini as e-reader
You could be of two minds about this. Yes, the non-Retina Display means text that's less sharp. It feels like a miscalculation on a device so clearly targeted at reading. Yet, hold the iPad Mini back a foot and increase the font size, and you probably won't notice.
The more booklike 4:3 aspect ratio and its more natural compatibility with PDF files, comics, magazines, and layout-sensitive graphic novels give the iPad Mini an edge over other 7-inch tablets. For pure text, the Mini may not be the best. For other media, it has its advantages, even without a Retina Display. I never found myself unable to enjoy a magazine or book, although I did find myself wishing the resolution were sharper (reading the "Dark Knight Returns" comic, in particular).
One big advantage of the iPad Mini with iOS: it's compatible with all the big services (Kindle, Nook, Google Books). It's the closest to a universal e-book reader.