TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Smaller iPad, little difference

Apple’s iPad Mini is a delight to hold, but you’re sacrificing considerable screen real estate in return for elegance and convenience.

I hate it when people gush over Apple products so let’s just get it out of the way up front. The iPad Mini is a thing of beauty. It is exquisitely thin and light, to the point where you can forget you’re holding it — which is perhaps the holy grail for any consumer tablet. Yet it still manages to feel solid and sturdy rather than cheap and nasty.

The slender iPad Mini is slightly smaller than an A5 sheet of paper. It’s only 7.2 millimetres thick and tips the scales at a mere 308 grams. If you’ve ever watched in envy as a Star Trek ensign handed the captain an impossibly thin tablet, listing the day’s duty roster, this could be the tablet you’ve been waiting for.

Perhaps the biggest surprise with the 7.9-inch iPad Mini is that there are no real surprises — it’s simply a smaller iPad. Apple hasn’t added or removed a significant feature to help position it as a companion to a full-sized 9.7-inch iPad rather than a competitor. Along with the $369 iPad Mini Apple also released the new $539 iPad 4, dubbed the “iPad with retina display”.

Both new iPads feature Apple’s new Lightning connector. It’s likely to be a less painful transition from the 30-pin connector than with the iPhone 5 because you’re unlikely to use your iPad with 30-pin speaker docks and car kits. Both new iPads also finally support Australia’s high-speed LTE mobile broadband networks — unlike the iPad 3, even though it had “4G” written on the box. While the iPad 3 has been unceremoniously dumped, Apple still sells the full-sized $429 iPad 2 as its budget offering.

Apart from the screen size, the iPad Mini and old iPad 2 are all but identical. The iPad Mini sports the old A5 processor found in the iPad 2 rather the A6X powerplant used by the iPad 4, although to be fair the iPad 4 needs the extra grunt to drive the 2048×1536 pixel “retina” display. The iPad Mini retains the 1024×768 resolution of the iPad 2, but looks a little sharper because the screen isn’t as large.

If you’re familiar with the iPad 3’s retina display then you will notice the difference when you pick up the iPad Mini, but it’s not enough to get upset about. It obviously can’t do justice to apps and games designed to take full advantage of the retina display, but it’s more than adequate for day-to-day tasks. Even though the iPad Mini sports an old processor it’s certainly not sluggish. The smaller screen size doesn’t make the tablet any more awkward to use than the full-sized models.

The iPad Mini does have a few advantages over the iPad 2. For example it shares the iPad 4’s Facetime HD front camera and ability to conduct video calls over 3G/4G (using a nano-SIM rather than the iPad 4’s micro-SIM). The iPad Mini is also blessed with 1080p video recording.

Knowing Apple, we’ll probably see a retina display on the next iPad Mini. But for now if you’re upgrading from the iPad 2 then the iPad Mini’s 1024×768 resolution won’t be an issue and you’ll be free to marvel at the incredibly thin design. If you’ve been holding out since the original bulky iPad 1 then you’re really in for a treat. It’s worth noting that the iPad 1 can’t make the upgrade to iOS6, so it could be time to retire yours and hand it down to someone else.

So what you see is what you get, the iPad Mini is a mini iPad — no more, no less. Once you stop fawning over it, it’s actually a little underwhelming. Sure it’s pleasing to the eye and easier on the wrists, but you’re sacrificing considerable screen real estate compared to a full-sized iPad. If your iPad is house-bound, resting on your lap or sitting on the kitchen bench, you’d better better off spending the extra money on a full-sized iPad — even if it’s just an iPad 2 without the retina display.

You might argue that the iPad Mini would make an excellent ebook reader, yet dedicated e-Ink readers such as Kindles and Kobos are much cheaper and far better suited to the job. Alternatively you might argue that the iPad Mini would make a great secondary iPad, especially for people with children. My six year-old daughter quickly took a shine to the iPad Mini because it’s so much lighter than our iPad 1, although a slimline iPad 2 would go some way to satisfying her. Meanwhile, her nine year-old brother isn’t as concerned about weight and much prefers the larger screen of a full-sized iPad over the petite iPad Mini.

For me the iPad Mini isn’t worth the sacrifice unless you’re primarily concerned about portability. If you’ve been waiting for an iPad you could slip into a large jacket pocket then stop reading now, walk into your nearest Apple store and shout “shut up and take my money”. Someone will certainly oblige you.

If you’ve ever reluctantly left your iPad at home because it’s just too cumbersome, this is what you’ve been waiting for. The iPad Mini will squeeze into some jeans and jacket pockets, offering a new level of convenience that will surely appeal to regular travellers and daily commuters who are left unsatisfied by the 4-inch iPhone. Unfortunately I find it’s a fraction too wide to hold in portrait mode and type quickly with two thumbs. Your mileage may vary, depending in part whether you’re looking for an entertainment device or a portable productivity tool.

While the iPad Mini might appeal to the Apple faithful, at $369 it’s unlikely to put a serious dint in the sale of slick Android tablets such as the Nexus 7 which you’ll find for $249. If you’re yet to swear your allegiance to Apple you should certainly assess the Android alternatives. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a 7-inch Windows 8 offering but hopefully Microsoft will fast-track an overgrown phone or mini tablet if the iPad Mini takes off.

So what’s the verdict? The iPad Mini is a thing of beauty, but don’t be lured in by its petite figure if it’s only destined to be a couch-side tablet. If your iPad isn’t a travel companion then you should place more value on extra screen real estate, unless perhaps it’s destined for little hands which tend to leave grubby fingerprints on your precious full-sized iPad.

But if the iPad’s 9.7-inch footprint has always seemed a little too cumbersome to carry out the front door, this is the iPad you’ve been waiting for.

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