Thinking This iPad Mini Thing Even Througher

Last month I tried to think this smaller iPad thing all the way through. Didn’t quite make it all the way through, though, so let’s dig deeper.

We’ve got the display. 7.85 inches diagonally, 1024 × 768 pixels at 163 PPI — the same pixels-per-inch density as the pre-retina iPhones and iPod Touch. With the same 4:3 aspect ratio and 1024 × 768 pixel dimensions, it should look to iPad software exactly like an iPad 1 or 2 display — everything will just render a little smaller, but not too much smaller.

But then what would the device look like, as a whole? One obvious answer would be that it would look exactly like an iPad 2 but smaller, like it was hit by a shrink ray. Our friends at Gizmodo commissioned an artist to create mockups based on this assumption, and the result certainly looks plausible.

But I’d wager heavily that Gizmodo guessed wrong.

Apple product designs are true to themselves. Each thing has proportions suited to its own nature. Consider how the iPad doesn’t look like a blown up iPhone. They share a few similar design elements — a family resemblance, if you will — but the proportions are different. The iPad has a thick bezel surrounding all four sides of the display; the iPhone does not. Why? Because you need a place to rest your thumbs while holding an iPad.

Now, I expect the iPad Mini will bear more resemblance to a full-size iPad than it will to an iPhone or iPod Touch. For one thing, it’s closer in size to the iPad-as-we-know it, and for another, all credible reports (along with several of my own little birdies) point to the smaller iPad keeping the 4:3 display aspect ratio.

But if you shrink the device enough, and reduce the weight enough, would such a device still need a bezel surrounding the display of the same proportions as the iPad-as-we-know-it? Maybe not.

The iPad 3 — the whole device, not just the display — measures 241.2 × 185.7 mm. Divide and that comes out to roughly 1.3, which is very close to the aspect ratio of the iPad display (1.333…). In other words, the aspect ratio of the iPad as a whole is very close to the aspect ratio of the iPad display. You don’t even need to work out the math — just look at it.

That’s not true for the iPhone and iPod Touch. The iPhone 4S is 115.2 × 58.6 mm; divide and you get roughly 1.97 — far different proportions than the 1.5 (3:2) aspect ratio of the display. Again, just look at it.

Should not the iPad Mini fall somewhere in between? Not as close to the aspect ratio of its display as the iPad-as-we-know-it, but also not as far away from its display aspect ratio as the iPhone. You might need more thumb-rest room on the sides than you do on the iPhone, but not nearly as much as you do on the full-size iPad.

If that assumption is right, the proportions of a 7.85-inch 4:3-aspect-ratio display iPad Mini are likely not the same as the proportions of the 9.7-inch 4:3-aspect-ratio display iPad.

Seen It

A question I’ve seen (and myself pondered) recently: given the deluge of leaks of purported parts from the imminent new iPhone, where are the equivalent parts leaks from this smaller iPad? As a few smart colleagues have commented in this thread discussing the topic, the simple answer is that the new iPhone is almost certainly further ahead in production. Supply chain leaks for the new iPhone are perhaps inevitable at this point, if Apple is preparing to have tens of millions of units en route from China five weeks from now. Perhaps the new smaller iPad is on a different schedule — announced alongside the new iPhone on September 12, but shipping a few weeks later.

But I think the answer is right before our eyes. Parts from the smaller iPad have leaked; they just haven’t garnered as much attention. Two weeks ago, 9to5Mac caught these images, which were briefly published by case maker DeviceWear. The first two, I believe, show the iPad Mini, albeit sheathed in a leather case. (The bottom picture, showing the front face of a white iPad Mini, is fake I think, as I’ll explain below; my theory is that DeviceWear got their hands on the back of this device, but no parts from the front. Thus the case design that makes no assumptions about the display dimensions or bezel widths.) Note that the sides of this purported iPad Mini are not tapered, like on the iPad 2 and 3, but rather are round — very much reminiscent, to my eye, of the original 2007 iPhone.

We’ve seen this before — as I noted a few weeks ago — at the bizarrely-named ZooGue. Note the similarities between the device in their photos and one in DeviceWear’s — the original-iPhone-esque rounded-rather-than-tapered sides, the discrete up/down volume buttons (as opposed to the iPad 2/3’s single volume rocker). They’re not identical — ZooGue’s part is missing the small microphone hole (at least that’s my guess as to what it is) in the center, for one thing — but they’re close enough that they’re either both legit or the same fake. (Perhaps the mic hole is drilled further along during production?)

The key, though, is that they share the same aspect ratio, and that aspect ratio is very different from that of the iPad-as-we-know-it. Examining these images, particularly the straight-on shot of the back from DeviceWear, shows that the device aspect ratio is just a hair under 1.5. When held in portrait orientation, this device is significantly narrower in proportion than the iPad-as-we-know-it. Even these sketchy photos, unearthed by the website (which domain name seems like a cease-and-desist letter from Apple Legal waiting to happen) show a device with the same unusual proportions.

Possible explanations:

  1. These part leaks showing a device aspect ratio of 3:2 are a widely-distributed fake. Perhaps even a deliberate throw-them-off-the-scent disinformation leak from Apple itself. Perhaps the real iPad Mini will have a roughly 4:3 aspect ratio and thick bezel around all sides of the display, just like the existing iPad, and look like Gizmodo’s mockup.

  2. These part leaks are legitimate, but the display of the device is not 4:3, but instead 3:2 (like the iPhone and iPod Touch) or even 16:9 (as is rumored for the new iPhone), thus still allowing for a thick or at least thick-ish bezel around all sides of the display.

  3. These part leaks are legitimate, and the display is 4:3. Therefore, the front face of the device (held in portrait) will have more of an iPhone-esque “forehead and chin” bezel surrounding the display — thick at the top and bottom (providing room for the FaceTime camera and home button), but thin along the sides.

You can bet however you want, but my money is on #3.1

The Small Tablet Competitive Landscape

The reviews of Google’s Nexus 7 tablet started coming out the first week of July, and they were almost universally positive. The Nexus 7 is without question the best-reviewed tablet on the market other than the iPad.

That same week, within one day of each other, Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal both reported as fact that Apple is preparing a smaller iPad.

If you think these stories appearing within a day of each other in the two most-respected business publications in the U.S. — at the same time the Nexus 7 reviews began appearing and the device started shipping to customers — is merely coincidental and not a strategic competitive leak from Apple PR, then I would like to invite you to play in my poker game.

The angle to these stories is not merely “Apple is set to release a smaller iPad”, but “Apple is set to release a smaller iPad and it could squelch the Nexus 7 and any other smaller tablets before they ever really get a chance to take off”.

Most telling are the changes Bloomberg made to their story’s headline. I’ve noticed with Bloomberg that their stories sometimes start with punchier, more sensational headlines, but which then get toned down. When Techmeme caught the story, the headline read “Here Comes Nexus 7 Nightmare: The iPad Mini”. You can see this too, in the URL slug for the story: “/news/2012-07-03/here-comes-nexus-7-nightmare-the-ipad-mini.html”.

Now, we all know that whatever the iPad Mini is, very little of it could be in direct response to the Nexus 7. However fast Apple can move, it’s not that fast. But the Nexus 7 shipped first, so that’s how it’s going to play — as a response. Let’s consider what — other than just the Apple logo and the name “iPad” — it would take for the iPad Mini to pose a competitive problem to the Nexus 7, Kindle Fire, and any other smaller tablets on the market.

The Nexus 7 measures 198.5 × 120 x 10.45 mm, and weighs 340 grams. It has a 1280 × 800 7-inch display (a 16:10, not 16:9 aspect ratio). Most conjecture to date, best illustrated by this diagram by “Trojan Kitten”, has assumed that the iPad Mini’s bigger 7.85-inch 4:3 display would necessarily imply that the iPad Mini device be bigger (than the Nexus) too.

But, as worked out in the first part of this piece, that now looks like a bad assumption. What if the iPad Mini is, physically, roughly the same size as the Nexus 7. Say, 200 × 135 mm — a nudge taller and maybe a centimeter and a half wider. How? By — again, as noted above — significantly reducing the bezel surrounding the display. See this mockup posted earlier today by 9to5Mac’s Seth Weintraub to get the basic idea. His roundrect corner radii are off — the front face corners should have larger iPad-esque radii, not iPhone-esque ones — but in terms of bezel dimensions and surface area comparisons to the Nexus 7, I think he’s got it.

Update: Rene Ritchie at iMore has an even better mockup — less iPhone-ish, more iPad-ish. But even his roundrect corner radii aren’t quite round enough to my eyes.

Here, Apple would be doing to the Nexus what Android phones have been doing to the iPhone — playing the “bigger display is better” card. But unlike with phones, here Apple would be playing the “bigger display is better” card without the corresponding tradeoff in overall device size, where smaller (and lighter) are better.

The iPad Mini loses the comparison on pixel density, though. (Not a sentence one is accustomed to seeing regarding Apple products.) The Nexus 7 display is 216 PPI; the iPad Mini (purportedly and assumed) 163 PPI. Last month, pondering this question of whether Apple would be willing to introduce a non-retina iOS device, I wrote:

If Apple were to ship a 7.85-inch iPad with a non-retina 163-ppi display, it would signify that one of the key factors they’re optimizing for is cost. Unlike that iPod Mini, which was smaller but cost almost as much as its bigger sibling, perhaps this iPad Mini is smaller and costs much less — at the expense, for one thing, of display quality. This, of course, would pave the way for a retina update a year or two down the line.

Which in turn suggests a way to turn this strain of skepticism on its head. Apple, to date, has never introduced a new iOS form factor with a retina display — they add retina displays as upgrades two or three years after devices hit the market.

Cost can’t be the only factor in play, though. There must be something great about the device’s design. If it’s not display quality, what else? I’m thinking thickness and weight. The iPad 3 gained a retina display — but at the expense of getting thicker and heavier than the iPad 2, so as to fit a more powerful battery to run those additional 2,359,296 pixels. So I’m thinking the iPad Mini doesn’t get a retina display but in exchange gets to go remarkably thin.

How thin? As an iPhone devotee (thickness: 9.3 mm) I marvel at the relative thinness of the iPod Touch (7.2 mm) whenever I see one. So, how thin for the iPad Mini? How about iPod Touch thin: 7.2 mm. That’d be an entire third thinner than the Nexus 7.

Let’s further assume that weight loosely corresponds to volume. As a basis for this assumption, compare the iPhone 4S and iPod Touch. Let’s estimate volume by multiplying width by height by depth. The iPhone 4S comes to 62,782 cubic millimeters; the iPod Touch 47,073. Divide and you get 75 percent. Now, look at the published weights for these devices: 140 and 101 grams respectively. Divide and you get 72 percent. That’s pretty close to the difference in volume — especially considering that the iPod Touch has a curved back, which means the rough height × width × depth multiplication estimate for its volume shortchanges it compared to the much more rectangular iPhone 4S.

So let’s estimate the Nexus 7’s volume the same way: 248,919 cubic mm. The iPad Mini, based on my best guess hunch dimensions of 200 × 135 x 7.2 mm = 193,680 cubic mm. Divide and you get 78 percent. The Nexus 7 weighs 340 grams, so, let’s guess that the iPad Mini will weigh just 265 grams.2

Weight is a huge factor, maybe the factor, in one-handed use, and its too-heavy-to-hold-in-one-hand weight has always been one of the biggest knocks against the iPad-as-we-know-it. I’m thinking the iPad Mini will be not just thinner and lighter than the iPad-as-we-know-it, but remarkably thinner and lighter than its competitors in the small tablet market.3 Yet it will have a bigger display.

Throw in cellular networking (which the Nexus doesn’t have), a rear-facing camera (which the Nexus doesn’t have), a competitive starting price on the entry-level Wi-Fi-only model, the App Store’s superior software selection, and worldwide availability (the Nexus 7 is available only in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom so far), and yeah, I’d say the prospects look OK for Apple in the small tablet market.

  1. Seriously, before you go jumping on the “I’m betting with Gruber” bandwagon, I must point out to you that, if true, the original credit for breaking news of this slim-bezel design will go to, of all places, DigiTimes. That’s right, DigiTimes — all the way back in March. You won’t last long in Vegas betting on DigiTimes reports, but you know what they say about stopped clocks. ↩︎

  2. For comparison, the WiFi-only iPad (3) weighs 652 grams, and the Amazon Kindle 3G with keyboard weighs about 247 grams. So a sub-300-gram smaller iPad would be pretty light. ↩︎

  3. Maybe iPad Mini is the wrong name for us to use as a placeholder. It’s not about being smaller — it’s about being thinner and lighter. iPad Air? ↩︎