The iPad Mini

“Wow, it feels like a Kindle.”

“Ew, the screen is terrible.”

That was my wife’s initial reaction when I handed her the iPad Mini to see what she, an avid daily user of an iPad 3, thought. Her initial reaction matched mine exactly, and perfectly encapsulates the experience. The iPad Mini is not a device you need to spend a lot of time with to understand. My snap reaction from a week ago remains unchanged after a week of daily use.

It’s really light and easy to hold one-handed. The hardware design — chamfered edges, less tapered back, metal rather than plastic buttons — strikes me as better, more elegant, than that of the full-size iPad 3/4. But it’s disappointing to go non-retina after using the retina iPad for the last seven months. All of the accolades and advantages of retina displays work in reverse. I adore the size and form factor of the iPad Mini, but I also adore the retina display on my full-size iPad. My ideal iPad would be a Mini with a retina display.

The actual iPad Mini display is not terrible. It’s exactly what you think: it feels like an iPhone 3GS display cut to iPad size, including the fact that the pixels seem deeper from the surface of the glass. (It does seem brighter and more vibrant than a 3GS display, perhaps because it uses an IPS panel.) And after a week of using it as my main iPad, the individually discernible pixels are no longer jarring to my eyes. The non-retina resolution is the one and only significant complaint I have with the iPad Mini, and it’s an issue that is only apparent to those of us who already own a nearly-new iPad.

For anyone else — those who own an older iPad 1 or 2, and those who have yet to buy their first iPad — the iPad Mini’s display will garner no complaints. I prefer the Mini over the full-size iPad in every single regard other than display resolution, and though I (and many of you) obsess over display resolution, it’s not an issue in the mass market.

The biggest surprise at last week’s event was the iPad 4. It wasn’t just the introduction of the Mini, but that the entire iPad lineup was refreshed. With one glaring exception: the $399 iPad 2 remains. It used to be at the bottom of the lineup, and now it’s smack dab in the middle.

I was confused by this at first. Why keep the iPad 2 around? Then the answer hit me: the iPad 2 must have continued to sell well over the last seven months. There can be no other explanation. If it weren’t selling well, Apple would have dropped it from the lineup. But because it is selling well, they’re keeping it in the lineup, because they don’t know why it’s selling well. If it’s only because of the lower price, the iPad Mini might obviate it. But perhaps it’s not that people want the least expensive iPad, but instead that they want the least expensive full-size iPad.

But the key is that the iPad 2’s non-retina display has not kept it from selling well alongside the retina iPad 3. For many people, retina resolution is nice-to-have, not must-have.

The Mini weighs less than half a full-size iPad 3 or 4, and the difference that makes is tremendous. The Mini with the Smart Cover1 on is almost exactly as thick (or as thin, if you prefer) as an iPad 3 or 4 without a cover. Combine that with the weight and it’s just plain fun to hold. The reduced bezel width along the sides poses no problem; the device is light enough that you don’t need a place to rest your thumb on the surface.

Typing is interesting. In portrait, I actually find it easier to type on the Mini than a full-size iPad. All thumbs, with less distance to travel between keys, it feels more like typing on an iPhone. In landscape, though, typing is decidedly worse. The keyboard in landscape is only a tad wider than a full-size iPad keyboard in portrait. That’s too small to use all eight of my fingers, so I wind up using a four-finger hunt-and-peck style with my index and middle fingers.

Other than typing in landscape, though, the usability of iPad apps on the smaller screen is a non-issue. The UI target-sizing math we worked through this summer holds up.

I use my iPad primarily for reading. The six apps in my iPad dock: Tweetbot, Safari, Mail, Instapaper, Kindle, and iBooks.2 Even with Mail, on the iPad I read more than I write; I usually save email writing for when I’m at a Mac. For reading, all of these apps work great on the iPad Mini. Font sizes on some websites can be a little small (tiny type that is legible on retina displays is just smudgy on non-retina ones), but most sites look just fine. The Mini feels optimized for reading.

It also seems optimized for kids. My almost-nine-year-old son loves the size and weight of the Mini. Reading apps may not be computationally taxing, but games are, and there is no compromise in the iPad Mini’s performance. In both the Geekbench and SunSpider benchmarks, the Mini performs identically to the iPad 3 — about 750 in Geekbench (where bigger means faster) and 1,450ms in SunSpider (where lower times are faster).3 The new iPad 4 blows those numbers away (1,750 Geekbench, 850ms SunSpider), but I’d say iPad 3-caliber performance in a $329 radically smaller device is pretty good. I was not expecting iPad 3 performance in the Mini. But it’s there, and that makes the iPad Mini great for games. I think there are going to be a staggering number of iPad Minis in Santa’s sack this year.

My travel kit for the last few years has consisted of both an 11-inch MacBook Air and an iPad. It always feels a bit silly to carry two computers so similar in size and weight, but I want my Air for work and I want the iPad for reading. The combined weight of an 11-inch Air and a full-size iPad 3/4 is about 3.8 pounds. The combined weight of the new 13-inch MacBook Pro with retina display and an iPad Mini is about 4.2 pounds. That seems like a better kit for my needs: a far more powerful Mac for work, and a far more comfortable iPad for reading, at less than half a pound of additional weight to carry around.

Both the 11-inch Air and full-size iPad 3/4 make more sense to me as devices for people who only want to carry one portable computer. But if I’m going to carry both, I think it makes more sense to get a bigger MacBook and the smaller iPad Mini.

If the Mini had a retina display, I’d switch from the iPad 3 in a heartbeat. As it stands, I’m going to switch anyway. Going non-retina is a particularly bitter pill for me, but I like the iPad Mini’s size and weight so much that I’m going to swallow it.

My guess is that this is going to play out much like the iPod and iPod Mini back in 2004: the full-size model will continue to sell strongly, but the Mini is going to become the bestselling model.

  1. The new “soft” magnetic latch on the Mini’s Smart Cover seems like a win. It’s more comfortable to the touch than the full-size iPad Smart Cover’s metallic latch. Plus, over time, the full-size Smart Cover leaves scuff marks on the side of the iPad; that shouldn’t happen with the Mini Smart Cover. ↩︎

  2. MLB At Bat gets the Kindle app’s spot during baseball season, of course. ↩︎

  3. My review unit iPad Mini is a Wi-Fi-only model with 64 GB of storage. With the iPad 2 and 3, Apple provided me with cellular models. Given that the ship date for the cellular iPad Minis remains at the vague “Mid November”, I wonder if they simply weren’t ready last week. ↩︎