Expertly closing the price and size-gap
Love it or hate it, Apple's 9.7-inch iPad is the archetypal 'tablet'. To many less tech-savvy consumers, the terms are synonymous.
November 2 saw the launch of the 7.9-inch iPad mini, Apple's answer to competing 7-inch tablets such as Amazon's Kindle Fire and Google's Nexus 7. The appeal of the 7-inch form factor is twofold: it's more portable and lightweight than 10-inch tablets, and it's cheaper.
The mini is patterned on the hugely successful 9.7-inch iPad 2, using both the same 1024 x 768 screen resolution and dual-core Apple A5 CPU. It's essentially a compressed iPad 2 with a few noteworthy upgrades.
The iPad mini's 1024 x 768 display is lower resolution than either the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 - both feature 1280 x 800 resolution. The iPad Retina, comparatively, has a massive 2048 x 1536 resolution, higher than most 15-inch laptops. Why not produce an 'iPad mini with Retina display'? My guess would be cost.
The iPad mini's screen is not the highest resolution out there, but it is a good-quality LED-backlit LCD IPS panel, with brilliant colours and sufficient maximum brightness for outdoor use. Sure, it's not Retina-sharp, but nor does it look blocky or dated. If that's what it takes to make the mini affordable, it's a reasonable compromise in our books.
By using the same resolution as the iPad 2, the iPad mini is also compatible with every existing iPad 2 app, no scaling required. Given the range of Apps available in Apple's App Store, this is a real plus.
Unlike any previous iPad, the Mini features two physical speakers for stereo sound instead of mono. Honestly, squeezing a second speaker into the device may not have been worth the trouble.
Sound quality is acceptable for podcasts or the odd YouTube video, but just a little too echoey and muffled when listening to music or watching movies. The speakers are positioned at the bottom of the device when held in portrait, so they both end up on the same side when the iPad is placed in landscape. You know, the orientation you'd use to watch movies or music videos. This destroys the stereo effect, and makes us wonder whether one slightly larger speaker would have done better than two tiny ones a few centimetres apart.
If you're holding the iPad in portrait, or lay it flat with the speakers facing you, it sounds much better. Using headphones, audio quality is great.
The front 'FaceTime HD' 1.2-megapixel camera, and rear 'iSight' 5-megapixel camera are the same as those found on the iPad Retina, rather than the much lower-resolution cameras of the iPad 2. Both cameras use backside illumination technology for improved low-light performance.
Images taken with the rear camera look good by tablet standards, though indoor and low-light shots are still noisy, despite the new sensor technology. Compounding this is the lack of a flash. On the upside, the iPad mini's smaller size means that if you take photographs you no longer look quite so ridiculous.
The front-facing camera is great for video calling via FaceTime or Skype, and allows for 720p video (1280 x 720) compared to the iPad 2's VGA (640 x 480).
Apple's ubiquitous 30-pin connector has been replaced with the new lightning connector, also used by the iPhone 5 and newest iPad Retina. For those who already have a collection of accessories, you'll need a lightning to 30-pin adapter ($49). If the Mini is to be your first iDevice, just remember that your iPhone 4 and older-iPad toting colleagues aren't going to be able to hook you up with a battery charge - take your cable with you.
We tested the Wi-Fi only version, but the 3G version - shipping at the end of November - uses a nano-SIM identical to that used by the iPhone 5 rather than the micro-SIM used by earlier iPhone and iPad models. Be wary if you're switching from an existing 3G tablet, as you'll need to replace your data SIM with the newest and smallest version.
The iPad mini looks similar to the iPad 2, with its aluminium back and glass front, but its corners are less tapered at the rear. It's slimmed down on left and right borders, bringing the screen just 6mm from the outer edge on each side. This means you can't hold the Mini by its edge in portrait mode without touching the screen. However, the narrower device will fit most hands in portrait mode, allowing you to hold it in your palm like a cellphone, with your thumb on one side and fingers on the other. Only children or adults with very small hands are likely to have trouble holding it securely.
An iPad 2 (Wi-Fi) weighs in at 601 grams, whilst the equivalent iPad Retina is 652 grams. The iPad mini is roughly half the weight, at 308 grams. It's much more comfortable if you want to hold the iPad for hours, watching video or reading in bed, and for travelers it cuts 300 grams from carry-on luggage.
Like both existing iPad models, the iPad mini advertises "up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video or listening to music". That seems realistic: we were able to get at least two days of heavy usage between charges.
It's an impressive feat, given that the internal lithium-polymer battery has been reduced from the iPad 2's 25 Watt-hours down to 16.3 Watt-hours as part of the slimming and weight reduction. That means reduced power consumption to achieve the same ten-hour life, perhaps explaining why the iPad mini always feels cool to the touch even when it's busy running shiny games or playing HD video.
Charging is via the included USB to Lightning cable - the iPad mini can be charged from a PC's USB port, but also includes a tiny mains-to-USB adapter.
We tested a range of common apps, games and websites on the iPad mini, from Maps to Minecraft, Google Docs to YouTube. Everything we tried provided smooth functioning, and in some cases (such as launching Settings), the iPad mini noticeably outperformed the iPad 2.
Though icons and buttons appear slightly smaller on the Mini's display, we never found anything too small to select easily, in either apps or games. We had to zoom in on some websites to click small links, but that was a rare and never proved annoying.
The on-screen keyboard is large enough in both portrait and landscape to use comfortably and narrow enough to use for thumb-typing in either orientation. Touch typing is the only thing you're unlikely to have great success with, due to the size of the display. If you're a hunt-and-peck typist, you'll be just fine.
Apple's iPad mini is a well-built tablet, capable of anything the iPad 2 can handle and a little more. For students and business travellers it's a good lightweight alternative to a full-sized tablet, particularly if you also have to carry a laptop but want a companion device for web browsing and entertainment. At $479 for the 16GB, Wi-Fi model, it's also affordable.
The iPad mini is also a great alternative to an ebook reader, particularly if the majority of your reading - comics, say - benefits from the great colour screen.
AT A GLANCE
7.9-inch, 1024 x 768-pixel IPS display
Apple iOS 6
5MP rear-facing, 1.2MP front-facing cameras
New ‘Lightning’ connector
7.2mm thick, 312 grams
RRP incl GST: Wi-Fi: $479 (16GB), $629 (32GB), $779 (64GB) Wi-Fi + Cellular: $680 (16GB), $829 (32GB), $979 (64GB)