iPad Mini vs. iPad Air: The Case for Going Small

The larger iPad is shockingly light, but the Mini still has many virtues

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“I was thinking of buying an iPad Mini, but the iPad Air is so thin and light that now I’m not so sure.”Everyone, basically

A year ago, choosing between large and small iPads was an easy decision. If you wanted visual clarity and high performance, you went with the $500-and-up full-sized iPad. If you wanted portability, or just a cheaper option, you went with the $329 iPad Mini.

Now that Apple has released the iPad Air for $500 and up, and the iPad Mini with Retina display for $400 and up, choosing between them is more complicated. Both tablets have the same A7 processor and same screen resolution, and there’s only a $100 price difference between them. Judging by how many friends have asked me for buying advice already, iPad Mini vs. iPad Air seems to be the paralyzing tech dilemma of the moment.

Based on my experience using the original and third-generation full-sized iPads, I knew right away that I’d be getting an iPad Mini with Retina display. And that’s what I did last week, even after playing with the larger iPad Air at my nearest Apple Store. There’s obviously no one-size-fits-all solution, but I believe the iPad Mini is the best option for the broadest range of users. Here’s how I arrived at that decision:

Bigger Doesn’t Mean Better

Smartphone makers proved long ago that people are attracted to big screens. The perception that bigger is better has certainly treated Samsung well, as it led the push to 5-inch screens and beyond.

But just as larger smartphones can be tricky to use with one hand, the iPad Air’s 9.7-inch screen is a bigger burden than the Mini’s 7.9-inch display. And that’s not at all because of the 0.28-pound weight difference.

While holding the iPad Mini vertically in one hand, it’s a lot easier to reach any part of the screen with your other hand. The full-sized iPad often requires you to re-position your entire arm to reach corner navigation elements such as back buttons. Over time, those little movements become tiresome, especially if you’re curling up with an iPad on a couch or in bed.

The advantage of the Mini’s smaller screen feels just as profound when holding it in landscape mode. On larger iPads, thumb typing in landscape is a pain without switching to the split keyboard, forcing you to set the tablet down or peck with one finger while propping the iPad up with your other hand. Games can also be harder to play if you have to tap near the center of the screen. (Infinity Blade is particularly tricky.)

Meanwhile, I’ve found myself instinctively holding the iPad Mini closer to my eyes than I would with the larger iPad, thereby compensating for the difference in screen size. You might think of this as a downside, but I see it the opposite way: It’s easier to hold the iPad Mini up close because of its smaller weight and size, and as a result I feel more immersed while using it. This is especially true with the Retina display model, because any trace of individual pixels are gone.

Upon using the iPad Mini for the first time, it struck me that I haven’t had this much fun with a tablet since getting the first iPad in 2010, and that’s entirely because of the smaller screen.

Who’s the iPad Air for?

I can think of several cases where you might still want the iPad Air:

  • You plan to use it in place of a laptop, and would therefore benefit from a larger Bluetooth keyboard and the bigger screen on a table or desk.
  • Your eyesight is such that the iPad Mini’s smaller type would be too hard to read, even at closer distances. (For reference, the iPad Mini’s fonts and icons look the same as they do on an iPhone.)
  • You plan to use it for artwork in conjunction with a stylus, and the bigger screen provides a larger canvas.
  • You read a lot of comics, print-formatted magazines or scanned paper documents that are best-viewed close to their original page size.
  • You firmly believe that bigger is better, to hell with this random Internet tech pundit.

Outside of those use cases–and maybe a few others I haven’t thought of–I think the iPad Mini remains the superior choice.

If you’re still on the fence, remember that the iPad Mini is $100 cheaper. Whatever money you had set aside for an iPad, with the Mini you can upgrade to the next-highest storage tier. It could be the difference between downloading apps with reckless abandon and holding yourself back for fear of hitting your storage limit.

The iPad Air is a lot lighter than previous versions, and the shrunken borders make it less cumbersome than ever. Still, even if Apple made the Air as thin and light as the Mini, I’d still stick with the smaller screen any day.