Review: iPad Mini, the First Small Tablet That’s an iPad

Apple's new tablet is both a smaller, cheaper alternative to the big iPad and a larger, posher rival to 7-inch Android models.

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Apple may be the most trendsetting company in tech, but that doesn’t mean it’s impervious to outside influence itself. Actually, it responds to industry trends all the time. It’s just that it rarely does so by falling in line with everyone else. Instead, it likes to come up with its own twists — ideas that address market realities in ways that feel fresh rather than rote.

Take, for instance, the iPad Mini, which goes on sale this Friday.

People have been asking for a smaller, cheaper iPad for as long as there have been iPads. And lately, some folks have been buying small, cheap Android tablets, such as Google’s Nexus 7, Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD and Barnes & Noble’s brand-new Nook HD. Precisely how many folks, we don’t know: none of those companies have shared sales figures. But compared with the countless tablets that have taken on the iPad directly and flopped — from the Xoom to the TouchPad — the category seems to be a success.

The Nexus, Kindle and Nook all have 7-in. screens and go for $199. The current full-size iPad, which Apple is rolling out in a faster, slightly updated version alongside the iPad Mini, has a 9.7-in. display and starts at $499.

And the Mini? It’s none of the above. It has a 7.9-in. display and costs $329. You can think of it either as a low-cost, compact cousin of the full-size iPad or a costlier, larger-screen alternative to the 7-in. models.

Unlike most tablet manufacturers, Apple offers three storage choices — 16 GB, 32 GB and 64 GB — and optional LTE 4G networking. (The LTE models, which will be available on AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless, are due to go on sale roughly a couple of weeks after the wi-fi-only versions.) Apple’s price premiums over the base 16-GB wi-fi version are the same as for the bigger iPad: $100 for each storage bump, and $130 for LTE. You could wind up paying as much as $659 for a Mini with 64 GB and LTE, which wouldn’t be a budget tablet by anyone’s definition.

(MORE: Pricing Guide: iPad Mini, iPad 2 and iPad with Retina Display)

In retrospect, it’s not the least bit startling that Apple chose not to take on the $199 7-inchers directly. They’re all clad in plastic cases, and their makers price them at the break-even point — or maybe even a bit below it — in hopes of turning a profit on later sales of books, videos, apps and other content.

Apple, by contrast, has an aversion to plastic; nearly every gadget it makes has a unibody aluminum shell. It also prefers to make an up-front profit on its hardware, which is presumably more doable at $329 than at $199.

Aesthetically, the 7-inchers are all nice considering their price. The Mini is nice, period. It’s glass on the front and aluminum on the back, and at least as deluxe-feeling as any other iPad Apple has ever made.

But the company didn’t quite stick an iPad in a photocopier and press the “reduce” button. For instance, the black model is black both front and back, like the iPhone 5. (The white one has a traditional iPad silver-colored backside.)

Apple being Apple, it also outdid everyone else when it came to thin-and-light design. The iPad Mini is .28 in. thick and weighs .68 lb. (.69 lb. for LTE models). That’s not just a drastic reduction from the large iPad, which weighs more than twice as much, it’s also trimmer than Apple’s smaller-screen competition. One of the persistent gripes I hear from iPad skeptics is that the existing models are too big and bulky to hold comfortably; if there were an industry award for Tablet You Can Most Easily Envision Holding for Extended Periods of Time, the Mini would be a runaway winner.

The emphasis on, um, holdability, also shows in the borders around the screen: the left- and right-hand ones are much skinnier than on the big iPad. By thinning them out, Apple packed a surprising amount of screen real estate into a surprisingly small device: the Mini is a skosh narrower than the Kindle Fire HD, even though its display is much roomier. (The extra .9 in. is measured diagonally, so it is more additional space than its fractional nature might suggest.)

The Mini doesn’t have the 2048-by-1536 Retina display of the current big iPad. Instead, the resolution is 1024-by-768, the same as the still-available iPad 2. That’s meaningfully fewer pixels and fewer pixels per inch than the Galaxy 7 (1280-by-800), Kindle Fire HD (ditto) and Nook HD (1440-by-900).

Now, the lower-res screen isn’t sad evidence that Apple is chintzier than Google, Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It’s an inevitable result of the way the iPad’s iOS operating system works: it supports only two iPad resolutions, 1024-by-768 and 2048-by-1536. On the Mini, apps look exactly the same as they do on the identical-resolution iPad 2, only smaller.

Android, by contrast, is designed to run at whatever resolution a hardware maker chooses. That’s a boon in some instances: it permits crisper text, and I found the Nook HD’s video the sharpest-looking of any of the small tablets, including the Mini. But Android fills available space by stretching apps, a process that often wastes pixels. Vast amounts of unused white space may get added to a program’s interface, leaving it looking like arctic wasteland. That never happens on an iPad or iPhone.

(MORE: iPad Mini, Kindle Fire HD, Nook HD and Nexus 7: The Pros and Cons of Each)

Even though this screen isn’t state of the art, it’s O.K. If you’ve ever laid your eyeballs on the ultra-smooth text rendered by the Retina iPad, the iPad Mini’s text will look fuzzy by comparison, especially at teensier type sizes. But the tradeoff it presents compared with the 7-inchers — fewer pixels but more space — is reasonable enough.

“O.K.” is also how I’d describe the speaker system. The Kindle Fire HD, which sports Dolby and stereo speakers at opposite its edges, pumped out noticeably more pleasing audio than the Mini’s speakers, which sit next to each other along the tablet’s bottom edge. Then again, even the best-sounding tablet speakers are shrill, with minimal stereo separation; anyone who intends to do some serious listening is going to plug in headphones or use something like a Jambox.

In the camera department, the Mini does outclass the $199 tablets, which come with anywhere from one front-facing camera (the Nexus and Fire HD) to no camera at all (the Nook HD). It’s got the same shooters as the big iPad: a 720p model on the front and a five-megapixel one on the back. The former is great for use with FaceTime, Skype and other video-calling services; the latter is pretty respectable if you’re the type who likes to take snapshots and capture movies with a tablet.

Apple also brought the big iPad’s battery-life claim over to the Mini unchanged: up to 10 hours of Web browsing over wi-fi, video watching or music. I didn’t attempt to verify this scientifically, but my informal experiences over a week of use seem to back it up. (You recharge the tablet using its Lightning connector — the same new plug-it-in-either-way technology used in the iPhone 5, new iPod Touch and new full-size iPad.)

Let’s see. Have I mentioned all of the iPad Mini’s notable features? Yes — except for the 275,000 most important ones.

That would be the iOS apps written for the iPad, all of which are compatible with the Mini. It’s by far the most bountiful, high-grade collection of tablet software and the single most compelling reason for anyone who’s contemplating spending $199 on a 7-in. tablet to come up with another $130 (or more) for an iPad Mini. Even though both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have worked hard to find the best wares for their respective stores, Android still cries out for more tablet apps that aren’t just blown-up phone apps.

All the software I tried worked without hitches on the Mini. Its screen is close enough in size to the 9.7-in. one on the big iPad that nothing seemed oddly undersized. If anything, the on-screen keyboard may be comfier on the Mini, since you can reach all the keys with two thumbs without fear of straining a muscle.

The only adjustment I made involved text that would have been tiny even on the large iPad; on the Mini, it was tinier still, and I sometimes zoomed in a bit for easier reading.

Performance-wise, the iPad Mini packs Apple’s A5 processor, the same chip inside the iPad 2. That’s two generations behind the A6x processor in the new full-size iPad but is plenty zippy enough to run the software I tried well. The Mini even has Siri voice control, a feature not available on the iPad 2.

As an iPad, the Mini also has access to Apple’s iTunes services; it supports AirPlay, which lets it send video and audio wirelessly to an Apple TV; it has pint-size versions of Apple’s ingenious Smart Covers, and third-party companies like casemaker Zagg are already announcing add-ons for it. The Google, Amazon and Barnes & Noble tablets all have ecosystems of their own, but they don’t compete with the embarrassment of Apple and non-Apple riches that are available for iPads.

Still, by staying out of the $199-tablet fray, Apple avoided the sort of market-eradicating scenario that might have instantly rendered the Android contenders irrelevant. If you’ve got around $200 to spend on a tablet, they remain well worth considering.

If your budget’s got more wiggle room, the iPad Mini is the best compact-size tablet on the market. Apple didn’t build yet another bargain-basement special; it squeezed all of the big iPad’s industrial-design panache, software polish and third-party apps, and most of its technology, into a smaller thinner, lighter, lower-priced model. The result may be a product in a category of one — but I have a hunch it’s going to be an awfully popular category.

VIDEO: 10 Things You Should Know About the iPad Mini

(Correction, October 31, 2012: The original version of this review mistakenly stated that the iPad Mini has a monophonic speaker.)