Apple iPad Mini – is smaller really better?

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 It looks great, has fantastic battery life and includes much improved cameras but Apple’s new seven-inch tablet is not without its faults – and just what distinguishes it from its bigger stablemate, the iPad 2?

So where does the iPad Mini fit in Apple’s grand scheme of things? It is, quite simply, a smaller version of an iPad 2 – despite Apple’s claims to the contrary.

Apple finally decided to take a dip into the seven-inch tablet market, the idea being to produce a portable version of its more prestigious 9.7-inch iPad line. It hopes the iPad Mini will combat the rise of seven-inch rivals such as Google’s Nexus 7, which have enjoyed domination of that market.

Unfortunately, the 7.9-inch profile Apple has chosen is simply too big to fit in anyone’s pocket, despite claims to the contrary. To be fair, seven-inch tablets aren’t terribly pocket friendly either – you need to get down to the sizing of the smartphone/tablet hybrids, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note (5.5 inches), to find this claim believable.

Mini iPad 2?

The iPad Mini’s processor is identical to the iPad 2, a dual-core Apple A5 running at 1GHz with 512MB of RAM, as is the GPU. Everything functions as it should, the interface remains buttery smooth and videos and music all run seamlessly – as they did on an iPad 2. So far we haven’t seen any severe app crashes or any other compatibility problems.

The screen, similarly, remains at the iPad 2’s resolution of 768 x 1,024 pixels, or 162 pixels per inch (ppi). However, it is worth remembering this is on a smaller screen, which makes the screen appear slightly sharper than the iPad 2. For comparison, the Samsung Galaxy Note II has a pixel density of 267ppi, and the iPad Mini’s key competitor, the Google Nexus 7 has 216ppi. Both of these products look significantly better than the iPad Mini – a surprise for this reviewer who was expecting more from Apple.

Matching the iPad 2’s specs is not a particularly bad thing, despite the price premium for its miniaturisation. The key advantage the Mini has over the full-size iPad 3 is its battery. While it retains a brilliant 10 hours of battery life, it removes the shocking charge times seen on the larger iPad Retina display models. Whereas a new iPad has to be left on charge for 6-8 hours to get to 100 per cent, the iPad Mini charges at a rate similar to the iPhone range – a couple of hours at the most.

Design masterclass

As expected, the Mini’s physical design remains stunning. While Samsung and Google have gone for hard-shell plastic to keep their costs down, Apple hasn’t compromised. Those who have historically appreciated Apple’s industrial design won’t be disappointed. Like its iPad brethren it sports a smooth brushed aluminium backing which feels sturdy and cool to the touch – much better than Google and Samsung’s cheaper casings. The Mini is thinner and lighter than Google’s Nexus 7, at 7.2mm thick and weighing just 308g. The Nexus 7 is 10.5mm thick and weighs 340g.

While that seems minor, the difference is noticeable when holding the device for extended periods of time – such as when reading a novel. The Mini sits in the hand very nicely, although it is a little slippery. To keep to the form factor, the bezels on either side of the screen have also been trimmed, giving the device a more iPhone-like appearance.

Physically the iPad Mini is superior to its rivals and you know you are holding a quality piece of kit. A case will still be required though to avoid scratches.

The most controversial addition is the Lightning connector. This is a design decision that makes sense for Apple (it takes up less space in the device’s innards), but it does mean that all previous Apple chargers and accessories are completely obsolete – a bitter pill to swallow for those users who have built a collection of accessories over the past decade. (Apple is selling adaptors for £25.) The new connector works well, and feels less fragile than its predecessor, but there is no discernible improvement in performance – it doesn’t transfer data any quicker (it still utilises USB 2.0).

One aspect that has been significantly improved is the device’s main camera, which is now a five-megapixel one – matching the new iPad – and is a big jump from the iPad 2’s 0.7MP. Being a supposedly more portable version of the larger iPad, this makes sense – it will get more usage out and about. It also means users can shoot video in 1080p HD.

The front-facing camera also gets an upgrade, from 0.3MP (VGA) to 1.2MP, which makes Facetime and Skype far more attractive. This is also a jump from the new iPad, which only had a VGA front-facing camera.

The difference is marked – compared to its bigger brothers the iPad Mini is a significantly better proposition for Skype and Apple Facetime.

App-tastic

The Mini of course benefi ts tremendously from Apple’s software ecosystem – you still get all the same apps and access to the iTunes store’s music, books and films – the key advantage of any Apple product. This is hampered somewhat by the latest OS update, iOS6, which has experienced a myriad of problems. Either way, this ecosystem means that the iPad Mini remains competitive – market-leading indeed – and it will sell millions.

The iPad Mini also comes in a 4G model, a big advantage over the older iPads which aren’t compatible in the UK. It will also work on 3G for those without coverage.

The price point of the most basic iPad Mini has been positioned at £269 for the 16GB Wi-Fi-only model, and is much higher than its rivals, which hover around £200. Apple has chosen to protect its margins rather than attempt to match its rivals in a specs arms race, for better or for worse.

To summarise, the iPad Mini is something of a conundrum. It really brings nothing new to the table except a new form factor. It is a shrunken iPad 2, which is, in a word, dated. It does, however, benefit from Apple’s trademark industrial design and software ecosystem. But purely as a hardware device, the iPad Mini is a disappointment – unambitious, unoriginal and uninspiring – hardly what is expected from Apple.

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