Nov. 12, 2012 -- "What is your review? That it is an iPad, just smaller?" a colleague said to me when I first got the iPad Mini for review.
"Yeah, but the question is, is it better than the bigger iPad?" I told him.
My response may seem a bit odd since the $329 iPad Mini has some noticeable shortcomings in comparison to its larger, $499 sibling. It doesn't have the brand new and faster A6x processor or the insanely sharp Retina Display.
But don't underestimate the old cliché: size matters.
It's so cute! I'll admit that's what I thought for the first 24 hours I carried around the iPad Mini. The little tablet, with its 7.9-inch screen, is just undeniably adorable when you're accustomed to the larger version's 9.7-inch display.
Naturally, because of the smaller size, you get a lighter device; the .68-pound Mini is easier to hold for longer periods than the larger iPad. But Apple also changed the design of this .28-inch thick version and made it much thinner. (Apple's always been known to make its next generation products thinner, but it's hard to imagine how they'll achieve that with the next generation of the Mini – at least without shrinking the circumference of the headphone jack.)
However, while it is thinner and lighter than the competing 7-inch tablets out there, the 7.9-inch screen makes it wider and harder to hold in one hand. While it still fits in one hand, it doesn't sit as comfortably as the Nexus 7. That said, I prefer the aluminum build of the Mini to Android tablets with plastic or rubberlike finishes.
I also greatly prefer the smaller size of the Mini to the regular iPad. In fact, two years ago, when I reviewed one of the first 7-inch tablets – the Samsung Galaxy Tab – I said I preferred the size to the iPad for reading and even typing.
That still holds true for me. The small size of the tablet not only makes it easier to hold up when reading in bed or on a subway, but it fits better in a bag and takes up less room on the nightstand. They are small things, sure, but ones that make the tablet work better for me and don't require me to change for the tablet.
A Screen Without a Retina
But there was something I missed about the larger iPad in my testing. In fact, the only thing I missed about it in the past week has been the display. Your eyes start to become spoiled by the Retina display -- by the way it makes text, images, and video look so incredibly crisp. Reverting to another display, especially one that runs the same software, isn't easy and when you sacrifice visual clarity of text and images it can be frustrating.
That's not to say the 1024 x 768-resolution screen on the Mini isn't high quality -- you'll just notice the difference after using the Retina iPad.
And that's not my only complaint about the display. When I took the screen outside to read there was quite a bit of glare when the sun was out. After some repositioning I was able to make out text and images better on the display, though Amazon's Kindle Fire HD handled glare slightly better. Of course, this is a consistent issue with LCD screens and why E Ink Kindles and Nooks continue to be the best solution for reading books by the pool or beach. But, I'd argue that with the smaller iPad you start to want to replace your Kindle with it more and more, making the screen's shortcomings more pronounced.
The iPad Mini also has a smaller bezel, or frame around its screen. I worried that when I held the tablet up with one hand that my thumb would accidently hit the screen and make a selection. That didn't happen, but a few times I did have one thumb resting on the right side of the screen and when I went to go swipe it up on the left it mistakenly zoomed in rather than scrolled up the page.
A5 and Apps
The rest of the experience is really very much the same as the iPad. Powered by a dual-core A5 processor, iOS 6 runs smoothly, with the usual swift scrolling and overall responsiveness. The A6x chip in the new iPad is faster, but if you aren't comparing games on the two side by side you wouldn't notice a difference.
Because of the 7.9-inch screen size and the resolution, the software and app experience is also unchanged on the tablet. And that's where the Mini really stands out in comparison to other smaller tablets, like the Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HD, or the Nook HD. In my review of the Nexus 7, particularly, I stressed how much I liked the software and hardware experience, but how the app experience and quality held it back. The apps, in many cases, are just phone apps and don't provide the immersive experience like the ones built especially for the iPad.
Some might not notice the difference or even care, but once you have become accustomed to apps that were made for the bigger screen – apps like Flipboard or RockMelt or ShowYou – it's hard to not see the difference in quality and experience.
Also impressive is the battery life of the tablet. With on and off use, it wasn't until the third day of use that I hit the warning that the battery was down to 10 percent. And just like the new iPad, it lasted 11 hours and 13 minutes when looping an HD video.
The 1.5-megapixel front-facing camera was fine for making FaceTime calls. As for the rear 5-megapixel camera, holding up the tablet to snap a photo is much less awkward than the larger iPad. The photo quality isn't as good as the iPhone 4S or 5, but it was decent for snapping some funny shots on the subway. Sadly, the camera software doesn't support Panorama mode on the tablet, though.
The Bottom Line
The iPad Mini costs $130 more than the 7-inch Android tablet competition. To me, the biggest thing you get for the $130 is better applications. Yes, the battery life and the build of the Mini are better, but the real difference is with the apps. Whether you are willing to jump into an entirely different price bracket for a smaller tablet is, ultimately though, up to you and what you can spend.
But back to my original question: is the Mini the best iPad? The iPad Mini costs $170 less than the fourth-generation iPad with Retina Display. With that you lose the stunning Retina display and a faster processor. What you get is a tablet that fits in one hand and is easier to carry.
For $329, they're not sacrifices I want to make, and if I know Apple they are ones that will most certainly be addressed in the second generation. But for now, they are ones I will make since the iPad Mini is, well, really just a smaller version of the iPad. And it's that size that matters the most to me.