Hands-On with the iPad Mini (Part 1)

12/20/2012 9:27:49 AM

Apple is trying to create a new market with the iPad mini: premium small tablets. Its chief are the mini’s spectacular, nearly surreal build quality and it’s amazing array of apps. But unlike other Apple products, the mini isn’t necessarily a slam dunk because of its high price (starting at $329) and odd ergonomics. Compared with other current $200 tablets, including the Google Nexus 7, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD, and the Barnes & Noble Nook HD, its screen isn’t the best you’ll find, it’s a little too wide, and it’s quite a bit too expensive.

iPad mini


Measuring 7.87 by 5.3 by 0.28 inches (HWD), the iPad mini is the slimmest tablet I’ve ever tested; at 10.9 pounces, it’s an ounce lighter than the Nexus 7. It’s also one of the most beautiful built devices I’ve seen. The front is a glass screen surrounded by a very narrow black or white bezel, with Apple’s signature Home button below it. As always, Apple’s Volume controls, Home button, and Mute/Screen Lock Rotation switch are perfectly placed and easy to find. The headphone jack lives in the left corner of the top panel, with Apple’s new, compact Lighting port on the center of the bottom edge. Where the bright LCD screen joins the aluminum body there’s a simple beveled metal edge, like on the edge of the iPhone 5. It feels years ahead of the current iPad, and even of other high quality metal tablets. It’s amazing what an invisible seam can do; every other tablet feels cheap now.

The back is wraparound black (or silver on the white mode) aluminum, with the 5-megapixel camera up in the corner. Its fit and finish make every other tablet look amateurish, and the body is beautifully rigid and flex-free. Although the metal back is beautiful, however, it’s an ergonomic mistake: It’s too slippery. With a tablet you’re supposed to use with a single hand, you want a slightly grippy material on the back panel. Although the iPad mini is comfortable to hold because it’s so light, its width puts its center of gravity farther from your palm than with narrower tablets, and I kept feeling like it was almost about to slip out of my hand.

For me, the problem was made worse by the grip I had to use. Others have called this a one-handed tablet, but I didn’t find it so: It’s just too wide for me to wrap my hand around. Everyone’s hands are different, but I found the mini’s 5.3-inch width a real thumb-stretcher. Unlike the 4.7-inch Nexus 7, the mini couldn’t fit into my back pocket, and it’s a snug fit in a jacket pocket. At least Apple’s “thumb-detection” technology obviates any potential problems that may arise from the narrow bezel.

The iPad mini’s sleek design makes it an attractive tablet, but it won’t be a one-handed device for every user

The iPad mini’s sleek design makes it an attractive tablet, but it won’t be a one-handed device for every user


The iPad mini performs almost exactly like a shrunken-down iPad 2, which makes sense given that it shares the larger tablet’s 1GHz dual-core Apple A5 processor and has the same screen resolution. Everything’s a little smaller and a little sharper than on the iPad 2 because the pixels are smaller, but the iPad mini’s screen is not a Retina display – it’s not even as tight as the screen on the Kindle Fire HD. But because iOS is a hugely popular platform, apps are generally written to work well on the A5 and you don’t see a lot of slowdown is most cases. Need for Speed: Most Wanted, for instance, played just fine. The only hiccup I could see was in zooming the Barefoot World Atlas app, which was a bit jerky. Accelerometer-based games work especially well because the mini is such a small, light tablet. It’s much easier to tilt and control the mini than it is a larger iPad.

Web browsing performance beats competing 7-inch tablets, partially thanks to the mini’s faster 5GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi with channel bonding. On our fast corporate link using the Ookla Speed test net app, I got an average of 36Mbps down, as compared with about 7Mbps on a Kindle Fire HD, and 7.6Mbps on a Nexus 7. That translate into much faster Web browser, although not by much. (We tested the Wi-Fi only mode, but the mini is also available in cellular versions for AT&T’s, Sprint’s, and Verizon’s LTE networks at a $130 premium, working on those carriers’ existing iPad service plans.)

Battery life was quite good at 7 hours, 37 minutes of video playback time with the screen at full brightness and 12 hours, 47 minutes at half brightness. That’s better than the Kindle Fire HD’s 7 hours at full brightness, but doesn’t measure up to the Nexus 7’s 10.5 hours.

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