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Tuesday, November 06, 2012, 09:10 am PT (12:10 pm ET)

Review: Apple's iPad mini

Apple's new iPad mini is likely to become its most popular iPad, due to a light, thin design that delivers tablet optimized apps in a more portable package at a reduced price.

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What is the iPad mini?

 

Apple's new iPad mini, at first glance, appears to be an attempt by the company to annex the only portion of the tablet market it doesn't already own: the niche between the new 4-inch iPod touch and the full sized, 9.7-inch iPad. 

iPad mini


Amazon, Google and a variety of other Android licensees have attempted to establish a position in 7-inch tablets that they can use to grow upward (and in some cases downward) in size. To many observers, the iPad mini is simply following this trend, albeit with a significantly more expensive entry point.

Apart from price, critics are also complaining that the iPad mini lacks the high-end Retina display of the latest iPad 3 and 4 (and Apple's most expensive new MacBooks, and all models of iPhone and iPod touch currently being sold).

However, looking at the iPad mini as a low end, 7-inch rival is just as misleading as the perspective of those who saw the original iPad as a poor netbook option saddled with such flaws as not having a physical keyboard or mouse and lacking the ability to run conventional desktop apps. People who thought that in 2010 were blindsided by the success of the iPad and the collapse of netbook sales.

Similarly, the iPad mini is not a cheap, low end tablet trying to establish the first rung of a new platform by stretching some existing smartphone apps across a larger screen. 

iPad mini


Instead, it's a reinvented iPad, designed to be as thin as the company's newly released, 4-inch iPod touch and iPhone 5 while running the full library of tablet-optimized App Store titles (and a wide array of custom corporate apps being used in government and the enterprise) that fill out Apple's full sized iPad ecosystem.

iPad mini: a new form factor of iPad



Most of the critical engineering decisions Apple made in the design of iPad mini were clearly aimed at delivering a functional and popular mobile device, not just a very low priced one. 

iPad mini


Apple could have reached lower into the bargain bin to give it A4 "celeron" power, created an entry point offering a paltry 8GB of storage, or relied on other OEMs to crank out a generic, thick slab of plastic and simply label that product with the sales power of its "iPad" brand, all of which are commonplace practices in the tech industry. 

On the other hand, Apple could have sourced a mini-sized iPad Retina Display, paired it with its new A6X processor and 128GB of storage, and sold it to a few million people who would pay anything (probably around $1200) to have the latest iPad device. 

Instead, Apple gave the iPad mini specs comparable to iPad 2, but reduced in size. This reduction sheds a lot of weight (from 1.33 lbs or 601 grams to the iPad mini's 0.69 lbs or 312 grams). In addition to its new thinness and more hand-friendly rounded rectangle shape (shown below, next to iPad 3 and iPhone 4S), this huge weight reduction makes iPad mini far more portable.

iPad mini


It's still too big to stick in your jeans pocket (a smartphone level of mobility that Steve Jobs said no tablet could realistically offer), but it's effortless to hold or carry around. It's a very different kid of iPad experience. It makes full-size iPads feel clumsy and heavy in comparison.

In addition, the new iPod touch/iPhone 5 body style of the new iPad mini also makes it easier to hold, and its two-thirds size makes it both easy to grab in one hand and much less of a stretch to thumb-type or play games on when held in landscape orientation.

iPad mini


It feels a lot more like a "big iPod touch" than the full sized iPads, but this comes at a cost: the screen is scaled down. Text on the screen is smaller, but interestingly, the title bar and lock screen text and graphics that appear about 60 percent smaller than other iPads is now about identical to the size of those elements on the iPhone. This evokes memories of lugging around a 17-inch MacBook Pro until realizing that, if you can get the same resolution in a smaller, lighter machine, why wouldn't you?