Review: iPad mini is a smaller iPad with big benefits for business users

November 5, 2012

Rumors of the iPad mini have been swirling for only slightly less time than the iPad itself has existed. Everyone else was doing it, why not Apple? Seven-inch Android tabs have flooded the market, and industry pundits have criticized Apple for ignoring this segment.

Now Apple has made its move with the iPad mini. Though it's priced higher than competing tabs from Amazon and Google, the iPad mini benefits heavily from Apple's significantly more robust App Store, not to mention Apple's build quality and trademark attention to fit and finish.

The specs

First, some specs. Starting at $329, the iPad mini is $70 cheaper than the still-available $399 iPad 2, and $170 less than the new fourth-gen iPad with Retina display. It's also smaller (obviously), with a 7.9-inch 1024×768 display.

The aluminum casing is classic Apple design. It's hefty enough to feel solid in-hand, without feeling bulky.

That smaller display informs so much of the iPad mini's design. It's 5.3 inches wide x 7.9 inches tall, making the mini the first iPad you can comfortably grip in one hand. The mini has also lost some girth, at barely over a quarter-inch thick, and tips the scales at a svelte 11 ounces. Even in this small package, Apple manages to preserve the same 10-hour battery life of the larger iPads in the lineup.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the iPad mini's dual-core A5 processor. It's the same chip that debuted in the iPad 2 in early 2011, while the current (9.7-inch) Retina iPad now features a faster A6X chip. In fact, with the same screen resolution as the iPad 2, the iPad mini is essentially a shrunken iPad 2, with updated cameras. The small size is great, but can the iPad mini deliver with an "outdated" processor?

Seeing is believing

Reading specs is one thing, actually holding the iPad mini is a revelation. It's small and light, perfect for the longer sessions that can get uncomfortable with the larger and heavier iPads. It's easy to hold in one hand, and use the other to operate the tablet. And while the iPad has always been portable, the mini is even moreso. It fits just about anywhere, including in a coat pocket.

The display is clear and bright—and since it's the same 1024 x 768 resolution as the pre-Retina iPads, but in a smaller size, it's actually noticeably sharper than those early models. The first two iPads were 132 pixels-per-inch, but the iPad mini hits 163 ppi. It's not as sharp as the 264 ppi Retina iPad, but noticeably crisper than first- or second-generation iPads.

And as Apple was quick to point out at the product's debut, the iPad mini has 35% percent more screen space than a Nexus 7 thanks to its 4:3 aspect ratio, and Safari offers a viewport that's 49% larger than Chrome on a Nexus 7 (although that stat is helped considerably by interface differences between mobile Safari and Chrome).

Apps is where Apple has always differentiated itself from competitors. The iTunes Store is full of more than 700,000 apps, including 275,000 apps designed specifically for the iPad. The mini does a good job running all sorts of business-related apps—and with that many apps chances are there are several apps to choose from for whatever you need to get done on your iPad.

Putting the iPad mini to work

Compared to the new iPad with Retina Display, or even last-year's third-gen model, the mini can be a bit pokey. There are slight delays (when launching apps, for example) on the iPad mini that aren't present on more advanced third or fourth-gen iPads. But when I say slight, I mean slight. You have to compare the two iPads side-by-side to notice the delay.

But using the iPad mini on its own is a pleasant and entirely workable experience, literally. 

The A5 is a bit underpowered for more advanced games and other graphically-intensive tasks, but for business oriented things like email, spreadsheets and word-processing, the mini is able to pull its weight. In normal use, the speed was adequate, and more than made up for by the smaller form factor. In my testing, productivity apps like Documents To Go, Pages and Keynote worked just fine. 

Decision time

At the core, deciding between a mini and standard iPad really comes down to size. Which do you need more, the larger 9.7-inch screen, or a more portable device that weighs about half as much?

If you plan to use an iPad as a substitute for your notebook computer, you should probably opt for one of the larger models. But that doesn't mean iPad mini is shut out of the office. Particularly for mobile workers, the increased portability of the iPad mini makes an extremely strong case in its favor. 

The smaller screen does make for slightly smaller touch targets in apps, but on the plus side, the screen is sharper than non-Retina iPads, and it's actually easier and faster to type on, thanks to the more human-sized virtual keyboard, particularly in portrait orientation. So, while it may be not be as powerful as the new Retina iPad, in the real world, the iPad mini proves itself just as capable at getting to work.


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