Review: iPad mini gives you most of an iPad at half the size

When the iPad debuted, many called it "just a big iPod touch." Most soon realized that such claims were misguided, as the iPad turned out to be much more: more powerful, more capable, more useful, more everything. Instead of being arithmetically bigger than the iPod touch, the iPad offered exponentially more of what was good about it.--

Now that the iPad mini is out, some of the same people are calling it "just a smaller iPad." This time around, such a description is much more apt, as the iPad mini offers nearly all of the features, power, and capabilities of its full-size siblings. It even runs all the same apps. The result is a device that--far more than the Mac mini, or even the old iPod mini--gives you nearly everything of its non-mini namesake in a smaller package.

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But calling it "just a smaller iPad" glosses over much of what makes the iPad mini unique.

Half the size, most of the iPad

At 7.9 inches tall and 5.3 inches wide, the iPad mini is just 60 percent of the footprint of the fourth-generation iPad. Even more impressive is that thanks to its 0.28-inch thickness (yes, it's even thinner than the iPhone 5) and 308-gram (11-ounce) weight, the iPad mini is just 46 percent of the volume of the standard iPad and 47 percent of the weight. Yet the mini offers a 7.9-inch (diagonal) display that's a full 66 percent of the screen area of a full-size iPad.

Put simply, the iPad mini gives you two thirds of an iPad at half the overall size and weight. This will make the iPad mini usable in situations--and occupations--where a full-size iPad wouldn't be. You can hold it in one hand and slip it into the pocket of a jacket or scrubs. And remember the adage that the best camera is the one you have with you? The best tablet is the one you have with you, and I've already found myself bringing the iPad mini places I wouldn't have taken the standard iPad.

(Why not just use an iPod touch or iPhone? While the iPad mini is just 1mm thicker than the latest iPod touch, the mini's footprint is nearly four times larger, with a screen that's 4.4 times as big in terms of area--though not in resolution, as I'll cover later.)

Just as striking as the iPad mini's smaller size and higher screen-to-body ratio is its overall design, which in some ways has more in common with the iPhone 5 and iPod touch than with the full-size iPad. The first thing you'll notice is that the bezel framing the display is much narrower along the longer edges than on a full-size iPad, allowing Apple to squeeze as much screen area as possible into the iPad mini's smaller package.

Flip the iPad mini around, and you'll see that unlike the tapered, brushed-aluminum back of the full-size iPad, the iPad mini's unibody enclosure is more squared-off at the edges, like the original and latest iPod touch models. The color of the back varies, as well: On the black iPad mini, the back and sides are matte, slate-black aluminum with matching aluminum buttons and switches; the white-bezel iPad gives you a matte, silver-aluminum back with matching controls. And like the iPhone 5, the iPad mini has polished, chamfered edges between its body and the glass front.----

Putting aside for a moment the technical specs (I'll get to those soon enough), the iPad mini feels incredibly solid. There's absolutely no give or flex to the body, and the fit and finish are as good as with anything Apple has ever done--the design and construction are that impressive. I thought Google's Nexus 7 tablet (which I've been using for the past few months) felt sturdy, but even though the iPad mini has a 24-percent-larger footprint across roughly half the thickness, it feels much more solid than the Nexus 7, which flexes and creaks when you twist it firmly.

Black or white? I generally prefer black iPads, because I find the black bezel to be less distracting than white. The black bezel seems to just get out of the way, letting the screen draw me in. But with the iPad mini, I also like the black better for purely aesthetic reasons. As Macworld's Jason Snell pointed out in his iPhone 5 review, this new black design, with its matte, slate-black finish, matching buttons and switches, and glossy-black Apple logo, looks stunning. It looks better than the full-size iPad in black because, well, everything is black. You don't see a thin, silver edge around screen, and even the little squarish icon on the Home button is darker on the iPad mini than on the full-size iPad. Everything, front and back, just blends together. Don't get me wrong, the white iPad is beautiful--especially the aluminum buttons and switches, which look much more upscale than the black-plastic versions on the standard iPad--but it doesn't impress me quite as much. My only complaint with the black iPad mini is that the matte back really shows fingerprints, skin oil, and grease. You don't want to eat potato chips while holding it. I also suspect (but haven't tested) that the black model will show scratches more easily, as with the iPhone 5.

To protect the iPad mini from such scratches, there are plenty of third-party iPad mini cases on the way, but Apple offers a matching iPad mini Smart Cover, in a variety of colors, for $39. Like the original Smart Cover, the mini version attaches to the left-hand edge of the iPad mini using magnets, protecting the screen when you're not using it, folding behind the iPad mini when you are. The Smart Cover also folds into a triangular stand for video- or photo-viewing or for onscreen typing, and magnets in the cover work with the iPad mini's magnetic sleep/wake feature. Unlike the original Smart Cover, the iPad mini version uses a plastic-and-fabric hinge. We'll be covering the Smart Cover separately, but my initial impression is that this hinge is more comfortable against your hand than the metal version, and it won't scratch your iPad as easily.

Like the fourth-generation iPad, the iPad mini is available in three capacities, each in black or white. Each color/capacity combination is available with or without LTE-data connectivity, and each LTE-equipped model is available in three models in the United States: AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon. (Yes, that means that, as with the fourth-generation iPad, there are 24 U.S. variations of the iPad mini.) The Wi-Fi models are $329, $429, and $529 for 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB, respectively; adding LTE cellular data bumps each price by $130 to $459, $559, and $659, respectively.

We haven't tested the LTE-equipped versions, which are supposed to ship later this month, but they'll have the same features as the full-size iPad with LTE: no-contract LTE data, tethering (depending on the carrier), GPS circuitry, and turn-by-turn navigation.

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