Hands on with the iPad mini

The iPad mini doesnt arrive in stores until November 2, but we got to spend some time with one on Tuesday after Apples media event at the California Theater in San Jose. Our conclusion: Yes, its a small iPadbut theres more (and less) to it than that. Here are our hands-on impressions.

As Apples executives made a point of stressing, the iPad mini is first and foremost an iPad. Sure, when you pick it up, its impressively small and light. But most if not all of the features that youve come to know on the iPad are there on the smaller version as wellheadphone jack, On/Off button, volume controls, Home button, and so on.

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But despite those similarities, its hard to convey how different the experience of the iPad mini is compared to the full-sized models. Its hard to believe, just a couple of years after we first marveled at Apple's tablet, that a full iPad experience fits into a package thats this much smaller and lighter.

And its no less polished or well-designed than its larger brethren. This is not a device that feels cheap; all metal and glass, it's extremely attractive. As with the iPhone 5, it feels like an object that was extruded, not assembled.

The color scheme reinforces that feeling. Like the iPhone 5, the iPad mini comes in black (with a dark back and sides) or white (with a silver back and sides); these arent the multicolored hues of the iPod nano or iPod touch.

Fits in your hand

Apple made a trade-off when it designed the original iPad with a 10-inch display: that big screen (and its weight) made the original too bulky to be held in one hand. It was and is a great two-handed device (or a one-hand-and-propped-on-your-lap device), but it isn't palmable.

The iPad mini most definitely is. If youve got small hands and want to hold it in landscape orientation, you may find it a bit of a stretch. In portrait mode, its easy to grip the bottom bezel between thumb and finger, the way you might hold a book. The iPad mini is so light that holding it this way feels perfectly natural. Its so small and light that we think kids will love it.

Unlike previous iPads, the iPad minis bezel isnt the same size all the way around: In portrait orientation, the left and right bezels are substantially thinner, as on an iPhone. Putting your thumb on it means touching the touchscreen. We suspect that Apple felt slimming down the bezel was an acceptable option, given that the iPad mini is light enough to hold in one hand.

In landscape orientation, the larger bezels are on the sides, giving you plenty of room to grab on with those opposable thumbs of yours.

However, while the iPad mini is small and light enough to hold in one hand, we do wonder how easy itll be to use singlehandedly. Swiping and tapping with a thumb, as you might on an iPhone, is possible but awkward.

(We also wonder whether the more limited range of motion on a one-handed iPad mini might lead app developers to redesign their interfaces; an Apple representative we talked to suggested that the new continuous-scrolling mode in Apples own iBooks app may have been introduced specifically to make it easier for iPad mini users to read without having to stretch their thumbs to make a page-flip gesture.)

The iPad mini is narrow enough that its easy to thumb-type on its software keyboard in portrait orientationits kind of like a giant iPhone. Thumb typing on the full-sized iPad is a lot less comfortable unless you have the hands of an NBA player. We didnt have much chance to test ten-finger typing, but given the smaller size of the iPad mini's screen, wed imagine its going to be a little harder to touch-type on this device than on the full-sized iPad. Even if youve already mastered iPad typing, you may have trouble doing it on the iPad mini.

A smaller screen

Anyone accustomed to using an iOS device with a Retina display will immediately notice that the iPad mini doesnt have one: Pixels are clearly visible. Its very much like looking at an iPhone 3GS. Its a good, bright screen, but if youre a Retina convert, you will not be pleased.

We looked at photos and text on the screen, and both looked good. By keeping the same number of pixels as found in the iPad 2 while decreasing the physical size of the screen, the result is a higher-resolution display; as a result, everything looks a bit better than on the iPad 2. We tried a variety of apps and didnt have any trouble hitting what we wanted to tap on, despite the fact that every interface element on the iPad mini is slightly smaller than on a full-sized iPad.

Whats really amazing about the iPad miniperhaps its most surprising traitis that while it has a much larger screen than its 7-inch Android-based competitors, its lighter than they are. Thats a big deal, because it means this device wins in two dimensions: Its somehow managed to pack a bigger screen that can fit powerful tablet apps into a package that weighs less. (Its $80 more expensive than the comparable Nexus 7 and $115 more than the comparable Kindle Fire HD, thoughyou cant win em all.)

Smart Cover mini

The iPad mini we tried came with an additional product: an iPad mini Smart Cover. In general, this accessory worked more or less like the full-sized iPad Smart Cover. Its metal hinge has been replaced by one thats covered in the same material as the cover, so the design is a bit more cohesive. It was easy to snap on and off, and is so small that it adds very little bulk or weight to the already-small iPad mini.

In general, were somewhat skeptical about cases for devices as small and light as the iPad mini, but the Smart Cover seems to be a good match for its device. Paired together, it feels like youre carrying a small paper notebook in your hand. A bulkier case would mask the thinness and lightness of the device.

And now, we wait

If you think the iPad mini is just a small iPad, well, youd be right. But it really needs to be seen to be understood. Its tiny, light, and has great fit and finish. Its screen is good, but most definitely not of Retina quality. When you see one, and hold one, youll know if you want one. Wed direct you to your nearest Apple Store to check one out for yourself...but until November 2, you wont be able to.

This story, "Hands on with the iPad mini" was originally published by Macworld.

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