November 10, 2012, 7:25 AM — It's been two and a half years since Steve Jobs unveiled Apple's idea of what a tablet should be -- the now iconic iPad. Since then, more than 100 million iPads have been sold. They're seemingly everywhere: Doctors use them to organize patient records; football teams use them as playbook replacements; musicians use them to create music, and artists, art; companies are adopting them by the thousands for a variety of purposes and school students use them for study.
To compete with the iPad juggernaut, competitors offered up tablets in various sizes, with the more successful ones built around a 7-in. screen and often carrying a price tag half that of the Retina iPad's $499 entry-level price. Samsung has the Galaxy Tab 7, Amazon has the Kindle Fire HD, and Google has the Nexus 7, to name a few.
The iPad Mini (left) and a T-Mobile Huawei S7-303u SpringBoard 4G (right), one of many similar-sized rivals in the small tablet market. The Huawei tablet weighs more. (Image: Michael deAgonia).
Unwilling to cede the 7-in. tablet market to anyone, Apple on Oct. 23 introduced the iPad Mini (along with a number of other important updates, including a fourth-generation iPad with a faster processor and a 13-in. MacBook Pro with a Retina display). Pre-orders for the iPad Mini started two days later and the first ones arrived Friday -- including the one I bought for myself (a black 32GB Wi-Fi-only model). Prices start at $329 for the 16GB Wi-Fi-only model and climb past $600 if you want more storage and cellular wireless capabilities, Including LTE where available.
The iPad Mini is pretty much a shrunken iPad 2. At 7.87-in. high, 5.3-in. wide, it's about two-thirds the size of the full-size, 9.7-in. iPad and weighs just 0.68 of a pound. And it's just over a quarter-inch thick.
Therein lies its main appeal: You get pretty much the full iPad experience in a smaller, thinner and lighter package. After extended time using the Mini, my wrists never felt the fatigue inherent in using the heavier 9.7-in. iPads, which weigh just under 1.5 pounds.
The Mini's LED-lit 7.9-in. screen offers the same resolution as non-Retina iPads: 1024 X 768 pixels (though those pixels are packed closer together in the smaller iPad, making the screen a little sharper than on the iPad 2). The screen is encased in a sleek, minimalist black/slate or white/silver aluminum-and-glass housing. If you've seen the new iPhone 5, you have an idea of what the iPad Mini case looks like.
The Mini uses a dual-core Apple-designed A5 processor, a battery designed for up to 10 hours of use on the Wi-Fi model or nine hours with cellular use, and front and back cameras for photos and video. The front-facing 1.2 megapixel camera can shoot 720p HD video for high quality video chats, while the rear-facing 5MP camera can take 1080p HD video.
Like other iPads, the on/off switch is located on top toward the right, while on the upper right side is a user-configurable mute/rotate-lock switch, as well as volume up and down keys. The round home button remains the single physical part on the iPad's front face.
All models feature 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi (with 802.11n in 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies), as well as Bluetooth 4.0; the new, thinner, reversible Lightning connector; a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack, built-in stereo speakers, a microphone, a digital compass, three-axis gyro, an accelerometer, an ambient light sensor, and support for Apple's digital assistant, Siri.
Look and feel
After using a variety of 7-in. tablets in recent months, I can safely say the iPad Mini is unmatched in build quality by any of its competitors. But the best thing is that this model has remedied the biggest problem with the iPad line-up: weight. I never got tired of holding the Mini the way I have when using a regular iPad. Like the iPhone 5, the iPad Mini feels like a sci-fi movie prop; it's hard to imagine it will actually function until you turn it on.
A full-size iPad (rear) with the new iPad Mini in front. (Image: Michael deAgonia).
When I pulled the Mini out of the box and pressed the power button, the battery was almost fully charged, at 98%. I was able to set up the iPad using an iCloud restore, which automatically brought over all of my information, including user data such as app and system settings, text messages, calendars, email and contacts, camera roll pictures, photo streams, and apps and assorted media from iTunes.
I was immediately impressed by the design: the anodized aluminum and thinner/smaller/lighter package feels great in the hand. I wasn't the only one to notice. Coworkers flocked to see the device, and even the most hardened IT guys admitted a soft spot for Jonny Ive's design.
I really can't emphasize how great the iPad Mini feels in hand. It's very light while still feeling solid, not at all flimsy for a device so thin. The front borders surrounding the screen are so thin, placing a thumb on the screen will be unavoidable for many users; but that's okay. Apple engineers have updated iOS to compensate, and in my testing, I never accidentally shifted the screen contents due to thumb contact.
I found battery life to be excellent, running all day and into much of the night while downloading more than 20GB of data via WiFi in an afternoon. The iPad Mini was still going strong into the next afternoon before I decided to recharge it when battery indicator dropped to 10%.