Good product design is one thing, but these days, that alone isn't enough to guarantee success. A robust app and content ecosystem, reliability, interoperability with current devices and longevity are what count. The good news is that the iPad slips right into Apple's digital ecosystem. With more than 700,000 iPhone and iPad apps (275,000 specifically designed for the iPad), the largest collection of music available in one place, 1.5 million iBooks, and iCloud for data syncing and backups, all of Apple's digital wares and services work just as well on the iPad Mini as on any other Apple device. So if you're already invested in Apple's ecosystem, this device won't let you down.
The only caveat is the new Lightning dock connector, which is not backwards compatible with the old 30-pin dock connectors Apple and third-party accessory makers have been using for the past decade. Apple sells adapters, but be sure to check compatibility before purchasing.
When it comes to the iPad Mini's screen, whether you're impressed by it or not depends on your own experience. The office visitors who arrived just to gawk at the new tablet had one of two reactions: the screen was either gorgeous or lackluster. Accounting for the difference of opinion: whether they'd already seen one of Apple's Retina-class displays. Those who were used to a Retina display on an iPhone, iPad or the MacBook Pro released last summer quickly noticed the lack of it here. Those who haven't used an Apple product with such densely packed pixels found the iPad Mini's display impressive.
The screen is clearly not a Retina display; it's especially noticeable to me with on-screen fonts. Of course, it doesn't help that I'm surrounded by Retina products every day, including my own iPhone 5 and a larger iPad, plus the 13-in. MacBook Pro I'm using and will review soon.
The iPad Mini is essentially a scaled down iPad 2. (Image: Michael deAgonia).
The pixel density is still greater than on the iPad 2 (163 pixels per inch, about half the pixel density of a Retina display), and color reproduction, brightness and viewing angles are all high-quality on the iPad Mini, thanks to the use of IPS technology. This weekend, I found myself reaching for this device more often than my iPhone 5 or my Retina iPad, so the pixel density can't really be bothering me too much.
Although the screen on this device is, obviously, physically smaller than on the larger iPads, the 1024 X 768 pixel count means iOS 6 works without any modifications. There are smaller touch points in the software, though, which you'll notice if you're accustomed to the larger iPads. But the difference is not a hindrance in usability. And two-handed typing feels pretty natural on this size device, especially when the keyboard is split virtually.
As with other iPads, the screen is a fingerprint magnet. But it cleans up with a simple wipe with a soft cloth.
More about trade-offs
I haven't decided whether I enjoy the size or the weight of Apple's new iPad more, but I'm leaning towards weight. After spending the last few days with the separate iPad models, I've noticed that my reactions to the iPad Mini and the larger iPad with Retina display are completely opposite. When I pick up the iPad Mini I think: wow, the size and weight is fantastic and ideal. Then, once it's turned on, it takes a few seconds to get used to the lower-resolution display. With the full-size iPad, my first reaction is always that the device is heavy, especially in comparison to the Mini. But once it's turned on, I'm impressed by the image quality. It's all about trade-offs. The difference between models will no doubt polarize users, but at least the support for multiple screen sizes within the Apple ecosystems are there.
If I were to go with a Goldilocks comparison here, cliche as it is, the iPad Mini is clearly designed for those who think the regular iPad is too big, and the iPhone/iPod touch too small.
So, where does the iPad Mini fit in? Is it a kiddie iPad -- the one adults hand off to kids? Is it the mass education iPad, displacing its larger sibling as the go-to tablet for school? Or is this a better reading device, a shot fired at the Kindle? Most importantly, will the lower cost and smaller size offset the loss of a Retina display and a more powerful processor in the larger iPad?
The answer is yes to all of those questions. The iPad Mini can be all of these things, and more, with enough software -- and, eventually, the accessories -- to allow it to be whatever you need. The iPad Mini is still a full-fledged iPad, albeit in a smaller package. The main compromise here is about screen quality versus size and weight, not about the quality of the user experience.
I think the most important aspect of the Mini isn't the resolution or even the screen size -- it's still not entirely pocket-friendly. It's the weight. You can comfortably hold it in one hand for extended periods of time without strain, a huge benefit over the larger Retina-display iPad.
Apple is late coming to the mid-size tablet market, but it's so far ahead of its rivals when it comes to tablets that it should be able to carve out a huge chunk of market share in short order. Supplies are already tight.
The new fourth-generation iPad may be faster, and it does have the gorgeous higher-resolution Retina display, but it's still heavy. If size and weight stopped you from an iPad purchase before, the Mini is tailor made for you.
Keith Shaw and Ken Mingis chat about the iPad mini and its impact on the 7-inch tablet market. Will it be able to compete with lower-priced tablets from Google and Amazon?
Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter ( @mdeagonia).
Read more about tablets in Computerworld's Tablets Topic Center.