Over the last two months, Apple has updated almost all of its core product lines, with the addition of a 13” model to the Retina MacBook Pro line and new silicon for the iPad and Mac mini to go with ground up redesigns for the iPhone, iMac, iPod touch, and iPod nano. But the biggest story from the “little more” event was definitely the introduction of the iPad mini, a 7.9” counterpart to the 9.7” tablet that started it all.

We’ve been hearing whispers of a 7” Apple-built tablet since even before the original iPad was shown off in January 2010. By late 2011, the speculative consensus seemed to center around a 7.85” iPad targeted at the then-new Kindle Fire, with a 1024x768 resolution that would give it the same pixel density as the iPhone 3GS and a resolution that matched the regular 9.7” iPad. We’ve basically been hearing about this new device every two weeks since then. Apple’s “veil of secrecy” is almost entirely gone at this point, something that is getting more obvious with every new product launch and a fact I think is worth mentioning because we’ve essentially known what the iPad mini was going to be, design and component-wise, since late summer.

The result is a healthy blend of parts-bin engineering, a device that shares features and components with many other iOS devices. The design language is nearly identical to that of the fifth generation iPod touch, as is the SoC (the 32nm shrink of A5, also shared with the iPad 2,4) and camera - a 5MP sensor with Apple’s five-element, f/2.4 optical system. With the same aspect ratio and screen resolution as the iPad 2, the iOS software stack is pretty straightforward too.

The Retina display technology is one that very prominently didn’t trickle down to the iPad mini; with seemingly the entire rest of Apple’s mobile lineup going Retina, from the iPod touch all the way up to the 15” MacBook Pro, the lack of a super-high resolution panel is noteworthy. We’re left with a 7.85” IPS panel (rounded to 7.9” in Apple’s marketing material) that runs a 1024x768 resolution and a pixel density of 163. That’s the same as the first generation iPhone (as the 3G/3GS), which was cutting edge back in 2007, and half that of the iPhone 4/4S/5. I’ll talk more about the display later on, but it’s safe to say that the Retina display is the single biggest omission from the iPad mini feature list.

iPad Specification Comparison
  Apple iPad mini Apple iPad 4 Apple iPad 3 Apple iPad 2 Apple iPad
Dimensions 200 x 134.7 x 7.2mm 241.2 x 185.7 x 9.4mm 241.2 x 185.7 x 9.4mm 241.2 x 185.7 x 8.8mm 243.0 x 190.0 x 13.4mm
Display 7.85-inch 1024 x 768 IPS 9.7-inch 2048 x 1536 IPS 9.7-inch 2048 x 1536 IPS 9.7-inch 1024 x 768 IPS 9.7-inch 1024 x 768 IPS
Weight 308g (WiFi) 652g (WiFi) 652g (WiFi) 601g (WiFi) 680g (WiFi)
Processor 1GHz Apple A5 (2 x Cortex A9, PowerVR SGX543MP2)

Apple A6X (2 x Swift, PowerVR SGX 554MP4)

Apple A5X (2 x Cortex A9, PowerVR SGX 543MP4)

1GHz Apple A5 (2 x Cortex A9, PowerVR SGX543MP2) 1GHz Apple A4 (1 x Cortex A8, PowerVR SGX 535)
Connectivity WiFi , Optional 4G LTE WiFi , Optional 4G LTE WiFi , Optional 4G LTE WiFi , Optional 3G WiFi , Optional 3G
Memory 512MB 1GB 1GB 512MB 256MB
Storage 16GB—64GB 16GB—64GB 16GB—64GB 16GB—64GB 16GB—64GB
Battery 16.3Wh 42.5Wh 42.5Wh 25Wh 25Wh
Starting Price $329 $499 - $399 -

Unlike previous releases of the 9.7” iPad, which have all come with new SoCs or otherwise significant internal upgrades, there’s not much in the way of silicon-level innovation. Each iPad has come with a new SoC, with A4, A5, A5R2, A5X, and A6X all showing up first in the various iPads, and the only major Apple SoC release in that time to not ship first in an iPad was A6, which of course came alongside the iPhone 5 two months ago. The iPad mini, on the other hand, is on paper basically just an iPad 2,4 in miniature form, plus better cameras, optional LTE, and new industrial design.

The mini is available with the same color schemes as the iPhone 5, with the black or white bezels being joined by slate and silver anodized aluminum chassis, respectively. NAND options are the usual 16/32/64GB, with LTE-enabled models available through AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint. Pricing starts off at $329, with NAND going for $100 per step and $130 for LTE, as on the other iPads. This is a major point of contention with the mini, because the most obvious rivals in the Android world, the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD 7”, start at $199 and charge less for NAND upgrades. A 32GB Nexus 7 will run you $249, same with the 32GB Kindle Fire HD, while a 32GB iPad mini goes for the rather princely sum of $429. You could buy two 16GB Nexus 7s and a bundle of paid apps for the same as a 32GB mini.

But here’s the thing - I don’t consider the iPad mini a competitor to the Nexus 7. The Nexus 7, to me, is what I buy if I’m in the market for a $199 tablet or I want a 7” Android device. It’s a completely different experience than the iPad mini. In my mind, the closest competitors for the iPad mini are, in order, the iPad 2, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9”, and the Nook Tablet HD+. The iPad 2 is obvious because these are the two lowest priced iOS tablets right now, and with similar underlying hardware, they’re actually pretty closely matched. I think the latter two are especially interesting comparisons to make, because all three exist in the ~$300 “small premium tablet” niche that has suddenly appeared.

Consider it like the Mini Cooper equivalent in the tablet world - a premium experience offered at a very attainable (if not particularly value-oriented) price point. Obviously, that game plan has worked very well for BMW in the automotive world, and certainly if any company could use it successfully in consumer electronics, it would be Apple. The business case for it almost writes itself, but does it result in a truly stand-out product or a half-hearted me-too attempt by Apple to grab a share of the budget tablet market? With relatively little in the way of new hardware to talk about, a lot of this review will center around the user experience, and that’s really what will determine how successful it is. Let’s start with the major differentiating factor brought by the iPad mini, the new form factor.

Ergonomics
POST A COMMENT

140 Comments

View All Comments

  • protomech - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    Top of the summary gives it away:
    "In my first week with the iPad mini, it quickly became the iPad I actually wanted to carry around. The mini's form factor is really where all of the innovation is. It's thin, light and an almost perfect balance of functional screen size and portability. I really love this form factor."

    By specs, the mini is unimpressive. It's using a SOC introduced in early 2011. We've been accustomed to high resolution mini-tablets from B&N, Amazon, Google, etc. It has less memory and costs significantly more (particularly for higher SKUs).

    But, at least for the reviewer, the form factor trumps all these things, at least for purposes of a "carry computer". Thinner and lighter than the 7" tablet comparison, with significantly more usable display space (Android 4.x soft buttons do not help here) in nearly the same frontal area.

    Would it be a better product if it sported an A6X SOC and a retina display? Certainly, on paper. It also likely would need a ~25 Wh battery and substantial increases in both weight and thickness .. same sort of changes from the iPad 2 to iPad 3.

    iPad mini should have been introduced last year when the 32nm SOC was available IMO .. it would have provided a useful bifurcation vs the 3rd gen iPad's bulk gains, and perhaps we'd have an A6 SOC in the iPad mini today.
    Reply
  • seanleeforever - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    not sure how that quote answers Jorange's questions. but that's the internet nowadays. Reply
  • protomech - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    Is it? It looks like it's a reply to Greg512. Certainly that's how I intended it.

    But, as you say, that's the internet nowadays.
    Reply
  • ltcommanderdata - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    I doubt Apple could have shipped a 32nm SoC last year in volume. The A5r2 was already the first shipping SoC produced on Samsung's 32nm process, ahead of Samsung's own designs, when it launched on the iPad2,4 in March 2012. And that was only used for low volume test production with the 45nm A5 iPad 2 continuing to be available. Apple prioritizing the iPhone 5 to receive a 32nm SoC first and waiting until now for high volume 32nm production to introduce 32nm iPad Mini, 5th gen iPod Touch, and iPad 4 makes sense. Reply
  • protomech - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    Good point.. I thought it had shipped late last year. Reply
  • KoolAidMan1 - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - link

    "By specs, the mini is unimpressive."

    GPU performance is still surprisingly good, better than even the newest Android-running hardware. What is it with other companies not keeping up with Apple's older hardware?
    Reply
  • Greg512 - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - link

    Yea, the GPU is good. But, for the price, the screen, CPU, and RAM are kinda poor. The Mini performs well now, but I question its long-term viability. Reply
  • marvdmartian - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - link

    Typical Apple product, that will sell like hotcakes: getting less, paying more, nothing new. Reply
  • drx11 - Sunday, November 25, 2012 - link

    ---------------------------------------------------------
    RE: Not a bad product by marvdmartian on Wednesday, November 21, 2012
    Typical Apple product, that will sell like hotcakes: getting less, paying more, nothing new.
    ---------------------------------------------------------
    Typical Fandroid, never sees the forest for the trees.
    Apple is the best and has been so since 2007 - at building SoC.
    Apple is the best at supporting its devices long term.

    Now with iOS 6 - which is mostly supported (not all the features) for an old 3GS phone - you could argue you are getting less - maybe on the older devices (no Siri, Apple Maps is not as good as as Google Maps ... right now... etc..)

    Still iOS 5 is very nice for older things and Android/Google/Moto/Samsung/HTC has rarely updated their "better" hardware at all ... you can blame that on the carriers all you want, but that is also what you are buying.

    Buying more often, spending more time doing something that maybe should just work?

    I know Google is trying (or starting to), but they really have almost no support for the majority (75%+ ) of the devices in their 'ecosystem'. What's the point of better hardware when it runs slower/worse from the start and never gets updated?
    Reply
  • Alucard291 - Monday, November 26, 2012 - link

    Did you have a joint before you wrote this drivel? Or does your mind work this bad drug free? ^^

    Good SoCs? Are you serious? Just because people work'd the shaft so hard when A6 came out doesn't mean that Cortex A9 based soc is viable coming into 2013.

    Apple is currently behind the curve on both tech processes (28 nm vs 32 nm) and performance (cpu and ram speed but not gpu)

    In case of ipad mini. You get less. (2 year old tech) you pay more (than any competition out there). But somehow we miss the forest for the trees?

    Oh but it supports the amazing dated and feature free ios6! That's great. Except well.. (opinion incoming) I don't like ios. I find it restrictive and boring.

    So your point is?
    Reply

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now