Developer: Apple
Price: $329 for 16G WiFi
Device Reviewed: iPad mini 16G Black

Hardware Design Rating: ★★★★★
Usability Rating: ★★★★½
Graphics/Display Rating: ★★★★☆
Battery Life Rating: ★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

When I first heard of the iPad mini, I was fairly underwhelmed with its technical specifications, of course, with its A5 processor (same as an iPad 2, now two generations “old”) and its non-retina display (163 pixels per inch? Huh?).

I was underwhelmed by the price, as well. $329 for an underpowered, low-resolution mini tablet in a market that supports $199 as the standard point of entry?

Then I got it into my hands. The feel of the thing, the warmth of the design, and the fact that this is an iPad, through and through, has changed my mind about the iPad mini. I love the way it sits in my hand, I love the cute little smart cover, I dig the fact that I can sit and read comics for an hour or so without really remembering that I’m using a piece of technology. I can download any number of apps that I already own to it, and run them in this new size and format. Simply put, the iPad mini fills a (small) spot in my gadget bag that I hadn’t been able to previously.

Let’s put it in perspective. I have a Macbook Air 11-inch laptop, an iPhone 5, and an iPad 3 in between. I use each device quite a bit, depending on the situation. The iPad, specifically, has become my laptop at home, unless I’m working. It’s fantastic to check news via Flipboard, social networks with Facebook and Twitter, and look through email. I play games on it quite a bit, of course, as the iPhone is just on the small side for me when I want to immerse myself into a game like Order and Chaos, thrill to the retina display on something like Infinity Blade II, or see the screen in better detail in Fieldrunners 2 HD. As a device I never thought I needed, the iPad has quickly found a place in my daily life.

And now, so has the iPad mini. In just a few short days, I find myself grabbing it when moving from room to room more often than I do my iPhone. I can do all of the social networking, game playing, streaming music, voice chatting, and email checking that I previously did on the iPhone around the house, only now I use the iPad mini so as to not deplete my iPhone 5’s battery, leaving it free to be available for phone calls and texts from non-iOS using friends.

This is a delicious device. It begs to be touched, used, played with. Here’s why.

Case Design
The design of this thing is pure Apple. The black version of the iPad mini has the look and feel of the iPhone 5 in terms of the slate aluminum chassis on the back case. The smoothly rounded edges feel good in the hand, and the metal feels good to the touch, grippy, even. There’s not a sharp edge on the iPad mini, which invites it into the hand, welcomes human touch.

The shape of the screen itself is luxurious, allowing an immersive experience that I’ve never felt with other smaller tablets. The length to width ratio feels just right in portrait or landscape mode—it makes typing with two thumbs viable in portrait mode and a more cramped touch typing available in landscape. Games look and feel GOOD on the iPad mini, perhaps due only to the fact that I’m used to them in this ratio.

The weight, or lack thereof, of the iPad mini is mind boggling. I’m hard pressed to tell whether it’s any heavier than my iPhone 5 when holding one in each hand and doing the “pretend scales” thing. It’s light and airy, yet satisfyingly tactile. This is a device that I can hold in my hands for the hours that a good novel or immersive gaming experience calls for. My only nitpick here is the smaller matte area on the sides of the screen when holding the iPad mini in portrait view. Adding a smart case helps, but it’s still awkward to hold on the side of the screen without activating something on the screen at the same time. Rotating the iPad mini to landscape is a decent stopgap, as the matte area on the “top” and “bottom” of the iPad is thick enough to keep my fat thumbs off of the touch screen.

Camera Performance
The camera is pretty good. It takes great photos in good lighting conditions, and decent ones in low light. Facetime and Skype video chats are well served by the front facing camera, though still images and videos suffer a bit in quality when viewed on other, higher resolution devices. For quick snapshots that can be connected to your Photostream, then, the iPad mini’s camera is great. Though, please, don’t take too many photos in public with your iPad mini. It’s only marginally cooler than taking them with a full sized iPad tablet. If you need high-quality, high-resolution pictures, use a real camera, ok?

Processor Speed
While the processor may seem underpowered on paper, so far it feels super snappy in common usage. Launching apps, tapping into email To: and Cc: fields, or running intensive games like Galaxy on Fire II and Infinity Blade II is snappy-—I haven’t felt a bit of lag or sluggishness. So far, using the same iPad apps that I do on the iPad 3, I find that everything feels smooth, solid, and well-optimized. Will it outperform the new iPad? No, it won’t. But it does all the things I need it to and in no way feels like a dumbed-down version of an iOS device.

Audio Improvement
The placement of the speakers on the bottom of the unit like an iPhone is a significant improvement over the larger iPads’ rear placement. Directing the sound at my ears makes a lot of sense when I’m holding it with one hand and don’t have a spare to cup around the speakers in the back. The stereo effect is minimal, but detectable, and the sound is fairly amazing considering the size of the case and the lack of resonating spaces within it. I’m typically just fine with listening to streaming music with the iPad mini while I browse the web, and for a bigger sound, there’s always a Bluetooth speaker to connect to.

Battery
The battery life is consistent with what I expected, as well. I’m able to use the iPad mini for a variety of tasks and networking protocols, including Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, for similar amounts of time as I do the iPad 3. The battery gets eaten up far less quickly than, say, the one in my iPhone 5, which always seems like it needs a quick top off. The lightning connector is the same as the one that comes with the iPhone 5, as is the 5W adapter. It charges my iPad mini up overnight just fine.

I’m using the iPad mini as a battery offload, then, for the smaller yet more connected iOS device, which makes some sense. The iPad mini, at least this Wi-Fi version, has become my go-to device at home and at work in a significantly short amount of time.

Screen Woes and Wins
Now, to get to the display. It’s really beautiful in a way the older iPad 1 I have is not. While I can discern the pixels in the rendered text in iBooks or the Nook app, for example, it’s faint, and not distracting. As a backlit eReader, I’m sold on the mini, mainly due to the weight and shape of the screen itself. For games, video, websites, and the like? I think the display is gorgeous.

Is it lower resolution than I’d like? Of course. Does it matter? Not as much as I thought it would. With the same number of pixels as an iPad 2, shrunk down into a smaller display, the iPad mini’s resolution is just fine.

Software
This is iOS, folks, with all that implies. While the various Android-powered stores can now boast a similar number of apps in them, the iOS store beats all comers with its selection of quality apps made SPECIFICALLY for the iPad devices. Keeping the screen ratio the same as the larger iPad with Retina was a smart move, as every single app I can use on my iPad 3 can be used on the iPad mini.

I’ve started off by thinking of the smaller device as a subset of all the apps I use on the iPad 3. The iPad mini is my device, now, for reading, connecting, and gaming—at home or on the go. As soon as I opened the box, I installed all the free Apple apps, like iBooks, Find My Friends, etc. I then pulled apps I owned from iCloud, downloading Readability, FlipBoard, Next Issue, DC Comics and the Nook app to feed my news and eReader needs. I grabbed Tweetbot and Skype to stay connected with my social networks, and games like Letterpress, Duckers, Infinity Blade II, Galaxy On Fire II HD, and Order and Chaos to get my game on. I grabbed Penultimate, Evernote and Dropbox to have all my cloud-accessible documents easily available. I did all of this in about 15 minutes. How’s THAT for easy set up?
 
Conclusion
I don’t see the iPad mini as a device that needs to compete with the iPad with Retina display any more. I do realize that it must compete in a sub-tablet market, however. Am I able to justify the $329 price tag for the 16G iPad mini? I think I can, with a few caveats.

First, the iOS ecosystem is the best in class mobile app marketplace anywhere, hands down. The ease of sign up, the cloud storage and ability to download apps to multiple devices are just icing on the cake—-a cake full of delicious, quality apps and games. The apps make the device. I can understand wanting a higher resolution screen for a lower price, but there are simply too many fantastic, iPad-optimized apps and games on the iTunes App Store to ignore in any decision making rubric. There are amazing, high-end apps out there for practically anything I want to do on the iPad mini. I can create and consume any type of media I can think of, from music to photo to video.

Second, the hardware design on the iPad mini is second to none. It’s light, feels good to the touch, and displays at a high enough resolution for the tasks I’m using it for. I wouldn’t recommend it as a serious movie or photo editor, but it’s great for reading, writing, movie watching, web surfing, and gaming. It’s the perfect size to take places, drop in a purse or man bag, or even slip it into a back pocket, though I wouldn’t do that too often, Mr. Skinny Jeans.

While there will be another “better” device out there soon, most probably a screen and processor update to the iPad mini line in the next year or so, this is the best-in-class handheld tablet, period. If price and resolution are too much of an issue for you, either wait for the next iteration or grab a less expensive Android mini tablet. If, however, you value quality of design and enough amazingly good tablet apps to keep you busy well into the next upgrade, the iPad mini is the one to get.

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