A month with the iPad mini


The iPad mini is a tough product to judge. On one hand, it’s a sign of Apple’s stagnant innovation of the past two years. They still make the finest consumer electronics in my book (I’m voting with my wallet here) but they have been simply iterating on existing products recently. But here’s the thing: the iPad mini is fantastic. It may not be revolutionary, but it’s possibly my favorite Apple product since the day I got my iPhone 4 (and I loved that phone romantically). 


What makes the iPad mini great is that Apple has once again proven that specs are bullshit. The iPad mini does not look great on paper. It’s got a slow processor, a bad display, and well, just looks like a last generation product. But once you hold this beauty, you realize that this is nothing but brilliant.


The unboxing experience. No different from previous iPads.


Everyone that touches my iPad mini falls in love with it. Even people that had no interest in the gadgets I purchase were instantly allured by its tiny aluminum body. There’s something about this device that just makes you want to hold it and I’ve had to pry it out of people’s hands to get it back. 


The display is what matters most in a device like this - it’s where you live. So it makes it unfortunate that the mini doesn’t have a Retina display. The 1024x768 panel isn’t horrible, but it’s not perfect. I find the colors to be a bit dull and it seems to be more reflective than the iPhone 5 or Retina iPad. The glass is also a thinner than the other iPads so it gives a little when you press on it. But after a while, you begin to forget these things and just focus on the content. If you’re really into the book you’re reading, you don’t think about what paper it’s printed on.


The most important thing about the mini is its size. At 7.9”, it’s larger than the Nexus 7 but significantly smaller than the big iPad. It’s nearly identical in size to a paperback book. I find it to be large enough to make the Nexus 7 feel cramped but small enough to feel comfortable for extended reading.


The iPad mini has the same machined edge of the iPhone 5. It photographs well but it looks pretty bad on the white model. The mirror edge looks cheap and some light machine marks are visible - though it will take scratches/nicks better than the black model’s edge.


The mini also shares the same treatment for the logo. Like the iPhone 5, the mini has a very fine bead-blast finish to the aluminum. I personally prefer a more coarse finish, it holds a better chance against scratches.


The iOS lineup is now more diverse than ever. When looking at the entire lineup, the large iPad looks out of place. It’s the only device without the chamfered edge and a finer finish to the aluminum. I prefer the design of the older iPad but it does look out of place nevertheless. 


In terms of design geekery, the most exciting change with the mini is how Apple has created a seamless meeting of glass and aluminum. Every phone and tablet I have seen have a plastic ring around the glass. One of the benefits of this design is that it adds a buffer so if the metal edge were to be dented, the glass could be protected. Having this seamless junction also means that tolerances must be perfect, as glass is a much less forgiving material than plastic. I wonder how the mini will be worse off in light drops but this reduction of parts does look beautiful. Sometimes a bit of danger is sexy. 


The iPad mini is really thin and light. It’s also structurally very rigid, making it feel like a single piece of material. It absolutely destroys the Nexus 7 in this aspect. It’s like getting out of a Toyota and getting into a Lexus. One may argue that the Nexus 7 is a perfectly adequate structure for its purposes - and it is. But the iPad mini makes it look so bad that I have a hard time picking it up.


Some more thickness comparisons with the Nexus 7, Amazon Kindle and the first generation iPad. It’s a bit surprising to see that the iPad mini is even thinner than the already paper-thin Kindle. It’s also worth noticing the heightened level of precision that can been seen in the iPad mini compared to the Nexus 7 and Kindle.


iPad mini, Retina iPad and the first generation iPad. Apple calls the iPad mini a “concentration of, not a reduction of” the 9.7” iPad. I’ve got to agree with them here. And as the iPad has been becoming increasingly concentrated, I’ve been using it more. I don’t even think screen size is the driving force here, it’s the reduction of mass and therefore weight. The thing I do most on my iPad is read and browse the web (which I’m guessing are the most popular uses for the device), and the Retina iPad was simply too heavy to read for hours in bed with.


The iPad mini is slightly wider than most devices in its size class. This provides just enough room to support a larger display. It’s only .9” larger diagonally but makes a much larger difference in actual use like browsing. If you do the math, the .9” increase results in a surface area increase of 35%, a significant amount.


Performance on the iPad mini is really snappy. I’ve “downgraded” from a Retina iPad and not once did I feel that the mini was inadequate in horsepower. I don’t really play games on the iPad mini so I’m not sure about its graphics capabilities but for everything else, you won’t notice a thing. This photo also does a good job of showing an accurate representation of the “Slate” colored iPad mini. The device really comes in two colors, silver and navy. I like this tint but if you’re not a fan of blue, keep in mind that Apple doesn’t actually sell a “black” mini.


Apple also released a series of polyurethane Smart Covers for the iPad mini. They have gone away from the mechanical hinge and opted for a simpler fabric hinge. I’m not a fan of this design. It feels floppy and it slides around over the display when its closed like a melting ice-cream sandwich. 


The floppy hinge also makes for a floppy viewing and typing experience. I ended up returning mine. It’s also unfortunate that the color selections for the Smart Cover are lousy, they should make a leather version or bring the color palette over from the iPod lineup.


The main reason I bought the Smart Cover in the first place is because the iPad mini is too thin. It sounds a bit crazy but it really is. I find myself wanting something slightly thicker for extended use. And though Apple likes to show people gripping the device like this photo, it’s uncomfortable unless if you have monster hands.


To really appreciate what the iPad is doing, it’s worth remembering what the iPad used to be. The mini gives me the same feeling that I get when I hold a beautifully engineered Japanese pen with a tiny diameter. It’s a product that has been reduced to its essence and concentrated to an extract. The iPad mini won’t be the right choice for everyone. It’s like a Moleskine or a paperback novel, where the larger iPad is like a magazine. If you watch movies or do a lot of photo work on the iPad, the 9.7” display will be better for you. When the mini first came out, I was skeptical. But after a month of use, I haven’t felt the need to pick up my Retina iPad once. In fact, I’ve given it to my mother.


This will be a question many people will ask; what should I get, the iPad mini or the Nexus 7? Both in my opinion are the best tablets for their respective operating systems. But the Nexus 7 simply does not compare with the iPad mini in terms of design and execution. If you’re fine with the cheap glass and plastic build of the Nexus 7, you’ll be happy with the device. I personally am not. The Nexus 7 is a good device. The iPad mini is a phenomenal one.


The best analogy I can make to the iPad mini is the new Porsche Boxster. The Boxster is a brilliant roadster that’s fun, well executed and is a fantastic looking thing. It’s also the cheapest and smallest Porsche you can get, at a surprisingly “affordable” price at under $50,000. And because the Boxster has a rather modest 265hp, you’ll make use of every horse you are given - which I find more fun than being overpowered by the car. Despite this, there are many people that will make fun of you if you get this car. Most will still call it a poor-man’s Porsche. Well, here’s the thing: The Boxster is without a question an amazing car. And so is the iPad mini. Sometimes you don’t need to get the biggest thing with the best specs. Sometimes less is more, and the iPad mini has proven it to me.

Relevant reviews:

The Nexus 7 extended review

The New iPad review (3rd generation)