A Weekend with the iPad mini: Comprehensive Review

I’ve spent the weekend with my iPad mini and I’m enjoying it every bit now as I was when I first held it and turned it on. Yes, it’s a device that has it’s shortcomings, but I also think Apple has raised the bar for small tablets. A standard that everyone else will have to meet.

First Impressions: It’s a wow device

Like most people, I found the iPad mini to be the perfect size to hold and read things. Sit on the couch, in bed, on the train, or in the car, the mini just seems to fit into what you’re doing nicely. While the iPad is an amazing device—and I have no intention of giving it up—the iPad mini fits a niche of being a take anywhere device that is light and manageable. When I used to have to commute to work, I had plenty of things to read on my iPad, but I would never have pulled it out on my commute. It was too heavy, too likely to get bumped, and, frankly, it really looked odd. Reading a mini, like other small tablets, fits right into the commuting life. I guess the best comparison is the difference between reading a coffee-table book (folio size) and a paperback novel on the bus or train.

Beyond the size and heft, the iPad mini is very nicely built. It feels good to hold. Solid, and like it will stand up to daily use. Essentially once you pick up a mini its size is what draws you in. It’s a personal device, it’s closer to you and feels more like you’re holding something more intimate than a larger tablet (which feel powerful, but large and demanding of attention). Here’s a short overview of my review that you can watch and then read the rest of the review:

I’ll get the first “complaint” that we’ve been reading since Thursday when the first reviews started coming in—iPad mini Reviews Flood In—A Device That is a Pleasure to Hold—out of the way first: the screen.

The screen looks great, even if it’s not Retina

No, it’s not a Retina screen. Yes, if you look closely you can see pixels (I have to take my glasses off and bring the screen pretty close to my eyes to to see them), but folks I have to tell you unless you jump back and forth between a Retina device and the iPad mini, you’ll stop noticing in short order. In fact, playing games (Real Racing 2 HD, Infinity Blade II, Sky Gamblers, Angry Birds, even Words with Friends) was really good. Yes, the smaller screen isn’t as good for very detailed games, but…game play was just fine. More on that later though.

Whether it was catching up with RSS feeds in Reeder, the news in Zite, email, books, or Facebook, the screen and readability was just fine. I didn’t feel that my eyes were straining to read things at all. Running apps like Wonders of the Universe or Solar Walk, where what’s on screen is as important as what you are reading, the screen looked great.

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Wonders of the Universe

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Solar Walk

Performance: Under powered for some tasks

I think the one legitimate gripe people will have with the iPad mini, especially if they use a 3rd or 4th generation iPad, is that the mini feels sluggish. Not, once apps are running (in most cases), but when apps first start you’ll notice the lag. I found this most especially true for games or apps that were pretty graphic (or processor) intensive. Apps like Garageband, iPhoto, iMovie, Solar Walk, even TweetBot (oddly enough) started up with less pep than on the 3rd or 4th generation iPad (it’s most noticeable on the 4th generation). Once apps were up and running, however, I didn’t notice any difference. Apps like Kobo books, iBooks, Reeder, and Zite I felt launched and ran at “normal” speed.

Safari is a let down

I don’t know where to place the blame on this, but surfing the web isn’t as great as it should be on the iPad mini. Often I had to double-tap the screen to zoom in so I could read the pages without straining my eyes. It’s not just me, the other folks here at iPhoneHacks had the same experience. Some sites rendered better than others, but even Apple’s site needed some zooming in to make sure I could read things easily. Performance wise, Safari is acceptable. I think if you visit complex sites or sites with a lot of data to load you might see some delays, but nothing I found that was too slow to be annoying (just blame your Internet provider!).

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Email: quick, easy, fast

Like reading content, email is another task that other reviewers have found to be rather nice on the iPad mini. Over the weekend I didn’t answer too many emails, but I caught up on a lot of them. Reading, skimming, and managing email is nice on the mini. I think, again, it’s because you can hold it in one hand. When you’re ready to respond I found that in portrait mode, the split keyboard make thumb typing fast and accurate. Since all the targets for your fingers are smaller on the iPad mini, you do have to practice a bit to get good at typing.

Apps: Pick the right task, not the specific app

I’ve used and tested a number of apps for this review. I’ve mentioned almost all of them already, in fact. What I’ve found is that the iPad mini works great for lots of apps, but it’s the task that is the real determining factor for whether it’s the right use of the mini.

Games: fun to play, even on a smaller screen

I don’t play a ton of action games on any of my iOS devices. I mostly stick to word games (I grew tired of Angry Birds a long while ago), but for this review I fired up Sky Gamblers (fighter jet game), Infinity Blade II, and Real Racing 2 HD (fine I launched Angry Birds and Words with Friends to see how they loaded, etc) to see how demanding game play would be on the mini. Well, game play is fine. Enough snap and responsiveness for most people I think. I try Infinity Blade II and Real Racing on both my iPad 4 and the iPad mini and, sure, the iPad 4 started up the game faster and the screen looked better, but game play was the same. While the iPad mini isn’t really being touted as a gaming machine, it can hold its own I think—even if they take a little longer to load at first.

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Sky Gamblers

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Infinity Blade II

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Real Racing 2 HD

Drawing/Sketching Apps

I think, in addition to reading, this is an area were the iPad mini could really shine and show it’s value. Trying both Penultimate and Paper I found that while the screen isn’t perfect, if you want to do a quick sketch or jot down a note, both apps work great at this. Sure, the resolution isn’t as high (I really noticed the difference in Paper by FiftyThree) on the mini as the iPad 4 (or iPad 3), but I certainly think it’s good enough. For the times when pulling out a full-size iPad might draw unwanted or unwelcome attention, the mini could really come in handy.

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Doodling in Paper

Reading is delightful

I’ve already mentioned my favorite apps for reading on the mini (Zite, Reeder, Kobo books, and iBooks), what is it about reading on the mini that is great? It’s the portability. Yes, the size and weight is will come up a lot. Why? Because that is the differentiating factor. Reading on the iPad mini is like reading a small book. Easy to hold for a long time, easy to shift positions, easy to take along with out. My college advisor recommended to always keep a book in the glove compartment of your car because you never knew when you might just need something to read (this was 1991). Now you can drop your iPad mini in a coat pocket, small satchel, purse, whatever, and have hundreds of books to read at a whim.

Unlike using Safari, I didn’t find most reading apps to be hard on the eyes. I think that is purely because they are reading apps. Designed from the start to let you read content easily.

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Reeder

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Zite

Writing: Small space, works in a pinch.

I didn’t do a lot of writing on my iPad mini, beyond a few emails, and I don’t know if I will ever do much writing on it. I like to see more of the screen when I write, and while I’m finishing this section on the mini (using an Apple Wireless Keyboard), I didn’t enjoy writing as much with the on-screen keyboard. Just not enough real estate to do for very long. In a pinch? Sure no problem. I could even finish this post here without difficulty, but the size and scale of the iPad 4, is just a better experience.

Music: Moving in Stereo

One of the points (and early questions) was about the speakers on the mini. Yes, they are stereo and, yes, they sound better than the iPhone or iPad speakers. While I usually listen to my music through speakers through the headphone jack (I really need some Bluetooth speakers for my office), I listened to the mini on its own for a good bit. Acceptable sound, not too tiny, nice warmth. If you don’t have external speakers and need to play something to a room…they might not blow out ears, but they hold their own.

Video: Good things on a little screen

I didn’t know if I’d like the video experience on the mini, but watching some of Up and Inception I enjoyed it. I don’t know if I’d want to hold a mini through a whole movie (regardless of how light it is), but a short video is just fine. The movies and videos were letter-boxed and pushing them to full screen distorted things too much for me. I’d rather watch the smaller screen with a better picture than a bigger picture that didn’t look as good.

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Maps: Slow, but workable

Maybe my Internet was slow when I was testing Maps, but I found the 3D rendering a tad slow…but that I think is nit-picky. Even on my iPad 3, the 3D maps would often take a bit to load. Maps on the iPad mini is as you’d expect, a solid experience…for Maps.

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Photos and video: Not bad for a tablet

The iPad mini has a basic 5MP iSight (back side, with the new sensor) and 1.2MP FaceTime (front) like the iPad 4. In my tests the iPad mini compares well to the iPad 4, but the iPhone 5 still blows both of them out of the water, especially in low light. As far as the awkwardness of taking pictures (or video) with a tablet, the mini is certainly less obtrusive than holding up an iPad to take a shot. Would you cary the iPad mini around as your point-n-shoot? Probably not, sure it takes decent pictures, but it’s a little bulky as a camera goes (just the dimensions). In a pinch? Sure, not a bad idea at all (especially for video).

iPhone 5

iPad mini

iPad 4

Self2 iphone 5

iPhone 5

Self2 ipad mini

iPad mini

Self ipad 4

iPad 4

My video tests, again, the mini and the iPad 4 look the same. It’s certainly easier to control the mini than the a full-sized iPad, so you can get decent, full-HD video from the mini. Yes, the iPhone 5 delivers better results, but that is to be expected—it has a better camera.

Closing thoughts

I certainly know how the iPad mini is going to fit into my digital world. It’s going to be the device that I read news on, catch up on emails, check Twitter, check Facebook, and read books on. MG Siegler, I think, and I will have very similar usage patterns (though I’m leaving the MacBook at home, thank you). My iPad mini is going to come out with me almost as often as I carry my iPad (I always have my iPhone)—maybe even more if I have a good way to carry my mini around (coat pockets are okay, but not too safe I think). I also agree with Darrell Etherington, that the iPad mini will make a great second-screen device for watching TV. I always am looking up movies and shows on IMDb on my iPad, now with the mini…well the iPad isn’t going to have that job much longer.

Is the iPad mini worth getting now? That’s the big question people are wondering. We know for sure that there will be a Retina version in the future, and most certainly more power under the hood, and probably even a better camera. Does this mean that you should hold off for a six months to a year to get an iPad mini?

No. If you can buy one now, and it grabs you by the collar and shakes you silly when you first try it, then by all means get it. If you just invested in a 3rd generation iPad and are feeling a little burned, maybe wait for the next generation iPad mini. For iPad 2 owners who feel like they’d like something lighter to read and play games on, the mini is a great side step to get you there. I think iPad 2 owners might wind up being the most pleased with the iPad mini, since the screen on the mini looks better than the 2 (yes, they have the same resolution, but size the screen is physically smaller, so are the pixels).

What’s your take? Beyond all the hype and reviews have you picked one up in a store and tried it? Did you make the leap and buy one? Let us know what you think in the comments.

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  • RRCP

    I felt very tempted to buy the mini but ended up canceling my preorder. I am typing this from the device I got instead- the new new iPad. I seems to me like the company who told us how brilliant retina displays are is now telling us to settle for less. I really wanted the mini. Loved the design and size. I wouldn’t settle for less. Apple always does this. They leave room for improvement so they can sell you a ‘better’ product later on. Why don’t iPads have flash? Why is the headphone jack at the top? Maybe those two question do not portray my point of leaving room for improvements but I can’t think of anything else to write about. It’s very comfy to write from an iPad.

    It seems to me like you are justifying the lack of features as if there was not enough technology out there. Kind of like when we receive a gift that we didn’t like but faked it to make the person feel alright.

  • http://www.facebook.com/RobAMcClellan Robert McClellan

    The iPad mini is just a smaller version of 2 year old technology….and apple people are raving about it. I can easily show you a few 7 inch tablets that run circles around the iPad mini (Kindle Fire HD, Nexus 7) that are new and modern and have all the features that a 7 inch tablet should have. Shrinking down 2 year old technology and calling it new, all the while charging more than the tablets that offer the newest features, displays, etc is absolutely mad.

    Are people going to buy this? Yes. Because it has the Apple name stamped on it. But there are a ton of better options that are cheaper and leave this in it’s dust. But all the apple reviewers are skipping talking about those and pretending they don’t exist.

    Go compare an iPad mini to a Nexus 7 and then write this review again

  • Chris

    I also spent the weekend playing with my brand new ipad mini. Short answer, its going back this week. I think Apple really dropped the ball opting to compete with the price point of the low cheapo tablets and sacrificing the one feature that would have made this device totally awesome …. The retina screen. WHY would you put old two year old technology in a brand new product when retina is being promoted every other line … iphone, ipods, macbooks etc,

    Coming from my iPad 3, the screen looked terrible. The screen IS smaller, so text is smaller, and the very small text is barely readable. I was NOT impressed !

    The device is bang on in every other area. The fit and finish is amazing, the size is perfect and you can see more of a typical web page than I thought. Holding the device in landscape gives you a great web browsing experience. Too bad you can barely read the screen !!!!!!

    I truly hope and believe, just like its predicted in that apple spoof video, there will be a retina version released by May….. Well, maybe June :-)

    I will wait till then, iPad 3 lives on …..

  • Jim

    Have an iPad 2… my work ordered the iPad mini as a service gift for me, so I will keep it..was looking for a 7″ device for my wife to read (she has Kindle now) and enjoy, it will be perfect for her no worries. Only thing that stinks is that we both have 4S phones and the mini is the only Lightning connector! Ug, have to get that stupid $29 adapter…oh well.

  • Marin

    To think I was actually hoping for a non biased review. Dissapointing.

  • http://www.digidna.net/ Vic

    Good review, thanks for the buying advice. I fall in the recent *not so* New iPad buyers category, but I am not sure I will manage not to buy it, it’s exactly the form factor you want for casual reading.
    Tough call, as usual.

  • cherimariotti

    I am completely happy with the iPad Mini! My main reason for buying an iPad Mini was for the size. I can easily carry it around in my purse without worrying about it weighing me down. I use it for everything from a planner to watching TV. I am constantly traveling for my job with DISH, and I hate missing all my shows. I use my DISH Remote Access app, which allows me to watch live TV wherever I can get a Wi-Fi connection. I used to take my regular iPad with me, and I always hated having to haul it around in my purse. Even though the resolution isn’t the most up to date, I think the price is well worth it for the iPad Mini.

    • Kelly Goldsmith

      It Is cool that it fits everywhere, no problem! and for people continuously travelling and commuting is great. Also, the plans are good, at $5 if you are not a super-heavy user http://www.bell.ca/Mobility/Products/Apple-iPad-mini alternating with wifi you can really make it work in an inexpensive way.