Hands on With the iPad mini

The iPad mini is an interesting concept. It’s something that consumers everywhere have been talking about for a long time, but now that it’s finally here, there’s been a lot of talk from the tech media about how the product really doesn’t measure up to expectations. How it’s not good enough because it doesn’t have a Retina display, or that it doesn’t have enough RAM. Yes, a lot of the tech press says that the iPad mini is a disappointment all the way around, but there are still a lot of people who bought them this past weekend, including me.

The iPad mini has now been in my hands for the past few days. So what’s the verdict? Is it worth it as a purchase or should the general public hold off? Is the tech press correct in their judgement? Let’s get into it after the jump. 

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The Scenario

I’ve often postulated that everyone uses their iPad in a different way. Currently, pretty much everyone in my family has an iPad of one generation or another. My mother has an iPad 3 that she uses as her main device. She’s got a 27-inch iMac that functions essentially as an AppleTV box, but that iPad goes through the wringer with scheduling, email, web surfing, music, videos, iBooks and everything in between. My wife uses her iPad when she goes out grocery shopping and for playing games. I use my iPad mostly for reading comic books, playing games and watching videos. Again, we all have different usages.

Comics on the iPad mini.

Comics on the iPad mini.

But none of us use our iPads in the way we originally intended. My mother thought her iPad would be just for reading books, but she uses it for everything. My wife wants to use it for everything, but finds it to be too heavy and large to carry in her purse. And me, well I wanted to use it as my personal typewriter, but I find that if I have the option to carry my iPad and a keyboard or my 11-inch MacBook Air, I’m going to take the Air because I can do more with it.

Point is, the case usage for the iPad mini is different than it is for the iPad. Now that I’ve had a few years with the iPad, I had a better idea of what I thought I’d use my iPad mini for. But then I got it, and that all changed. All of it.

The Naked Truth

Let’s face facts: we live in a non-Retina display world. I work on a 27-inch Apple LED Display that does not feature a fancy Retina resolution. My MacBook Air also does not have 4X the pixel of another model. But more important than all that, most of the web is also not Retina display optimized. Fact is, Retina displays are ahead of their time, and it will be a bit before the rest of the world catches up.

Right around the time I received my iPad mini, I ran into a problem with my third-gen iPad — I was out of space. With a 64GB model, I wondered where it could’ve gone? Turns out, everywhere. Because of the Retina display, I can put HD movies on my iPad, as well as HD comics. My copy of Wired this month was almost 1GB by itself, then there’s the 9GB music collection. But in the end, there were only two HD movies, a fraction of my music library and really, not a lot else. Turns out you can burn through those 64GB pretty quick, and that’s frustrating.

The iPad mini and the third-gen iPad.

The iPad mini and the third-gen iPad.

So here’s the thing about the iPad mini. Everyone is complaining that it doesn’t have a Retina display, and I’ll agree with them for the most part. The iPad mini’s screen isn’t quite as bright as the iPad 3’s, nor is it as crisp. But is it illegible as some claim? Oh no, not at all. In fact, it’s a beautiful picture, it’s just that when compared to a Retina display, it’s not quite as nice. I put the two devices side by side and displayed the same image on both. Yes, the Retina display stood out — but not as much as you’d think.

But not having that Retina display is a bit of an advantage for me. It restricts me to watching non-HD movies, which is fine since the bulk of my collection is standard definition. It means that I can put more on my device, or buy less storage to compensate. Don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather have a Retina display. But since I like the form factor so much, I’m willing to give that up.

The Form Factor

Speaking of the size, let’s take that in for a moment. Prior to getting the mini, we had two iPads in our house: a first-gen iPad Wi-Fi+3G, and a third-gen iPad with LTE. Both of those weigh around 1.5 lbs, which doesn’t seem like a lot, unless you’re holding it for a long period of time. They’re just heavy frankly, and although I love them both, there are definitely moments when I wished they were lighter.

I recently spent 13 hours in Las Vegas (don’t ask), and I had to bring something with me to get work done. I knew my Air was coming, so that was 2.4 lbs in my bag regardless. With accessories, I was at 3 lbs, maybe 4. Knowing that I would walk all day long, and that every little accessory in my bag would put pain in my shoulders and back for the following day, I debated bringing my iPad. It would’ve been great on the plane, and it’s certainly good for lots of other things as well. But I decided not to because of the weight. Had I owned the iPad mini then, I would’ve brought it no question. I can deal with a half pound give or take, but the almost two of the iPad just was too much in my head.

I bet no one can figure out what TV show this is from.

I bet no one can figure out what TV show this is from.

When I showed it to my wife for the first time, she was really impressed. Then she held it and her eyes got big. “Oh that’s SO, nice,” she said, and I get that. For her, she wants an iPad that’s more “purseable” as she puts it, and the mini is just that. Sure, she’d prefer the better screen, but she currently uses the first-gen iPad so the mini would be a visible improvement, regardless.

Point is, this is the iPad that I don’t feel weird about carrying with me places. With my third-gen, I always feel like “that guy” when I walk in the room with my iPad under my arm — just a big dork. The iPad mini fits in my back pocket. It’s all the functionality of the big one, but pocketable. It means I want to take it everywhere, and that’s really what is important in an iPad to me.

Build and Performance

Let’s take a moment to talk about how well this thing is built. My iPads both have squishy home buttons, not the firm and clicky one that my iPhone 5 has. The iPad mini seems to have the same type of button, and even if it’s not the exact same one, it’s definitely improved. Then there’s the mute/rotation lock button and the volume buttons, all of which feel more solid. And that chamfered edge? Man is that thing pretty on the white model that I own. SO pretty, like a chrome bezel, even though it’s a little sharp. This is a well built machine, and feels tons more solid than the competition.

How’s the performance of the device? So far, not too bad. In games where my iPad 3’s CPU was taxed, it was the same on the iPad mini — and I mean the same. Not more, not less, pretty much identical. I never had scrolling issues, either. I pushed a video through it and had no frame rate clipping, and really, never had any issues. I understand that some people with more of a technical background than I do complain about the small amount of RAM, but in my experience (so far, anyways), I haven’t had a problem.

Is It For You?

I was so excited when I first heard about the iPad mini and I knew that it could be the perfect device for me. Typing on it (in portrait mode) is fantastic, functionally it works well and it’s super portable. My only real complaint is the lack of a Retina display, which frankly, is everyone else’s complaint as well.

For those of us that have the third (or now fourth) generation iPad and are happy with its size and usage, there’s really no reason to buy a mini. The regular iPad does awesome, and it’s a great machine. Stick with it.

But if you’re like my wife, and the size and weight of the traditional iPad is just too much for you, then the iPad mini is an excellent choice. Inevitably, it will come with a Retina display sometime, maybe even as soon as next year. But for now, the iPad mini is still a very capable machine and worth the $329.