Conceived from its sleek, glossy 10" counterpart, the new iPad Mini boasts one gigantic new trait over the full-sized iPad: the ability to hold it in one hand. This almost revolutionary twist on the device that sparked a frenzy in the tablet world has finally brought joy to those that have held out hope of such higher portability in an iPad for so long. But does the iPad Mini live up to the hype? Absolutely.
Turns out, the iPad mini is indeed more than simply a shrunk-down iPad, though there may be an argument for it actually resembling something more along the lines of a blown-up iPod touch. In any case, the big question: is the iPad mini right for you? I'll endeavor to answer that for you here by taking you hands-on with the new model, plus I'll share from my past few years of iPad ownership experience altogether, especially for those who haven't yet had an iPad to call their own.Plus, in hopes of making this the most helpful iPad mini review, I'll also reveal a treasure trove of info on how you can legitimately download tons of quality apps and games for free!
My reviews tend to run long, so I've organized information by section, with headings, to help you quickly locate any specific info you're after. For example, see the heading "Downloading Apps and Games" for the info on obtaining free apps and games!
First, let's compare hardware specs between iPad mini and iPad, and what each means for you:
+ Device: iPad mini vs. iPad (4th gen)
+ Weight: 0.68 lbs vs. 1.44 lbs -- over twice as light as the iPad
+ Thickness: 0.28" (7.2mm) vs. 0.37" (9.4mm) -- thin as an iPod touch
+ Display: 163 vs. 264 pixels per inch -- less-crisp text, but equally long life for a smaller battery
+ Resolution: 1024 x 768 vs. 2048 x 1536 -- half as many pixels as the current iPad, but still sharper than an iPad 2
+ Battery: 10 hours (16.3 Wh) vs. 10 hours (45 Wh) -- smaller, lighter battery lasts just as long as the iPad
+ Processor: A5 (dual core) vs. A6X (dual core with quad core graphics) -- same as the new iPod touch, but not quite as powerful as the latest iPad, yet it doesn't need to be because the iPad mini display totes a quarter as many pixels!
+ Price: The iPad mini has a price tag that is indeed much more attractive than the 10" iPad. It's actually closer to that of the iPod touch.
===== First Impression =====
At first sight, there's a feeling of novelty to the iPad Mini, especially if you've used a 10" iPad or tablet. The more you use it, however, the more you realize that this is the size an iPad was meant to be: perfectly portable. The 10" iPad is so bulky and heavy in comparison, and I felt uncomfortable, embarrassed and awkward taking it with me and using it places, especially waiting in line. Not so with the iPad mini! It's super light, more than half the weight of the 10" iPad, and its sleek rounded edges are much more comfortable for carrying than the sharply-tapered edges of the iPad.
My initial reaction to the unveiling of the iPad mini was one of slight disappointment, mainly because it was closer to 8" than to the desired 7" of other tablets in its class. Why would Apple bother bringing a smaller iPad to market that's still not quite as small as some of the other 7" tablets floating around? Ah, but I was wrong.
Until I held it in my own hand, I failed to realize that Apple had made better use of the iPad mini's size than most 7" tablets do. What matters in a 7" tablet class isn't the screen size but the actual device size. The iPad mini is 3mm shorter and 7mm wider than the 7" Kindle Fire HD, yet it touts nearly an inch more of physical screen size.
===== Interaction Experience =====
Naturally, the iPad mini shares the iPad's same phenomenal multi-touch interface that is undisputedly second to none. Android tablets and other devices may tout "multi-touch" support, but usually this just means they support 2-finger gestures like pinch-style zooming. Apple, on the other hand, gives a whole new meaning to the term, supporting up to ten simultaneous touches, and app developers have certainly leveraged that capacity. For example, one popular app supporting ten simultaneous touches is the Piano app.
===== So What Can the iPad mini Actually Do? =====
Naturally, there are things you can do with the iPad mini right out of the box. You can browse the Web with Safari, set up your email, download your photos and videos from your computer via iTunes, as well as shoot new photos and videos using either of the two built in cameras. You can also surf YouTube via Apple's built-in YouTube app. There's also an iPod built in, so you can listen to your favorite tunes via the Music app, or download new music, movies and media via the iTunes app. Another popular app is iBooks, which lets you download and read e-books on your iPad mini. You can also jot notes, manage your calendar and contacts. You can even chat face-to-face with other Apple-device users via FaceTime.
Of course, the fun and usefulness of the iPad mini doesn't stop there. The App Store app is your portal to unending games and utilities. One thing Apple has been really good at is showing off just what you can do with an iPad, and the same goes for the iPad mini. All iPad apps work on the iPad mini. After all, the iPad mini is still an iPad. App developers have undoubtedly been busy creating unique experiences through their iPad apps, most of which have yet to be rivaled by (or ported to) Android and other tablets.
When Apple first announced the iPad they didn't tout it so much as an ebook reader as they did a "netbook killer" (due to its ability to surf the web, check email, watch videos, listen to music, and do a lot of the simpler tasks that netbooks were originally designed to do. But along its path to success, it sparked a revolution in the publication and delivery of full-color magazines, news and now even ebooks via Apple's iBooks app. Now, it's quite clear that Apple had the goal of a much more comfortable ebook reading experience in mind when they set out to create the iPad mini. You can easily hold it in one hand, just like a real book, and it's as light as a real book, two traits many users have been hoping to see come to fruition soon.
On the other hand, to use the iPad mini for more productive purposes, such as editing office documents, you'll need to download Apple's productivity suite iWork, a trilogy of apps including: Pages (word processing), Numbers (spreadsheets) and Keynote (slideshows). Each of the three apps can be downloaded separately for $9.99 each. Completely reworked for the iPad, the complete iWork suite will set you back a whole thirty bucks. So be aware of that before you go ahead and grab the iPad mini for use with work-related document editing, and so forth.
Also note that if you do intend to use the iPad for heavy writing or word-processing purposes, you'll find that your ability to type quickly will be greatly inhibited by the virtual keyboard. Thus, you should snag the external keyboard as well (Note: I'll also explain some typing techniques below). Either way, be prepared to pay more than merely the price for the iPad mini alone. There's clearly more than meets the eye if you intend to transform the iPad mini into something a little more productive than it might be for you out of the box.
===== Downloading Apps and Games =====
Downloading apps on your iPad mini couldn't be easier. Once you set up your iTunes account with a password and credit card (or iTunes gift card), all you need to do is launch the 'App Store' app, browse or search to find the app you want, tap the download button (usually it says the price rather than 'download', which then changes to 'install app' after you tap it), then tap again to confirm. Enter your password, and voila, you just bought an app. Behind the scenes, Apple then charges your card (or deducts from your gift card balance) the amount of the app plus tax, while you're already off enjoying your new purchase. This ease of access is a blessing and a curse, because you can easily empty your wallet if you're not carefully considering each purchase.
All apps in the App Store range in price from Free and 99 cents on up, always incrementing in whole dollar amounts (1.99, 2.99, 3.99, etc). The maximum price for an app is set to $999.99, of which there are only eight currently priced so outrageously. And don't even think of toying with them. Apple does not allow refunds on apps you have purchased--all sales are final!
Now for the juicy money-saving secrets of the App Store! With the proper resources, you can legitimately download thousands of high quality apps for free. I do it all the time and it's perfectly legal. You see, Apple allows developers to temporarily put their apps on sale (and even drop the price to free). Usually they do this in hopes that you'll write a rave review for the temporarily-free app. The secret to your success here is having the resources to help you spot these special app sales--so you know when and where to get them during these often extremely-limited-time promotions.
In hopes of making this the most helpful review for the iPad mini, here's how to obtain these special promotional-sale and temporarily-free apps for yourself!
There are several resources you can use, both on the Web and on the iPad mini itself. I prefer to use an app called "AppShopper" which lists all apps that recently went on sale or dropped to free. You can filter just iPad apps, or show iPhone apps as well, and you can also filter just the free products or just the sale apps. But so many apps go on sale, making it hard to cut through the clutter, which is where AppShopper truly shines: the "popular" tab shows only the most popularly downloaded sale apps. If several other people aren't downloading an app, you won't see it listed there! AppShopper is a phenomenal little gem, and it has gotten me tons of apps FREE! It also has a companion website that lists the same apps. You can even create an account and track the apps you own, so you don't end up trying to redownload them if they go on sale again! It also supports watch lists (via your account) with push notifications, and can alert you whenever an app you're interested in goes on sale. It's a real thing of beauty! There are other apps such as AppZappPush, AppSniper, AppAdvice, Apps Gone Free, and more, but none of them leverage the power of the masses to help you filter out the unwanted apps. Feel free to check them out if you like, though!
===== Typing on the iPad mini =====
Typing on the iPad mini has certainly become a bit less burdensome than with its 10" iPad counterpart, especially in the way of thumb-typing. However, typing lengthy messages can still be a concern. Obviously, the iPad mini is no laptop--you won't be speed-typing, so it may not be conducive for heavy usage like typing lengthy emails or blogging, let alone writing this review. With that in mind, there are a couple approaches you can try to determine what typing method is right for you. The ideal method might also change depending on where you are and how the iPad is oriented when using it.
Typing Method #1: Thumbs
The most flexible approach is to type with your thumbs, which can be done whether sitting or standing. In portrait mode: grasp the bottom of your iPad with your palms facing each other, and your pinky fingers towards you for the iPad to rest on. To stabilize the iPad and prevent it from flopping over and falling out of your hands, stretch both of your index fingers upwards towards the top of the iPad as much as is comfortable. Using your thumbs, hunt & peck the keys on the virtual keyboard to your heart's content.
Alternately, if you press and hold the show/hide button on the bottom right corner of the keyboard, you can choose to split the keyboard, which makes it easier for your thumbs to reach all keys. You can also choose to undock the keyboard, which centers it vertically on the screen, instead of at the bottom. Undocked keyboard can be split or merged, per your preferences.
Typing Method #2: Two Fingers
If thumb-typing isn't your style, try holding the iPad mini in one hand, like a book, and use your index and middle fingers to go back and forth across the virtual keyboard. Alternately, if the iPad mini is resting on a surface and is in landscape orientation, you could try using two fingers from each hand, but I don't think the iPad mini is big enough to type with your full range of fingers like the 10" iPad is.
Typing Method #3: Speech to Text
With iOS 5 and Siri, Apple has brought us an even more convenient way to type, thanks to Siri! Just hit the microphone icon on the lower-left side of the keyboard, and start speaking. In most cases, your words will be transcribed into the currently active text field, with potentially mis-interpreted words underlined in blue. Just select any such word, and a list of possible alternates will pop up for your choosing.
You can also speak most punctuation, such as 'period', 'question mark', 'exclamation mark', 'open-paren', 'close-paren', 'hyphen', 'single quote', 'double quote', 'ellipsis' and more. Siri is built into the iOS software and is a free service, but one caveat of using Siri for speech transcription is that you must be connected to the Web at the time of transcription, because Siri is a primarily Web-based service (albeit a free one). At times, network congestion has been known to hinder the ability for this feature to work properly, but that happens much less frequently now and usually only occurs if your device is connected to a poor cellular signal instead of WiFi.
Other methods of typing on the iPad include the external keyboard, as well as third party speech-to-text transcription apps like Dragon, but with Siri's voice transcription feature built in, the latter is no longer necessary.
===== Web Browsing =====
Alongside email, and spending money in the app store, Web browsing is one of Apple's biggest suggestions for using the device. The iPad mini's small stature is no less capable, and its screen resolution of 1024x768 tends to concur, especially in landscape mode. Most websites are around 800-1000 pixels wide, so when the iPad mini is in landscape orientation, Apple's built-in Safari Web browser or Google's downloadable Chrome app will render any sites that are less than 1024 pixels wide at their intended original size, meaning you see them at their true size, rather than seeing a smaller, more compressed version of the site. Chrome lets you keep an unlimited number of browser tabs in the background, while Safari limits you to 9 tabs (at least until iOS 6 is released).
The good thing about Web browsing on the iPad and iPad mini is that you can rotate the orientation. Content on the Web was born to be viewed vertically (in portrait orientation), not horizontally (landscape orientation) as most laptops and desktop computers use. In general, I tend to prefer browsing the Web in portrait mode, since web pages are almost always taller than they are wide. Still, even in portrait mode, the iPad mini allows you to see more content at a still-decent size. Of course, even in portrait orientation, the compressed pages rendered are still easily readable without squinting your eyes, which isn't often the case for Web browsing on the iPhone/iPod Touch. Plus, you can always zoom into any section by quickly double tapping any region of the active page. Even zoomed-in regions are displayed with crisp clarity, and the browser's interface is swift and responsive.
While I found browsing the Web with a 10" iPad to be a literal pain in the neck, the lightweight and small stature of the iPad mini has certainly improved the experience. It's easier to handle, to hold upright with a single hand while browsing the web with the other, and it's more comfortable to hold. Since I didn't surf much with my 10" iPad, I have no qualms about the lack of a retina display. I'd rather have this iPad mini with the same resolution as the iPad 2 and a 10-hour battery life with a much smaller batter, than to have an iPad mini with a retina display and either a 4-hour battery life, or a battery as heavy as that of the 10" iPad!
===== Email, IM and Social Networking =====
Email on the iPad mini's Mail app is best viewed in landscape mode, as it allows you to see both your list of messages on the left as well as the selected message itself on the right. It also makes managing emails easier, such as moving messages to other folders (or to the trash). Another reason for landscape mode is to make typing those lengthy emails easier (using typing-method #2 mentioned above).
You can have multiple email accounts, including Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, MobileMe, Microsoft Exchange and other custom POP3 and IMAP accounts.
Important Note: With the growing number of portable web connecting devices, there is one concern I want to express on your behalf. When you close the Mail app, it continues running in the background, even after disconnecting from one WiFi hotspot and reconnecting to another. My concern with this is that if haven't set up your e-mail with a secure connection, and you connect to a public WiFi hotspot that a malicious user is monitoring, then the instant your mail app connects to the hotspot to check your e-mail, your e-mail credentials may be suddenly compromised. To avoid this you definitely want to be using some kind of secure connection for your e-mail if at all possible. Web-based email such as Gmail typically support this out of the box, and Gmail accounts are the easiest to setup on the iPad mini.
===== Media =====
If you own an iPhone or iPod Touch, it's comforting to know that you audio/video experience will be similar on the iPad mini. You can watch videos via the YouTube app, which has been updated for the iPad mini to show YouTube HD videos beautifully. While the 1024x768 resolution of the iPad mini is a standard 4:3 ratio, not a widescreen 16:9 ratio, the HD videos as well as other video (including downloads from the iTunes store) display just fine, albeit with black bars. Some may not like that though, but I don't see a wide-screen iPad mini coming to market for a while.
The Netflix and Hulu+ apps are great for members of those online video streaming services. Netflix videos stream quickly and even moving the play position back and forth in the timeline, the movie starts playing very quick without much time rebuffering the video. For those who want to watch live TV, I also recommend getting yourself a Slingbox and snagging the SlingPlayer app to stream live TV to your iPad mini. I do that, and it works quite well!
===== Photos and Video =====
The new iPad mini brings a phenomenal new high-quality 5MP camera to market that picks up where the iPad 2's half-megapixel camera left off. 5 lenses inside the aperture, and the more powerful processor, combine to create the sharpest iPad image yet. Even low-light pictures are better than ever, though there's still room for improvement there. There's also a new iPhoto app from Apple that lets you organize, edit and share your photos right on the iPad mini!
Plus, you can now record full-HD (1080p) videos, instead of just the previous 720p videos. Though I must warn you, if you plan to shoot a lot of video with the iPad mini, you'll want to go with a 32GB or 64GB model! These incredibly high-quality videos take up an incredibly large amount of storage space!
===== E-Reading =====
Whether it's books, magazines or news, the iPad is making an impact on the future of media reading on a whole new level. Apple has been under-emphasizing the e-book and e-publication reading capabilities of the iPad to date, but I feel it's one of the iPad mini's greatest strengths, especially with it being about the size of a book. Magazine, newspaper and now book publishers have been jumping onboard the iPad bandwagon by creating their own iBooks and iPad apps, taking their publications to a whole new level, interactively and financially too.
My experiences interacting with some of these digital representations of magazines and newspapers have been a breath of fresh air. Being able to read them on a screen simply isn't enough. The ability to still touch them, combined with a rich interactivity on a level that can't be matched by their printed counterparts has really given new life to what I feared was becoming a dying trade. Of course, another big perk for me has been the ability to save space because now I can keep all my magazines around without ever taking up more than the size of a single book.
As far as Amazon ebooks go, you're not losing out by passing up on their Kindle line of tablets, because you have full access to Kindle books on the iPad mini via Amazon's Kindle app. If you read a lot outdoors and don't mind reading in shades of gray rather than in full-color, then perhaps the Kindle Paperwhite (not Kindle Fire) is more your style. Kindle uses e-ink which is much easier to read in the sunlight.
All in all, the iPad mini is an great e-reader on a whole new level. Had it touted a retina display, text would be slightly more crisp, albeit at the cost of long battery life. I'll take longer battery life over slightly more crisp text any day. Text on the iPad mini looks fine, unless it's really small, and that's usually only the case for an occasional website, but not ebooks.
===== Productivity =====
Productivity carries numerous definitions. Usually its "getting something done" though some people tend to believe that it's the ability to focus without being distracted, which I see as one of the iPad mini's strengths because of its single-app-at-a-time multitasking approach.
In the context of software though, applications that allow you to edit office documents are commonly referred to as productivity software. Apple's own suite of productivity apps, collectively called "iWork", lets you do just that. For work-minded individuals, it will probably one of the most popular uses of the iPad mini. There are three apps in all: Pages is a word processing app that allows you to create and edit word processing documents, Numbers allows you to create and edit spreadsheets, and Keynote, which lets you create or edit presentations and slideshows (including PowerPoint files). Keynote has been pretty invaluable in giving personal presentations within small groups or one-on-one meetings with an iPad, but I'm not sure the iPad mini would be as comfortable using for presentations.
There's also a productivity category in the App Store dedicated to additional apps geared towards helping you be more productive. Remember, any app that works for the iPhone and iPad will run on the iPad mini, but do note that there are some exceptional productivity apps specifically made or updated for the iPad and iPad mini. Some notable iPad-specific productivity apps include Bento (personal organization/information management), Things (project management), iTeleport (remote desktop/VNC), Layers (drawing/painting), and GoodReader (best PDF+ reader around).
===== Gaming =====
If you're like me, you probably don't have time for games. Ultimately, I still see the iPad as a productivity device more than as a gaming console. Regardless, the iPhone and iPad changed the game on that. Millions of people use their computers for gaming, and with the iPhone and iPod Touch having taken on a clear role as a gaming console that has been as revolutionary for mobile gaming as the Wii was for living-room gaming, it goes without saying that the iPad mini is, and will continue to be, a decent platform for playing games. Most Android games look terrible on tablet-sized screens, but iPad game developers have taken care of iPad users with good quality iPad versions of most iPhone games. Board games and lap-friendly games are better for the 10" iPad than the iPad mini. Meanwhile, games heavily dependent on device-rotation and other accelerometer-based interaction are much conducive for use on the iPad mini than the 10" iPad.
===== Printing =====
Printing with the iPad mini is really hit-or-miss. Apple's iOS 4 brought the ability to print documents from their devices, but there are some caveats. Your printer must support "AirPrint" or, if yours doesn't, you might have success using Printopia software, so long as you have a Mac with a shared printer. Search Google for 'AirPrint' or 'Printopia' for more info and printer compatibility. From there, printing is easy, for apps that support it. The first time you attempt to print something, the iPad mini will walk you through the process of locating the printer and setting up the printing options. For more information about printing with your iPad mini, I'll link to some informative off-site pages in the first comment for this review.
===== Security =====
With portable devices, there should always be some level of concern regarding the safety and protection of your data. The iPad mini delivers surprisingly well in the area--it provides several layers of security to protect your data. You can require complex passcodes to securely access important information, encrypt data whether stored or transferred over WiFi, and even remotely wipe everything from your iPad instantly in the event of theft or loss (with subscription to Apple's MobileMe service). Apple even provides a free device-location service.
===== Praise =====
+ Clever use of space to cram an 8" screen into a 7" class of device that can be held with one hand!
+ Apple continues its trend of creating the best multi-touch experience around. Android doesn't even come close.
+ High performance 1GHz A5X processor - provides performance power for cutting-edge gaming and multitasking. + Multitasks like a dream with iOS 5 and the dual-core A5 processor, despite the same 256MB of memory as the third generation touch.
+ Rear camera - 5 megapixel photography goodness, plus it can do HD video.
+ 4G LTE - It's clearly the next big thing for improving connection speed when away from WiFi
+ Supported on Sprint - previous iPads only supported Verizon and AT&T
+ Lower iPad entry price point
===== Disappointments =====
+ No GPS (or assisted GPS with 4G model) - IP based location just doesn't cut it at times. GPS has no subscription fee or contract to use
+ No NFC - Near Field Communications is what powers PayPass in credit cards, and there are certainly uses for it in devices, especially for data transfer, if not for making payments or redeeming passes with the Passbook app.
+ No 128GB model - would have been useful for high-res videos, or hold more of those 1080p videos you can shoot
+ No USB or SD card slot - for storage expansion, or more importantly, for importing pics from your external camera for use with the new iPhoto app
+ No numeric character row in keyboard, despite plenty of space on the iPad and iPad mini's screen.
===== The Bottom Line =====
There's really not much to complain about in an iPad now. Sure, retina display would be nice, but if we'd been given that, we'd be complaining about battery life, heavy weight or performance issues. Meanwhile, the 10" iPad has its uses, but portability isn't one of its strong suits. The iPad mini now fills that gap, and it's really been a dream to use. If 10" is comfortable for you, go with an iPad. As for me, the iPad mini has mostly lived up to my tablet desires.
Do you really 'need' the retina display? The honest truth is, no. See, Apple has certainly come to spoil us with its latest and greatest hardware, including the retina display, but I really don't see the iPad mini's less phenomenal display as a real deal breaker. I also a believer that the original iPad or iPad 2 are still great devices if you like the 10" class of tablet, and they don't have the retina display. So, really, why wait around another year for something better to come along? Then again, there's no absolute guarantee that the next iPad mini will even have that retina display.
The bottom line is, don't wait around and waste these precious cycles of your life hoping and betting on something better to come around, when you can always buy the current iPad Mini now, enjoy it now, and resell it down the road. Apple products always hold most of their value for a long time, because they're in such high demand.
I hope you've found my hands-on review helpful. Feel free to keep the discussion going via the comments!