iPad Mini Review: Few Surprises, Lots Of Questions

After spending a weekend playing with the iPad Mini, I can say conclusively that it's... a smaller iPad. Sure, there are few more things to say about it - and I'll get to them - but the Mini really is nothing but a scaled down iPad 2. 

The real questions are a) How does the size change the tablet experience and, b) How does the diminutive device fit into the tablet market?

When I got my mitts on the iPad Mini, I had dreams of going deep into its unique features and specs. But why bother? I've been using an iPad 2 for months and the Mini is, as promised, basically the same thing with a smaller screen. That's a good thing, of course, as the iPad is still the gold standard for tablets, and the Mini delivers pretty much all of the standard iPad performance - in a smaller package. It's markedly better than the other small tablets out there, including Google's Nexus 7 and Amazon's Kindle Fire HD.

Apps worked just fine, with no hiccups. The five-megapixel back camera took much better still pictures than does an iPad 2 (though still not great), the speakers sounded much better (though still not great), and Apple's new Lightning connector wouldn't work with any iOS peripherals in my house.

Actually using the Mini was significantly different than using a full-size iPad in that some tasks felt more natural on the Mini.

What Worked Well?

Any app with a simple layout took to the smaller iPad like a duck to water. Email worked great, for instance. The 7.9-inch screen is plenty big enough to work with messages, and the app seemed more concentrated, somehow. I didn't miss the extra size at all.

Reading books or long blocks of text worked great, too. A single column fills the smaller screen nicely, and the smaller, lighter Mini is more comfortable to hold, especially in one hand. 

Taking photos holding a Mini felt noticeably less ridiculous than holding an iPad. Still felt kinda ridiculous, though.

Being smaller and lighter, the Mini is more likely become a constant companion - especially when Apple adds fast, fourth-generation LTE connectivity in future models. Having a smaller tablet with you at the coffee shop is way better than having a bigger one back at home.

What Worked Less Well?

Apps that squish a lot of stuff on the screen, not surprisingly, fared less well. Even though the Mini's screen has the same resolution as the iPad 2, the shrunken size made busy apps harder to read and navigate.

That dynamic was even more true for browsing Web pages. Simple pages looked great, as did ones that dynamically adjusted the layout to optimize for my screen (ReadWrite.com, for example!) But complex pages and images larger than 1024 x 768 overwhelmed the screen, forcing me to zoom and scroll and squint.

The smaller screen covers for the Mini's lack of HD video. But even though movies and videoconferences played fine (Heck, those things work fine on the iPhone, too.), they didn't generate the same impact that they do on a full-sized iPad. 

Where Does The Mini Fit?

As I was testing it, I kept wondering if I would buy one, or even who it was best suited for. I already have a full-size iPad and a seven-inch Nexus 7 tablet. I don't think I'll be buying a Mini as well.

But what if I was looking for my first tablet? Or if I only had the iPad 2? 

If I had no tablet, I would consider the iPad Mini. It's a nice compromise between the cheap seven-inch tablets like the Nexus 7, Kindle HD and the spendier 10-inch options. My only concern would be price.

If I was stretched, $200 for one of the competing little guys might change my mind. For people who aren't invested in the Apple ecosystem. Jumping from there to the $329 iPad Mini is a 60%-plus premium. It's clear the Mini is a superior device, but that's a big difference.

For people with a little more money to spend, there's only a $70 gap between the iPad Mini and the iPad 2 or Google's new Nexus 10. If I could swing it - and I was planning to use the tablet primarily at home - one of those larger devices would be mighty tempting. As would a fourth-generation iPad or Microsoft Surface if I had a little more cash to spend.

I'm sure Apple will have no trouble selling all the iPad Minis it can make this year, but the market sweet spot is kind of limited: People who really want an iPad but can't afford the extra $70.

And what about those who aleady have a full-size iPad? Well, I wrote recently that I sometimes reach for various tablets depending on what I want to do. But I also wrote that, "If I was forced to give one up, which one would it be? The seven-incher, no question." (See How Many Screens Does One Man Need?)

Plenty of Apple fans will undoubtably want two sizes of iPad. But most people will choose one size or the other. And for me, given the price differentials, I think I'd spend my dough on a full-size iPad - and add a cheap, seven-inch tablet if I really needed something more portable as well.

I may be wrong about that, though. ReadWrite's Dan Frommer believes the Mini is now the "real" iPad. I'm guessing Tim Cook thinks it is, too.