Thursday, December 20, 2012

Small is Beautiful: The iPad Mini

A month ago, I sold my 3rd-generation, Retina-screen iPad and bought an iPad Mini. It was inevitable, given my taste in equipment: I never owned an iPod before the Nano. My favorite pre-Intel Mac was the 12” PowerBook. Before 2009, I never even considered a MacBook Pro because they started at 15”. The day the 11” MacBook Air was announced I told my wife it was my next computer. And since acquiring the iPad—even smaller than the Air—it has been my main computer.

And therein lay my one reservation, the feeling that this time I may have gone too small. The Mini's appeal is obvious: greater portability, easier to hold in one hand while reading, lower cost of entry, sleek and attractive design. But my iPad functioned as a computer. I created and maintained spreadsheets on it. I used it to surf the web and write email. Prior to negotiating my current position, I even conducted an entire job search on it—finding listings via Safari, creating resumes and cover letters in Pages, uploading them to recruitment sites via iCab, and so on.

All of those tasks can still be done. In fact, thanks to the Mini’s small footprint, they can be done in even more situations. But I worried about losing another fundamental computing task: I can touch-type on the full-size iPad screen. Not as fast as with a physical keyboard, but fast enough to accomplish real work (with iOS’s sometimes-maddening but generally-excellent autocorrect, my iPad typing was also surprisingly accurate). I was certain the Mini would make touch-typing impossible.

If I put on my reviewer's hat, then I can see this fear is unwarranted. I suspect the vast majority of users who haven’t tried (and even most who have) feel that touch-typing is something you do with a keyboard, not a touchscreen. Losing that capability on the Mini is a non-issue. And, in fact, I have been pleasantly surprised by how well I can type on the Mini in landscape orientation. My speed and accuracy dropped, but my typing is still passable. Typists with larger hands will have a more difficult time, but the Mini offers a happy tradeoff—thumb-typing in portrait is easier than on the 10” iPads. And, naturally, the experience with a Bluetooth keyboard is just as good as on the full-size iPad.

“Just as good” evokes one thing all potential buyers should know: the experience of the Mini is the same as on the full-size iPad, only smaller. iOS is the same, the apps are the same, and the Mini even benchmarks about as well as the 3rd-generation Retina iPad. I find the reading experience to be better for ebooks and the web. This is a credit to its 7.9 by 5.3 by 0.28 inch size and its mere .68 lbs. weight. Apple’s vivid comparisons (“as thin as a pencil”) fail to do it justice. It truly feels too thin, too light, to be capable of what it can do. Which is, again, anything that a full-size iPad can do.

Except, of course, display Retina graphics. This has been a sticking point in commentary on the iPad Mini when announced (and reviews when launched), but the concern has been overblown. The screen offers the same resolution (and a higher pixel density) for those upgrading from a first-generation iPad or iPad 2. And surely the new form factor and lower price point will attract new buyers to the iPad. Those two groups will surely make up the majority of first-year buyers of the Mini. For those who do “upgrade” from the first Retina iPad to the Mini (as I did), I feel the concern is still exaggerated. I definitely noticed the difference. For about a day. The pixel density on the Mini is fine, particularly at the distance it is usually held from the eyes. After a few hours of use, graphics and text on the Mini look crisp and clear. I look forward to a Retina version, but the Mini is good enough I doubt I’ll upgrade immediately.

Speaking of overblown concerns, I think more can (and should) be said about the form factor. Size, after all, defines Mini. The standard iPad 3:4 aspect ratio means widescreen video will always be letterboxed, but the tradeoff is more than worth it as it makes for a good experience in most apps in either portrait or landscape (and video still looks great). Much has been made of how Steve Jobs slammed the 7” form factor of many Android tablet, and yet the post-Jobs Apple ships a smaller tablet. Of course, such flip-flopping accusations ignore the fact that the iPad Mini’s 7.9” screen is closer to eight than to seven, and that distinction makes a world of difference. To put it in terms an Android proponent will understand: if a 4”Android phone screen was an advantage over the 3.5” iPhone screen, then an 8” screen on an iPad Mini should be, proportionally, just as big an advantage over a 7”-screen Android tablet.

And the screen size is good for iOS; as Apple has said, if developers follow tap-target-size guidance, their apps will already be appropriately-sized for the Mini. I haven’t had much trouble with touch in general—the “accidental touch” detection in the edges works well (to prevent, for example, inadvertent page turns in iBooks when resting a thumb on the screen). I haven't noticed any added difficulty in hitting even fairly small tap targets (the red “delete app” X’s, for example). I don’t know if that would be true for a 7” or smaller iPad.

The size makes the Mini the best eReader I’ve owned, the best tablet I’ve owned, and maybe even my favorite computer I’ve owned. It is capable and fun to use—just like a full-size iPad—and almost insanely portable. I don’t know that I fully agree with Dan Frommer’s quip that “This is the real iPad,” but the Mini is definitely something special, and it's the only iPad for me.