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Apple iPad mini MD529LL
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Apple iPad mini MD529LL

Apple iPad mini

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Nearly three years after basically creating and dominating the tablet market Apple’s long awaited iPad mini is finally here. With an emphasis on a smaller form factor and lighter weight, it’s clear Apple isn’t ceding the 7” tablet market to upstarts like Amazon’s Kindle Fire, B&N’s Nook, or any of the endless (or what feels like endless) Android derivatives all gunning for some of that lucrative market share. While the company has crowed for years that a 7” iPad wouldn’t provide the same experience as its industry leading original, the tune has obviously changed, and those seeking their tablet thrills on an iOS device now have another size option to choose from.

And what a size it is; a 7.9” form factor (reversed from the original iPad’s beefier 9.7”) make the mini a slightly bigger, yet lighter, option than its most immediate rivals, the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7. While the mini does take a few steps backward, technologically speaking, than many of its recent iOS device brethren, it compensates by simply being what it is: a smaller, sleeker, and more desirable tablet than most thought a simple size reduction would produce. But will that be enough for those users wanting the best in both technology and comfort?

With all due apologies to those ‘other’ tablets, but just placing the iPad mini next to any other smaller tablet becomes an exercise in modesty; Apple claims the mini is “as thin as a pencil”, and they’re not kidding. The singular anodized aluminum casing looks and feels outstanding, and not only does it give it the same ‘wow’ appeal of the newer iPhone and iPod Touch 5 bodies, but also substantially reduces its weight and heft – both critical for tablet junkies. At just .68 lbs it’s the lightest tablet in its class, despite having a larger size than most, and those coming in from the comparatively hefty original iPad might be astonished at just how featherweight it is.

The overall organizational design is instantly familiar, at least for those familiar with larger iPads. The power button still rests comfortably on top, as does a small microphone slit and easy-access 3.5mm headphone jack. The volume controls are now individual buttons, no longer a single rocker, and still sit on the right-hand side with the orientation-lock switch. On the bottom are two speaker grates, looking a lot like those on the iPhone 5, with the smaller new Thunderbolt port nestled between them. Of course, the familiar circular Home button is present and accounted for, though it’s a bit smaller here as well (but still highly clickable).

For the most part, the same technological guts powering the recent iPod Touch 5 also power the iPad mini, minus the higher-resolution Retina Display. The same A5 processor, the same 512MB RAM, and even the same screen resolution (more on that in a minute). If this sounds familiar, it should, as the mini isn’t just a smaller iPad 2, but also a larger iPod Touch 5, with pretty much the same performance all around.

By far the biggest improvement over the standard iPad 2 are the new cameras, both of which received a major update; the rear camera is now an impressive 5 megapixel iSight lens packing nearly all of the software features of recent iOS cameras, including image stabilization, face detection, and is capable of shooting decent 1080p high-definition video. Curiously, there’s no panorama feature here, though I can’t imagine most people will replace their favorite point-and-shoot for the mini anytime soon. The front camera also gets a much-needed boost, from the pathetic VGA-quality mess of the original to a more acceptable 1.2 megapixel lens – good enough for 720p FaceTime (and Skype!) video calls but not much else. At least it’s there…

In many ways the mini feels like what the future of the iPad lineup itself is going to be, yet isn’t quite there just yet. I’ve no doubt that anyone who picks this initial version up will find it the most capable, most friendly, and even – yes –  the most delightful smaller tablet they’ve ever used. In much the same way the iPod Nano eventually overtook its iPod namesake; it’s an easy bet that we’ll eventually see the mini overtake the larger, heavier iPad models in popularity, and probably a lot sooner than most realize.

Plenty of ballyhoo has been made about the mini’s relatively ‘weaker’ screen resolution than, well, every other newer Apple product as of late. Unlike the new iPhones, iPod Touches, and bigger iPads, the mini doesn’t sport the higher-resolution Retina Display, instead adopting the iPad 2’s lower 1024 x 768 resolution in a smaller form factor. It’s also still the same 4:3 aspect ratio, and coupled with a 7.9” size means a slightly larger viewing area than other 7” tablets, and this is evident when browsing the web or playing games. This also makes the mini easier to hold in either landscape or portrait modes. The trade off, unfortunately, are some funky letterboxing when watching most movies and television shows presented in full 16:9 aspect ratios.

Yes, the mini technically has a ‘worse’ screen than several of its Android-powered competitors, most notably the Amazon Kindle Fire HD and Google’s Nexus 7, but it’s a forgivable compromise when you really think about it. Retaining the iPad 2’s resolution means the smaller 7.9” mini also retains 100% backwards-compatibility with every iPad-only and Universal App in Apple’s ecosystem. Considering there are over 250,000 iPad-centric Apps available already this means you’ll enjoy more tablet-ready Apps at appropriate resolutions on the mini then you will anywhere else, opposed to the majority of phone-resolution Apps blown up and stretched to fill the larger screens on 7” Android tablets.

And, in the mini’s defense, this isn’t exactly the iPad 2’s screen; there’s a slight resolution bump in the pixels per inch (ppi), expanded from the 2’s 132 ppi to a slightly better 163 ppi, as well as the mini’s new bonded IPS display that’s terrifically efficient, displaying  brighter colors, deeper black levels, and far better viewing angles. Another neat feature of the mini’s display is that it’s able to track where your thumb is placed on the screen, ‘guessing’ whether your stubby digit is in motion or just resting (as with reading books or websites). This feature was no doubt prompted by the mini’s near-absence of a wider bezel, but it’s a nice evolutionary step in smarter, more natural displays that are willing to trim precious inches to create a more workable experience with less space.

Another advantage to the mini over the larger iPad comes from an unexpected place – reading eBooks. You’d think that a smaller, lower resolution screen means more eyestrain and headaches, but that isn’t the case here. As someone who actually prefers smaller screens for reading I found the mini practically perfect for the long haul – the smaller form factor matches up with most paperback book sizes and the available font sizes (especially in iBooks) were always crisp and clear. And considering the vast number of available e-reading software out there (including Amazon’s Kindle and B&N’s Nook), you’ve basically got the best and most bountiful digital reading experience on any tablet.

The mini comes pre-loaded with Apple’s iOS 6, the latest – and most controversial – upgrade to the mobile operating system that powers all iOS devices. The mini doesn’t get Apple’s Passbook App for supposed ‘easier buying’, but as someone who’s struggled to find a use for it on my other iDevice, I won’t say mini users will miss it. Regardless, you’ll get a great suite of ready-to-use Apps like Safari, Mail, FaceTime, Photos, and more right away, complete with Apple’s iCloud backup support if you need to reboot or carryover details from another iOS device (or devices).

So what else can you download and enjoy with the mini? Quite a bit, actually. Any available App for the regular-sized iPad is available for the mini. Yes, some Apps with more complex user-interfaces may look a little scrunched on the smaller screen but I’ve yet to see this as a detraction in any of the Apps I tested so far. Rest assured that the mini has by far the most available Apps, games, and software ready to play with than any other tablet out there.

And yes, the Mini does have full Siri support for those looking to test-drive Apple’s voice-controlled assistant. As with her other recent appearances on the iPhone 5 and iPod Touch 5, Siri’s gotten a lot better at her job over the past year, thanks in particular to plenty of new content providers like Yelp and Rotten Tomatoes, though the experience is still far from perfect. She’ll still help you find a movie and even purchase tickets, send personalized texts, and nearly all the future-type stuff that Apple will let her do, but you’ll need a constant internet connection (in this case WiFi) to use any of them. And even then the results can be scatterbrained, inaccurate, or just a bit too advertisement-friendly to be of much help when you really need it.

Presumably, the new Maps App – limited on any WiFi-only iOS device, will be worlds better on mobile broadband-equipped minis than it is on the WiFi only models (just a guess since they aren’t available at the time of this review), but for now it’s there if you need an offline map service.

The iPad mini is easily the best-looking, most comfortable, and ready to use tablet currently on the market – more so than any of its Android-powered competitors and even its bigger brother, the original (and larger) iPad models. With it Apple has essentially miniaturized the iPad 2 into a smaller form factor by reusing much of the same tech, improved the cameras, and added Siri support. Yes, the resolution is lower than many of its newer 7” competitors, and while it’s certainly not a Retina Display the screen still looks pretty great, especially for extended e-reading sessions. But its biggest advantage is the sheer number of available Apps ready to go – there’s 100% backwards-compatibility with all iPad models here. The price might be higher than other 7” tablets – many with better individual features – but If you absolutely must have the best overall 7” tablet on the market right now then by all means grab yourself an iPad mini.

Those with more patience, however, will no doubt be rewarded with an even better – and possibly cheaper – model sooner than later. But at this point it’s becoming evident that the tablet market – like all markets – will be dictated less on who has the best tech and more on who provides the best overall experience. In that respect, even a (relatively) underpowered mini still towers above the rest.

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About the Author: Trent McGee