iPad mini wins praise in initial "hands-on" reviews

So far so good for the itsy iPad

The first slew of brief "hands on" experiences with the iPad mini - by reporters and bloggers at Apple's unveiling Tuesday - give high marks to the smaller tablet for build quality, lightness, display and performance.

The latter two are especially important because iPad mini doesn't offer the high-end high resolution Retina Display in the full-size iPad released earlier this year, and uses an "older" Apple processor.

HEAD TO HEAD: iPad Mini vs. Nexus 7

FIRST LOOK: Apple iPad mini 

Apple's design to go with a 7.9-inch diagonal screen is very deliberate: it's nearly two inches shorter than the regular iPad, but also nearly one inch longer than popular 7-inch rivals such as the Google Nexus 7 and the Amazon Kindle Fire. That means, says Apple, the iPad mini has a screen area 35% greater than the 7-inch tablets. The impact is very obvious, according to launch event attendees who got to play with iPad minis afterwards.

"[C]ompared to something like the Nexus 7, it does feel more hefty in your hands, though the thinness of the device seems to make up for a bigger surface area," writes Joshua Topolsky for The Verge. "To be clear, it's an incredibly thin and light design, with a lean profile despite being larger than some of the devices it challenges."

The legendary Apple "build quality" - evident here in the aluminum unibody and diamond-cut chamfered edge that first appeared in the iPhone 5 and the fit of glass to body - also makes a strong impression. "By comparison, the Nexus 7 and Fire HD feel like toys," Topolsky says.

"The thinness and sleekness of the casing cannot be overstated," he says. "It feels as high-end as the new iPhone, but even sharper in the hand like a slice of solid aluminum."

Though the iPad mini LED-backlit screen has 1,024 x 768 resolution (the same as iPad 2), compared to the Retina Display's 2,048 x 1,536 in the newest full-size iPad, it looks "incredibly sharp," Topolsky says. The screen "looks fantastic," agrees Luke Peters, writing for the British tech website T3. "Colours are vivid, text is pin sharp, web pages render quickly and, because there's almost a 4:3 ratio going on, you get a lot of content on page."

Another benefit of using the iPad 2 resolution, says Peters: existing "apps all work without any letter-boxing."

One of the more obvious exterior changes compared to the full-size tablet is the narrower margins or bezels to the left and right of the mini. "At first glance, the narrow side bezels look somewhat odd, but they make far more sense when you actually pick the iPad mini up," writes Vincent Nguyen for Slashgear

"You can grip it comfortably in one hand, fingers wrapping around the edges just as we've praised Amazon's Kindles and other small e-reader tablets for in the past," he says. "That, together with the relatively light weight compared to the full-sized iPad, means holding the iPad mini one-handed for extended periods should be comfortable."

As with the display, so with the CPU. The mini uses Apple's existing A5 system-on-chip, which powers iPhone 4S and iPad 2, though it may be using a smaller fabrication process, 32 instead of 45 nanometers. The A5 is based on a dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore CPU, with a dual-core PowerVR SGX543MP2 graphics processor. And it seems well chosen for the first iPad min model, even for demanding game titles.

"Applications I tried out seemed to run as snappily as anything on the 3rd generation iPad," Topolsky says. "Titles like 'Real Racing 2' seemed to take a little bit more time to boot up, but gameplay was fine and stutter-free."

The "A5 processor powered apps, games and websites along very smoothly," says T3's Peters.

Others did see a performance difference, at least compared to the new A6X Apple chip in the unexpected upgrade to the full-size iPad, also announced yesterday. This fourth-generation full-size iPad offers double the CPU and graphics performance of the A5X chip in the third-generation iPad, which was released earlier this year. The upgraded iPad also has the smaller Lightning dock connector.

The A6 was introduced in the iPhone 5 in September and represents Apple's first system-on-chip that offers its own custom-designed ARM cores. For more details, see "iPhone 5 shows an Apple first: custom CPU core design."

"In terms of performance, there's a pretty noticeable difference between the A5 in the iPad mini and the A6X in the 4th gen iPad as you'd expect," says Anand Lal Shimpi, in a brief hands-on assessment posted at his AnandTech blog. "I do wish that Apple had brought the A6 to the mini, however something has to give in pursuit of the lower price point."

One of the most notable features of the iPad mini is its lightness (10.9 ounces), he says. "The build quality and finish both feel good as you'd expect, but the device is just considerably lighter than the iPad which results in superior in-hand feel," according to Lal Shimpi.

The larger screen and lighter feel create a tablet that's "even more portable than the standard iPad," he says, in a conclusion echoed by T3's Peters. "The smaller size, thinner shape and lighter weight makes for a much better mobile experience," Peters writes. "It's easy to hold and manipulate in the hand but feels durable and well-built enough to accompany you throughout the day."

Less impressed is Darren Murph, assessing the mini for Engadget, who was struck by what he saw as a lack of "breakthrough hardware."

"The device itself is precisely what you'd expect it to be: a slightly shrunken iPad, with a rear that resembles the new iPod touch," he says. "The volume rocker, orientation/mute switch and bottom-mounted speakers are graciously borrowed from the conventional iPad, while the rest of the exterior maintains a pretty familiar look." As he notes, there is no touch sensitive bezel, wireless charging or USB 3.0 support, which are found in some rival tablets, but in none of Apple's.

"If you were looking for breakthrough hardware additions, you'll be sorely disappointed," he writes, sounding sorely disappointed.

Murph has concluded that "the smaller iPad is clearly aimed at classrooms and readers -- two sectors where frills aren't exactly necessary." The small iPad "excels" in the tablet's "overall fit and finish" though it's "still not 'small'", and is "too big for your average pocket, and it's not going to save you a heck of a lot of room in your knapsack compared to the 9.7-incher."

The main attraction seems to be the price. "With a $329 starting point, it'll hit the sweet spot for many prospective consumers who weren't about to drop $500 on the 9.7-inch iPad," he says. And that includes, he says, schools and those users who are really more interested in e-readers than handheld computers. "[T]here's a subtle marketing push that's aiming this less at general computing users and more at readers," Murph says.

Sascha Segan, writing at PC Magazine, fulsomely praised the mini's "spectacular, nearly surreal build quality and its amazing array of apps." But he still thought the small tablet makes "two ergonomic missteps, though, which is surprising for Apple."

Onscreen buttons and icons are now smaller compared to the full-sized iPad. He found this a subtle but noticeable difference. "With the regular iPad, you don't have to move all that precisely; this little iPad demands a little more exactitude," Segan says. "It'll take some more time to find out whether this makes a noticeable difference in usability."

Second, the mini is "not a one-handed tablet," he says. "[L]et's remember that Apple is selling the iPhone 5 as better than the competition at one-handed use specifically because of how narrow it is," Segan writes. "Now here comes the iPad mini, which is a better one-handed tablet because ... it's wider than the competition."

That added width "makes a significant ergonomic difference, and it isn't in the iPad mini's favor," he says. He thinks that probably won't matter to Apple's prime target market: school kids, who won't see iPad mini as a one-handed device.

The mini's starting price of $329 is considerably higher than rival products from Amazon and Google. But for a lot of buyers, that won't matter either, Segan argues. "Apple is selling this as a premium small tablet, and if anyone can pull that off, Apple can," he writes. "Apple thinks it can charge the premium for all of the well-known advantages its ecosystem has - not only the 275,000 apps, but the wide variety of accessories and the in-person support and sales experience at Apple Stores."

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