The iPad Mini Is Exactly What Everyone Says It Is, Except When It Isn’t

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I was holding out. I was waiting for the next version, but then review cases started piling up that I wanted to review, and the next thing I knew I was bombarding the Apple store with visits trying to track down an iPad mini. If you follow me on Twitter – and you should – you know I’ve been recommending that people wait for a Retina version. I caved. I bought the first-generation iPad mini, and it’s exactly like everyone says it is, and in some cases better, and in a lot of cases there’s been a lot unstated about the device that almost makes it a terrible purchase.

I did some digging, and it seems like a lot of the first reviews and follow up reviews failed to mention a lot of things about the iPad mini. We thought we would take a moment, take a step back from all of the release day hype surrounding the iPad mini, and then let you know exactly what the pros and cons of the device are before you head out this holiday seasons and buy one for someone. There’s a lot to love about the iPad mini, but there’s also some downside too.

The Size And Weight – Pure Perfection

I’m on record as loving all things tiny when it comes to my tech. The best MacBook I’ve every owned is my current 11-inch MacBook Air, which only recently replaced my undying love for my old G4 iBook from that top spot. We live in an age where prolonged commutes are the norm. Getting from meeting to meeting with a giant 17-inch MacBook is a thing of the past. My mobile devices, including my iPhone, MacBook, and iPad, need to be thin and light. The iPad mini is exactly what I’m looking for in a tablet. In fact, if it wasn’t for some issues I have (more on that later), I would never even consider going back to a full-sized iPad again. The device is light, and you can almost use it with one hand instead of two, something that the normal iPad just can’t do at its current size.

Apple got the size right. I can’t say enough good things about the form factor of the device. Putting the iPad mini in my satchel with my MacBook Air happens often. I rarely notice the additional weight. The device fits in side pockets, secondary compartments, and tight spaces quite regularly when I need to cart it around with me on a daily basis.

The iPad mini is the perfect business device, and the perfect device for the couch. It’s everything we’ve come to love about the iPad, and it’s everything we thought a smaller iPad could be when the rumors were swirling long before the iPad mini announcement from Apple.

I’ve spent almost three weeks with my iPad mini, and at this point it’s always on me. It goes where I go. It takes a break when I take a break. The battery seems to go on forever, and just when you think it’s about to die, it keeps on ticking for several more hours. I manage to get almost 20 hours of usage time with the device and ten full days of standby time before the iPad mini stops dead on me.

As for my iPad 3, it just hangs out on a dock, collects dust, and plays music from time to time. In fact, I could probably bust it out when I want to work out my pecks from time to time.

It’s funny how you don’t notice how heavy and bulky something is until you spend time with something better. Going back to the iPad 3 is hard to do once you hold an iPad mini for an extended period of time. I know it sounds like gushing at this point, but the iPad mini is the perfect iPad in every conceivable way if you take the display out of the equation.

Things get more complicated from here though, which is a real bummer.

It’s Actually An iPad 2

The benchmarks have revealed that the innards of the device measure comparably to Apple’s iPad 2, a device that was released almost two and a half years One Year, Ten Months, And Twenty-Two Days before the iPad mini. That’s a hard pill to swallow when you take a moment and consider how long this device will last, and how far developers, especially in the gaming space, continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible on an iOS device and tablet.

Benchmarks For iPad Mini From Geekbench

A lot of people are still buying the iPad 2 and even iPad 3 at this point as box stores try to rid themselves of pent up supply. But like every iOS device before it, there will come a point where Apple stops releasing new features that get launched with future iOS versions on its older devices. It happened to the iPhone 3G, the iPhone 3GS, the iPhone 4, the iPad, the iPad 2, and soon it’ll happen to the iPad 3. It’s inevitable.

Where does the iPad mini fall into this spectrum, and how long will it be fully supported by Apple? Given the fact that the innards of the iPad mini is pretty much an iPad 2, my gut tells me that day might be a lot closer on the horizon than most have become accustomed to with new iOS devices.

For the majority of users that kind of thing isn’t too big of a problem, at least until they sit down and try to figure out why one iPad can get shared photo stream, and another iPad less than a year older can’t get shared photo stream. At that point people will start asking a lot of questions. When that point will come for the iPad mini is anyone’s guess, but we have to wonder if the iPad mini is the iPhone 3G of Apple’s tablet space. The iPhone 3G immediately began losing out on features with subsequent iOS updates. The iPhone 3GS lasted a bit longer, and the iPhone 4 seems to be doing better. That said, the iPad mini is the first of its kind, and there’s no book on how long it’ll be before Apple pulls some new features down the line.

It’s hard to let this one go, but if you’re future proofing, you may want to consider waiting for the next iPad mini.

Don’t think it’s that bad? It’s kind of already a problem.

The spec problem reveals itself the best in Apple’s own App Stores. Responsiveness is sluggish when scrolling between the app listings on Apple’s front page of the iTunes, App, iBook, and Newsstand Stores from time to time. There are stutters when navigating stores, stutters when changing the tabs in Safari, stutters, stutters, stutters. All of these things could be updated and smoothed out in a future iOS update, but right out of the box, it’s a noticeable problem.

The Screen Is Exactly What You Think — God Awful

Can you imagine the crap Apple would have taken if they released the Macintosh without a mouse after releasing a Lisa mouse in 1983, a full year before the Macintosh was shipped? What about shipping a computer without a color display after introducing the Macintosh Color Classic model? Some of you may not agree with me, but the Retina display is to the iPad what the mouse was to the desktop, and what the color screen was to the Macintosh.

Once you let something as game changing as a Retina display into the wild, it becomes the de facto standard. There’s no going back. Sadly, Apple went back. The company jumped back into the past more than a full year worth of iPad advancements. If you consider that the first Retina display was introduced with the iPhone 4 back in 2010, that’s almost two and a half years ago.

For the last two and a half years our eyes have been adjusting to the new dislpay norm that is the Retina display. The extra pixel density has increased readability and lowered eye strain. Simply put, Retina has become the industry’s golden standard when it comes to mobile device displays. Here we are, two normal sizes into the iPad’s evolution and a new mini release later, and we’ve gone right back to 2010.

I picked up a new pair of glasses on the same day I managed to walk out of the Apple Store with an iPad mini. I’m not joking when I say that I thought the optometrist got my prescription wrong. It may sound melodramatic, but it actually happened. True story. I got home, opened up the iPad mini and turned on the screen and immediately thought my prescription needed to be just a little bit stronger because groups and text were still blurry. It felt like my eyes couldn’t adjust properly. I put down the device, took off my glasses and got some rest. I revisited the iPad mini screen the next day, and sadly it was still just as terrible.

I can’t say this enough. The iPad mini screen is terrible. A complete disappointment. If you want to use the device for reading, and you’re coming to the iPad mini from a Retina iPad or iPhone 4, 4S, or 5, wait for the new Retina version. Absolutely wait.

My Recommendation

If this is your first iPad, and you haven’t spent a lot of time with a crisp Retina display or HiDPI display on another tablet or phone, you probably won’t notice much of a difference between any other display you look at compared to the iPad mini.But, if you have a Retina iPhone or iPad, this iPad mini is going to drive you a whole lot of crazy. Once you see it, there’s no going back — you notice pixelated images, you notice the text is just a little bit blurry, and you notice that the icons in a group folder on your Home screen looks more like 8-bit pixel-art than it does an accurate representation of the icons that live inside the folder.

It’s actually that bad. You either see it, or you don’t. If you don’t, this is the device to buy. The size and weight is pure perfection. If you do see it, save yourself the migraines and frustrations and wait for a Retina iPad mini. You know as well as we do that it’ll be a key upgrade feature from Apple at some point in the future.

As for me, I’m keeping it. I have cases to review, apps to try out on the smaller screen, and actually needed a second iPad for the family. I don’t share very well. But, before you drop your hard earned cash on an iPad mini at the Apple Store, spend as much time as you can playing with one of the display models. Ask yourself if you can live in 2010 just a little bit longer.

I’ve gone back and forth over the post for the last two weeks, changing my mind every step of the way. I’m conflicted about where I stand with the iPad mini. On the one hand it’s the perfect iPad. It’s the iPad that Apple should have released the first time around. But on the other hand, it has a lot of shortcomings that are hard to overlook when you’re coming from a Retina iPad and iPhone. I will say this, though, the iPad mini is now my go-to iPad. I barely use my third generation iPad, and I’ve even considered selling it at this point. I decided that the portability and battery life far outweigh the Retina display for what I use my iPad for the majority of the time. That said, scratching my Fast Company itch in Newsstand is a lot harder to do on the iPad mini.

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