The announcement of the iPad mini yesterday was completely expected but decidedly not the tablet so many of us thought we’d see. The iPad mini (that’s capitalized “mini”) is a 7.9″ tablet that’s larger than most competing 7″ tablets but carries quite a few internal components that may surprise you. If you’re in the market for a 7″ tablet you should very seriously consider passing on the iPad mini for competing tablets like the Kindle Fire HD (or even the Kindle Fire), the Nexus 7, and potentially the upcoming Nook HD.

Why? Put it this way: it doesn’t even come close to competing with the iPad 2, which all 7″ tablets do (and in some cases have succeeded).

Size

The size is one of three major differences between the iPad (that’s the 3rd generation, current iPad) and the iPad mini. The former has a 9.7″ display while the latter has a 7.9″ display, which Apple’s Phil Schiller was all too proud to show off the interchangeable sizes. In any case, recent reports have shown that people with 7″ tablets tend to stay on web pages longer and actually read more from them than larger 10″ tablets like the iPad, ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity, or others. And of course it makes sense: smaller tablets are easier to hold with one hand and read like a book or newspaper. Or, for the younger generation, a game manual or iPod.

My experience with 7″ vs 10″ tablets is very much the same. I rarely hold 10″ tablets in one hand or two for use and prefer keeping them on a desk cropped upright. It doesn’t matter what the tablet is, that’s just natural for me to do. With 7″ tablets the opposite is true. I always hold the Nexus 7, the Kindle Fire, and all previously-tested 7″ tablets. It’s the form factor that Star Trek showed with the datapad: small and light enough to hold one-handed for reading. The iPad mini is also superbly thin at just 7.2mm, which is thinner than most phones and much thinner than the iPad. If I had to choose between the two on size alone, the iPad mini would win every time.

If you plan on saying “this comparison isn’t fair, it’s between two completely different types of tablets,” I’d normally agree with you but not in this case. The iPad mini, according to Apple, should be used in very much the same way as the iPad. For reading, for taking pictures, for browsing the web. Nothing has changed. It isn’t a media tablet.

Winner: iPad mini, which has a better size for most users and is also significantly thinner and lighter.

Appearance

The appearance of both the iPad and iPad mini is almost identical. The only real differences are the machined edged of the iPad mini (similar to the iPhone 5, iPod Touch, and iPod Nano), and the thinner build. The former makes the iPad mini glisten under light and have that “sparkling eyes” effect, while the latter just makes it look sleeker. Side by side the iPad looks fat and oversized.

Winner: iPad mini, which has beautiful machined edges and an exquisitely thin frame.

Display

The display is the second major difference between the two devices. Apple hasn’t shut up about the Retina display for three years, since the iPhone 4. The company has since then made six products with the high resolution display: iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPad, MacBook Pro 15 w/Retina, iPod Touch, and MacBook Pro 13 w/Retina. It’s in every product line except for the iPod Nano and iMac, likely the least selling of any Apple product.

To clarify, the iPad has it. The upcoming 4th generation iPad will have it. But the iPad mini does not. It shares the same low-resolution display as the iPad 2, a 1024×768 display that has less pixels than every major competing 7″ tablet, even though it has a larger screen.

What does that mean? It means that Apple’s newest tablet has two major problems going for it. First, it is going to appear significantly blurrier and more pixelated than competing 7″ tablets, as well as Apple’s own iOS products. People who own the iPad and iPhone (myself included) have found that with the iPhone, there’s often little need to ever use the iPad. It just isn’t that necessary when you have the same device — albeit smaller — in your pocket at all times. Now the iPad mini is going to act as a middle-man between the iPad and iPhone? The difference between 4″ (or 3.5″ if you own an iPhone 4/4S) and 10″ is big enough to warrant using the iPad in a lot of situations. 4″ to 7″ with the iPad mini is not.

Furthermore, the iPad mini has the same screen resolution as the iPad 2, which means two things: first, it’s not a widescreen (16:9) display, so every HD video you watch will have letterboxing. Second, the screen is 1:1 with the iPad and iPad 2, so all apps will work natively on it. That’s the only upside the this whole ordeal…but then again, Apple made the iPhone 5 widescreen. So why not make the iPad mini widescreen and 1:1 with the iPhone 5? That way iPhone apps could work right on the iPad mini, and iPad apps could be made to work with it as well.

Winner: iPad, which has a Retina display, is larger, and provides a reasonable resolution for today’s everyday uses.

Operating System

Because the screen size is 1:1 and all of the other parts are the same, the OS is identical and requires nothing special to run.

Winner: Tie, because they’re identical.

Processor

Finally, the third major difference: the iPad has an A5X processor that’s, for all intents and purposes, as powerful as the A6 inside the iPhone 5. It just provides much more raw power to match that level of performance, and a huge battery is the answer to the lack of efficiency in the chip. Now you would think that the iPad mini would have the A6 or perhaps the A5X in it, since it’s the all new tablet from Apple.

You’d be wrong.

The iPad mini has the A5 processor, the very same in the iPod Touch, iPhone 4S, and iPad 2. It may even be the second revision (A5r2), which drops down to a 32nm process and is slightly faster and even more efficient (for better battery life), but again it’s the same as a year old phone and a one-and-a-half year old tablet. Combined with the lower-end processor is just 512MB of RAM (instead of 1GB in the iPad and iPhone 5), and a dual-core GPU that’s similar to what’s in the iPad but a generation older and not nearly as fast or as capable.

In effect, buying the iPad mini for gaming or high-end use is a waste of money. The processor is old. It may perform well against current-day 7″ tablets, but that’s a software efficiency and hardware power issue. My experience with the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD is that they’re not perfect processors, but they do generally outperform the iPad 2 in nearly every way. So releasing a tablet with such old parts is only smart if you expect people to buy them stupidly, lining up like sheep in front of Apple stores, or if you don’t market it as a gaming platform. Apple likely see’s both as realistic possibilities.

Winner: iPad, with a current-generation processor, an extremely powerful mobile GPU, and twice the RAM.

Storage

Sadly Apple hasn’t updated how expensive storage is. In any case the iPad and iPad mini have the same 16/32/64GB capacities.

Winner: Tie, both are available at identical capacities.

Carriers

This is the one minor difference between the iPad and iPad mini. The iPad mini will support more LTE carriers both in the US and around the world. In the US, it supports Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T, while the iPad is limited to just Verizon and AT&T. It’ll also support smaller carriers like Metro PCS and others that carry LTE, which the iPad does not.

Winner: iPad mini, which offers better carrier support for major and minor carriers in the US and worldwide.

Camera

Both use the same iPhone 4 5MP camera on the back and 1.2MP camera on the front.

Winner: Tie, identical cameras.

Battery Life

Both the iPad and iPad mini boast ten hours of battery life per charge. The problem here is twofold: first, the iPad mini uses a more efficient processor that’s a generation older, which means it has to process longer to get the same results but is improved over the original A5 chip; second, the difference in battery size is likely huge. We don’t have numbers for the iPad mini, but it’s safe to assume we’re looking at a battery with 3,000mAh-4,500mAh, and likely closer to the lower side.

It will also depend on use. Neither tablet will last ten hours, but they will last 9-10 hours for sure. The iPad can do while playing games. I highly doubt the iPad mini will be able to offer the same level of battery life because it is acting as an iPad 2, but with a smaller battery. In effect the iPad mini will have worse performance, though if you actually use both tablets just for reading and web browsing there won’t be a major difference in battery life.

Winner: iPad, which has a significantly larger battery that will last as long playing high-end games as the iPad mini will last reading books and web browsing.

Price

Here’s a big one, though not for the iPad. The iPad mini starts at $330, which is $130 more expensive than the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD, or $80 more than the Nexus 7 at an equivalent capacity. In effect, users get the same amount of space, a lower-resolution non-HD display, and old components for $130 more just because it runs iOS and has an Apple logo on the back.

Compared to the iPad, it doesn’t seem like a smart deal either. The iPad today costs $500, though that price is going to drop to as low as $300 in the coming weeks because of the announcement of the 4th generation iPad. So while you won’t be able to buy an iPad for that cheap in an Apple store, a quick look online will reveal that it’s very available for low prices, and by the time the iPad mini releases I expect the iPad to be available for as much or less. For, again, a much better screen, better components, better battery life, and an overall better experience.

Winner: iPad, which is more expensive but is also a better deal considering the internal components and expected lower price of used iPads.

Overall Winner

Looking at this chart, you’d think the two were really close. But as I keep testing comparisons I find that the simple 1:1 point value isn’t fair to the winners of our comparisons. So I’ve built a point differential system, which takes into account the actual usefulness of each category that a product “wins” at and adds only that number of points, for a maximum of one point each. Take a look at the chart below for the real score.

 

The actual score differential is really different. Instead of a close 7-6 score, the iPad (with all ties removed) is 3.5X better than the iPad mini. Why? Because size is important but also depends on the person. Appearance between the two is not so stark, and if you’re buying an iPad mini for looks alone, then you aren’t part of the general population of people who care how they spend their hard-earned money. The display is extremely important, as is the processor, both of which the iPad trounces the mini.

Carriers? Hardly important for cellular data users since most use Verizon or AT&T, and smaller carriers offer minimal LTE availability. Sure, some people will be thrilled with it because those smaller carriers offer better pricing options, but it’s for very few people in the US. Battery life is also important, but depends on your use. For gamers the iPad is much better, but if you just read and browse the web, it won’t matter too much.

Finally, price is one of the most important factors. Had Apple not announced a new iPad (4th generation) right before revealing the iPad mini, things would be different. But reports are coming in that the value of the iPad is dropping quickly because people are trading them in for as much as they can get to buy the new iPad. That, and most 10″ tablets are expensive at $500, but they’re all about the same price. The iPad mini is $130 more than competitors.

If you’re on the ropes wondering if you should get an iPad mini, there’s only one reason I can think of getting it: if you’re an older person who likes iOS and needs that ease-of-use afforded by Apple products. Otherwise I can’t think of a single reason not to stick with the iPad, which is better in nearly every way, or buy a cheaper media tablet like the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD. There’s just no other good reason to buy the iPad mini.










James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.