Today I stopped by the local Apple Store to check out the new iPad mini. I played with it for about 15 minutes, and that really was all I needed to tell me everything I needed to know.
As I expected, the smaller form factor is amazing. The iPad mini really feels like a completely difference device. While still as solid and well-built as ever, it’s so thin and light I can imagine taking it places (I rarely take my full-size iPad anywhere, except on longer trips). Reading, playing games, surfing the web, checking email, etc., are all easier and better with a lighter device. I really believe that the mini is the iPad most people want and need. I can think of very few tasks that require the larger screen of the big iPad. (My mom’s need to see full-size sheet music for piano playing is one where the bigger pad is better.)
The only disappointing thing is the screen resolution, though that is only an issue for those who are accustomed to Retina displays and who read a great deal. For me, reading is pure joy on my big iPad — even after seven months I still marvel at the crispness of type on the thing. It’s better than most printed books. There’s no such joy on the mini, where type — especially small italicized text — is unbearably fuzzy and reminds me of grainy newspaper print. It’s the one thing that makes me hesitate getting one (especially knowing that Apple will introduce a Retina mini down the road and render the current generation obsolete). Yet I’ll probably get one (they were sold out or I might have picked one up) and just plan on replacing it with a Retina version when that comes out.
The size and weight of the mini is killer. The new form factor just rocks. It’s what a tablet was meant to be.
This got me thinking. I’ve been disparaging of the 7” tablet for years. While those tablets feel good in the hand, I never liked them. There was something that bothered me and it wasn’t until I actually used the mini that I figured it out.
It’s the point-nine inch difference.
Apple’s mini is 7.9” measured diagonally. All the other small tablets are just 7”. That doesn’t sound like much, but according to Apple, that .9” difference means 35% more screen real estate. That is the key difference. (Apple’s 4:3 aspect ratio is also a factor, as most other tablets go 16:9 widescreen, which feels horrible in portrait mode, the most common orientation for a tablet.)
At (basically) 8”, the mini is the perfect size. The tablet itself is small enough to be held with one hand and so light and thin that the device almost completely fades away. A full-size iPad isn’t bad or that heavy, but it’s mostly lead battery and so dense that you just can’t escape its solid feel. Its presence is always there and you’re aware of it, like a slightly-too-heavy watch weighing down your wrist.
The mini is physically almost the same as the competing 7” tablets; it’s actually thinner and lighter than all but the grayscale E-ink book readers. But the mini’s screen is just that little bit larger and that .9” makes all the difference.
You see, a touch screen tablet is all about the screen. That’s even more true of a smaller tablet where the light weight makes the device disappear and you’re only left with the screen. But 7” is just too small. It’s little more than a big phone. Full-size tablet software has to compromise to run at 7”. Buttons become too small to push with your stubby finger. Everything feels cramped and shrunk down.
But on the mini, I didn’t feel any of that. In fact, if I’d never seen a full-sized iPad, I would have thought everything was designed for the mini’s 8” screen! It’s shrunk a little from the 9.7” iPad screen, but you’d only know that if you were making the comparison. This is unlike the 7” screens where everything feels artificially reduced as though you’re looking at the tablet through the wrong end of a telescope.
This is what Apple does. On the surface, 7” and 7.9” seem so close as to not make any difference. I’m sure executives at other companies, when trying to come up with a tablet to rival Apple’s, settled on the 7” size based on LCD panel costs and other factors. Probably there was some efficiencies there that meant a significant cost savings to go with that size. So that’s why they picked it — to save money — not because it was the best size for a tablet.
Apple doesn’t work like that. They make the best device regardless of the cost. They took the time to do the research, probably trying out every variation of size possible, and concluded that 7.9” was the optimal size. Any bigger and it’s too close to the big iPad. Any smaller and it’s just a big iPhone, not a tablet. Genius.
There really isn’t any compromise with the size of the mini — it’s big enough for real tablet apps just like the big guy, but the whole device is so much smaller and thinner it’s a joy to carry and use.
I hereby predict that competitors will start producing 8” tablets now that Apple has shown them the way.
This got me thinking, if this new size is so much better, why didn’t Apple do it in the first place? The answer is cost. Remember when the iPad first came out, there was nothing like that on the market. Netbooks were the hot thing — tiny $300 notebook laptops with cramped mini-keyboards, small screens, and slow CPUs. If Apple had tried to produce an iPad mini back then, it would have been thicker and heavier with the tech of the day, and it would have still cost close to $500. (Back then it was difficult to produce any size tablet for less.) Would even Apple have been able to convince people that spending $500 on an unproven 8” handheld device was better than spending $300 on a tiny but familiar laptop?
Apple needed to produce the full-size iPad to demonstrate that there was a market. The bigger size meant more value to most people, and it established $500 as the starting price for a full-size tablet. It also killed off netbooks as people realized a tablet could do most of the things people were buying netbooks for — mainly email and web surfing — and the form factor was far superior.
Now is the right time to introduce the mini. Clearly it’s just before the holiday season, which is good, but it’s also the right time in terms of the tablet market as a whole. Tablets are real now. They’re not a fad. They’re established and people understand what they are and why they should buy one. By coming out with a mini that’s just as good as a full-size iPad, Apple is setting a new standard that is the future of tablet computing. Apple didn’t rush out the mini to compete with other tablets on price (and they aren’t even trying to compete on price with the sell-at-loss Kindle and Google tablets). Apple doesn’t work like that. They waited until it was the right time for a new kind of device and then released it.
Point-nine inches. That’s what makes the mini so different.