Friday, November 2, 2012

Apple iPad Mini: Hands on First Impression

"So does that mean that we're going to be calling the original iPad the 'Maxi-pad' from now on?"
                      - Kyrie O'Connor on NPR's Wait! Wait... Don't Tell Me!

Continuing on with this year's tablet rollouts. (Yes, this is still mostly  photography blog!) today was the iPad mini retail roll out. The lines aren't as long as before, but at this stage in the game, we are talking about a maturing market; the increasing segmentation is a sure sign of that. In any case, my suspicion is that things like the iPod and the iPad, which most customers don't opt for a cellular plan, don't get the major spikes in launch day traffic that the iPhone does, which is of course, is very much subsidized by the telecoms.

In many many ways, this is like a scaled up iPad Touch. This isn't a bad thing; if you are like me, you actually like the idea of a the iTouch, except that you can't justify the price if you already have an iPhone. You can justify the $50 more for the iPad mini, though; it performs a different function, albeit in a familiar package. A lot is being made of the fact that it's using the same processor as the touch, but that that's nerd rage talking. Every company shares components between devices, but it's not the components that make the device. Nikon uses the same family of image processing hardware amongst it's top end cameras, but the user experience between the D4, D800 and D600 is different. So it is with the Apple products.

Another point of contention is the lack of Retina display. The designers have to think about things like battery life, cost and heat issues; keeping the resolution the same as the original iPad also keeps continuity with a large existing base of software. iOS apps aren't like Android apps, they aren't designed from the get-go to scale on multiple devices with different resolutions and screen ratios, so changing the screen dynamics is a bigger deal than on Android. See the transition between iOS5 and iOS6: a lot of major apps still haven't adapted to the wider screen yet. The resolution on the mini isn't a huge issue from an actual user experience point of view. If you didn't have a problem with the original iPad, then the mini will look fine, since the pixel density is higher on the smaller screen. Like all modern displays, the angle of view is exceptional (compared to the lcd screens that you grew up with) and the back-lighting is even. However, it's not iPhone-like in the respect that visually, the pixels still appear to be behind the glass instead of on it. That's an issue for extended periods of reading, and it remains to be seen how good the mini is at keeping eye-strain at bay.

Nonetheless, we've reached a point where the resolution specs on a tablet are like the megapixel wars with cameras. The fan-boys are all drooling over which screen gives the greatest pixel density, but just like cameras, there is the number of pixels, and then there is the quality of the pixels. Another factor that is not discussed on tech blogs, but which is immediately understood with the better photography blogs is that the human responds more to edges than it does to areas. If you see a hard sharp edge, you tend to perceive it as being detailed, but that's easy to produce... real detail is being able to render soft low contrast detail. On a device like the mini, it's the hard sharp detail that matters... think text. For that, it does very well, but not as well as the full-sized iPad. It looks like (nicely displayed) pixels instead of printed ink... think  "good PC laptop" instead of iPad and you'd be about right.

The real downfall of the lack of Retina display is that you can compare the mini against the original in the Apple store. And once you do, yes, there is a difference. If you had never seen a Retina display, then the mini would be acceptable, excellent even. But there's no comparison if you have the two side-by side. Straight off the bat, I found myself missing Retina; because the display is smaller, you find yourself holding it closer to your face than with the original iPad, and because it's closer, you do notice that pixels more. As far as I can tell, there isn't a technical reason why the mini can't have a Retina display, as the iPhone and iPod Touch, which are similar in thickness, have higher pixel densities. So scaling the phone display technology up to iPad mini size isn't a major hurdle. Price and battery life are probably bigger concerns right now.

 I also generally prefer the iPad's 4:3 screen ratio over the 16:9 displays that Android devices tend to gravitate towards. It wastes spaces when you are playing movies, but since the screen area is larger than a 7-inch Android tablet, it's not a big loss. However, for reading, I've always found the 16:9 ratio just a bit too narrow. It's not a deal breaker for reading books, but in a world where an increasing number of documents are distributed as PDF's, 16:9 is a too skinny. Landscape mode is too short, and portrait mode is too narrow, especially if you use the navigation column on the left of the PDF display. When you launch iBooks, everything about the text presentation feels nature, not as though it was printed media forced into tablet form.

On specs alone, the iPad mini isn't that compelling a purchase. Even in person, it doesn't give you the "instabuy" mentality. However, the unique selling proposition comes through the longer you hold it. The tactile feel of the device, both in the quality of the case and the thinness of the design, sells it just as much as the spec sheet does. Remember when Steven Colbert did that bit where he took the original iPad and used it to chop" vegetables? That would work better with the mini. Its thinner, and much more blade-like, and unlike the Samsung devices, the case back and the screen feel as one unit. Apple is supposed to be the company that concentrates on the experience of the product rather than the specification of it, and with the iPad mini, that remains true to form.

One thing that will drive the sale of mini's is the the installed base of iPhone users. This sounds strange at first: if you have a phone, you would think that you would want something bigger, not just a little bit bigger. But think of all of the people who have accumulated iOS apps over the years, just waiting to see how they would look like on an iPad. The size and cost of the original iPad has held this type of user back for some time, but if you make the device just small enough, and just inexpensive enough, you'll tempt a whole bunch of these people into a purchase. As a time waster and a gamer classic, I love Sid Meier's Pirates! on the iPhone, but I think that I might break it out more often if it were on a tablet. So yes, as I have mentioned before, I think the 7-inch tablet category is the new Play Station Portable; Apple thoughtfully loaded demonstration versions of Angry Birds Space, Tiny Wings and Jetpack Joyride on their demo units, and they all looked beatiful.

So who is this device for? First and foremost, it is most definitely Apple's extension of the iBooks ecosystem, so it will butt heads with the Kindle, the Nook and the Kobo readers. The build quality of the mini exceeds that of the Kindle Fire, the Kobo Vox, etc... and does so by miles.  The mini will probably do well with the college and university crowd, both as a note taker and as a textbook storehouse, but because you read yourself blind during the college years the larger display of the full-sized iPad is bette still. However, judging by the reaction of my family and friends, the mini will do well with people of smaller stature (read: women), since it's just plain easier to pick up than the original iPad. Better yet, think small hands: think kids. True story: one of my best buds has let his toddler play on his phone for so long that when they took her to a birthday party with Angry Bird's themed place settings, she started swiping on Angry bird napkin wondering why the big red bird wasn't moving. I can't vouch for using a tablet as a babysitting tool, but I can see that it's going to happen in any event...

However, if you are of the adult persuasion, I can see two competitors, both of which are nothing like the iPad mini. If you want a small device with lots of value for the money, then you are looking at the Nexus 7, which is the obvious competitor. It's cheaper and gives you much better value for the price. However, for just a little bit more than  the iPad  mini, the Samsung Galaxy Tab2 10.1" makes a very strong case. It's now at the lower end of the 10 inch tablet spectrum, but you get a 1,200 by 800 screen, expandable memory, and optional HDMI out. For $350 CDN, it feels as though you would have less buyer's remorse than the iPad mini, but which one you find to your preference depends on which one fits your needs. Neither Android device feels as beautifully made (yes, beautifully made, not just well made) as the iPad, but it's easy to see that this market is going to go through a lot of obsolescence in the next few years, so build quality might not be at the top of your list if you change devices often. Having said that, I can see numerous uses for the iPad mini right now, which ought to be high on anybody's purchase decision making list; future versions are bound to be better, but like most Apple products, the mini begs to be used, and used well right from the get-go. (I would still prefer a Retina display).

What it's good at:

  • Books (especially novels and fiction)
  • Games. If it wasn't this thing would be dead in the water.
  • Keeping the kids entertained 
  • Skype and Face Time. Way easier to hold than the original iPad 

Less good at:

  • Presentations. The full iPad's Retina display and larger size are better
  • Textbooks and major technical documents. See above
  • Stopping people from telling you that you "Could'a had Retina"
  • "Keeper" pictures. The back facing camera is the same as the 5mp iPhone 4 unit, which means that there will be a noticeable drop in quality for low light pictures compared to the 4s or the 5. This is a disappointment for me, considering how often I use the Genius Scan app, and how well the iPad mini tucks into messenger bag with the rest of your documents.

What the online reviews tell you but don't convey quite so well:

  • This is very comfortably a one-handed device. The thin side bezels help a lot.
  • Speaking of the bezels, the iPad mini's side bezel makes the Google Nexus 7 look positively fat
  • The speakers (stereo!) are surprisingly useful, just don't expect miracles.
  • The home button is smaller, like on the iPhone 5.
  • It's not just the size, it's the volume. You would feel a lot less nervous about bringing this with you on the road than the full-sized iPad.
  • If you compare to the original iPad, yes the mini lacks Retina. However, once you pick up the mini, the iPad feels like a big heavy slab. If only there was a way to combine the best of both worlds...

1 comment:

  1. My friend told Apple iPad Mini Skins looks very eye-catching on our ipad. But I want to know how it will protect our device from dust and dirt?