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Apple iPad mini – a (re)view from a staunch PC user’s side

Did the tablets mature from a consumer fad to a serious device that can be used for serious purposes, even when small in size? Here’s a look at one of the most popular new entries, Apple iPad mini.

I’ve analysed, benchmarked, created and, yes, used high end PC systems for over 25 years now, and the progress usually meant getting faster, more capacity and features, but still relying on pretty much common ATX or thereabouts size. Such systems – and their laptop PC cousins – were and still are the mainstay of productivity content creation.

Now, tablets were initially seen as just a bit more than toys, for watching movies or sharing photos and bigger-screen web browsing compared to the phones, when bored in a bus or metro. It is so because they were just that – a grade above a toy. No one would bother creating a serious presentation on a tablet, or writing a document (no real keyboard without Bluetooth appendages), not to mention design a machine part with 3-D engineering software. 
Some vendors, like Asus, attempted to make the tablets more serious with the proper keyboard dock in the Transformer series, but that was just a drop in the ocean of other simpler ‘pay and play’ tablets. 
While I have taken a look at many tablet devices from hardware analysis point of view, the Apple iPad mini is the first tablet I bothered to use now for over more than a month – here’s the view on it compared to the other tablets hardware-wise, and also pros and cons of its usability and overall experience. 
The iPad mini’s A5X processor and the 1024×768 7.9-inch screen may not be the top notch of today’s ~8 inch tablet segment, but they perform well the purpose intended by Apple: bring the iPad 2 to a smaller size, with selected added improvements – better camera and Siri among them, thrown in as well. I had a a look at the 64 GB storage version of white iPad mini here. 
Not only it feels very thin, thinner than most high end smartphones, but the device is actually reduced in overall size more than just the screen difference – 9.7 inch vs 7.9 inch – would suggest. Most of it is due to the bezel around the longer screen side being reduced to just ¼ of what it would normally be, making iPad mini feel narrower than its predecessors despite keeping the same 4:3 screen format. 
And that’s where the format story comes, from a practical point of view. After comparing the Apple iPad mini 1024×768 screen to, say, Microsoft Surface RT 1366×768 16:9 screen, for all practical purposes, the Apple screen wins. First, the format is so much more naturally matched to the document (whether paper or Web) size, so both viewing and editing are far easier than on the elongated moviescreens. Same goes for the photos, which are about all in 4:3 format. Talking about the movies, yes the widescreen tablets are surely better for watching the HD movie content, but then there are simpler and cheaper ways of watching a movie rather than to procure a tablet only for that purpose. And yes, widescreen tablets are better for the early Angry Birds play, too – the wider, the better in that case. That’s all they 
are better in, I feel. 
The resolution? I feel that for a mainstream user, 1024×768, if properly used, is quite OK. No it’s not good enough for photos and videos, but if you handle web pages, documents, PDFs and of course most of the current iPad games & utilities, this resolution is a nice match for a 7.9 inch screen, while it does look somewhat coarse on the bigger iPads. 
Would there be any use of 2048×1536 New iPad resolution on a 7.9 inch screen in a future iPad? Practically, not much – but then, people are buying 5 – 6 inch phablets with 1920×1080 FullHD screens without ever being able to discern a single pixel inside, so why not 2048×1536 on 8 inches then? OK, yes you could watch those Full-HD movies pixel-perfect in just a window, and still see any email or social network notifications in other windows as plenty of screen real estate would remain available, and of course the photos would really look sharp like real photos. But there would have to be a compromise on the battery life due to the display and processor requirements. I still believe that, after having used both iPad mini and the bigger ‘retina’ ones, that the high resolution can practically be better used on the larger units. 
Rather than reducing the screen size for the same resolution, I’d much rather see Apple make a 18 or 20 inch supertablet with 4096×3072 resolution, something to beat the new Panasonic 4K entry from CES. At least all of the photo, video, 3-D and document editors I know would buy one instantly, even if it only works for 3 hours at a time – the Panasonic one does only 2 hours anyway, more than enough to do your work on the field and bring it back to the home or office for upload. 
The GUI? Aside from not being able to do more than one task at a time (aside from background downloads and such), the sliding iPad user interface has matured well in managing many downloaded apps that the users usually amass, with the key things – Safari, Mail etc, staying always visible at the bottom. By default, I feel the Settings box should be in the fixed portion too. 
The sturdiness? I can testify the little iPad holds its own on this. By accident, I dropped it on the floor so that it hit two sharp edges on both the floor and side wooden chair, and the mini survived with excellent marks, with just a small scratch & dent on the side. So, the device seems to be built pretty well. I still recommend some sort of protective cover, though. 
Now we come to the usability as a ‘serious’ device. First, if doing emails or document editing, I strongly recommend a Bluetooth keyboard, preferably embedded within the protective cover. No matter how good the screen, an on screen keyboard would take precious space, and also never be as good as an actual keyboard. I tried my best with the on screen thing, but it just doesn’t do it beyond simple email replies and such. The keyboard is necessary to productively type a text such as this one. 
For taking notes, especially if having a stylus handy, a combination of iPad mini and applet like Moka is a lovely way to make quick and productive hand notes, combining text with drawings. That’s a big plus for a touch device, provided your handwriting is FAST – with a stylus, that is. 
Spreadsheets? Same thing as the word documents – keyboard is a necessity, however the multitouch capability, in both documents and spreadsheets, helps a lot to quickly, accurately selects areas for editing and copying, faster than the mouse would ever do. 
Presentations are another story, though – while the keyboard text input is still important, it is less critical here as the other contents gain in importance, and combining innovative apps like Presenter Pro, and touch controls, does make creating unique slide shows a new experience. 
Same applies to touch enabled Adobe Photoshop Express and similar utilities when it comes to the photo editing. 
Talking about the camera, I feel that the iPad mini – and other iPads in general – could benefit from a better back camera. Simply, there is no space crunch here like on the smartphones, so a larger sensor, both physically (for better light capture) and in resolution, could be there at least on high end models. For web conversiations like Skype, the built in mic, speakers and camera are good enough, though. 
We come to the final part, which relates to the application downloads and management. I’ve never been a fan of controlled application environment such as application stores, but over time could get used to it as a complement, not replacement, of the relatively free PC environment. One issue with the Apple store is the credit card info requirement, even if you only download free apps. That is a problem in the markets where releasing your credit card info is treated as a security risk, so a better alternative would be two account levels – ‘basic’ only for free apps downloads, and ‘premium’ that requires credit card info for everything else. It would likely help Apple expand the market share a bit in places like China or India, where the credit card info is an issue. 
Another issue is more ‘free’ installation executable distribution, at least for the free apps – meaning copying from one iPad to another, and being actually able to run it. That process needs to be easier. 
And, oh yes, the interfaces – iPad is famously thrifty with these, but I believe the next generation should at the very least have one mini USB 3 and one mini HDMI or Thunderbolt/miniDP there. These could then provide for dongles allowing for, let’s say, attachment to cable Ethernet, important for many office environments where WiFi is banned, or if you happen to be stuck in a hotel like Ibis somewhere in Europe where wired Ethernet access is free, but WiFi is not free or not even available at all, yet one doesn’t happen to have the 3G/LTE iPad variety. And, oh yes, WiFi radiation might not be that good for kidneys and testicles/ovaries after all, so the cable alternative does make sense even on a tablet.

Nebojsa Novakovic
In the spare time over the past two decades, editor and writer of high-end computer hardware and design features and analysis for European and US media and analyst houses. Reviews of high end hardware are my specialty for 28 years already.

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