Apple iPad Mini Review: Features Simply Not Worth The Price Without A Retina Display

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By Dave Smith | November 6, 2012 1:56 AM EST

The iPad Mini is selling like hotcakes. Despite early reports of smaller lines forming for Apple's smaller tablet, Fortune, citing a head count performed by analysis firm Piper Jaffray, said Apple's tinier, cheaper tablet attracted lines this weekend greater than those for the iPhone 3G, 3GS and 4S when they first launched. When it was all said and done, Apple on Monday morning reported having sold more than 3 million iPad units -- this includes the "Mini," as well as the more robust fourth-generation iPad.

"We set a new launch record and we practically sold out of iPad Minis," said Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, in Monday's press release. "We're working hard to build more quickly to meet the incredible demand."

But it's not all about the sales: Apple was expected to have a successful debut weekend for the iPad Mini, since 7-inch tablets are the "hot item" this year and it's always a big deal when Apple launches a new iOS device. However, when you really look -- and I mean "look" -- at the iPad Mini, is it really worth the price?

That price ain't cheap, by the way. Starting at $329, the iPad Mini is $100 more expensive than its tablet rivals built by Google and Amazon.com, and only about $150 less expensive than the iPad 4, which is significantly faster, more powerful and more beautiful (hint: Retina Display) than the iPad Mini.

I had a chance to visit an Apple Store on Friday, and again on Sunday, to analyze Apple's latest tablet flavor of the month. Unfortunately, both times I left the store, I left with an awfully bitter taste in my mouth. This would be the first iPad, and the first Apple product in a long time, that I could not justify purchasing.

Here's the deal: If you don't own a tablet, the iPad Mini is not a bad place to start, not in the least. It's ultra-portable, and far more "mobile" than the traditional 9.7-inch iPad. However, if you own a tablet or a non-smartphone slate of any kind, the iPad Mini just isn't worth your hard-earned money.

Rival tablets -- including Amazon's Kindle Fire HD, Barnes & Noble's Nook HD, and the Nexus 7 from Google -- are no slouches. The iPad Mini is better than those tablets in quality and build, but that's expected given the higher price tag and that Apple sticker on the back.

However, the quality of the iPad Mini is extremely diminished once you turn on the screen, which is, unfortunately subpar.

I said it in my review of the first iPad with Retina Display when it was released in March: "Display is king," especially when you're talking tablets. In fact, the tablet is only its display -- it's the medium for user interaction and presentation all-in-one -- and its quality completely colors the entire experience of owning one. If you have a bum display, you have a bum tablet.

Simply put, the iPad Mini's display is a bum. And starting at $329, it almost feels like an insult.

Don't get me wrong: If the iPad Mini came out in 2011, I'd be fawning all over it. "It's the perfect on-the-go tablet, and it's beautiful," I'd say. But I'd only be saying that because Apple hadn't yet released its iPad with Retina Display. Unfortunately, once you "see" that tablet for the first time, you can never go back to a non-Retina Display iPad. And I mean ever.

With the exact 1024 x 768 display resolution as the iPad 2 but a smaller screen size, the iPad Mini's display is slightly better than the iPad 2 since there are more pixels per inch, but at 163 ppi, it is noticeably grainier and less bright than the iPad with Retina Display (264 ppi) and the iPhone 5 (326 ppi). If you own these products, you will notice a discernible difference between the iPad Mini and your other Apple devices. Take a look at iMore's comparison of current iOS displays, which best illustrates this point. Unfortunately, the sinking feeling that you're holding a lackluster display never goes away while you're holding it, and that's a major bummer.

Applications perform surprisingly well despite Apple's decision to endow the iPad Mini with the three-generations-old A5 chip, instead of opting for the faster A5X, A6 or even A6X chips. Yet, the performance of the iPad Mini was never really in question -- Apple wouldn't release the iPad Mini, or any kind of computer, if it couldn't handle everyday functions properly. The major question was the presentation. Would this tablet be worth buying even without a Retina Display?

The answer to that question, unfortunately, is no.

The iPad Mini shines brightly in two specific areas: Battery life, and FaceTime. Many have happily reported Apple's smaller slate is the best "all-day" tablet ever released, and at 12+ hours of reported battery life, this is a major accomplishment for Apple. Also, the company's decision to build in a FaceTime HD camera instead of a simple VGA camera makes perfect sense, as this function is the only reason people want cameras in their tablets in the first place. However, I'll say it again: A tablet is nothing without its display, and the iPad Mini literally doesn't shine bright enough.

If you own any kind of smartphone, you'll be using the iPad Mini primarily for multimedia, especially books, magazines and movies. When I opened Flipboard, my favorite iPhone and iPad application, I was happy to see the application fit perfectly within the 7.9-inch confines of the iPad Mini, but extremely disappointed that the big beautiful photos looked dim, unsaturated and frankly, lifeless. I opened up the Settings option, and to my dismay, the Brightness was turned all the way up.

It got worse when I opened the Photos and Videos applications. The quality of the pictures were okay, but video, especially animated movies that need all the pixels they can get, were woefully subpar. I watched a portion of Disney's "Cars 2," and if that movie weren't bad enough on the big screen, it was even worse on the iPad Mini's screen, which is not only smaller, but less illuminating. Regardless of whether you choose to letterbox the videos or have them fill your screen, the display is just not up to snuff.

Conclusion

It pains me to denigrate an Apple product like this -- I am, like my father before me, most certainly an Apple fan, having owned several generations of Macs, iPods, and iPhones. But also being an owner of a third-generation iPad, I have seen what Apple can do with displays, and I was very disappointed in my hands-on experience with the iPad Mini.

I say "very disappointed" and not "thoroughly disappointed" because the tablet does have a few key perks, including a fantastic, light form factor, a great HD camera for FaceTime and all-day battery life. If those things matter to you, and you do not, I repeat, do not own a tablet, the iPad Mini is certainly a great buy. But if you know truly know Apple, you should know better than to buy this tablet.

As soon as you pick it up, it will become obvious where Apple plans to go with the iPad Mini. Like the iPad 2, the price of this iPad Mini model will get lower once Apple releases an iPad Mini Retina Display, which is obviously coming, and probably sooner than you think. Let's make this clear: Apple will get the iPad Mini right.

This tablet could definitely afford to be a little thinner, lighter and faster, but those features will all come to the iPad Mini very soon, and probably more. But they're just not here yet. As this tablet is sold today, while I can recommend it to non-tablet owners, I just cannot recommend the ultra-portable iPad Mini to anyone that currently owns an iPad, especially the third- or fourth-generation models. For those owners, its purchase is simply unjustifiable.

Verdict: 7.9 out of 10

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