Shrunken expectations: Apple announces iPad mini

With great fanfare, Apple yesterday confirmed the long-running rumors of a smaller sibling for its mightily successful iPad. Enter the obviously titled iPad mini, to sit alongside its larger brother in Apple’s ever-increasing line-up of iOS devices, and to help defend against the latest barrage of Android-powered 7-inch devices that are stealing budget-focused customers from the Cupertino family. Apple’s tactic? Its tried-and-tested formula of giving consumers more of the same, wrapped in hyperbole and an aluminum shell.

The new iPad mini is by no means a new device, instead, it rehashes specs and design from elsewhere in the Apple stable. That’s not to discourage from what is certainly a handsome tablet, though. Its design echoes that of a large iPod Touch from the back, whilst modelling itself on the full-fat iPad at the front, with a brushed aluminum casing with the same anodized edges as the iPhone 5 and the usual assortment of iPad buttons — volume rocker, power/lock switch, orientation lock — in their expected places. Its a mere 7.2mm thin, and weighs just 0.68 pounds (0.69 with LTE). There’s a 5MP camera round back, an HD FaceTime camera, Apple’s new Lightning connector, optional LTE connectivity and a bezel that eschews the normal iPad’s uniform design, slimming down to smartphone proportions on the left and right sides of the screen when held in portrait mode.

The screen, sadly, is where we realize this isn’t a new device by any stretch. Given Apple’s proclivity for boasting about its Retina displays — often with good reason, as the Retina display on the iPad is one of the best in the business — it seems a glaring oversight that the iPad mini is found lacking. Those who swap an iPad or iPad 2 for an iPad mini will feel right at home, as it shares the same resolution as those devices — 1024×768, spread over 7.9 inches of display at a 4:3 aspect ratio, with 163 pixels per inch (PPI), a far cry from the iPad’s 264 PPI. To say this is a disappointment is an understatement. Apple’s reasoning was to allow apps developed for the first and second gen iPads to display with no need for extra work by developers. That seems fair, until you consider that on smaller, 7-inch Android devices, a minimum of 1280×800 is the norm. Though Apple claims a 35 percent greater screen area when compared with the Google Nexus 7, the iPad’s 4:3 aspect ratio and low resolution will mean, in some instances, that it actually displays less on screen than its smaller rival.

Move inside and things become even more stagnant. Powering the mini is Apple’s dual-core A5 CPU — the same as that found within the iPad 2, a device that’s over a year and a half old. It’s no real slouch in performance terms, but it can’t compare with the A5X in the iPad 3rd generation, and certainly not with the A6X in the 4th generation. Its inevitable competitor, the Google Nexus 7, powers itself with decidedly 2012 hardware — it has a quad-core Tegra 3 CPU and 12-core GPU. The middling power and low-resolution screen do bring one benefit, however — Apple tells us the mini will last up to 10 hours on a charge, which is impressive for a device this slim and light.

Apple has naturally downsized the Smart Cover to fit the new mini, and there are the usual slew of Lightning connector peripherals for consumers to purchase — though those changing from the first 3 iPads will find that none of their docks or connectors will fit the new Lightning port without Apple’s $29 adaptor. If that seems a steep price for convenience, the price of the mini itself will either delight or dissuade you.

Pre-orders start on October 26 — the launch day for Windows 8, a fact likely not to have slipped Cupertino’s minds — with the base 16GB model with WiFi starting at $329. For those who’ve long considered the $499 iPad too expensive, this may seem like a bargain, except that the 9.7-inch iPad 2 is a mere $70 more, and brings the same low-res screen and last-gen CPU but with greater screen real-estate. Compare it to the 16GB Google Nexus 7 which, with its quad-core CPU and 1280×800 screen, is just $249, or the 16GB Barnes and Noble Nook HD+, which offers a 9-inch, 1920×1080 screen, 10 hours of battery life and is just $269. You could argue that the mini’s superior build quality justifies the price increase over these two devices, but not when the rest of its specs are so middling.

LTE models start at $459, and are available on Verizon, Sprint and AT&T, but even Big Red has better LTE tablets for less — the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 offers a similar screen size, but an increased 1280×800 resolution, features Samsung’s stunning Super AMOLED screen technology, and is 7.9mm thick and 0.75 pounds, at just $399. Apple charges a premium for its aluminum build, but there’s little else to justify the price increase over its superior competitors, unless you absolutely must be in the iOS ecosystem.

It’s a new Apple device, though, and for many that’s reason enough to purchase.

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Rhuaridh Marr is Metro Weekly's assistant editor and covers cars, technology, and gaming. He is usually found with a controller in one hand and a smartphone in the other, and can be reached at rmarr@metroweekly.com.

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