iPad Mini: The iPad On A diet

There’s no retina display, but that may be the best thing to happen to this little device.


By Cary Chin
The iPad mini was unveiled last month, but just hit the stores on Nov. 2. Early reviews have been quite positive—good performance, quality build, excellent battery life. There’s just one problem (besides the price)—the non-retina display. Even with a 1024 x 768 display (the same resolution as the original iPad and iPad 2), it seems we’ve gone “retina display” mad, and anything less just isn’t enough. Of course, those of you who have been keeping up with my blogs know that the retina display’s Achilles heel is power efficiency.

But first, back to the facts. The “mini” sports that 1024×768, 7.9-inch display, driven by a dual-core A5 processor, with power supplied by a 16.3Wh battery. This combination of specs delivers plenty of performance, and battery life similar to the full-sized iPads. In fact, the battery life specs have been just about constant across the product line since the introduction of the first iPad. It almost feels like the “10-hour battery life” requirement is the requirement driving the other tradeoffs in the product.

One of the complaints about the mini’s form-factor was that typing was too cramped on the smaller screen. I’d agree with that assessment, but would also add that while I really like typing experience in landscape more on the larger iPads, the device needs to be sitting on a table or on your lap. With the mini, typing is cramped in landscape mode, but I’ve found that thumb-typing in portrait mode is surprisingly efficient. I make many fewer errors than on my iPhone, and the mini is easy to hold while typing. Interestingly, thumb-typing in landscape mode feels too spread out. It’s a little difficult to get to all of the letters quickly. So “thumps up” for text entry on the mini. Just use those thumbs in portrait orientation.

Power efficiency-wise, the mini didn’t show any big surprises. Energy to play our standard Star Trek movie with minimum display brightness and no sound was 2.44Wh, compared to 2.73Wh, 2.25Wh, and 3.4Wh respectively for iPads No. 1,2, and 3. With the display at maximum brightness, the energy required jumped to 4.08Wh, compared with 5.9Wh, 5.7Wh, and 11.05Wh (retina display!) for the larger iPads.

Overall, I found the mini to be great to use—very responsive, long battery life, and a very nice looking display. The unexpected advantage that makes the mini my favorite iPad so far isn’t whether it has a retina display or not. It’s not power efficiency. And it’s not even part of the electronic design of the product. My favorite spec on the mini is its weight. I’ve always had the feeling with the full-sized iPads that they were just one muscle spasm away from hitting the floor. They felt very “dense” — a little too heavy for their size. The mini feels just the opposite, very comfortable to hold (in either one hand or two), familiar to use. It’s much more an iPad than an iPhone or iPod, but light enough that it doesn’t tire your hands for extended reading. Moreover, it’s easy enough to carry around that you might forget you have it. Of the four iPads at my house, it has quickly become my favorite. It’s the paperback, while the others are becoming “coffee-table” books.
P.S. Note that the weight of the device is made possible by it having relatively modest energy requirements, because it does not have a retina display!

—Cary Chin is director of marketing for low-power solutions at Synopsys.

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