Review: iPad Mini beats competition, but you may want to wait

iPad Mini with iPhone and iPad
Size-wise, the iPad Mini fits comfortably between its siblings, the iPhone and the full-size iPad. Wilson Rothman

I think the best way to review the iPad Mini is to pit it against competitors in a series of death matches. After all, come holiday time, you'll likely put your money down on just one tablet — or none. In making the decision, you will consider the iPad Mini against the reduced-price iPad 2, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD, Google's Nexus 7 by Asus, and the full-size iPad, now in its fourth generation. You may even weigh it in against Microsoft's Surface RT. Let's just get all of that comparison shopping out of the way for you right now.

First, though, let's talk for a moment about what the iPad Mini is. It's a mini iPad. OK, moving on. 

No, seriously, it really is just a miniaturized version of the tablet that's already been sold 100 million times. The biggest advantage of the smaller size that I've found is that it's a lot easier to type on, so you may find it to be a more helpful email companion. It's also nicer to hold when reading, but its screen — which I will discuss further on — gets in the way of pure literary immersion.

Before you get into the review, take a look at my video walkthrough:

Vs. iPad 2
Compared to 2011's iPad 2, the Mini has much better front and back cameras. And because it has the same pixel resolution in a smaller display, the screen density is better, too. It's not a "Retina" screen like the 3rd- and 4th-gen iPads — you can still see the pixels that make up letters when you're reading, for instance — but it's certainly easier on your eyes than the iPad 2 screen.

The iPad Mini also has Siri, while the iPad 2 (for reasons that defy logic) does not. And if you're going to buy a tablet with cellular connectivity — not that I recommend going that route unless you are on the road a lot, or have a corporate expense account paying your wireless bills — the $459 iPad Mini can give you high-speed 4G LTE connectivity on AT&T, Sprint or Verizon. You'll be stuck with slower 3G on the $529 cell-connected iPad 2. I'm just gonna spell this part out for you: Even if you do buy an iPad 2, for the love of Pete do not buy the one with the cellular connection!

So what are the iPad 2 advantages, for $70 more? Well, there's a roomier display and an old 30-pin connector — in case you're wedded to older accessories or want to keep using that rat's nest of white cables in your junk drawer. The new iPad Mini has the new Lightning connector, and so does the full-size 4th-gen iPad. 

WINNER: iPad Mini

Vs. Microsoft Surface RT
The most innovative product of the season comes from Microsoft. The Surface RT tablet packs a lot in for $499, and the re-envisioning of Windows as a matrix of "live" tiles is compelling in the always-connected era.

But despite its elegant design, innovative keyboard and airplane-tray-table-friendly proportions, there is at its core a software challenge that makes it hard to recommend, especially to the huge number of people who seek tablets because they are easier to use than computers. Until the Surface RT's software gets more user friendly, and until there are enough apps to make it a worthwhile platform, it remains stuck in the "Wait and See" bin.

WINNER: iPad Mini

Vs. Kindle Fire HD
Amazon's second-generation, $199 7-inch tablet was improved in all ways over the initial product, but the experience is largely the same. That is, fire up your tablet, open your wallet, and Amazon will fill your life with books, videos, music and games till kingdom come. But don't expect to do anything else on this, because productivity is not its strong suit.

Also weighing against the Kindle Fire HD is the fact that Amazon is smart enough to build a Kindle reader, Amazon Prime video and a bunch of other apps for the iPad, too. A happy Amazon customer can get pretty far on an iPad, never having to buy a Kindle device. That's fine with Amazon, because the company makes money on the content, not the hardware.

If you're mainly into watching movies and reading books, there are two key bonuses that the Kindle Fire HD brings to the table, besides a cash savings of $130: a 16x9 screen aspect ratio, meaning movies like "The Avengers" fill up the whole display; and a higher pixel resolution than the iPad Mini, that you may notice while watching high-def content and can definitely see when reading text. 

So what does paying $130 more for an iPad Mini actually get you? The iPad has a much better Web browser and email experience, and though Amazon has cloud storage and streaming music (and even a music matching service like Apple's), the iPad's iCloud suite promises more, including synced contacts, documents, notes and browser history, not to mention advanced services like iMessage, Photo Stream and Siri. 

The biggest reason to choose iPad, however, is apps. Apps, apps, apps. More of that next.

WINNER: Draw (because of the $130 difference and the screen resolution)

Vs. Nexus 7
All the nerds love the $199 Nexus 7 hardware, and I get that — it's a pretty little machine. But unless you are really just focusing on Web and email, there's just not a lot of directions you can go with it.

Its advantages are on par with the Kindle Fire HD's: the 16x9 widescreen display with tighter pixel resolution makes it better for movies and books. But with only a few exceptions such as Netflix, it's hard to get movies and TV shows from anywhere but Google itself, and ditto for books. For now, buying a Google tablet means, essentially, paying Google for content. I, for one, would rather give my content allowance to Amazon or Apple, because they both have strong track records of selling digital media, and Google doesn't have a track record of selling anything but ads.

Worse still, there are seriously zero apps available for Android tablets. You can put apps on an Android tablet, sure, but almost every one is just a stretched-out Android phone app, even the ones you'd expect to be tablet-ized, like Kindle Reader and the Weather Channel.

WINNER: iPad Mini 

Vs. Fourth-generation iPad
You now know what you get — and what you lose — by saving $130 and buying one of the $199 Android tablets. But what do you gain by spending an extra $170 for the full monty? Well, that larger Retina display is the main thing, and let me tell you, it really does make a huge difference in eye-strain, especially for us night-time e-book readers. Movies, too, will look nicer on the high-definition screen. Here's a screen comparison to illustrate what I mean:

text comparison iPad Retina and iPad Mini
The same size text, shown on the 4th-gen iPad and the iPad Mini, magnified about 7X. See how much larger the pixels are on the smaller tablet's screen? Wilson Rothman

In general, you will also find that larger screen size to be better for many apps that are meant for interaction, like sketch apps, or strategy games that require multiple windows.

Speaking of games, you also get Apple's latest-generation A6X processor, a dual-core chip with quad-core graphics. Game developers are going to be optimizing for that, not the 2011-era A5 that's inside the iPad Mini.

But a larger tablet may not be what you want. Some people have been waiting for something that offers the convenience and app lineup of the iPad in a package closer in size to a paperback book. Well, that's what the iPad Mini is.


Vs. iPad Mini 2
Wait, what?? Apple put out an iPad Mini 2 already?? No, it hasn't. But you know that within 12 months, it certainly will. And Apple will have sorted out a way to jam a higher-resolution screen and faster processor in there. (It'd be nice if Apple lowered the price to $299 while at it, but we're not holding our breath.)

There are many examples of this in Apple's history, but it's easiest to simply look back on the larger iPads. The iPad 2 was a huge step up from the first iPad, because it got cameras and a thinner body. The third iPad basically completed the formula for perfection with better cameras and a high-resolution Retina display. In fact, the third iPad is so good, the only reason the fourth generation exists is to tidy up Apple's own production lines, and perpetuate the Lightning connector.

So then you extrapolate: Is there a consistent complaint about the iPad Mini, one that holds up even in Apple's world of "we know better than you" design choices? Yes, it doesn't have a Retina screen. Then ask, what's the chance that Apple fixing this particular problem within 12 months? Answer: 100 percent.

So then the calculus is, how much happiness do I sacrifice by waiting a year for an iPad Mini? Is it worth it to buy a cheaper tablet and put the remaining $140 in the iPad Mini 2 fund? Do I even have the willpower to resist a shiny new Apple product? 

WINNER: Non-existent future iPad Mini 2 with Retina display — assuming you can hold out for it.

Wilson Rothman is the Technology & Science editor at NBC News Digital. Catch up with him on Twitter at @wjrothman, and join our conversation on Facebook.