Oct. 30, 2012 at 11:12 PM ET
Apple's iPad Mini will be available for purchase this Friday, and the first batch of reviews has hit the Internet. They seem to agree on a few points: It's built like an iPad, the screen is a step down, and it's the most hold-able tablet yet.
Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal says, "You can think of it either as a low-cost, compact cousin of the full-sized iPad, or a costlier, larger-screen alternative to the 7-inch models." And indeed, whether the iPad Mini is a luxury or a bargain depends on what you're considering as alternatives.
The competition at the $200 level is formidable: Google's Nexus 7, Amazon's Kindle Fire, and Barnes & Noble's Nook HD. All offer higher-resolution screens and similarly small form factors. Yet the iPad mini costs $129 more to start. What does it have that the others don't?
According to pretty much every reviewer: The look and feel. "If the iPhone 5 is reminiscent of jewelry, the iPad mini is like a solidly made watch," says The Verge. "When you hold it, it almost feels like you’re just holding a sheet of glass," says TechCrunch. "If there were an industry award for Tablet You Can Most Easily Envision Holding For Extended Periods of Time, the Mini would be a runaway winner," says Time's TechLand. And Fox News gives perhaps the best compliment of all: "When I picked it up, I was reminded of the first time I held a first-generation iPhone."
Clearly, the fit and finish of the device is superior — which should probably be expected from something that costs half again as much as the devices it's being compared to.
And then there's the fact that it runs a ton of iPad apps out of the box — a big selling point for people who don't want to worry about such things when migrating to a new device. "Nearly every larger iPad app I've thrown at it feels usable and comfortable at this smaller screen size," CNET assures us. And the famous iPad battery life is intact, too: Engadget's tests put it at 12 hours and 43 minutes, the best out of all the tablets they've measured.
One thing every reviewer acknowledges but for which no one seemed inclined to ding Apple is the screen. The 1024x768 resolution is the same as the original iPad's, yet not only do the iPad Mini's cheaper competitors now have higher-res screens, but many smartphones do as well! Reviewers seem to let Apple off the hook by saying that since the screen is smaller, those pixels are packed more closely together than on the iPad 2 or original model.
"Nobody's going to complain about the sharpness," suggests David Pogue at the New York Times, but that's probably not true. Millions have grown accustomed to the sharp displays since the iPhone 4 debuted in 2010, and the iPad Mini's big brother was a huge hit specifically because of the "sharpness" of the Retina display. And while reviewers rightly praise the Mini's larger 7.9-in. screen in comparison to its 7-in. competition, what they're saying about screen real estate isn't strictly true.
Apple's tablet may have more square inches, but the 1440x900 pixel display of the Nook HD, though smaller physically, can display more words, more clearly — and the same is true to a lesser extent of other 7" tablets.
Giving Apple a pass on the screen is a bit questionable, but in fairness to the iPad Mini, its screen is technically more sharp than the iPad 2's, and by all accounts, this miniaturized iPad is excellent in everything but resolution.
Should you buy it? Screen gripes aside, the sturdy, pretty iPad mini definitely allows you do do a few new things: read one-handed, for instance. Being small and light also makes it a good choice for kids.
To really know whether it's worth it, though, it might be a good idea to see the iPad Mini with your own eyes. Of course, once you pick one up, as the reviewers note, you may find it hard to put down — regardless of your reservations.
If you choose to fight the urge, though, no one will blame you. Given Apple's typical pace in improving its devices, it seems likely that we'll see a Retina-display Mini by this time next year, if not sooner — and maybe at a more competitive price.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.