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[Review] iPad mini, The Ultimate eReading Device?

[Review] iPad mini, The Ultimate eReading Device?
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Two and a half years ago when Apple released the original iPad, I remember being excited by the prospect of reading books and magazines on such a sleek and modern machine. Never much of a fan of e-ink displays, the iPad promised a bright and colourful future of literature and entertainment. For the most part, it delivered. Those first months using the tablet, I felt like I was living in the future. It was like being in an episode of Star Trek. Laptops, netbooks, they all felt ancient in comparison.

And yet the original iPad was not without its shortcomings. It was too heavy to hold one handed for long periods of time (more than, say, half an hour or so). It was just a bit too big to read comfortably in bed, particularly if trying to not disturb a peacefully sleeping partner. Even so, it was such a huge step forward in usability that it quickly became the most used computer in our already technology laden household. Instantly on, always available, seemingly always charged up, and always magically full of content, it was constantly in use.

Fast forward another couple of years, and Apple have done what I thought impossible. They’ve made the iPad – that sleek and slim tablet of the future that I have so adored – appear as ancient and brick-like as the netbooks that came before it. They have done this with the release of their brand new uber-tablet, the iPad mini.

First Impressions

One hold of the mini, and regular iPads are spoiled for life. The mini is so incredibly skinny, so sleek, so pocketable, and so beautifully crafted (and I mean crafted, it’s built like a fine watch), it makes anything larger seem instantly obsolete.

 

Thinner than most e-ink readers

You might think that such a portable and pocketable device would be far less practical as a computer, closer in use to a smartphone than a classic tablet. But you would be wrong. Apple have pulled off some kind of magic trick that gives us a screen which provides 80% of the estate of the full size version, in a body considerably smaller, and less than half the weight. When you switch it on and start using it, it becomes a regular every day iPad. I mean that in a good way. When I’m using the mini, I all but forget it is a smaller tablet, I’m simply using an iPad. Yes the buttons and the text are smaller, but not noticeably so.

As with its bigger brother, the device itself becomes almost transparent in use. It becomes the task at hand – the page of a book or magazine, an email, a web page, a game board – the physical device melts into the background.

Smart cover as a stand

The mini is easily light enough to be held in one hand for long periods. It can be gripped and grasped in a variety of ways, including with a thumb resting on the screen. The OS is clever enough to figure out when you’re just holding the device, and when you’re trying to tap something. An optional magnetic SmartCover not only offers protection, but also folds up and works as a handy stand, propping up the iPad in any one of three possible positions. Folded back on itself it makes for a thicker sturdier grip. Or for those stuck in the past, the cover can be peeled back and held in one hand, with the screen in the other, book-like.



Easily held in one hand


The Screen

An iPad is first and foremost a screen. It’s the primary input and output device. Clearly, such an important component makes or breaks the entire product. Much has been written about the screen, about how it’s not retina (Apple’s terminology for a resolution so high that individual pixels become indistinguishable). I was prepared to be disappointed by the screen, but in fact was pleasantly surprised.

Not retina, but pretty damn good

Okay, let’s get this out there: it’s not as good as a retina screen, there’s no denying that. If you’re used to an iPad 3 screen, or (particularly) an iPhone 4 or later, with its immensely high pixel density, then you will see the difference with the mini. But it’s really not as big a difference as you might imagine. The screen is great, not just good but genuinely great. Sure, we’ve been spoiled with higher resolution displays, but those are still very much in the minority.

Apple are bound by currently available technology, and right now they couldn’t realistically have put a retina display into the mini and arrived at the same weight, or indeed price. For app compatibility they would be required to double the pixel density rather than go for around 50% higher as Google and Amazon have done with their tablets.

Double the density means four times as many pixels on the screen. Those pixels require four times as much light to be pushed through them, and about four times as much processor power to calculate what they should be doing. All that light and processor power requires considerably more juice, which means a much bigger battery, which in turn means a heavier and thicker iPad. This is precisely what happened with the iPad 3 over the iPad 2.

When it came to the mini, Apple had to choose between size and screen. They chose size, and in my view they chose wisely. A retina mini would have looked even more gorgeous, but would have been that much less comfortable to hold and transport. If you have to think twice before picking up the device, it’s already failed. The mini is a great compromise between a very good screen (better than the iPad 2), and an incredible form factor and weight.

The aspect ratio of the screen remains 4:3, the same as the larger iPads. This is an important differentiator when compared to Google’s Nexus 7 which has a 16:9 widescreen. The Google tablet is well suited to playing movies in landscape mode, but just looks plain odd in portrait. The iPad is much better proportioned for reading in portrait mode, and works well in landscape too. The downside is that movies are letterboxed.

Reading Apps

So how does it perform as an ereader? The short answer is exceptionally well. The iPad has always had an advantage over dedicated colour readers like the Kindle Fire and the Nook Colour, in that it isn’t tied to a single book vendor or reading ecosystem. There are apps for all the major bookstores (Sony just released theirs, plugging the last hole), as well as independent reading apps which cater to specific features. For example, the excellent QuickReader application is designed to help you become proficient in speed reading.

The iPad isn’t the only tablet to have access to a multitude of apps, Google’s Nexus 7 is similarly open in that respect. But the quality of the iPad apps is so much better. Sadly, most Android tablet apps are, even now, smartphone apps running bigger. They’re designed to be run on 4 inch screens, not 7 or 8 inch displays. Consequently they offer a hobbled environment, they’re unable to really make use of the extra real estate. The resolution of a Nexus 7 display might be higher than an iPad mini, but what use is a higher quality panel if it’s just showing you a low quality app? The reading experience is simply much better on the iPad.

Of course, not everyone wants the flexibility of buying books from multiple sources. Some folk are quite happy to be tied in to Amazon, or Kobo, or B&N, and that’s perfectly fine. If you go that route, you will get a cheaper device and probably be very happy with it. But if, like me, you prefer having the option to pick up the odd Kindle “Daily Deal”, and some Kobo freebies, and still have the option of getting the next latest release from whoever happens to be offering the lowest price, then the iPad deserves serious consideration.

It is worth pointing out that not all the reading apps are available internationally. For example, B&N have recently opened the UK Nook store, but there’s no UK Nook app on any device (although they promise one is coming). Sony’s recently released iOS app is US only. Kobo on the other hand, is more internationally friendly, with apps in all territories served by the store.

In Use

The iPad mini uses mostly the same innards as the iPad 2. That particular machine is over a year old, which may lead you to believe that the mini will be a poor performer by today’s standards. In reality, it zips along. The A5 chip at its heart is the die-shrunk version quietly sneaked into the iPad 2 mid-lifecycle. It’s plenty powerful enough even for gaming, certainly none of the reading apps will tax it.

There is twice as much system memory as the original iPad 1, something which caused that machine to run slowly at times. The mini is quite happy to open multiple Safari tabs, and keep a few apps open in the background, all without breaking a sweat.

Herein lies the one problem with the iPad mini as an ereader; it can do almost too much. It can be quite distracting knowing that the whole of the internet, not to mention an abundance of apps, are all just a single tap or swipe away. Reading on a classic e-ink Kindle or Nook is more akin to reading a dead tree book. It’s a fully immersive experience, and one that mostly cuts you off from external stimuli. To go from reading a paperback to checking emails requires physical effort; put down the book, pick up a computer. But with a full feature tablet, that break between one activity and the next is virtually non-existent. It’s a single swipe to switch from the the “printed” page to an email, or a game of Letterpress.

In fact the iPad can be more intrusive still, through its notification system. A new tweet, or a calendar alert, a stock price change, or a FaceTime call, all can send little banners perfectly designed to jolt you out of your reading bubble. Fortunately these can be switched off, although on a system wide basis. It would be nice if there was the option to disable alerts whilst in certain applications, leaving them fully functional the rest of the time. These are minor quibbles though, and are equally applicable to other tablet devices.

Verdict

The iPad mini has redefined what a small tablet computer can be. It’s a proper iPad, but the size and weight of an e-ink Kindle. It offers an unparalleled selection of reading apps, providing access to pretty much every ebook store on the planet.

Should you consider one? It depends. If you can’t stand reading on backlit screens, then clearly the iPad isn’t for you. A better option would be something like a Kobo or Nook. Both are at their best when used within their respective ecosystems, but both are also flexible enough to let you to plonk in epub files from other vendors (except Amazon, unless you remove the DRM).

If you’re very price sensitive, the Nexus 7 offers many of the same advantages as the iPad mini, for less money. You’ll get proportionally less finesse though.

But if $329 isn’t too much of a stretch, if you appreciate a polished, quality product, if you are likely to do more than just read books, and if you appreciate the flexibility of having access to multiple bookstores from a single device, then the iPad mini could be just what you’ve been waiting for.