Apple's iPad mini and Me: A Love Story

Summary: I love it! [Straight to the comments, amiright Haters?]

After a week and a half with my iPad mini it has slipped comfortably into my life in a way that was unexpected.

BACKGROUND

I've felt like there was a space in my digital ecosystem for a fourth screen ever since my first iPad arrived in April 2010. Something to fill the gap between the iPhone and the iPad (the other screen being my MacBook Air). The iPhone was too small to read on, and the iPad was often too big to read on. The iPhone was too small to type long passages of text on, but the iPad was often indiscreetly large.

My first attempt to fill this gap was the Kindle touch, an abomination of a machine that is surpassed by the iPad as a reading device under every situation except for use in the bright outdoors. So the search went on.

My second chance came with the Nexus 7. It seemed to have everything - the right size, good reviews, and a throwaway price. It was okay, but disappointing, especially after the high praise of the reviews.

It's a better Kindle reader than the Kindle touch, though it's a bit picky about whether it wants to register swipes as page-turns or not. Beyond that, I found myself constantly wishing it ran iOS. The top of my complaints were broken/missing apps, inability to enter text in web-pages, stuttery animation/scrolling in the OS, battery-drain while idle, keyboard issues and a useless landscape mode where almost 75% of the screen was covered by the keyboard and persistent on-screen buttons and taskbar. Within a fortnight, the Nexus 7 had been relegated to a bedside-dwelling Kindle reader.

So when the iPad mini was announced it was an easy decision - I was waiting at 12:02 PST to pre-order.

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FIRST IMPRESSIONS

This thing is damned beautiful. There really is nothing else to be said about the design.

If this was a thorough review, the bulk of it could be put in one sentence: 'meet the new iPad mini - just like the old iPad. Except mini'. And yet, despite all that was familiar, the first few hours of use left me confused and surprised.

I was confused by the ease with which I adapted to the smaller screen size. There were only two instances where I noticed I needed to take extra care to hit my target: the refresh icon in Safari's task bar, which is very close to the Reader icon, and the top-bar tap to scroll to the top of webpages and apps (probably my most-used non-direct navigation gesture).

This extended to the on-screen keyboard. I'd convinced myself prior to its arrival that the iPad mini would not be much good for emailing or web-forum posting. I was wrong. Not only do the size, weight and small bezels provide perfect thumb-typing in portrait orientation, I can type 'normally' on it in landscape.

I say 'normally' because I recently noticed that my typing on the software keyboard of the full-size iPad is a bastardisation of touch typing. I use all my fingers in their regular positions, but use my index fingers on the space-bar rather than thumbs. I guess this is because I can't rest my thumbs on it like I do on a traditional keyboard. In any case, I found I could type as quickly and efficiently on the mini as I can on the full iPad.

I was both surprised and confused at how good the non-retina display looked, and wondered how it's fonts often looked better to my eye than on the higher resolution Nexus 7. I've been a major fan of the Retina display, defending it against those who call it a gimmick. I look forward to the day when we go even higher-DPI than Retina. Yet here I was, happily using the mini, forgetting about pixels.

Now don't get me wrong. I can see the pixels. A Retina screen would be nicer to use, and the moment I can get a Retina iPad mini, I'll do it. The screen doesn't approach the stunning colour rendition of the new iPod touch either. It's a compromise, but it's the right compromise. A compromise I can live with.

POST-INVESTIGATION

I compared the little iPad thoroughly against the Nexus 7 and the Retina iPad, hoping to better understand why I had been surprised.

Part of the reason the screen doesn't look as pixelated as I'd expected was that I use a slightly increased font size in iBooks and the Kindle app. Another part of the explanation is different font rendering/smoothing techniques - my Nexus 7 renders crisper but jaggier fonts, while the iPad mini renders softer but smoother fonts. Mystery solved.

The typing? It's one part auto-correct and I think one part flexibility. I already shift effortlessly between two very different physical keyboards, a Dell soft touch at work and my MacBook Air at home, and two very different software keyboards, my iPad and iPhone/iPod. This is just a little different.

I suspect there's also something going on with the touch tech. Increased sensitivity or something, but I'll leave that on the unsolved case file for now. I'll update once I've run some digitiser tests.

USING THE IPAD MINI

The iPad mini is (obviously) smaller than the iPad. It feels around half the size, though it's actually slightly bigger than that, and is less than half the weight. The small size of the iPad mini makes it much more portable than its big brother. Not small enough to fit in any of my pockets, but small enough for me to to cart around without ever wishing I'd left it behind.

It's the perfect size for reading books. It weighs less than a 300 page hard-cover novel. Landscape and portrait both work - my preference is reading two-up in landscape. Like this (excuse the rubbish picture):

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It's actually a more comfortable hold than it looks. I was trying to demonstrate it while holding at arm's length to fit the photo. Basically, I hold it like I hold a paperback only with slightly less thumb. I can at a pinch page through with the thumb on that hand though.

I do the same when I'm reading web-pages, which is probably better for my neck and spine than slouching in or over an armchair like I often to do with the big iPad.

As I said earlier, typing is fine either orientation.

Battery life has been phenomenal. I'm still not sure whether I just got lucky with my unit, but I've been getting between 12.5 and 15 hours of actual use (screen-on time) between charges, and screen-off time has been equally as impressive. I charged it last Sunday night, used it extensively on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then put it back on the charger Wednesday night with 12 hours and 13 minutes of use, 2 days 16 hours of standby, and 19 percent remaining.

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FINAL THOUGHTS

This is it. This is the one device for me that is the centre of my digital ecosystem. This is my main email client, calendar and organiser, the place I go to get contact information, the place that holds all my meeting agendas and minutes and information, my holiday planning, my tax receipts.

It's small enough that it is my constant companion, which means I really don't need my iPhone to do much more than phone-calls, exercise tracking, photography and twitter/Instagram. I'm already doing all my messaging from the iPad mini.

It's capable enough that I don't see a need to carry my big iPad with me, much less my MacBook.

It fits perfectly in my Logitech keyboard with its cover on, so I've been using it for word processing (the fact that I'm well short of NaNoWriMo target is more about distraction and Halo 4 and job applications than a reflection of the iPad mini's ability).

I thought the iPad mini was going to be my extra device, the not-required but nice-to-have one that I would pick up when I wanted to do a bit of reading or to throw in the door pocket in the car when out and about or the device I'd grab when I wanted a bit of light and casual computing I thought my big iPad would remain the serious Getting Stuff Done machine.

Instead, the big iPad has shifted to a peripheral device, one that I use when I specifically want the larger canvas (sketching, for example) or when the Retina display really matters (photo editing). The rest of the time? I'm seriously thinking about getting a ClamCase and leaving it on my writing desk as a mini, iOS-based MacBook.

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I'm planning to upgrade from the 16GB iPad WiFi mini to the 64GB with LTE, then to the Retina version when it is released. Until then, this iPad mini is my primary computer.

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