Surprise -- the iPad Mini doubles as business tablet

The iPad Mini's small size doesn't hinder many apps, whereas the fourth-generation iPad adds little value

The iPad Mini is no question the best media tablet, easy to use on the go or on the couch for playing games, watching movies, and reading books. But can it hack it as a "regular" tablet despite its smaller size? It's the only media tablet that has all the same capabilities as a full-size tablet -- it's an iPad through and through, as Apple continually reminds people with its "every inch an iPad" slogan. That full iPadness is one reason the Mini costs more than other media tablets.

In fact, the iPad Mini's small size and light weight (at 12 ounces, half that of a full-size iPad) may have greater appeal in some business contexts, especially in field force, logistics, and retail usage where people aren't working with Office documents and complex websites.

[ See which media tablet InfoWorld recommends in our hands-on deathmatch review of the iPad Mini, Google Nexus 7, and Kindle Fire HD. | Get expert advice about planning and implementing your BYOD strategy with InfoWorld's "Mobile and BYOD Deep Dive" PDF special report. ]

On the other hand, the iPad Mini is less powerful than the full-size iPad, especially now that Apple has released the fourth-generation iPad, which boasts a new processor (the dual-core A6X) and the 264-pixels-per-inch Retina display for more-natural-looking images and crisper text. The iPad Mini's resolution is just 163 ppi, and it uses the same dual-core A5 chip as the 18-month-old iPad 2, which is still available in the 16GB Wi-Fi-only version for $399.

The iPad Mini also skimps in the camera department. Its rear camera has no flash and lacks the ability to take high-dynamic-range (HDR) photos. Even the new, fifth-generation iPod Touch sports an LED-equipped camera and supports HDR photography.

When you look at its hardware components, the iPad Mini is little better than the iPad 2. In fact, it's clear that the iPad Mini is essentially a shrunken iPad 2, though with Siri voice recognition and stereo speakers.

The iPad Mini's screen and processing are perfectly adequateThat iPad 2 derivation shows why raw specs aren't always meaningful. The iPad 2's screen resolution is 138 ppi -- half that of the third- and fourth-generation iPad -- but looks just fine. Although the Retina display has better color range and clarity, it's not noticeably better than the iPad 2's screen in everyday use. You need to zoom in on text and images to see the differences. The iPad Mini's lower-resolution screen (compared to the Retina-equipped iPad) isn't as inferior as the specs might suggest. In fact, it's perfectly good.

The faster CPU in the fourth-generation iPad, on the other hand, delivers a noticeably faster experience in some apps, such as iPhoto and iMovie. But it's not dramatic and certainly nowhere close to Apple's claims of "twice as fast." I noticed no uptick in mainstay business apps like iWork, Quickoffice Pro, and Office2HD; Angry Birds is no more responsive, either.

Like the iPad 2, the iPad Mini's performance is perfectly adequate until you get to complex image editing, which also explains why some such apps don't run on the iPad 2 -- it lacks the high-end graphics coprocessor found in the third- and fourth-gen iPad. That's an edge case for the iPad Mini.

Also, I should point out that the fourth-gen iPad is not much faster than the third-gen model. Its only other "improvement" is to use the new Lightning connector instead of the Dock connector. I suspect the Lightning connector is the real reason for the fourth-gen iPad's existence; the iPad was the only current-year iOS device still to offer the old Dock connector. You can put any jealousy aside if you bought a third-gen iPad before the new model was announced. You aren't missing anything.

The iPad Mini is surprisingly easy to type onI feared the Mini's onscreen keyboard would be too small to comfortably type on. The full-size iPad's onscreen keyboard is essentially full-size, so you can touch-type on it once you get used to the lack of tactile feedback. But I was happily surprised by how easy it was to type on the iPad Mini.

  • In horizontal orientation, the onscreen keyboard works nicely for thumb-typing, when you're holding the iPad Mini in two hands. The width of the Mini is perfect for such use.
  • In either horizontal orientation or vertical orientation, the onscreen keyboard works well for one-finger typing, when you're holding it with one hand and pecking at keys with the other's index finger. The keys are large enough to accurately tap.
  • When the iPad Mini is on a surface such as a desk, especially if tilted up at an angle with the likes of Apple's Mini Smart Cover -- which works just as nicely as the full-size iPad's Smart Cover -- you can touch-type with both hands. You need to adjust your fingers' travel, but after a few minutes, some friends and I could serviceably type on it. Again, it's not what I would do all day every day, but it works when on the road and for short-term needs like taking notes in a meeting or when on a phone call.

Of course, you can also use a Bluetooth keyboard with the iPad Mini as you can with a full-size iPad. In fact, you can use the same Bluetooth keyboard you already have for your full-size iPad.

The make-or-break factor for the iPad Mini: AppsWhen I use my full-size iPad on the road (I no longer travel with my laptop) or even at my desk, the 9.7-inch screen can be tight when working with documents or Web pages designed for large monitors. Zooming helps, but it adds work.

Thus, I was concerned that the 7.9-inch screen on the iPad Mini would be too small for such activities. Keep in mind that iPad apps run as is on the iPad Mini, with the same 1,024-by-768 screen resolution as an iPad 2. That means everything is shrunk proportionally to about 85 percent of the size of an full-size iPad.

Sure enough, the screen was too small in some cases. But more often, I could use the iPad Mini for text editing or Web surfing fairly easily. Yes, the text was smaller, and sometimes I needed my reading glasses (friends with better vision did not), but I could still get the job done. I wouldn't use the Mini as a replacement for my full-size iPad, but the iPad Mini can pinch-hit for it.

How much you can use an iPad Mini beyond entertainment, social media, and lightweight browsing depends on the apps. The key is how much they allow you to enlarge text to be more readable and ensure their controls are large enough to see and tap in the iPad Mini's smaller screen. That varies considerably.

For example, you can use the Large Text settings in the Settings app's Accessibility pane to boost the size of text in many Apple apps, including Mail. Chances are you'll want to increase the text size in iBooks, Kindle, and other newspaper and magazine apps (if they let you -- some don't). A good rule of thumb is that if you can set the text in an app to 20 percent larger than what you like on a full-size iPad, its appearance on the iPad Mini will match your preference on your full-size iPad.

But not all apps can go that large. For example, the San Francisco Chronicle app's maximum text size wasn't large enough for my older eyes on the iPad Mini, while Flipboard's barely made it. The Twitter and HootSuite social media apps did let me scale their text to an easily readable size on the iPad Mini, as did the Reuters and USA Today news apps.

Not all apps let you scale the size of their text, much less their UI elements. For example, the Zite news aggregator app doesn't, and I found it hard to use on the iPad Mini as a result. But Apple's iWork, Quickoffice HD Pro, and Office2HD -- the top iPad productivity apps -- were quite usable in the iPad Mini, as were GoodReader, FTP on the Go Pro, CloudOn, Notability, iMovie, and iPhoto. The Safari and Chrome browsers were borderline for me, as was the Concur travel manager and Fidelity financial planner. But again, what's readable depends on your eyes, so check out some apps on an iPad Mini at the Apple Store or other retailer if you're unsure.

Smart developers will revise their iPad apps to offer scaling settings so that users can optimize them for the iPad Mini. Others will target the iPad Mini with apps designed for users who work predominantly with an iPad Mini in the field, in the store, in the truck or cockpit, in the hospital room, or in other highly portable environments. The iPad Mini could be a revolution in these settings.

What it will cost youThe iPad Mini costs $329 for the 16GB Wi-Fi-only model, with the 32GB model costing $429 and the $64GB model costing $529. Adding a 3G-plus-LTE cellular radio (with a choice of AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon) adds $130 to the price. By comparison, the only Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7-inch model, with a paltry 8GB of storage, costs $249; the Nexus 7 costs $199 for a 16GB Wi-Fi-only model, $249 for a 32GB Wi-Fi-only model, and $299 for a 3G/Wi-Fi model. Neither is anywhere as good as the iPad Mini, and the Nexus 7's lower price reflects its poorer capabilities.

The fourth-generation iPad has the same configurations as the iPad Mini, for $170 more; these are the same prices as the third-gen models but with a Sprint cellular version not previously available. Top-quality Android tablets such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 cost about the same as the fourth-generation iPad -- $499 for the 16GB model and $549 for the 32GB model -- though cellular models are rare.

The one warning I have on the new iPads is the same as for the new iPhone and iPod Touch: You'll pay a lot more for Lightning-compatible accessories. The $49 cost each of a VGA and HDMI adapter is simply mind-blowing, even when compared to the not-so-cheap-at-$29 Dock equivalents. A basic Lightning charging cable costs $19, and Dock-to-Lightning adapters range from $29 to $39, and they don't support many Dock peripherals. The switch to Lightning easily adds $100 to a new Apple device's costs, though the cables and adapters work across the entire new Apple lineup.

Small business tabletApple iPad Mini

Much more than a media tabletWhen Apple announced the iPad Mini, I didn't really see the point. At best, I thought, it would be a portable iTunes appliance that would move past the book orientation of the Kindle-style media tablet. There's nothing wrong with that, but it didn't seem interesting. However, after spending several days with the iPad Mini, I get it.

Yes, it's a far superior media tablet than the Kindle Fire HD or Nexus 7 -- as Apple products tend to be when they enter an established market. And the iPad Mini outclasses both the 7-inch Nexus 7 and the 7-inch Galaxy Tab 2 7 as business tablets. But the iPad Mini is also every bit as good as a full-size iPad as a "regular" business tablet, at least if your apps are readable on it, as so many are. That surprised me. For people in highly portable field jobs, the Mini could make the regular iPad look as excessively bulky as the iPad compared to a laptop.

Meanwhile, the fourth-generation iPad is perfectly fine if you have an iPad 2 or earlier model (or no iPad at all). It's for all intents and purposes the same as the third-gen iPad, but sporting a new connector that will force you to buy adapters and new cables. Don't buy one if you have a third-gen model.

The iPad Mini has not created the frenzy in stores of earlier iPads, but I suspect as more people use it, the real value will be clear, and Apple will have again established a new category of must-have product in which it has no serious rivals. It's that good.

This article, "Review: Surprise -- the iPad Mini doubles as business tablet," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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