[Important! Author's Note, June 6, 2014: The article below refers to the first-generation iPad mini, released in November 2012. The second-generation iPad mini, released in the fall of 2013, features a 2048 x 1536-pixel Retina display that fixes all of the display-related problems I perceived with the original. Related to this, I wrote a review of the new iPad Air, whose design was inspired by the iPad mini. The article here, which we have preserved on the site for historical reference, should not be interpreted as an indictment of the current iPad mini.]
You’d think that a technology writer like me would learn not to say things like “I’ll never buy an iPad mini.”
But that’s approximately what I said back in October 2012, around the time Apple finally confirmed all the rumors that a smaller version of the iPad was on its way. What I said, to be exact, was that a 7-inch tablet “feels like the worst of both worlds to me—too big for simple e-reading, too small for serious Web browsing, games, and photos.”
What I couldn’t anticipate, and what finally changed my mind, was the incredible lightness of the thing. As soon as I got to play with an iPad mini and feel how weightless it is compared to my third-generation iPad, I started to feel a kind of reverse buyer’s remorse over my declaration of non-interest. Last week, I finally abandoned my pride and bought a basic Wi-Fi-only model.
But now I’m feeling actual buyer’s remorse. Once you take it home, the iPad mini isn’t nearly as sexy as it seemed in the glamorous light of the Apple Store. (There’s got to be a lesson in there.)
I’ve been using the mini all week, waiting for it to find a perch in my heart, but it just hasn’t. So I’ve decided to take advantage of Apple’s generous 14-day, no-questions-asked return policy and return the device.
I won’t be the first to do that (I’ve found people saying the same thing here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) and I’m afraid my reason is pretty unoriginal too. The mini’s major selling point is that it’s light—just 0.68 pounds, less than half the weight of the iPad. But that’s the only big advantage it can claim.
This is a case where less is just less. The screen of the iPad mini has 65 percent of the surface area of the regular iPad, but Apple didn’t require developers to submit modified apps for the device. This means that everything, including the on-screen keyboard, has simply been shrunk down to fit on the mini.
That might be tolerable on a retina display—tiny little icons and buttons work just fine on the iPhone 5. But the mini doesn’t have a retina display. The screen has the same pixel count as the first-generation iPad (1024×768). And that, for me, is the showstopper.
I admit it, I’m a retina snob. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t marvel at the screens on my iPhone 5 and my iPad 3. If the San Andreas fault yawned open beneath my apartment building, I would beg the gods of the underworld to spare just two of my possessions: my dog and my iPad. My love for it is extreme and irrational.
But the iPad is pretty heavy, which makes it tiring to hold for extended periods, like when I’m reading a magazine or an e-book. That’s why I was interested in the mini. I figured my iPad wouldn’t mind the occasional infidelity, and I thought I would probably get used to the mini’s low-res screen, as a lot of other people say they have.
But I haven’t. Letters and other shapes that have razor-sharp edges on the iPad still look horribly fuzzy on the mini, as you can see in the photos above. Which is inevitable, since the mini’s screen has only a quarter as many pixels as its retina cousin; it just turns out I can’t abide the difference. (Maybe it’s just my age. I probably should have gotten bifocals on my last trip to the eye doctor, but I delayed. With the mini, I’m constantly asking “Is it my eyes, or is it the screen?)
As sure as the snow turns brown in Boston, Apple will eventually come out with a retina version of the mini. When it does, I might make another pilgrimage to the Apple Store.
But I won’t be holding my breath, as it might take Apple a while to solve the engineering dilemmas involved. It takes more powerful processors to run all the pixels in a retina display (that’s why the third-generation iPad feels so warm). So a retina iPad mini would either have a shorter battery life, or it would need bigger, heavier batteries, thus sacrificing lightness.
The smart people in Cupertino will figure something out. Now excuse me while I go make up with my iPad.