A Tale of Two Screens

A Tale of Two Screens

Left: the iPad mini. Right: the third-generation iPad. From this distance, there isn't much difference in the appearance of the two displays. But just wait...

Photo by Wade Roush

Ready for My Close-up, Part 1

Ready for My Close-up, Part 1

Here's a close-up view of the same meadow image on the third-generation iPad with retina display. It's pretty crisp and sharp. (Try to overlook the moire pattern -- that's what happens when you try to take a digital picture of a digital picture.)

Photo by Wade Roush

Ready for My Close-Up, Part 2

Ready for My Close-Up, Part 2

Here's the same image on the iPad mini screen, with its non-retina, 1024x768 screen. It's noticeably fuzzier, and now you can actually see the pixels.

Photo by Wade Roush

Tiny Type, Part 1

Tiny Type, Part 1

Here's some text from Michael Lewis's "The Big Short," on the third-generation iPad with retina display. The edges of the type are almost as sharp as they would be on paper. (The definition of a "retina" display is that the pixels are so small you can't see them unaided.)

Photo by Wade Roush

Tiny Type, Part 2

Tiny Type, Part 2

Here's the same text on the iPad mini.

Photo by Wade Roush

Tiny Type, Part 3

Tiny Type, Part 3

A close-up of the same text on the third-generation iPad.

Photo by Wade Roush

Tiny Type, Part 4

Tiny Type, Part 4

A close-up of the Michael Lewis text on the iPad mini.

Photo by Wade Roush

Diverging Paths

Diverging Paths

The Path social-mobile app on the iPad mini and the third-generation iPad. Chocolate chunk cookies not included.

Photo by Wade Roush

Apple's Marvelous Maps

Apple's Marvelous Maps

The Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, visualized on both iPads.

Photo by Wade Roush

iPad Pinkie, Part 1

iPad Pinkie, Part 1

In this shot I'm reading The New Yorker on my third-generation iPad. My only real complaint about the iPad is its weight: I often end up with a sore fifth finger from resting it in my hand this way.

Photo by Wade Roush

iPad Pinkie, Part 2

iPad Pinkie, Part 2

Here's the iPad mini in the same pose. It's far easier on your hand, which is its main advantage. Too bad it's not easier on your eyes.

Photo by Wade Roush

[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.

The Author

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.

  • http://twitter.com/iNalysis Drew Hession-Kunz

    Are you suggesting that snow ISN’T brown? Living in Boston, I just assumed that is how it comes down…

  • http://www.facebook.com/desh.sharadh Sharadh Deshpande

    Who cares as long it’s cheap, light, easy to hold, solves all my purpose!!! Ipad mini is the best…….

  • http://www.facebook.com/georgemcquilken George McQuilken

    Don’t eat the brown snow (yellow either). There is plenty of white snow falling right now here in Boston.

  • k

    so when next ipad mini will come in??

  • IVI

    So your not happy with a picture being crisp enough… Most people take a picture and move on with there lives and not zoom all the way in looking at a tree nobody cares about

    • yd

      lolzzz good one!

  • http://profiles.google.com/zandmstudios Steven Zang

    “OMG it’s not retina!” While I don’t blame the author for bemoaning the admittedly low resolution screen of the mini, his infatuation with the buzzword “retina” is troubling…

  • Andrew

    Opposite here. ILOVE my iPad mini and have sold my retina iPad3. Photos – great. Text – great. Side by side with the iPad 3 and iPad mini, photos and text were scarcely different. Only the Telegraph newspaper app showed fuzzy print. So I stopped looking at the Telegraph app! Buy some better specs!

  • vishnu

    Good point to b considered while purchasing. I cud see many are unhappy with your article. May b they junt want Apple but not its products’ worth..

  • http://www.facebook.com/Sailnt.Killer Mukund Ragunathan

    Goes to show the reviewer is just another ignorant apple fanboy, the world “retina” he throws around is so incorrect. The ipad 3 and 4 have a ppi of 260, while the current gen iphone has a ppi of 320. Ipad mini has a ppi of around 160. So the ipad 3 and 4 screens arent exactly the same quality if the iphone. Ignorant tool. Dont take advise from such an ignorant person.

  • http://www.facebook.com/doctorchou Bruce Chou

    This is soooo dumb Mr. Roush. You are basically confirming the published specs of the two devices, and that you were surprised by how they made you feel, despite that those feelings could have been predicted by anyone. Visual feel: MiniiPad3. Overall experience: ease-of-holding was anticipated to be more important, but visual feel wins out.

    Also, getting bifocals would not be expected to improve your experience with the non-retina display (unless the appearance of sharp pixels is something you prefer to blurry pixels–but if you somehow did, then you ) nearly as much as it would improve your appreciation of the retina display, and only if your previous spectacles were sub-optimal.

  • Guest

    This is soooo dumb Mr. Roush. You are basically confirming the published specs of the two devices, and that you were surprised by how they made you feel, despite that those feelings could have been predicted by anyone. Visual feel: Mini iPad3. Overall experience: ease-of-holding was anticipated to be more important, but visual feel wins out.

    Also, getting bifocals would not be expected to improve your experience with the non-retina display (unless the appearance of sharp pixels is something you prefer to blurry pixels–but if you somehow did, then you ) nearly as much as it would improve your appreciation of the retina display, and only if your previous spectacles were suboptimal.

  • http://www.facebook.com/doctorchou Bruce Chou

    This is soooo dumb Mr. Roush. You are basically confirming the published specs of the two devices, and that you were surprised by how they made you feel, despite that those feelings could have been predicted by anyone. Visual feel: MiniiPad3. Overall experience: ease-of-holding was anticipated to be more important, but visual feel wins out.

    Also, getting bifocals would not be expected to improve your experience with the non-retina display (unless the appearance of sharp pixels is something you prefer to blurry pixels–but if you somehow did, then you wouldn’t be complaining about the Mini’s resolution in the first place) nearly as much as it would improve your appreciation of the retina display, and only if your previous spectacles were sub-optimal.

  • Guest

    This is soooo dumb Mr. Roush. You are basically confirming the published specs of the two devices, and that you were surprised by how they made you feel, despite that those feelings could have been predicted by anyone. Visual feel: Mini iPad3. Overall experience: ease-of-holding was anticipated to be more important, but visual feel wins out.

    Also, getting bifocals would not be expected to improve your experience with the non-retina display (unless the appearance of sharp pixels is something you prefer to blurry pixels–but if you somehow did, then you ) nearly as much as it would improve your appreciation of the retina display, and only if your previous spectacles were suboptimal.

  • http://www.facebook.com/doctorchou Bruce Chou

    This is soooo dumb Mr. Roush. You are basically confirming the published specs of the two devices, and that you were surprised by how they made you feel, despite that those feelings could have been predicted by anyone. Visual feel: Mini iPad3. Overall experience: ease-of-holding was anticipated to be more important, but visual feel wins out for you.

    Also, getting bifocals would not be expected to improve your experience with the non-retina display (unless the appearance of sharp pixels is something you prefer to blurry pixels–but if you somehow did, then you wouldn’t be complaining about the Mini’s resolution in the first place) nearly as much as it would improve your appreciation of the retina display, and only if your previous spectacles were suboptimal.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

    Thanks for all the comments, everyone. I was expecting some push-back from readers and I got it! (As all tech reporters know, you can’t criticize Apple without stirring up lots of angry comments.) As for the specifics — Bruce Chou: Yes, as I said, my reason for disliking the iPad mini was not new. I thought I wouldn’t mind the lower-res screen; I needed to try it out at home for a while to find out I was wrong. I don’t think there is any harm in sharing my findings with others. Mukund Ragunathan: As far as I can tell, we agree: that the iPhone and the third- and fourth-generation iPads have retina displays and the mini does not. Andrew and Sharadh : Glad you are enjoying your minis. I didn’t say that everyone would hate it!

  • yd.

    so you have two ipads. hmmm.

  • Benmartin1974

    I had been considering ordering a ipad mini for some time. I read plenty of reviews and this one was quite useful http://search4reviews.net/ , I received my package last month and am very happy. I Would highly recommend to anyone still unsure.

  • http://twitter.com/michaelpang89 Michael Pang

    Honestly I didn’t think I’d like the mini either and I thought the lack of retina would be a dealbreak. I have a 3rd gen ipad and I got an ipad mini for my brother. I didn’t scrutinize the ipad mini as much as you did and so I thought it was fine. I didn’t really notice these details from regular usage. I think you have to be really nitpicky lol to do this. But I think Apple should have made it retina first anyway (but obviously they just wanted an easy way to tout their “upgrade” for the ipad mini 2).

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      I plead guilty to being really nitpicky.

    • David

      No, if Apple’s sole reason for not making the iPad mini with a retina screen were to keep the retina display in reserve for iPad mini 2, in fact they would have sold iPad mini 1 with the retina display. If Apple had had to accept NO additional costs in money, production time, battery drain, etc. in producing the mini with retina instead of without, Apple would have had every reason to make the iPad mini even more appealing to potential customers and therefore more profitable. Why would Apple have given up additional profit if there were NO marginal costs, trade-offs, or other obstacles to make it more difficult to introduce the retina display with the first IPad mini? The iPad mini 2 would still have been a substantial improvement on the previous mini; and there is no point in simply deferring the purchases of customers who won’t buy the mini until it has a retina display.

      It is never the case that a product maker enjoys unlimited supply of every relevant factor needed to make a product with every possible feature and refinement that is theoretically possible at present.

  • Starman_Andromeda

    “As all tech reporters know, you can’t criticize Apple without stirring up lots of angry comments”

    That’s truly patronizing! The comments you’re receiving come from people who don’t see the difference you do (or not nearly as much of one), not whether they are in love with Apple.

    Plus, your evidence is underwhelming! Zoomed in pictures of mini photo detail and letters in words will show the difference, but for many, if not most, it’s just not that noticeable. And that’s not how they use the mini in any event.

    When the iPad 3 with Retina Display came out, there were lots of blind tests in side by side comparisons– both formal and informal. I saw one at Best Buy. Neither the customers nor the salespeople could see the difference in the iPad 2 and iPad 3 displays!

    The only way it showed up was by doing exactly what you’ve done, which is blowing up the text on the display greatly.

    Those observations have come from regular customers (as well from so-called Apple fanboys and Apple detractors).

    From the specs, the DPI is higher on the iPad mini than the iPad 2, so it should have a better display just by that measure alone.

    The real issue that readers have with your wonderfully written, though offbase, commentary is with the sweeping hyperbole. For example,

    “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”

    “horribly fuzzy”? Beauty is clearly in the eye of the beholder–and the device distance of the holder! :-)

    Be careful what you wish for, too, when the iPad mini with RD turns out to run hotter, take longer to charge, etc.

    And, for the record, I do not own an iPad mini or any Apple stock!

  • Jetse

    I love your review! Thank you as I really need an honest opinion and the humor! I couldn’t help not laughing out loud as I read this in Starbucks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ninascottstoddart Nina Scott-Stoddart

    I love our iPad mini so much more than the retina-screened new iPad my mum has. I was cautious about the lack of retina screen and resolution when I bought the mini for my husband a few months ago, but we both love it so much more (and find it sexier) than mum’s full-size one. The weight and size are the selling points for us — portable, light and very attractive.

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Nina — I’m glad you and so many other people like the iPad mini. I didn’t mean to take away from anyone’s joy in owning one. I was just trying to report my own experience, as a focus group of one. As I said, I’ll probably buy a new one as soon as they come out with a retina version.

  • EachToTheirOwn

    7 links of unhappy people plus your opinion vs. millions of very happy people, go figure.

  • Hdiaurncjen

    The pictures you didn’t zoom in on look the same. It’s not like my eyes see that close in the picture. I don’t sit with my iPad mini 2 centimeters from my face… But whatever.

  • Jen D.

    This is good to know for developers. …And frankly, I’m getting a wee bit tired of trying to develop websites for everything under the sun — while products like this go and disappoint users from the get-go. For your sake, I hope they fix the mini issue in dev’s to come!

  • Dan

    If you’d have done research before you bought it, you would have known that it didn’t come with a retina display.

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Dan — I knew very well that the iPad mini doesn’t have a retina screen. I bought it anyway, thinking that the difference wouldn’t bother me. It turned out was wrong — that’s what the whole piece is about.

  • Julio Davila

    Hi,

    You are completely right, the iPad retina display screen quality is far better than the iPad mini’s. Also, the iPad 3 is faster.

    … but … I moved from the iPad 3 to the mini, because of its portability. My iPad 3 was almost all the time inside a drawer or in a briefcase, because it is big and heavy. On the other hand, my iPad mini is now with me at all times because it is light, extremely portable and can easily fits inside my wife’s purse. :)

    In my experience, there is no reason for me to have a device if I will barely use it. Now my iPad mini is slower and with a crappy screen resolution (vs the retina display), but I use it every single day.

  • Bill

    The best comparison is to the mini and the original iPad or the iPad2. The mini screen is very coarse and unpleasant to look. It looks like cheap junk to me.

  • Ryan

    I viewed with my MacBook Pro retina and my ipad mini. The photos are photo shopped big time or maybe return the camera. I agree the mini is not as stunning as my retina mac. However the mini is not even close to what you are showing. Why do I see the same distortion on my mac as with the mini? I call Android fan. The mini is not mention to watch hd film.

    • Austin

      He has an iPad that he says he loves, you idiot. He didn’t even mention Android in this article. Also, you aren’t any expert either, considering you don’t even know that the proper name for your laptop is MacBook Pro with Retina display.

      • Androidfan

        Your both idiots. Apple blows and is for hipsters who don’t know how pcs work, and like having everything they do controlled.

        • Anonymouse

          no your the idiot. you waste time and money sorting thru components and soft wear trying to come close to the speeds you can achieve on a Mac Pro out of the box.

          I was a pc for nearly 20 years, i switched to mac and will never go back.

          • takeabiteoutofapple

            No you’re the idiot…no you are…stop name calling. Since this article about the ipad Androidfans comments are accurate.

            You can’t do anything productive with anything that Apple has the biggest market share with (phones, tablets, mp3 players).
            Tablets are toys and toys only. I develop apps for a living and will never be able to develop one on a toy.

            Apple has shifted from computers to toys. Over time Apple won’t even care about the computing business anymore…in fact they already don’t. If you havent used a PC in 20 years I recommend you give it a try. Maybe not today or tomorrow but in 5 years when Apple totally ignores the computer.

          • Austin

            Sir, Apple produces many productivity apps for the iPad, as well as many third-party developers. You sir, are too poor to pay the $99 for the Apple SDK and that is why you won’t develop apps for it.

        • Austin

          Actually, I have both Macs and PCs, and I know both have their own strengths, and both have their own weaknesses.

  • James

    If all you care about is pixel density then I feel sorry for you.

  • Rich

    You knew the pixels were not great going in apple didn’t hide that fact

  • Nicci

    Love my mini!!!!! It does everything I need for school and fun. Retina display is horrible for reading. It is too sharp and gave me a headache. I look at the ipad as a secondary computer not a primary.

  • rober

    Apart from the questionable case of buying an ipad mini having one ipad already, this article is good for see a comparison between retina and non retina screen, but nothing else. The two products has advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage of the iPad 3 is the screen but the mini has a very good screen too. But the iPad3 no way can’t competes against the mini lightness and portability. Next time try it first.

  • This guy is stupid

    Your stupid ipad minis rule your lost small eyes

    • Logan

      I agree with you

  • Logan

    It’s like everyone is getting “retina fever.” Kind of like “i can see pixels…when i hold my iPad mini two inches away from my eyes or rake photos with it!!! Im returning it!!!” I personally love my iPad mini, it’s the perfect size for everything, gaming does well, even dual screen gaming with the Apple TV, and it even fits in my back pocket at work!

  • Ananymouse

    Are you a retard or what? you bought an iPad mini knowing that it is not a RETINA device and then you compare it to a 3rd generation RETINA iPad.
    Oh, Shock, Horror, the screen on the mini is not as good….. i did not see that one coming.
    The iPad mini was designed for convenience and price, not cutting edge graphics (altho they are still a lot better than most other tablets on the market)

  • Hunter

    I love the ipad mini. I have used my iPod touch 4 for years and never minded the screen on the mini. Once you use it for a month or two you never even pay attention to the pixels but instead what is on the screen. People who say the mini has such a bad screen don’t buy just give it enough time to get used to the screen. Give it more time and you won’t notice the pixels.

  • Luke

    I love my ipad mini I use it for everything and I don’t know why people don’t like it because of the pixels, as long as I can read and play games I am happy. there must be very sad people out there to study a picture for ages to see the pixels I only look at a picture for at least 3 seconds it’s not a master painting your looking at!!!!!

  • nihilisticterrorist

    wow….lol.. talk about snobbery.
    love my min

  • www.YouTube.com/VlogSalad

    full sized iPad all the way.. And jailbreak ;)

  • Cloudy

    While in some other parts of the world people have rather ridiculous decisions to make. Where to find water? What nourishing food to eat? Will I be able to feed my family the next day?

    Ridiculous decisions. Compared to us drooling over the shiny new toy with more pixels. Thank god we have better things to think about .

  • takeabiteoutofapple

    Oh you poor baby. The ipad is too heavy for you? Maybe you should go to the gym then. I don’t understand why you would buy that piece of junk anyway and say you would line up again to get one after CrApple releases one with a better display. CrApple rips off the ignorant…the Touch, IPad and I Phone are all based on the same thing, but morons line up like sheep to get the newest ones and have to have one of each.

    Get off the hedonistic treadmill, unplug from technology and start enjoying life!

  • Paul B.

    It’s like people who watch HD tv with their noses pressed against them. From sitting a few feet away on the couch they look perfectly fine.

  • Matilda Morgan

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  • Jim bob jie

    Wa wa wa wa, what did you use prior to tablets?
    Seriously get over yourselves. There are more important things to gripe about in life.
    What a materialistic sad world we live in.