A weekend with the iPad mini

I figure that, between all the reviews that already popped and the fact that the iPad mini is, after all, an iPad, it needs no introduction. I’ll try to keep this initial look focused on some of the finer details and surprises I’ve noticed after using the iPad mini for a weekend.

Side note: If you couldn’t tell from the title of this post, I’m trying something new with significant devices. I’m going to write first looks and early review posts like this, but I’m also going to write a follow-up a month or so later, after I’ve taken a more significant amount of time to work the device into my daily routine and really appreciate some of its advantages and shortcomings. I’m about to do that with my iPhone 5, and I will do it with the iPad mini, especially since I’ll return this 16GB WiFi review model once my 64GB Verizon model shows up. Both are black.

Back to the iPad mini, this thing is light. Light. It is noticeably, though marginally, lighter than my Nexus 7, but practically weightless compared to its big bro. It’s no Kindle (308 grams versus 170), but it’s definitely in that Kindle territory; well within my threshold for holding one-handed for extended periods.

It is surprisingly comfortable to thumb type on the iPad mini’s keyboard in portrait. The wider screen makes the keys less cramped than my iPhone and Nexus 7 (probably due to the Nexus’s thinner 16×9 profile). But on the other side of the screen size gamut, I don’t have to stretch or contort my hands to reach the middle keys, as on my iPad. Thumb typing on the iPad mini in portrait feels just right. I wasn’t expecting that.

As someone who has been using a retina iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Pro since each of them went retina, I am slowly getting over the omission on this first iPad mini. I’m not thrilled, but my eyes are adjusting. Perhaps more importantly, after three days of use, the weight loss advantages have begun to greatly outweigh the drawback of no retina. A screen this large yet so portable really hits a sweet spot for many tablet uses.

Gaming on the mini feels much more interesting to me than on a regular iPad. Again, the larger screen real estate over an iPhone feels great, but losing all that weight from an iPad makes it much easier to do all the little things you don’t think about, like move your hand from the side to tap items, places, or menus, then get your hand back to the side to hold it. I don’t worry about propping up the iPad mini on my knee or a desk while playing a game. I just play.

One drawback I’ve found so far is that some content feels just a little too small, particularly on the web. Most apps, such as Flipboard, Instapaper, and Netbot look fine. Comics feel and read ok if I hold the mini a little closer than normal, and the Guided View in ComiXology helps quite a bit. But, as I found with the Nexus 7 which originally made me question the utility of seven-inch tablets, the in-between (an iPhone and iPad) nature of the display makes a lot of webpage text, buttons, and other tappable targets feel a little too… scrunched. After spending more time with the Nexus 7 and now the iPad mini, I began to see much more value in the seven-inch tablet space. And while zooming in on a column can fix many cases, much of the web still feels cramped on an iPad mini in portrait, though a little better in landscape.

I tried typing some of this piece on the iPad mini using my Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover, but because of the mini’s thin design, it can’t sit still for long in the groove designed for the thicker iPad. The magnets help, but the mini eventually started displacing the rubber padding in the groove so I gave up. I then switched to my iPad 3, typing with it in my lap on the couch, and I realized I’ve found a rather significant crossroads when it comes to deciding between these two, which begs the question: what do you want out of an iPad?

The iPad and iPad mini overlap when it comes to their respective relationships with content. The iPad’s strengths are sheer screen size and a quite usable landscape touchscreen keyboard at the sacrifice of portability. The iPad mini gains great portability, but at the sacrifice of screen size and some usability of the landscape keyboard. A key question to ask is: do you want an iPad only for content consumption? The mini might do you just fine. But if you plan to do a lot of typing, you might need a physical keyboard-an extra purchase, an extra accessory to carry around, an extra thing to keep charged, and a device that will likely limit your ability to bang out things like emails or blog posts in some situations.

However, most people I see typing on an iPad in public, even college and high school students, are using a physical keyboard anyway, and I’m sure at least a couple keyboard makers will whip out models that fit the mini. To be honest, I expect the mini to become even more popular than the regular iPad, so iPad-mini-friendly keyboards could become plentiful-if people end up wanting to do typing and other work-related tasks on it.

For many people though, creating content on a tablet doesn’t involve typing at all. They’re painting or creating music, and for those cases I’m having a hard time seeing the need for an iPad over the iPad mini. I’m happy to hear thoughts to the contrary.

After three days with my iPad mini, I already prefer it over my iPad 3 for nearly every task, save for typing. I’m actually getting pretty good at touch typing on the mini in landscape, so I’ll see where that goes. But the iPad mini already feels like the quintessential tablet, thanks to a fantastic balance of power and portability, as well as the incredible App Store catalog. As I mentioned, I’m going to write a follow-up to this in about a month, after I’ve spent a more significant amount of time working the iPad into my life. But so far, so good. Really, really good.

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