Hands-on with the iPad mini

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The iPad mini doesn’t arrive in stores until November 2, but we got to spend some time with one on Tuesday after Apple’s media event at the California Theater in San Jose. Our conclusion: Yes, it’s a small iPad—but there’s more (and less) to it than that. Here are our hands-on impressions.

As Apple’s executives made a point of stressing, the iPad mini is first and foremost an iPad. Sure, when you pick it up, it’s impressively small and light. But most if not all of the features that you’ve come to know on the iPad—the headphone jack, the on/off button, the volume controls, the Home button, and so on—are present on the smaller version as well.

But despite those similarities, it’s hard to convey how different the experience of using the iPad mini is compared with using the full-size models. It’s hard to believe, just a couple of years after we first marveled at Apple's tablet, that a full iPad experience fits into a package that’s this much smaller and lighter.

And it’s no less polished or well designed than its larger brethren. This is not a device that feels cheap; all metal and glass, it's extremely attractive. As with the iPhone 5, it feels like an object that was extruded, not assembled.

The color scheme reinforces that feeling. Like the iPhone 5, the iPad mini comes in black (with a dark back and sides) or white (with a silver back and sides); these aren’t the multicolored hues of the iPod nano or iPod touch.

Fits in your hand

Apple made a trade-off when it designed the original iPad with a 10-inch display: That big screen (and its weight) made the original model too bulky to hold in one hand. It was and is a great two-handed device (or a one-hand-and-propped-on-your-lap device), but it isn't palmable.

The iPad mini most definitely is. If you have small hands and you want to hold it in landscape orientation, you may find it a bit of a stretch. For portrait mode, however, you can easily grip the bottom bezel between thumb and finger, the way you might hold a book. The iPad mini is so light that holding it this way feels perfectly natural. It’s so small and light that we think kids will love it.

In a departure from previous iPads, the iPad mini’s bezel isn’t the same size all the way around: In portrait orientation, the left and right bezels are substantially thinner, as on an iPhone. Putting your thumb on the device means touching the touchscreen. We suspect that Apple believed slimming down the bezel was an acceptable option, given that the iPad mini is light enough to hold in one hand.

In landscape orientation, the larger bezels are on the sides, giving you plenty of room to grab on with those opposable thumbs of yours.

However, although the iPad mini is small and light enough to hold in one hand, we do wonder how easy it’ll be to use singlehandedly. Swiping and tapping with a thumb, as you might on an iPhone, is possible but awkward.

(We also wonder whether the more limited range of motion on a one-handed iPad mini might lead app developers to redesign their interfaces; an Apple representative we talked to suggested that the new continuous-scrolling mode in Apple’s own iBooks app may have been introduced specifically to make it easier for iPad mini users to read without having to stretch their thumbs to make a page-flip gesture.)

The iPad mini is narrow enough that thumb-typing on its software keyboard in portrait orientation is easy—it’s kind of like a giant iPhone. Thumb-typing on a full-size iPad is a lot less comfortable unless you have the hands of an NBA player. We didn’t have much time to test ten-finger typing, but given the smaller size of the iPad mini's screen, we’d imagine it’s going to be a little harder to touch-type on this device than on a full-size iPad. Even if you’ve already mastered iPad typing, you may have trouble doing it on the iPad mini.

A smaller screen

Anyone accustomed to using an iOS device with a Retina display will immediately notice that the iPad mini doesn’t have one: Pixels are clearly visible. The feeling is very much like looking at an iPhone 3GS. It’s a good, bright screen, but if you’re a Retina convert, you will not be pleased.

We viewed photos and text on the screen, and both looked good. By keeping the same number of pixels as found in the iPad 2 while decreasing the physical size of the screen, Apple has produced a higher-resolution display; as a result, everything looks a bit better than on the iPad 2. We tried a variety of apps, and had no trouble hitting what we wanted to tap on, despite the fact that every interface element on the iPad mini is slightly smaller than on a full-size iPad.

What’s really amazing about the iPad mini—perhaps its most surprising trait—is that although it has a much larger screen than its 7-inch Android-based competitors, it’s lighter than they are. That’s a big deal, because it means this device wins in two dimensions: Apple has somehow managed to fit a bigger screen that can accommodate powerful tablet apps into a package that weighs less. (The iPad mini is $80 more expensive than the comparable Nexus 7 and $115 more than the comparable Kindle Fire HD, though—you can’t win ’em all.)

Smart Cover mini

The iPad mini we tried came with an additional product: an iPad mini Smart Cover. In general, this accessory worked more or less like the full-size iPad Smart Cover. Apple has replaced the metal hinge with one that’s wrapped in the same material as the cover, so the design is a bit more cohesive. We found it easy to snap on and off, and it's so small that it adds very little bulk or weight to the already-small iPad mini.

In general, we’re somewhat skeptical about cases for devices as small and light as the iPad mini, but the Smart Cover seems to be a good match for its device. With the two paired together, it feels like you’re carrying a small paper notebook in your hand. A bulkier case would mask the thinness and lightness of the device.

And now, we wait

If you think the iPad mini is just a small iPad, well, you’re right. But it really needs to be seen to be understood. It’s tiny and light, and it has great fit and finish. Its screen is good, but most definitely not of Retina quality. When you see one, and hold one, you’ll know whether you want one. We’d direct you to your nearest Apple Store to check one out for yourself...but until November 2, you won’t be able to.

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