There's a company out with a new tablet computer that poses a direct threat to the iPad. Fortunately for Apple, that company is Apple, and that tablet is the iPad mini.
Apple picked the right name for this $329-and-up, 7.9-in.-touchscreen device: Just as the iPod mini (and then the still-smaller iPod nano) relegated the "classic" iPod to the high end of the market, this smaller model looks primed to become Apple's mainstream tablet.
Why? It does everything a regular iPad can do at a lower price and in a smaller package that, at .68 pounds, invites single-handed use. A big iPad still makes more sense as somebody's only computer and for some specialized uses; for instance, I'd rather edit pictures on its 9.7-in. display. But for most Web-plus-apps-plus-media use, Apple users need look no further than the iPad mini.
The initial knock on smaller tablets, coming from Steve Jobs himself, was that buttons on their screens would be too small to navigate by touch. That's not the case on the mini, where pretty much every interface ingredient is easy enough to nail with a fingertip. Thumb typing seems outright easier on that smaller expanse of glass, although the sharp edge of the aluminum casing around the screen may distract you.
Text, however, looks disconcertingly small at first. I got used to that quickly, but in some cases (for instance, the Facebook app's display of comments or the iOS notifications center's listing of Twitter and Facebook updates) I hope developers switch to larger fonts.
The lack of the "Retina display" resolution I appreciated so much on this spring's new iPad also sets the iPad mini back a little. That disadvantage looks more obvious when you inspect how text looks on the mini's 1,024 by 768 pixels next to the 1280 by 800 pixels packed into the 7-inch displays of Google's Nexus 7 and Amazon's Kindle Fire HD, each starting at $199.
The mini, despite being no thicker than a pencil and thinner than many chocolate bars, also manages to deliver battery life exceeding any other tablet I've tested and better than Apple's "up to 10 hours" estimate. It sustained 11 hours and 53 minutes of almost uninterrupted Web-radio playback with the screen on.
Yes, you need one of Apple's new Lightning cables to recharge it. I think that's less of a hassle on a device that people don't routinely plug into car stereos or alarm clocks.
But if the case to buy an iPad mini instead of the $399 iPad 2 or the $499 Retina-display iPad looks clear — Apple says it's "practically sold out" of the mini — things muddy when you bring in Android-based alternatives.
But the Nexus 7 (my favored Android tablet) and the Kindle Fire HD offer more pleasant web and e-book reading at a considerably lower price. Then factor in the cost of added storage: going from 16 GB to 32 GB adds $50 to each, $100 on the mini. A bigger gap exists between the $299 bill for the Nexus 7's upcoming mobile-broadband version and the $459 starting price of an cellular-data mini, although that will support faster LTE access from AT&T, Sprint or Verizon.
Then you have the inevitability that next year's mini will feature a Retina display. If that doesn't bug you, however, you might as well replace any iPad on your shopping list with an iPad mini.
Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery