How the iPad Mini Works


Will the iPad Mini and its smaller screen win the hearts and spending dollars of consumers?
Will the iPad Mini and its smaller screen win the hearts and spending dollars of consumers?
Image courtesy of Apple, Inc.

In 2010, Apple created the tablet market. While there had been tablet-style devices around before the iPad -- including Apple's own Newton -- the concept never gained traction with consumers. But the company's "giant iPod touch" pioneered the form factor of a thin, touch-based device -- bigger than a smartphone but smaller than a laptop -- and made tablets part of the everyday gadget landscape. The iPad was designed for consuming content -- watching videos and browsing Web sites, reading e-mail, and keeping tabs on social media. Apple's tablet and its successors (models that retained the same screen size but improved the underlying hardware) were so successful that Apple had sold 100 million iPads by mid-2012. Other companies tried to get in on that success with tablets running the Android operating system. They struggled to match the iPad's sales, but finally hit on a solution: Undercut Apple's pricing by making smaller, cheaper tablets.

While the iPad and its 9.7-inch (24.6-centimeter) screen is too large to hold in one hand, 7-inch (17.8-centimeter) tablets like the Google Nexus 7 and Amazon Kindle Fire have proven the appeal of a smaller, lighter tablet that can be easily managed single-handedly. It's a popular form factor for reading e-books and browsing the Web. It's lighter, and it's cheaper.

Apple's Steve Jobs famously called 7-inch (17.8-centimeter) tablets "terrible" in a late 2010 Apple earnings call.

But things have changed. On October 23, 2012, Apple announced the iPad Mini, a 7.9-inch (20.1-centimeter) tablet priced at $330. This time, Apple isn't creating a new product category -- it's gunning for one that's already a proven success.

The iPad Mini sticks closely to Apple's larger iPad design. The screen maintains a 4:3 aspect ratio, so existing iPad apps will look just fine on the Mini. The tablet even uses components that once powered older iPads, but the body of the small tablet is much thinner and lighter than Apple's full-size tablet. In fact, the iPad Mini is even lighter than the Amazon Kindle Fire and Google Nexus 7, despite being an overall larger device.

Over the next few pages, we'll dive into the iPad Mini's design, its hardware, how it differs from other tablets on the market, and why Apple decided mini tablets weren't so bad, after all.

iPad Mini Hardware and Design

Numerous iPad Minis on display in a Los Angeles Apple store in November 2012
Numerous iPad Minis on display in a Los Angeles Apple store in November 2012
© Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The iPad mini measures 7.9 inches (20.1 centimeters) tall by 5.3 inches (13.5 centimeters) wide and a mere 0.28 inches (0.7 centimeters) thick. It weighs 0.69 pounds (313 grams) -- less than half the weight of the fourth generation iPad, which weighs 1.46 pounds (680 grams) [source: Apple]. Like Apple's other touch devices, the iPad Mini's front face is dominated by its screen. Unlike the larger iPad, however, the Mini's bezel isn't equal-sized around all four sides of the device. To make the Mini as small as possible, and make it possible to hold in one hand, Apple narrowed the bezel on the left and right sides of the iPad Mini. At the top and bottom, there's still plenty of space to accommodate the Home button and front-facing camera.

As on the larger iPad, the Mini's on/off button sits on the top edge of the device and its volume and lock/silent buttons are located on the right side. A headphone jack is located on the top edge as well, while a speaker and Lightning connector are on the bottom. The iPad Mini has a stereo speaker, unlike the mono speaker found in the larger tablet. Before 2012, Apple's mobile devices connected to computers, chargers and accessories with a 30-pin dock connector. With the iPhone 5, fourth generation iPad and iPad Mini, Apple switched to a smaller, reversible Lightning connector that will be its standard going forward.

The Mini comes in white and black variants like the full-size tablet, though with one difference: the backside of the black Mini is a slate color rather than the silver of the regular iPad. Inside, the Mini could pass for a more compact version of a tablet Apple released in 2011. It runs on the dual-core 1GHz A5 processor Apple introduced in the iPad 2 in March 2011. It also runs on the same dual-core graphics chip and 512MB of RAM found in that device [source: Apple].

Despite having a 16 watt-hour battery, which is much smaller than the battery found in the fourth generation iPad, Apple claims the Mini offers the same 10 hours of battery life in normal use. Thanks to its smaller screen and older processor, the Mini is a less demanding device than the iPad. But despite its size and lower price, the iPad Mini carries the same standard hardware features, including WiFi, motion sensors (accelerometer, gyroscope), a 720p webcam and 5MP rear camera [source: Apple].

iPad Mini Software and iOS

Phil Schiller, senior vice president of Apple worldwide marketing, announced the iPad Mini during an Apple press event on Oct. 23, 2012.
Phil Schiller, senior vice president of Apple worldwide marketing, announced the iPad Mini during an Apple press event on Oct. 23, 2012.
©Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Have you ever owned an iPhone or an iPad? Listened to music and played games on an iPad touch? Looked at a friend's phone and browsed through hundreds of apps? If so, you know exactly what to expect about the iPad Mini. Everything here is exactly the same. The Mini runs all the apps released for Apple's iOS platform, including apps designed for the iPhone, those built specifically for the iPad, and those that are designed to play nice with both devices.

iOS apps are designed to be run at specific resolutions, which was a challenge for Apple when the company decided to make larger, higher resolution screens. When Apple introduced the retina display with the iPhone, it made things simple by doubling the number of pixels on each axis, from 320 by 480 to 640 by 960. By quadrupling the pixel density, Apple claimed that individual pixels weren't discernible to the human eye at the distance people normally hold the smartphones, making for a very sharp picture. When Apple introduced the third-gen iPad with a retina display, it did the same thing, upping the resolution from 1024 by 768 to 2048 by 1536. Developers could again simply double the horizontal and vertical proportions of their apps, making it simple to support the new resolution.

The iPad Mini introduces yet another screen size, but it smartly keeps the same resolution of the old iPad: 1024 by 768. (There's a trade-off, of course: The Mini's screen isn't as crisp as the higher resolution iPad display -- more on that later.) That makes it easy for the Mini to run Apple's native apps, such as Maps, Messages, Photos and Mail, as well as popular third-party apps like Amazon Kindle and Yelp. More than 225,000 apps listed in Apple's app store are designed for the iPad.

One important software question remains, though: Will apps run on the older processor found in the iPad Mini as well as they do on the much faster fourth generation iPad? The Mini has a much smaller, lower resolution screen to power with its CPU and GPU. Short answer: The iPad Mini can run any app on the Apple store as of its release in late 2012. Longer answer: Let's compare the Mini to the fourth generation iPad released alongside it.

iPad Mini vs. iPad: The Retina Difference

The iPad Mini and fourth generation iPad were displayed side-by-side at Apple's October 2012 press event where both devices were announced.
The iPad Mini and fourth generation iPad were displayed side-by-side at Apple's October 2012 press event where both devices were announced.
©Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Apple follows a standard pattern with each iteration of the iPad. With the iPad and iPad 2, Apple introduced new mobile processors dubbed the Apple A4 and Apple A5. Those processors went on to power iPhones as well. When the iPad was upgraded to its third generation form, Apple used a new A5X processor -- the A5 chip with a quad-core (rather than dual-core) GPU -- to support its new retina display. The next processor, the A6, debuted in the iPhone 5, and Apple integrated a beefed up version, the A6X, in the fourth generation iPad.

The newer iPads need those "X" processors because their high resolution, 2048 by 1536 pixel displays require much more GPU muscle. The iPad Mini is a much more humble device, so it can get away with using the same hardware found in Apple's iPad 2, released in early 2011. Benchmarks of the device on Geekbench showed near-identical performance between the Mini and iPad 2. The Mini truly is an iPad 2 in a smaller body.

Geekbench, which measures and rates gadgets based on a set of performance crietia, scored the the iPad Mini at 748 points. For comparison, the fourth generation iPad, with its A6X processor, doubled that number with a score of 1769 [source: Hattersly]. That's a big leap in performance. The third generation iPad, released in early 2012, put up a much more conservative score of around 750. What does that tell you? Even though Apple doubled GPU power between the iPad 2 and iPad 3, the higher screen resolution kept performance identical.

Because the iPad Mini keeps pace with the graphics performance of full-sized iPads other than the fourth generation iPad, few developers are likely to release games or other apps that require the faster fourth generation iPad or newer. That will happen eventually, as newer and faster iPads are released, but the Mini is in no danger of quickly becoming obsolete.

The screen is another matter. After using the retina screen, is going back to the lower resolution display an issue? It's a subjective question, but reviewers indicate the screen obviously doesn't look as good as the larger iPad's, or even the smaller (but higher pixel density) displays on competing devices like the Google Nexus 7. Tech enthusiasts will notice the difference, and the experts at DisplayMate criticized the pixel density, screen reflectance and color gamut, but overall called the iPad Mini display "very capable" as opposed to "best" or "great," which is the standard Apple usually sets [source: Soneira].

Why did Apple make a 7-inch tablet?

During the iPad Mini unveiling presentation, Phil Schiller compared the new tablet to the Android tablet. One of the Mini's selling points is its larger screen real estate when compared to competitors.
During the iPad Mini unveiling presentation, Phil Schiller compared the new tablet to the Android tablet. One of the Mini's selling points is its larger screen real estate when compared to competitors.
©Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone. These days, it's not unusual for a traveler or tech enthusiast to own all of these devices. And they all essentially enable users to do the same things: accessing the Internet, writing e-mail, consuming or creating media, staying in touch with friends and family. The desktop can still do things the smaller devices can't, like provide powerful hardware for video editing. The laptop still offers a better typing experience than the tablet or smartphone and a larger screen. But we're increasingly able to do more with smaller devices as they grow more powerful. So how many do we really need?

Many critics have rallied behind the idea of 7-inch (17.8-centimeter) tablets as devices for watching videos, reading and browsing the Web. They're extremely light and easy to hold in one hand. Critic Dan Fromer calls the Mini the "real iPad" and says that "it's almost effortless to use, and that's a big difference" [source: Splatf]. With the tablet market well established, and complaints of the iPad being a "big iPod touch" now a thing of the past, people are embracing 7-inch (17.8-centimeter) tablets.

But is there room in your life for both a 7-inch (17.8-centimeter) and a 10-inch (25.4-centimeter) tablet? That's up to you, but there's little the larger device can do that the smaller one can't. The key difference between the fourth generation iPad and the iPad Mini is screen resolution. If Apple adds a retina display to the Mini, that issue will vanish.

So why did Apple finally decide to release a 7-inch (17.8-centimeter) tablet, after Steve Jobs' famous indictment of the form factor? CEO Tim Cook argues that the iPad Mini is very different than, say, the Google Nexus 7, because of its 4:3, 7.9-inch screen. Cook said, "The difference between just the real estate size between the 7.9 ... versus 7 is 35 percent. And when you look at the usable area it's much greater than that" [source: D'Orazio].

Critics have reviewed the iPad Mini favorably -- it scored a 9.0/10 on tech site The Verge and 4/5 stars on CNET. The lack of a retina screen was most frequently cited as its greatest weakness, and at $330, the Mini is substantially more expensive than the $200 Android competition. While critics expect to see the larger iPad sold for the foreseeable future, the light weight of the iPad Mini may well become the focal point of Apple's tablet design in the future.

Author's Note

As I followed early impressions and reviews of the iPad Mini, I was shocked by how many people claimed the larger iPad now feels too heavy, outdated, old news. And they're not wrong: The iPad Mini is incredibly light. If there's a device that can kill the iPad, it's the iPad Mini. Amazing, considering the iPad was introduced only two and a half years before the Mini. Holding the Mini and iPad with retina display side-by-side, I was able to tell a difference between their pixel densities, but only just. If you're worried about the screen, check one out before you buy it. A higher resolution is nice, especially for text, but I don't think it's a deal breaker.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Apple.com. "iPad." (Nov. 5, 2012) http://www.apple.com/ipad/specs/
  • Apple.com. "iPad Mini." (Nov. 5, 2012) http://www.apple.com/ipad-mini/specs/
  • Chan, Casey. "iPad Mini Review Roundup: Smaller is Better?" Oct. 30, 2012. (Nov. 6, 2012) http://gizmodo.com/5956425/ipad-mini-review-roundup-smaller-is-better?tag=ipad-mini
  • Chen, Brian. "Apple, Facing Competition, Introduces a Smaller iPad." (Oct. 23, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/24/technology/apple-facing-competition-introduces-a-smaller-ipad.html
  • D'Orazio, Dante. "Tim Cook: 'We would not make' 7-inch tablet, iPad mini in 'a whole different league'." Oct. 25, 2012. (Nov. 6, 2012) http://www.theverge.com/2012/10/25/3555876/tim-cook-we-would-never-make-a-7-inch-tablet
  • Frommer, Dan. "24 Hours with the iPad Mini: This is the real iPad." Nov. 5, 2012. (Nov. 6, 2012) http://www.splatf.com/2012/11/ipad-mini/
  • Hattersley, Mark. "iPad Mini vs. iPad 4 Benchmark." Nov. 5, 2012. (Nov. 5, 2012) http://www.macworld.com.au/news/ipad-mini-vs-ipad-4-benchmark-tests-78568/
  • Ritchie, Rene. "Steve Jobs: 7-inch tablets are terrible." Oct. 18, 2010. (Nov. 5, 2012) http://www.imore.com/steve-jobs-7inch-tablets-terrible
  • Soneira, Raymond. "iPad Mini Display Technology Shoot-out." Nov. 5, 2012. (Nov. 6, 2012) http://www.displaymate.com/iPad_mini_ShootOut_1.htm