Tyler Walks Into… Best Buy (and plays with the iPad Mini)

Today, I walked into my local Best Buy store. It’s been a while since I’ve been in one, but in the last week there have been a stunning number of important new products out and stores like Best Buy give me an opportunity to use and test a bunch of them in one shot. I managed hands on time with the new iPad Mini, the 4th Gen iPad, Windows 8 laptops, and a Windows RT tablet, and I wanted to share my impressions (today, I’m sharing my iPad impressions; tomorrow, I will talk Windows). I’ve been noticing more and more that gadget reviews across the web all focus on the same things, and few talk about what it is like to actually use the product. I spent 10 minutes with an iPad Mini, and I can tell you things that I didn’t read in any review (and I did read quite a few).

Click on the links to jump to the sections: iPad Mini | iPad 4th Generation

iPad Mini

The store unboxed an iPad Mini for display, passing it around to people who were interested in testing it. This was excellent, because it meant I could hold the Mini, walk around with it, and feel its size and heft without it being tethered down to a table. Here are some of the impressions I got from my time with the iPad Mini:

Size: The first thing you notice about the iPad Mini is, well, its size. When I first heard the annoucement, with a screen size of 7.9 inches, I thought that the iPad Mini was actually pretty big. After all, the Mini’s most notable competitors, such as the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire, are 7 inch devices, and there is a big difference between a 7 inch display and an 8 inch display (because screen size is measured on the diagonal). But, in person, the Mini did feel small. It is significantly smaller than the 4th Gen iPad. I held them up side by side, and the difference is… big (Groan. It’s hard to talk about the Mini’s size without making bad puns…). The iPad Mini has a significantly smaller footprint. I used the 7″ Kindle Fire HD in the store, and while the Mini is larger, to me it didn’t feel that much larger. I think this is helped by the small bezel — the Mini has a much smaller area around the screen than Amazon’s device or the bigger iPad, particularly on the sides. This has enabled Apple to fit a bigger screen onto a smaller device. (That said, there has been concern that the thin bezel may lead to accidental taps on the screen, especially when doing things while reading ebooks, and make holding the iPad Mini less ergonomic. I would need more than 10 minutes with an iPad in Best Buy to get a feeling for this.) Overall, the iPad Mini’s size makes it a much easier to carry and to tote around. It feels more like a “take anywhere” device than the big iPad, which often feels like a device that you use when lounging at home or sitting on your couch.

Weight: The iPad Mini is significantly lighter than the 4th Gen iPad (.68 lbs vs 1.44 lbs), and it feels it. The big iPad is a heavy device. It always has been, but I think because it is so good it became popular despite its weight, rather than because of it. The iPad Mini’s weight made it feel very comfortable to hold, even standing awkwardly in the aisle of a Best Buy. Between the size and weight of the iPad Mini, I think a ton of people are going to prefer it to the big iPad. It’s a more friendly device, and its size also makes it feel, oddly, more personal or intimate. I already have a 3rd Gen iPad, but if I didn’t and I was in the market for a tablet I would opt for the iPad Mini over the larger iPad. I think it is size and weight will be better for most people, and I think Apple is going to lose a lot of big iPad sales to people opting for the Mini instead.

Construction/Build Quality: The build quality on the iPad Mini seems superb. It is like a blown-up version of the new iPod Touch — it has similar side buttons, and the black version (which was the model I used) shares a surface finish with the iPod Touch and the new iPhone. I would say that the build quality is a notch above the large iPad, and about on par with the new iPhone and new iPod Touch.

Display and Icon Sizes: Much has been made about the iPad Mini’s display. It is not retina, and is the same dimesions as the 2nd gen iPad, 1024×768. For this reason, all apps written for the iPad will automatically work on the iPad Mini. The display still looks pretty good. I held it up side by side with the 4th gen iPad, which does have a retina display, and you can tell the difference, but it is slight and I don’t think most people will have an issue unless they’re really into pixel density (that said, I thought the iPad 2 had a good looking display as well). The result of using the same resolution as the iPad 2 on the 8.1″ screen is that everything gets shrunken down. It makes the icons feel like they’re iPhone-sized. I still found them easy to hit, but it does further the impression that you’re using a blown-up iPod Touch, and changes the feel of using the iPad. That said, all the iPad apps that are currently are available were created for a 9.7″ device. As you would expect, the apps on Best Buy’s demo unit were fine, but some apps may be difficult to use if icons or other touchable areas get shrunken down too dramatically. Going foward, I wouldn’t be surprised to see apps designed with the iPad Mini’s size in mind.

There are obviously things that I was unable to test in a Best Buy, but there are plenty of reviews around the web that can give you things like battery life data or camera sample shots. I wanted to give a feeling for what it’s like to actually hold and use the iPad Mini. Frankly, I was surprised at how small and light the Mini is, and how it completely changed the feel of the iPad. It feels friendlier, and makes it something that I would want to always just throw in my bag and have on hand.

iPad 4th Generation

Having used the 3rd Generation iPad for several months now, the 4th Generation iPad felt very… familiar. The exterior of the iPad is identical, except for replacing the 30 pin connector with the new Lightning port. The representative at Best Buy was trying to tell me they improved the screen, but I’m pretty sure he is incorrect and it is identical. If there is a change, I couldn’t tell a difference, but the iPad’s retina display still looks great (and is probably the main selling point for the this iPad over the iPad Mini). The biggest changes to the 4th gen iPad are a processor upgrade (the iPad now uses the A6X chip, which is supposed to be two times faster), and a better camera. I didn’t test the camera, but the iPad did feel very snappy. It may have felt snappier than the 3rd gen iPad, or it may be my imagination, because both devices are very quick and responsive. I have seen videos showing that the 4th generation iPad does handle graphics intensive games much more swiftly than the 3rd generation, so if you are intending to use the iPad for that purpose this new model is the one to get. Otherwise, if you’re in the market for an iPad (and don’t want the mini), I would get the third generation. Best Buy (and other retailers) are discouting them to clear their inventory, though today they weren’t sure by how much. It has the same great retina display as the 4th gen model, still snappy performance, and with the old 30 pin connector you won’t need to drop a ton of money for adapters to make all your old accessories work or on new accressories.

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