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$399 iPad Mini? No thanks, I'll stick with the $80 Fire HD 8

Commentary: Apple's surprising Mini update goes the wrong direction in terms of price and storage.

ipad-mini-with-apple-pencil

The new iPad Mini supports the Apple Pencil -- and starts at $399.

Apple

Here's a surprise: A full week ahead of its scheduled product-launch event, Apple just released new tablets: a new 10.5-inch "iPad Air" (really just an update of the now-discontinued 2017 iPad Pro) and -- for fans of small tablets -- the first iPad Mini update in years.

Many observers once thought Apple would drop the Mini entirely, given the lack of updates to its 7.9-inch tablet (the iPad Mini has basically remained unchanged since its introduction way back in 2015). With ever-bigger iPhone screens, the thought was, why not just get something like the 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max? Or save a bundle and get the capable Amazon Fire 8 HD for a mere $80?

Indeed, that's the second surprise: The new Mini doesn't have a lower price. Instead, it holds fast at $399 -- but has half the storage (64GB) of the previous $399 Mini. Want 256GB? Hold onto your wallets: That'll be $549. Want to add cellular support to either model? Tack on an additional $130. 

As CNET's resident Cheapskate, I'm sure my reaction will come as no surprise: No, thanks! Let's take a look at the many reasons I'll take my tablet business elsewhere.

Read more: The best tablets for 2019

Mini tablet, maxi price

The iPad Mini has a 7.9-inch screen. Let's table, for a moment, the question of whether there's a need for a tablet of that size in these days of 6.5-inch phones -- plenty of us want a larger second-screen device that still travels well.

The Amazon Fire HD 8 (which was updated again just a few months ago) has an 8-inch screen. Current price: $79.99. Frequent sale price: $50-60. (Since last October, it's been on sale five times.)

Now, I'll stop right here to acknowledge that while these two tablets are similarly sized, they rely on very different hardware and ecosystems.

The new Mini is a powerhouse, with a 2,048x1,536-pixel screen resolution, an 8-megapixel rear camera, Apple Pencil support, Touch ID and -- for that pricier cellular model -- eSIM support. It's A12 Bionic processor is the same chip in the iPhone XS line -- 2 years newer than what you'll get with the A10 Fusion chip in the 9.7-inch iPad. 

Want to know what I think? All that is overkill for an 8-inch tablet. Like, serious overkill. Because you can't really use it for business or academic tasks, and creative types will almost certainly want a 9.7-inch iPad or new 10.5-inch iPad Air. What does that leave? Games, movies, books, YouTube videos -- media consumption, basically.

Well, hello again, Fire HD 8! Your 1,200x800-pixel display is perfectly fine for your size. Your 16GB of storage feels limited, but an extra $30 bumps it to 32GB. Oh, but you also have a microSD expansion slot? And I can buy a 64GB memory card for all of $11? Yeah, that'll work.

OK, so you have only 2-megapixel front and rear cameras. The thing is, I don't usually take photos with a tablet anyway. I have a phone for that. I don't need to make calls with a tablet, either. And swiping to unlock isn't what I'd call a hardship. So eSIM and Touch ID don't even come close to justifying such a huge price disparity.

Read more: Amazon Fire HD 8 review

Make no mistake, the Mini is, like nearly all Apple products, a beauty. It looks and feels ultra-luxurious -- it's basically the Lexus of small tablets. The operating system is simple and familiar, and it ties beautifully to other Apple devices. Meanwhile, Apple's App Store absolutely crushes Amazon's in terms of content.

The Fire HD 8 looks and feels like plastic -- though at least you get a choice of some happy colors. It's not sleek, it's not elegant. It's heavier than the Mini, and it's got a taller 16x9 screen. But it does serve up oodles of Amazon Prime content (if you're a paid subscriber, that is), and it offers hands-free Alexa -- which, as we all know, is a much better voice assistant than Apple's Siri.

All this is to say that as much as the new iPad Mini may be desirable, the Fire HD 8 remains the much better buy. Even if you don't wait for one of Amazon's frequent sales, you could get four Fire HD 8s for the price of a single new iPad Mini -- and that's including the price of an SD card for each Amazon tablet, too.

Apple seems to have forgotten that a smaller iPad should have a smaller price. Heck, the current-generation iPad 9.7 starts at $329 -- and seems to always be on sale for $250. That's more like it.

What do you think? Would you buy an iPad Mini for $399 (or more)? If so, why?

Originally published on March 18.
Update, March 19: A previous version of this story misstated the specs of the Fire HD 8's cameras.


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