iPad Mini 3 seeks middle ground between phablets, larger tablets

The latest version of Apple's smaller tablet is identical to last year's model except for the addition of the company's fingerprint-reading technology from its iPhone line.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Nick Statt
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4 min read

Preorders for the iPad Mini 3 start Friday. It begins shipping as soon as next week. James Martin/CNET

Sticking to its tried and true formula, Apple has refreshed its smaller, more discrete iPad Mini tablet. The 7.9-inch gadget, just two inches shy of the company's flagship iPad Air, now comes with the fingerprint-reading technology Touch ID.

But besides that, the device -- called the iPad Mini 3 -- has nothing else to differentiate it from last year's model except storage bumps at the mid- and top-tier level and a gold color option. The iPad Mini 3 is the same weight, height and thinness and contains the same chip, Retina display and camera as the iPad Mini 2.

Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, announced the new device onstage Thursday at the company's Cupertino, Calif. headquarters at what is now an annual October event dedicated to the company's tablet line. As to be expected, the iPad Mini was overshadowed by the larger iPad Air 2 ; Schiller gave the smaller device about a minute of his time at the tail end of tablet announcements.

The news may not surprise many after Apple accidentally leaked screenshots showing the device alongside the larger iPad Air 2 on Wednesday. The image, which displayed the devices' button layout and confirmed that each would contain Touch ID technology, was buried in an updated version of Apple's iOS 8 official user guide for its e-reading app iBooks and was accessible by the public in the iTunes Store.

Even had the leak had not occurred, Apple watchers have long expected the company to migrate its fingerprint-reading feature from the iPhone to the iPad. Upgrades to build quality like thinness and weight, along with processor upgrades like replacing the A7 chip with Apple's newer A8 chip, have also become mainstays with each new tablet and smartphone update.

The iPad Mini, however, does not appear to be getting the standard treatment, appearing to be the same device as last year's Mini 2 save Touch ID. Both tablets will be able to make online purchases using Apple Pay, the company's new payment method that authenticates purchases with using Touch ID. Apple Pay is slated to launch Monday with select partners, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced.

iPad Mini 3 hands-on (pictures)

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Apple's standard incremental approach to upgrading its iPads comes at a time when tablet sales have slowed while new device form factors -- like smartwatches, larger phones and laptops that double as tablets -- have entered the market. Though Apple has sold 225 million iPads since the device's introduction in 2010 and has more than 675,000 dedicated apps for the gadget, the company's tablet share has dropped from 33 percent to 27 percent in the second quarter of 2014, according to market researcher IDC. And while the tablet market is expected to continue growing, selling as many as 229 million units this year, its growth has slowed compared with expectations.

Apple hopes it can hold onto its grip on the premium tablet market with the iPad Mini 3 and iPad Air 2. Preorders for the iPad Mini 3 start October 17 and will begin shipping as soon as next week, Schiller said. Prices start at $399 for a 16GB model with Wi-Fi only and scale $100 per storage upgrade, as iPads have in the past. The top-end model with 128GB and cellular connectivity will run you $729.

Though the price has remained around the same as last year's iPad Mini 2, the storage amount has changed, mirroring the upgrades Apple made with its smartphone line with the introduction of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus last month. The baseline iPad Mini 3 is still 16GB, but the 32GB model has disappeared. In its place is a 64GB model and a 128GB one. Apple will continue to sell the iPad Mini 2 and the original iPad Air at a reduced price, Schiller added.

The iPad Mini has seen incremental price increases since its inception in fall 2012. The device debuted then, with Wi-Fi only and 16GB of storage, for $329. (The high-end model with 64GB and cellular connectivity went for $659.) The iPad Mini 2, which went on sale in November 2013 with a Retina display, increased the price anywhere from $70 to $200 per storage tier, with the highest-end model going for $829.

With the iPad Mini 3's similar pricing scheme, Apple is yet again presented with the possibility that its more popular devices may eat into the sales of its more single-serving products. Apple broadened its product line in its annual September iPhone event this year, increasing the pressure on the iPad Mini as a premium gadget that has gone head-to-head against cheaper, more diverse tablet families from competitors like Google and Amazon.

That's due in part to the fact that Apple's iPad innovation has been focused on the bigger, 9.7-inch version, instead of its 7.9-inch iPad Mini, which has not presented consumers with a strong incentive to purchase the smaller gadget save its more comfortable screen size. Apple's iPad struggles have also come from consumers replacing smaller tablets with bigger phones -- typically, phone-tablet hybrids called phablets.

Apple introduced its first phablet, the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus, at last month's event, and some analysts expect consumers to opt for that instead of an iPad Mini. "The iPhone 6 Plus is almost crossing over into tablet territory, and there's a possibility that will impact ... demand for the iPad Mini," Creative Strategies analyst Tim Bajarin said.

The role of a tablet the size of the iPad Mini in an age of phablets, ultra-thin laptops and devices that convert from notebooks to tablets on the fly remains a question mark for Apple. But Cook is hoping that the iPad -- which catapulted a market just four years ago and is still a more than $30 billion business for Apple -- won't lose its flame just yet.

"The iPad is a simple and magical device," Cook said. "It's always been a unique blend of simplicity and capability."

Watch this: iPad Mini 3 now has Touch ID