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Living with the iPad Mini: Three weeks and counting

How does the iPad Mini hold up after weeks of continuous use? Actually, so well it's easy to forget the larger iPad.

Sarah Tew/CNET

OK, I'll admit it. The iPad Mini hasn't left my hands in the last three weeks. It's been no contest, really. While the larger fourth-gen iPad has sat alone by my bedside table, the Mini has gone on field trips on the bus, gotten dragged in my jacket pocket while I dropped my kid off at school, been coddled at the cafe over breakfast, and slipped alongside my laptop on work excursions.

As I predicted when I reviewed it, the Mini's had a hard time leaving my hands, because few places seem inappropriate for it. At a Kindle size, it's bedroom-friendly. It'll set up nicely on a kitchen counter. It slides into otherwise lesser-used front pockets on backpacks. And it might be the best gaming handheld Apple's ever made, based on the sheer size of the screen and its thin, two-hand-friendly frame.

But, what does that mean?

Sarah Tew/CNET

It means, I'm enchanted with the form. And rightfully so. You could make the argument that the original iPad was all about screen size and form, more than anything technologically revolutionary. The same feels true here. The iPad Mini would have been a shocking device a few years ago, but now it slides into a landscape of other small tablets. I love using it, but I still don't find it a surprising device. I do, however, find it to be an extremely addictive one.

Why have I left my larger iPad behind? I can think of a few reasons. First, the form's less seductive. I've lived with all previous generations of iPads, and the fourth-gen feels too much like the third-gen in casual use, so I find it a little less fun to play with.

Also, I commute to New York City from New Jersey. Sometimes I take my laptop back and forth. The iPad Mini is the more commuter-friendly device, hands-down. In that regard, I'm actually pretty curious about the LTE model that's arriving in stores soon.

Limitations: A matter of perspective
Much like the original iPad, the Mini lacks a much-desired feature, but it's not nearly as effective. The first iPad didn't have a FaceTime camera -- or any camera at all. It was a buzz kill because the iPad seemed ideal for casual video chat. The iPad Mini lacks a higher-definition Retina Display, which is frustrating because the Mini is perfect for reading, and deserves the best display tech possible to improve that experience.

But you can live without Retina Display on an iPad Mini, far more so than you could live without a camera on the iPad. The display is fine for reading. I've read books, magazines, and even written reviews. It's just not as good as it could be. Oddly, older iPad apps that don't rely on Retina seem to shine the brightest: I dusted off and redownloaded The Elements and found it looked wonderful on the Mini. It's all a matter of perspective, and Retina-conditioning. Of all the people I've shown it to, those who don't seem to follow tech or own previous higher-def or Retina Display devices didn't mind at all. Techies, those who care about the fine details of screen quality, did. Form wins out over specs for many people. For others, that finer screen matters more


Has anything changed over the last week?
I've learned to live with the screen. It works. It's not a showstopper, but it's perfectly good for what it does, has excellent sharp viewing angles, and, well, I've learned to live with it. I have dreams of a Retina Display Mini, but I know that's not happening now. It could even affect battery life and size/weight. I understand that. So, I accept the Mini for what it is, which is pretty excellent otherwise. And if it means better battery life over a sharper screen, I appreciate that decision -- even if I wish that screen could be crisper and richer every time I look at it.

What I use the Mini for
Reading, playing games, watching videos. In that order. I don't find the Mini as compelling for video because the screen isn't as pitch-perfect. I love Web browsing on it, for obvious reasons. And games seem to shine more on the Mini than on the fuller iPad. The Mini crosses over just on the side of "handheld device" as opposed to "laptop replacement," and it feels more like a PlayStation Vita or Nintendo 3DS in that regard. I've found few games, virtual-thumb-control or tap-based, that don't fit the Mini's tweener size perfectly. And its size, so similar to the upcoming Nintendo Wii U's GamePad, makes it feel like a direct competitor.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But I think it's so good at playing games that the rest of industry, handhelds and consoles alike, need to pay attention even more than before. The Mini feels like it's really conquered the best gaming space between the too-limited-for-most-fingers iPhone screen and the cumbersome larger iPad.

Using the iPad Mini outside isn't a fun experience because of glare, but I've never found iPad use in broad daylight to be fun. That's why I bought a Kindle.

Battery life has held up admirably. I never need to recharge after a single day, or even two, but I do because I worry about dipping below 50 percent charge. The battery feels more like the original iPad's than the third-gen one, something I don't need to ever babysit.

Tweener regrets?
The iPad Mini's closer in feel to an iPhone. Do I feel absurd using it? Not really, because the difference in screen size is still considerable.

I keep thinking about the iPod Touch. Has the iPad Mini made it vestigial? Not yet. The Mini's still bulky by comparison, and not ideal for controlling music. The Touch (and the iPhone) are pocket-size and feel more organic for audio and headphones. For some reason, I always use my iPad in my home with speakers, not headphones. It feels like a shared device.

No, I haven't spoken about the larger iPad, the one that we awarded an Editors' Choice. I stand by it as a technological milestone, and a strong overall package, a polished one. It's just not something I'm currently using. That could change -- after all, very few apps and games even exist that take advantage of that faster A6X processor in the fourth-gen iPad. When they appear, I'll be interested. Of course, if the iPad Mini becomes the go-to iPad, developers might find it less critical to make A6X-optimized games. I still think the presence of that industry-shifting Retina Display matters, especially on a tablet, and the larger iPad is the place to go for it. But it's become a premium feature in the current iPad lineup, not an essential one.


Too many devices?
Maybe it's just having been through reviews of the iPhone 5, iPod Touch, and both iPads in the span of just two months, but Apple's unleashed a lot of gear for the holidays. That inevitably forces people to make tough decisions. Buy the iPhone 5 or the iPad Mini? Skip this iPad generation and wait for a possible sooner-than-expected refresh? Or, maybe go whole hog and keep buying, as I've been somewhat surprised to hear some followers on Twitter doing.

The iPad Mini is the most fun new device Apple's released all year, and it's the one I most love showing off. It also seems, to my surprise, to be the device most people are most curious to see for themselves. Yet, if you love new tech, it's the least exciting under the hood. I felt the pull of both those feelings in the past few weeks -- but I have to admit, it never made me stop using it.

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