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Forget the iPad 5 -- I'm waiting for the iPad Mini Retina

As rumors mount that an iPad 5 release isn't far off, the most-anticipated Apple tablet is really the next-generation iPad Mini.

The iPad 5 may arrive first, but an iPad Mini with a sharper, high-resolution display is the one to hold out for.
Sarah Tew/CNET

The iPad 5 is coming! The iPad 5 is coming!

Yes, if the rumors are to be believed, we're not too far away from seeing Apple unveil a fifth-generation iPad that it may or may not call the iPad 5. That new iPad is speculated to be trimmer and lighter than the iPad 4, which was unveiled last October, and features a design borrowed from the iPad Mini.

It will most likely offer the same or slightly speedier performance than the iPad 4, which runs on an A6X processor, deliver similar battery life despite its trimmer size, and cost the same as the previous generation iPad. Its cameras, front and back, will probably be improved. And it will probably offer some snazzy new feature that sounds a lot snazzier than it ends up really being. In short, any way you look at it, it'll be the best iPad ever -- and most likely the best tablet ever.

But who cares? It's not the Apple tablet I'm waiting for -- or more precisely, not the one I'm ready to spend money on. That's because, for better and worse, I've gone Mini, and I don't think I can go back.

Smaller rules
I'm apparently not alone in my sentiment, as sales of larger tablets -- and the 9.7-inch iPad in particular -- appear to have dropped dramatically. Back in February, NPD DisplaySearch said that shipments of 9.7-inch tablet panels (the iPad) had "collapsed" in January, whereas 7-inch and 7.9-inch panel shipments (the iPad Mini falling into the latter bucket) were on the upswing on a year-to-year basis. DisplaySearch's David Hsieh said the Mini would dominate in 2013, with very preliminary forecasts having Apple planning to sell 55 million Minis and 33 million iPads.

I have several iPads in my household. A couple of the older models have been passed down to my kids, but I retained an iPad 3 and a Mini.

I rarely use the larger iPad. For me, it's simply a question of size and weight. Though I don't often use an iPad during the day, I like to have one around in case I have to test something at work, whether it's a new accessory or app (editor Scott Stein and I maintain the "30 Best iPad games" list). So it doesn't make sense to carry around my heavier iPad 3.

At night, I'll check sports scores and e-mail, play a game or two, do a little Web surfing, read e-books, and watch TV programming in bed using the Sling app or HBO Go. The lighter, smaller Mini is simply more comfortable to use around the house than the Pad 3. And sometimes I go even smaller, watching a movie or reading an e-book in bed on a Samsung Galaxy Note 2, one of those phablets that's also contributed to the demise of larger tablets.

That said, every time I do turn on the iPad 3 -- or Kindle Fire HD, Nook HD, or Nexus 7 for that matter -- I sigh a little every time I see how sharp those screens are compared with the Mini's. "If only," I think.

Mini 2 this fall? It's unclear when the next-generation Mini will arrive, but I'm guessing that Apple will bring out the new, larger iPad in the next month or two (initial rumors had it pegged for a March/April release, although back in January, Jeremy Horowitz of iLounge suggested that Apple wouldn't release the iPad 5 until October) then wait several months to bring out the new Mini in order to protect sales of the larger iPad -- sort of like how publishers "window" the release of hardcover and paperback books. As I said, the current Mini was unveiled in October of last year, so a preholiday autumn launch for the Mini Retina -- or whatever it's called -- would make a lot of sense.

My gut tells me that the iPad Mini will mirror the relationship that the iPod Touch has with the iPhone. It'll be a step less speedy (it won't have the very latest processor), its cameras won't be quite as good, and its display won't be quite the same.

Of course, the challenge for Apple engineers is to move to a high-resolution display on the Mini while preserving the tablet's svelte design and maintaining its long battery life (higher-resolution displays suck more power). In moving from the iPad 2 to the iPad 3/4, Apple wasn't quite able to maintain the exact size of the device, though it was close (the iPad 3 and 4 are slightly larger and heavier than the iPad 2).

Will it help the larger iPad's cause if Apple trims it down by a good margin -- say, by 20 percent?

Sure. And if the rumors hold true that the iPad 5's design is just like the Mini's, with greatly reduced left and right bezels, that smaller, lighter design will be its biggest selling point. But a 9.7-inch screen is a 9.7-inch screen and there's only so much you can trim.

Then, of course, there's the price. The 32GB iPad 5 will likely cost $599. (There's a chance that Apple would boost the memory in its entry-level $499 iPad to 32GB, but I wouldn't count on it.) And while the iPad Mini Retina 32GB won't be a bargain at more than $400 -- compared with next-generation Android tablets, anyway -- it's the iPad I'm waiting for, awesome as the iPad 5 may be.