The original iPad hadn’t been out for a week before we started hearing rumours of a smaller version. I was interested right away: like many people I bought the iPad without knowing all the things I’d end up using it for, but I knew I’d be reading some sort of text on it most of the time (and this turned out to be true, apart from a brief thing with Real Racing 2 HD). And at 13 mm thick and up to 730 grams, the iPad was just big and heavy enough to be a distraction from reading. It felt like quite a sturdy hardback: fine for sitting and reading in a chair or a sofa, but a bit unwieldy when you took it to bed. The big screen was terrific for web browsing and word-processing, but for reading it felt a bit extravagant, just slightly too big for its own good.
The iPad 2 brought small but necessary improvements to size and weight, but there was still this niggling feeling that it could have been thinner, lighter and even smaller. And now it is: the iPad mini is basically an iPad 2 shrunk in every dimension, with most of the same silicon under the hood, and a screen with the same number of pixels only smaller. This means that the text is slightly sharper than the iPad 2, while weight is down to 312 grams at most, it’s only 7.2 mm thick and you can reportedly hold it very easily with one hand. If it had come out at the same time as the iPad 2, I probably would have bought one.
But before that could happen, the (briefly) “new” iPad arrived with its high-resolution display. Reading on a Retina iPad is a whole different thing: a beautiful screen, bright colours, decent contrast, good uniformity, and you almost can’t see the pixels. It looks more like print and paper than any other screen I’ve seen. By comparison, old-style screens look pretty shabby, and again become distracting. The original iPad had a pixel density of 132 pixels per inch; the iPad mini is slightly better at 163 ppi but much worse than the Retina iPads’ 264 ppi. I can’t imagine going back to it, not for reading: I’d rather put up with the weight of a full-sized iPad. For now.
As John Gruber and others predicted, the iPad mini screen has the exact pixel density as the old iPhones, which is no coincidence because of the way liquid crystal displays are produced: you don’t make them individually at their finished sizes; you grow them in great sheets that are later cut into whatever size you want. Apple no longer makes any non-Retina iPhones, so they’ve turned over their 163-ppi capacity to the iPad mini. It’s only a matter of time before Apple stops using 163-ppi screens altogether, and very likely that a future iPad mini will use the remarkable 326-ppi crystal of the current iPhones.
That will be a tablet to behold. It might not be possible for the next generation, but I wouldn’t think it would come much later than that. The only thing I can imagine holding it back is the question of what to do with the full-size iPads, which may start to look a bit clunky and pointless next to their smaller, sharper siblings. Presumably the bigger models will always be at least a generation ahead in processing power, and their screens may well be of higher quality at the same resolution—pixels aren’t everything. But they may also need to increase their resolution over the current 2048 x 1536—perhaps to 3072 x 2304 to make things easier for the developers. It’s pretty incredible even to be thinking about 489 ppi, but the coming 5-inch 1080p screens aren’t far off at 440 ppi. At some point it really will be impossible to see any benefit from the increased resolution, but the Retina iPad screens still have a way to go. Or maybe they’ll be, like, holograms or something.
In the meantime I think the iPad mini will be a decent general-purpose tablet and a natural choice for anyone who is already in the Apple ecosystem. I’m sure it will do very well, even though it’s a lot more expensive than Android tablets with comparable specifications (specifications aren’t everything either). For reading, though, I’ll probably stick with my old “new” iPad, and perhaps a Kindle Paperwhite, until the next iPad mini (or the one after that) comes around. Or at least until Real Racing 3 HD.