The iPad mini doesn't arrive in stores until November 2, but we got to spend some time with one on Tuesday after Apple's media event at the California Theater in San Jose. Our conclusion: Yes, it's a small iPad -- but there's more (and less) to it than that. Here are our hands-on impressions:
As Apple's executives made a point of stressing, the iPad mini is first and foremost an iPad. Sure, when you pick it up, it's impressively small and light. But most if not all of the features that you've come to know on the iPad are there on the smaller version as well -- headphone jack, On/Off button, volume controls, Home button, and so on.
But despite those similarities, it's hard to convey how different the experience of the iPad mini is compared to the full-sized models. It's hard to believe, just a couple of years after we first marveled at Apple's tablet, that a full iPad experience fits into a package that's this much smaller and lighter.
And it's no less polished or well-designed than its larger brethren. This is not a device that feels cheap; all metal and glass, it's extremely attractive. As with the iPhone 5, it feels like an object that was extruded, not assembled.
The color scheme reinforces that feeling. Like the iPhone 5, the iPad mini comes in black (with a dark back and sides) or white (with a silver back and sides); these aren't the multicolored hues of the iPod nano or iPod touch.
Fits in your hand
Apple made a trade-off when it designed the original iPad with a 10-in. display: that big screen (and its weight) made the original too bulky to be held in one hand. It was and is a great two-handed device (or a one-hand-and-propped-on-your-lap device), but it isn't palmable.
The iPad mini most definitely is. If you've got small hands and want to hold it in landscape orientation, you may find it a bit of a stretch. In portrait mode, it's easy to grip the bottom bezel between thumb and finger, the way you might hold a book. The iPad mini is so light that holding it this way feels perfectly natural. It's so small and light that we think kids will love it.
Unlike previous iPads, the iPad mini's bezel isn't the same size all the way around: In portrait orientation, the left and right bezels are substantially thinner, as on an iPhone. Putting your thumb on it means touching the touchscreen. We suspect that Apple felt slimming down the bezel was an acceptable option, given that the iPad mini is light enough to hold in one hand.
In landscape orientation, the larger bezels are on the sides, giving you plenty of room to grab on with those opposable thumbs of yours.
However, while the iPad mini is small and light enough to hold in one hand, we do wonder how easy it'll be to use singlehandedly. Swiping and tapping with a thumb, as you might on an iPhone, is possible but awkward.
(We also wonder whether the more limited range of motion on a one-handed iPad mini might lead app developers to redesign their interfaces; an Apple representative we talked to suggested that the new continuous-scrolling mode in Apple's own iBooks app may have been introduced specifically to make it easier for iPad mini users to read without having to stretch their thumbs to make a page-flip gesture.)
The iPad mini is narrow enough that it's easy to thumb-type on its software keyboard in portrait orientation -- it's kind of like a giant iPhone. Thumb typing on the full-sized iPad is a lot less comfortable unless you have the hands of an NBA player. We didn't have much chance to test ten-finger typing, but given the smaller size of the iPad mini's screen, we'd imagine it's going to be a little harder to touch-type on this device than on the full-sized iPad. Even if you've already mastered iPad typing, you may have trouble doing it on the iPad mini.