Edward C. Baig, USA TODAY
NEW YORK - Science fiction version: Mad scientists inside Apple's ultra-secretive lab plunge a recent iPad into boiling stew. What emerges is a near identical but considerably smaller and lighter tablet.
Figure Apple relied on more conventional (if no less secret) lab behavior in designing the iPad Mini that reaches stores Friday. But no matter how the downsized tablet came to be, the natural question is how it differs from its bigger sibling and rival tablets with similar-size small screens, such as the Amazon Kindle Fire HD, Barnes & Noble Nook HD, and Google Nexus 7.
The smaller form changes the way you approach the tablet. I've never hesitated to travel with the bigger iPad. It's terrific for reading, watching movies and playing games on an airplane - but given a choice, before a road trip I would now more likely grab the little guy. It's the right size for immersing yourself in a novel. Held sideways, it's simple to bang out an email with your fingers. Battery life is excellent.
A tour of the Mini reveals the usual home button on the bottom front, power button and headphone jack on the top, and volume controls on the side. Front and rear cameras are on either side, just like on the bigger iPad. You're greeted by the customary home screen layout with icons for Safari, Mail, Videos and Music parked at the bottom of the display.
You can even exploit the Siri voice assistant. And the Mini runs iOS 6, the latest iteration of Apple's mobile operating system software.
But it is the multitude of apps - 275,000 optimized for the tablet are available in the Apple App store- coupled with Apple's formidable iTunes ecosystem for music, movies and TV shows that represents a major reason why the iPad, big or small, is still the tablet to beat.
That is not to say that the Kindle Fire HD, Nook HD, and Nexus 7 don't pose strong alternatives to the iPad Mini. Those tablets have starting prices of $199 that undercut the $329 starting price of the Mini that has Wi-Fi only and 16 gigabytes of storage.
Amazon, for one, already is running ads comparing Kindle Fire HD with the Mini - bragging about the Fire's impressive high-definition screen and its stereo speakers. The speakers on the Mini are mono. And its screen, though nice, does not afford the beautiful, super-crisp "retina displays" on the latest larger iPads, iPhones or Macintosh computers. But the Kindle is heavier and has fewer apps.
Prices for the Wi-Fi-only Mini climb to $429 for 32GB and $529 for 64GB. The Wi-Fi + Cellular models, available later in the U.S. from AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless, command $459, $559 and $659, respectively. (The unit I've been testing for a week is Wi-Fi only.)
To be sure, the 7.9 inch display on the Mini, vs. 9.7-inches for full-size iPads, gives you a lot less screen real estate to play with. But at a shade under 0.7 pounds and 0.28-inches thick, the paperback-size Mini is 53% lighter and 23% thinner than the newest iPad. It is just wide enough that I was not able to stash it in one inside sport jacket pocket but was able to slip it into another. Compared with the 7-inch screens on some of Kindle, Nook and Nexus devices, though, the iPad Mini is 35% roomier.
Sitting in a cramped airline seat, or lying in bed, I found reading on the Mini to be a generally a more pleasurable experience than reading on the full-size iPad. But though you can now more easily hold a Mini with one hand, I still tended to use two.
Speed: Inside, the iPad Mini has an Apple-designed dual core A5 processor, a version of which powered the iPad 2. But I did detect some sluggishness. At the same time that I was downloading some content in the background, it took several seconds for the screen shots I captured on the device to land in the Photos app. I've never experienced the delay on a bigger iPad.
Cameras: The iPad Mini has two good cameras, including one on the front for doing FaceTime video calls, and a rear 5-megapixel camera that can capture 1080p high-definition video. The quality of FaceTime is related to your network connection, so even in a Wi-Fi environment, I sometimes lost sight of the person at the other end of the call.
Battery life: On the Wi-Fi model, Apple claims 10 hours of battery life while surfing the Web, watching video or listening to music. I was well on my way to confirming that. Nine hours into my test with Wi-Fi on, brightness at 75% and a video playing, I still had about 25% of juice left. But I cut my test short because of a power outage caused by Hurricane Sandy. Apple promises about an hour less battery life on the cellular models.
Connectors: Like the new iPhone 5, and fourth generation iPad announced last week, the Mini makes use of Apple's new Lightning connector. Unless you purchase adapters, you may not be able to use the Mini on some older accessories. Speaking of accessories, Apple has designed a handsome $39 iPad Mini Smart Cover (in one of 6 colors) that magnetically aligns itself to the tablet. It's made with a microfiber lining that Apple says keeps the screen clean.
But in the absence of a USB connector or SD card slot, you'll need pricey $29 Lightning adapter accessories to connect the Mini to a digital camera or to insert a memory card from your camera into the tablet. On older iPads with a 30-pin dock connector camera kit, you got both connectors for $29.
The big picture on the small iPad: Despite a few quibbles and strong competitors in the space, the Mini is a splendid choice for folks who held off buying an iPad because it was too large or too expensive.