Okay, I admit it. I didn't believe Apple would release the iPad Mini. I'm still not convinced they would have were Steve Jobs still in charge, but there are pages of internet space out there telling me he'd changed his mind more than once, and given the time it takes to develop a new product, he likely knew about it. I guess my reasoning was that it would be a clear move by Apple to react to the competition, something they've not had to do for a decade. The 10" iPad, like the iPhone and the iPod before it has been setting the standard and other manufacturers were really struggling to bring such mature products to market at competitive prices.
That was true until recently. Thanks to Google and Asus, the Nexus 7 not only brings high quality tablet computing to the masses at an incredibly low price, it also makes it clear that there is significant demand for a smaller screen. Apple were no more likely to ignore this than any other techno-money-making machine.
So here it is, the iPad Mini in the flesh.
At around £269 for the 16GB version, it's more affordable than its bigger brother, but is still a large chunk of money more than a Nexus 7, which is every bit a rival for it.
So before any comparisons with the alternatives begin, how does it feel to a long term iPad owner who didn't believe Apple would even make it? It feels so nice...
The first thing that strikes you is the weight, or lack of it. I swear the iPad Mini is lighter than some smartphones! It's easy to hold in one hand for extended periods of time, which leads me to wonder if it could replace the e-reader too. The light metal construction feels fantastic in the hand, premium quality.
Switch it on and a crisp bright screen, which runs almost to the edge of the device is immediately pleasing. Colours are natural, contrast is sharp and although quite a lot smaller than the iPad 3 I own, I can see no problem spending a long time in front of this browsing, playing games, reading and so on. In fact, I daresay the size compromise next to a 10" iPad is outweighed by the increased portability!
The iPad Mini is not without shortcomings however. Its come under criticism for having the same chipset as an iPad 2, which of course is dated by a few years now. It's true that it's not bang up to the minute in terms of horsepower, but Apple are providing iPad 2 processing power in a much smaller and lighter device here, so I wouldn't say it's not without advances. Anyway, what matters is how it translates into real world use and I saw nothing slowing the iPad Mini down in my time with it. Even the 3D flyby feature in the Maps app is a pleasant experience and my iPad 3 is hardly smooth when it's having a go. No, unless you're really into the games designed to push hardware, I wouldn't get overly hung up on processor speeds, memory and so on, it's fine. The disappointment for me, brings me back to that screen.
Yes, the screen is clear, easily readable and has accurate colour reproduction, but if you've had a retina display like that on the iPad 3 and 4, or even a Nexus 7, the lower resolution of this screen will jar you. Yes, a web page can be viewed at full screen, but you won't want to try and read the text, it's just not sharp enough. Even zoomed in, or viewed on a book reading app like Kindle, or iBooks, the text is jagged in comparison. I almost feel bad complaining. If you'd never seen a retina display before, you probably won't care, it is a good screen, but things have moved on and other tablet screens have too. This will date the device quickly when the inevitable iPad Mini 2 shows up with 'retina' enhancement.
In every other way, my few hours with the iPad Mini was a joy and I was sad to have to return it. Everything I do with my 10" iPad was totally fine here too. Writing notes and emails with the smaller on-screen keyboard was fine; in-fact the split keyboard is arguably more suited to this smaller form, and gaming in some cases was better too, simply because it's so light and easy to hold for extended play.
I can definitely see a few Apple iPad owners defecting to the smaller model come the next upgrade, which won't do Apple's profit margin much good.
As I said at the beginning though, this iPad was a reaction to competition, not exactly leading the way. So how does it compare to a Nexus 7?
Well, it does really depend on what you want a tablet for. The iPad Mini, like all IOS devices is the most user friendly of its kind and paying that premium gives you access to the best app store out there. Tablet support on Android is not up there yet with Apple's own and even where the same app is available for both, in my experience it's the Apple app that has had the most money spent on it. Tablet gaming on Android in particular, is catching up quick though.
However, if you're looking for a device to surf the web, manage your social networks and enjoy games and videos on the move, I'd definitely recommend having a go on a Nexus 7 before paying that premium Apple price tag. The hardware doesn't feel as premium, but it's very well made, the screen is fantastic and performance excellent. It's everything that most people want and that price of only £159 for the 16GB WIFI is still unbelievable. The smaller screen, 7" Vs 7.9" on the Mini (quite a lot smaller than the dimensions would have you believe) does bring it closer to smartphone territory - but no smartphone can manage this kind of battery life. You can enjoy both of these tablets on and off all day without worrying about having enough charge to make phonecalls and send texts.
Apple have designed an excellent product with the iPad Mini. If you're sold on one, I'd advise waiting for the sequel, if you're on the fence, save a few quid and get a Nexus 7 - but get out there and get a tablet. They're awesome and they're here to stay!
Note: At the time of writing it's Feb 2013 and rumours of a sequel to the Nexus 7 appearing in May are starting to get louder. If you're not in a hurry, it might be worth holding and waiting for announcements.