I’ll keep the 9.7", thanks.

Tech Life

In July, when the iPad mini was still a rumour and when many tech people were praising the Google Nexus 7, I wrote a piece called A 7-inch iPad? Not for me in which I explained why the smaller form factor doesn’t really appeal to me and how I think that the regular 9.7″ iPad is what I consider a sweet size for a tablet. After the introduction of the iPad mini, and after some reviews have appeared around the Web (my favourites so far: Tim Stevens, Joshua Topolsky, John Gruber), I’ve received a few emails from readers asking me if I changed my mind about it. In the end, the iPad mini is more like an 8″ tablet than a 7″ one.

In July I wrote:

Again, I’m sure a 7″ iPad makes sense for some people. Like netbooks and ‘ultrabooks’ still make sense for some, to the point that they’d choose them over a regular laptop. They hardly make sense to me, simply because they sacrifice usability and a decent user experience just for the sake of mere portability (and price). It’s a trade-off I don’t accept. Similarly, with tablets, I’m certainly not a target user for a 7″ device. I’m sure that, if Apple actually introduces an ‘iPad mini’ later this year, it’ll be a more usable device than any other on the market, but I’m not entirely convinced it’ll retain the same usability as a regular, 9.7″ iPad.

Judging from other people’s reviews and the visual information on Apple’s site, the iPad mini is definitely a more usable device than others in the same league. Apple itself emphasises this aspect with the tag line Every inch an iPad, meaning that the iPad mini isn’t just an afterthought in the iPad line of devices, but delivers a user experience that’s on a par with a regular iPad: Everything you love about iPad — the beautiful screen, fast and fluid performance, FaceTime and iSight cameras, thousands of amazing apps, 10-hour battery life — is everything you’ll love about iPad mini, too. And you can hold it in one hand.

But the real deal-breaker for me is the screen. I’m sorry, but in my opinion once you go retina you don’t look back. I still have to hold an iPad mini in my hands and see for myself, and for now I trust John Gruber’s judgment when he writes:

Wow, it feels like a Kindle.”

Ew, the screen is terrible.”

That was my wife’s initial reaction when I handed her the iPad Mini to see what she, an avid daily user of an iPad 3, thought. Her initial reaction matched mine exactly, and perfectly encapsulates the experience. The iPad Mini is not a device you need to spend a lot of time with to understand. My snap reaction from a week ago remains unchanged after a week of daily use.

[…]

The actual iPad Mini display is not terrible. It’s exactly what you think: it feels like an iPhone 3GS display cut to iPad size, including the fact that the pixels seem deeper from the surface of the glass. (It does seem brighter and more vibrant than a 3GS display, perhaps because it uses an IPS panel.) And after a week of using it as my main iPad, the individually discernible pixels are no longer jarring to my eyes. The non-retina resolution is the one and only significant complaint I have with the iPad Mini, and it’s an issue that is only apparent to those of us who already own a nearly-new iPad.

In my household there still are a few non retina devices, like my old iPhone 3G, an iPad 2 and a 1st-generation iPod touch both belonging to my wife. Using these devices every now and then is okay for relatively short sessions. I used to read ebooks on my iPhone 3G with the great Eucalyptus app, definitely a better performer than iBooks under iOS 4. I recall the reading experience on that iPhone’s screen to be bearable, but it vastly improved when I got an iPhone 4 and even more since I’ve used my iPad 3 as my main ebook reader. All because of their retina displays. I picked up the iPhone 3G the other day and launched Eucalyptus to see what I was reading before changing phones, and I honestly asked myself how I could read entire novels on that screen.

The different iPad mini reviews I’ve read so far praise many other features, like the build quality, the lightness, the portability, the feeling of accentuated intimacy an iPad of this size brings, and I can agree that it’s going to sell extremely well also thanks to its solid software ecosystem and to the fact that the overall experience is not dampened or hampered by the smaller size.

At the same time, the iPad mini’s non-retina display isn’t something that can’t be ignored or simply dismissed with a “well, everything else is nice, so that compensates for the lack of retina”. I agree with Federico Viticci when he writes:

I don’t have perfect eyesight, so I got used to Retina displays quickly. I upgraded my iPhone and iPad to Retina without thinking about it twice. LCDs aren’t good for eyesight, but Retina undoubtedly puts less strain on the eyes. This is why I think I won’t be able to adjust to the non-Retina screen of the iPad mini.

And when he tweets:

(1) It is misguided, IMO, to say mass market doesn’t care about Retina. Lots of people I know (non nerds) understand and appreciate high res. (2) We shouldn’t make excuses. It doesn’t have Retina, so it’s a worse display. Period. No “but people don’t care”. (3) This is especially true for people coming from iPhone — think they won’t notice pixels on the display? (4) So we’re pretending a) people don’t care about Retina and b) there are no iPhone users getting one and noticing its lack thereof. Okay. 

Of course, many people will find the iPad mini ‘good enough’ and its lightness, better portability, lower price (compared to a regular iPad) will probably outweigh the one drawback that is the non-retina display, especially those people who haven’t been yet exposed to the beauty of a high-density display. At the same time, I’d love to buy an iPad for my parents, and the mini would be great for its compactness and cost. They haven’t been using any device with high-density display before, but my mum reads a lot, and I know that a retina display would be much better for her eyes, so I’ll probably look for a regular-sized iPad with 3G. (Why not an ebook reader, then? Because the iPad would be perfect for keeping in touch via email and maybe even via VoIP/FaceTime.)

I believe the iPad mini should have had a retina display since day one, although I understand all the manufacturing and performance-related trade-offs behind the scenes. A retina display needs a more powerful graphic processor, which in turn impacts battery life, so perhaps a retina iPad mini at this time would have meant a thicker device without doubt, and we know by now how Apple hates thick. Apple is buying time, releasing an appealing-enough device just in time for the holiday season, while working (I presume) on a second-generation model with retina display which will hopefully retain the same thinness and battery life of the current mini. 

If and when that retina iPad mini comes out, I’ll certainly be much more intrigued and willing to consider a smaller form factor. For now, the bigger 9.7″ third-generation iPad is serving me very well. It may be bulkier and heavier to handle, but reading websites, RSS feeds, books and assorted documentation is a really pleasant experience; an experience I’m not willing to trade for a device with a non-retina display, no matter how smaller, lighter and beautifully manufactured it is.

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