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gadget review

The iPad Mini is only unimpressive when compared to its fellow iThings: It’s the best total package for a “small” tablet on the market, even if it’s not a device that puts much more space between Apple and its pursuers.

Apple's new mini tablet is simultaneously so much more and so much less than a smaller iPad.

Dispensing with the obvious: Yes, it is smaller, lighter and thinner, and each of its six variants are also less expensive than the equivalent 9.7-inch iPads.

I kept a bemused distance from this underpowered squirt for the first few days I toted it around the house. But I've learned not to underestimate the hunger for a well-made iOS device that "just works," and after not too much use I began to appreciate a few things:

  • The 7.9-inch (diagonal) screen isn’t “small.” An iPhone’s screen is “small.” Mini is actually a great size for, say, watching a little Netflix before you nod off to sleep (and you’re not worried about it crashing through your floor if it slips from your grip either). It was also a decent size as a kitchen companion (the big iPad can get in the way), and would probably be less obtrusive in meetings, though it was still too big to, say, plug your headphones in and cart it around like an overweight iPod.
  • In my view it’s also by far the easiest iPad to type on (and maybe the best iOS device for typing). On a big iPad the most effective method is to prop it on something and hunt and peck away like it’s a glass-fronted manual typewriter. The Mini allows you to grip it comfortably from the bottom and type with your thumbs like it’s a slightly oversized iPhone.
  • Also, despite its smaller scale my two-year-old had no trouble recognizing that it was an iPad at first glance (he immediately demanded that I play some Bob The Builder for him). He and I both found everything we wanted, just where it would be on a bigger Apple tablet. The only thing we didn’t care for too much was the sound quality of the onboard speakers, it didn’t break up but it has less punch than original-size.

Notice I haven't mentioned much about the tech yet.

As I point out in my video review, this device could be called "FrankenPad," a new form of iPad life cobbled together from cast-off Apple parts (that said, Dr. Frankenstein could learn something about executing on the aesthetics of "Human Interface" from newly promoted Jonny Ive). Virtually nothing inside it is new to the Mini: Processor, non-Retina screen, memory options, camera, operating system, LTE and WiFi radios, even the styling cues come from previous or contemporary versions of Apple devices. Worse, a good portion of the gear is second tier, while the top notch parts are used for the new iPhone 5 and the new 4th generation iPad. Rubbing salt in the wound, we found out during the launch event that big brother iPad's updated A6X processor is twice as fast as the Mini's A5. Twice!

It can be hard to pick up performance differences in everyday situations, but in one of my tests I played the same sections of the new iOS port of The Walking Dead from Telltale Games on the Mini and the 4th Gen iPad. There was noticeable lag in the swiping controls on the Mini during gameplay as compared to its husky cousin. And while all 275,000 iPad apps made for the big screen aren't missing any features when used on the scaled down Mini, I found the fat fingers issue cropped up apps where developers crammed in a bunch of controls in a tight space (we can agree that's not Apple's fault).

The shocker that's not getting as much buzz as the shape is the almost total lack of new Apple software to pair with it. No killer Mini app that pops your eyes open and justifies the purchase just to get at it (updated iBooks author tools are not an enticement to buy a Mini, neither is the fact that it runs Siri). There may be a reason for that, but more on that later.

And then there's the price. I mentioned six Mini models (compare memory size and LTE options here), but only one of them retails for under $400. There are very decent similar-sized Google Nexus and Kindle Fire tablets for under $300 in the marketplace. I'm not ignoring the fact Apple sold 100 million iPads since 2010 charging well above $400, but they were mostly top of the line tablets. Which the Mini just isn't.

So what's going on? There was a time when Apple would release a major new product, unibody iMacs, aluminum MacBooks, the iPod, iPhone, iPad, and every other computer company would scramble to build their own version of what had until then seemed either technically impossible, or uneconomical.

If the level of trash-talking from some of the other tablet-hawking tech CEOs (Mr. Ballmer, Mr. Bezos, et al.) is any indication, they share my view that nothing in the Mini should scare its competitors into instant-reaction mode.

If Apple's competitors are going out of their way to be dismissive of the Mini, it's partly because they would all happily kill to make a device of its quality or own an ecosystem with the same reach and strength. Microsoft, Amazon, Samsung and Google are all well-funded, hungry and may eventually surpass Apple, but they haven't yet. In that light, the iPad Mini is only unimpressive when compared to its fellow iThings: It's the best total package for a "small" tablet on the market, even if it's not a device that puts much more space between Apple and its pursuers.

One item of industry buzz following last Tuesday's Mini launch was about the no-show by Apple executive Scott Forstall, the powerful boss of iOS development and the man Bloomberg BusinessWeek once virtually anointed the intellectual and spiritual inheritor of Steve Jobs' mantle as the abrasive innovate-to-win-at-all-cost technology guru within the company. On Monday, when markets were closed due to the massive Hurricane Sandy evacuations, Apple not-so subtlety fired Mr. Forstall, and elevated some of the people quoted in that Bloomberg piece as his explicit enemies.

Mr. Forstall is not just some c-suite clock puncher: His name was on dozens of key iOS patents, even if he's also been blamed for such recent software stumbles as often unreliable Siri, and the utterly unnecessary Apple Maps fiasco. Actually, let me just defend Maps for a moment: The interface and abilities of Apple Maps (the rotation, the 3-D topography) are exceptionally well done, it's just the data that the maps drew from was badly broken. That seems a quality control issue more than an engineering one, but whoever is really to blame Mr. Forstall is out and CEO Tim Cook is solidifying his control over the company.

If you like thin and light iPads and iPhones pretty much just they way they are, you shouldn't be too worked up about these developments. Mr. Cook generally seems like a nice man who works hard and runs the best technology operation in the world from a supply chain and business perspective. He's perfectly likeable as Apple's leader going forward. Just like the iPad Mini is a perfectly likeable tweak to the best-selling tablet lineup on earth.

It's been more than a year since his predecessor's death and the affable Mr. Cook seems to be implacably rebuilding Apple and its new products, like the iPad Mini, in his own image: Likeable, value-adding, high quality, but so far anyways, not capable of jolting the industry into a me-too panic.