Apple’s iPad Mini is a classic example of that old saying, first impressions can be misleading. At a quick glance, the smaller version of Apple’s now-iconic tablet hardly looks like a business tool. The screen is just shy of 8 inches, and as anyone who has ever used a similarly sized Samsung Galaxy Tab, Google Nexus 7, or Amazon Kindle Fire knows — all too well — smaller tablets haven’t really cut it as serious productivity devices.
Sure, they make for handy e-readers, email-checkers, and media players. And they suffice for occasional web surfing. But their reduced screen size, typically in a widescreen format better-suited for movies and games than documents, is a real limitation doing serious work, like composing and marking up PDF and Word files.
The real strength — and differentiator — of the iPad Mini is that it changes this status quo. Here is a tablet that brings the key advantages being small and suitable for business use. I picked up the Mini not expecting much. I had used the Tab, Nexus, and Kindle and loved them — for reading books on airplanes and playing Angry Birds. In two years I had yet to do anything more substantial on these devices than read the occasional Office document — too much scrolling, zooming, and squinting. After a week with the iPad Mini, however, I was using it instead of my full-size iPad for two reasons.
First, the Mini is remarkably comfortable to handle. It weighs just under 11 ounces, less than half the full-size iPad. But it’s also startlingly thin — barely a quarter of an inch deep. That combination not only makes it easy to carry around but means you can hold it for long stretches without your hand tiring. For the many of us who don’t use a tablet while sitting at a desk — where it can be placed on a hard surface or held in place with a stand — this is an ideal design.
Lawyers who tend to use their tablets while standing before a jury box during voir dire, for example, will quickly appreciate the Mini’s uber-mobility. The smaller size — ironically — also lends itself to rapid, accurate typing. While virtual keys are spaced closer together than on the regular iPad, I found that by holding the device in landscape mode, with a hand on each side, I could quickly thumb-type without any uncomfortable stretching.
Second, the Mini is a real game changer for smaller-size tablets. It forgoes the usual widescreen display for one that is, simply, a smaller version of the iPad’s "squarer" screen. (Indeed, the iPad Mini’s display is about 80 percent the size of its sibling’s.) Movie fans have long taken issue with Apple’s insistence for using an old-school-television 4:3 aspect ratio; too much black space when watching modern TV and movies designed for 16:9 screens. But for documents on a sub 8-inch display, 4:3 is a revelation.
The made-for-TV aspect ratio affords the Mini more surface area for documents than the iPad. Documents can be viewed, composed, and edited on the Mini with far less user manipulation — and far less frustration — than the iPad. Annotating and note-taking work surprisingly well on the Mini (another plus is that apps originally designed for the full-size iPad all look right on the smaller version, with no weird formatting or glitches in the couple of dozen programs I tried).
Keep in mind, though, that at the end of the day, a smaller screen means smaller text. So while you will see more of your documents and web pages on the Mini’s screen, you might not find them as easy to read as on a full-size iPad. Compounding matters: The current Mini lacks Apple’s razor-sharp Retina display technology. So text isn’t as crisp as it is on the bigger tablet (the difference will be more apparent to those who have used the iPad 3 and iPad 4). With my own 20-20 vision days long past, I did find the Mini to require more of an effort while reading. I suspect many lawyers will find this the case, as well. But for the way I use tablets — largely on the go and rarely at a desk — the ease of holding the device, combined with its ability to get "real" work done — more than make up for a bit of squinting. Attorneys who use their tablets similarly may find that the balance works out that way for them too.
A word about the "lower-muscle" CPU found in the Mini, which sports the same Apple A5 chip as the iPad 2 instead of the more potent A6X chip found in the iPad 4. Yes, it’s not quite as powerful. But a lot of the faster chip’s brawn is needed to power the bigger iPad’s Retina display. I did not notice any noticeable slowdown on the iPad Mini — web pages, for example, were rendered with perfectly adequate speed. One area that did lag, however, was battery life. While Apple claims a 10-hour life — same as on the full-size iPad — I got more like 6 hours using it in my real-world conditions (Wi-Fi on, full brightness, using the device sporadically over a couple of days instead of in one marathon session). That’s about an hour or so less than I get with my larger iPad.
Currently there is much speculation about the next iPad Mini, one that is widely expected to feature a Retina display. I don’t know if Apple can pull that off while improving battery life. But I know this: I’ll be looking at that Mini in a whole new light, knowing that smaller tablets, done right, do fit in the workplace.