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Apple's iPad Mini mishap: scratching out the retina screen

1024 x 768 may be handy for developers, but it's no good for readers

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Analysis Apple will undoubtedly sell more than enough iPad Minis to keep its shareholders happy. Its fans might be less impressed with the diminutive tablet.

Sure, the new, small slate looks smart, but Apple seems to have taken little account of the competitive landscape. It’s true, in most respects its 9.7in iPad is well ahead of the competition. Owners of rival devices will disagree, but the sales say it all.

But with the “retina” display, the iPad offers something few other tablets match. That’s not the case with the Mini.

Apple executives lined up the new device against the Asus-made Google Nexus 7. Certainly, the Apple product has a larger screen, but in doing so it has made the Mini almost a centimetre and a half wider: 134mm. That may be fine for large-handed Apple bosses to hold in a single mitt, but it’s a stretch for some of us. By comparison, the Nexus 7’s 120mm width gives it a perfect cover-folded-round paperback size.

Yes, the iPad Mini is thinner than the Nexus, but there’s less than 3mm in it.

More important though is the screen. Apple’s is 1024 x 768. That’s good for developers, of course, but it won’t render text as sharply as the Nexus’ 1280 x 800 panel, and certainly not the 2048 x 1536 screen on the 9.7in iPad. The iPad Mini has pixel density of just 163ppi, more than the iPad 2’s 132ppi, of course, but still a lot less than the Nexus’ 216ppi.

Enough processing power to smooth the flow of UI animations and games is good, but a crisp display, which benefits all apps, is better. Text rendering quality is arguably the ‘killer app’ in a tablet.

Not going “retina” seems doubly a mistake when the Mini is so clearly aimed at buyers wanting a convenient device on which to read e-books, and when it’s the first thing potential buyers see when they view the product - usually right alongside alternatives - in shops and stores.

It’s telling that almost all of the hands-on write-ups of the new device focus on size and weight, not the screen. Yet no matter how you hold the device, or whether you rest it on a convenient surface, the one thing you will always do is look at it.

Having grown accustomed to smooth text on my smartphone and enjoyed it on a Nexus 7 too, I’m now missing it on my iPad 2. I’m certainly not going to skip it on a new small tablet.

Crucially, though, why buy a £269 iPad Mini when you can have an equally serviceable Nexus 7 for £199 - or even £159 if you’re willing to put up with a plenty-for-books 8GB? Were the Nexus - or any of the 2012-released Tegra 3-based 7in tablets that have come out - some cheap Chinese knock off built out of silver-sprayed plastic, it would be a no-brainer: buy the Apple. Put two tablets in ordinary buyers’ hands and they’d almost inevitably say they prefer the Apple product.

Even as little as nine months ago, the Mini might have stood head and shoulders above the competition. But not any more. The Mini’s rivals are now well-made products which deliver a great user experience and can - and do - impress as much as the Apple offering.

This is not to say the Mini is a poor product. But on the basis of the spec, it delivers a lesser user experience than the latest 7in Android tablets - and does so at a greater cost.

This is just another example of Apple’s ‘premium brand’ strategy, of course, which it has been able to rely on in the past. With the Mini, though, it may have miscalculated. It isn’t offering enough to justify the extra cost. ®

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