The first thing to get out of the way is that the iPad mini is an iPad. Even more than calling it a real iPad, I want to describe it as a full iPad. Give or take a few benchmark points, it’s as powerful as any iPad that existed until the 4th-generation 9.7” iPad. This is really important. It’s important because the executive summary of what I’m about to write is this: get the one you like best.

As the tablet market has developed, I’ve fallen into two lines of thought about tablets:

  • Tablet hardware is uninteresting, except insofar as it allows the user to have wonderful experiences of software
  • The question of what you want to do with a computer has never mattered more

I’m not going to reiterate everything that’s been in other reviews of the mini. It’s thin, it’s light, it’s not Retina. So what? Well, I’ll tell you what I think personally and then I’ll tell you what I think about the mini for school situations.

The Display

Let’s talk about the non-retina display. I understand the engineering reasons behind why it’s not retina but I can’t pretend that I like it or that I don’t notice it almost every second I’m looking at text on the iPad mini. Games, videos, photos are all fine but to my Retina-ruined eyes, text simply isn’t up to scratch.

Maybe most people won’t care, but I care. The iPad mini is a functional eReader that will do in a pinch but I can’t imagine that any serious eBook reader would choose the iPad mini over even the basic Kindle.

I do have something good to say about the display, though, and it’s this: as I expected, the 4:3 aspect ratio of the iPad mini screen puts it in a different league of usability from the 16:10 tablets that I’ve used in the past. The only compelling reason to build a 16:10 tablet is that it makes the device really good for watching movies. The 16:10 aspect ratio isn’t really good for anything else. It’s weirdly tall and narrow in portrait orientation. In landscape orientation, a widescreen device doesn’t have enough height to be useful once the keyboard is on screen.

By contrast, the 4:3 aspect ratio of the iPad is, in many ways, its saving grace. With this size and aspect ratio, you get a satisfyingly wide screen in portrait and a usefully tall screen in landscape. Compared to my experience using a Nexus 7 to actually get stuff done, it’s night and day.

The Size and Weight

Like other tablets its size, the iPad mini doesn’t disappear into a pocket unless you wear cargo pants. It’s usually noticeable but it won’t make you list to one side with its weight. The weight is a crucial factor in the attractiveness of the iPad mini: for anyone who spends their time standing or walking and using an iPad - as many teachers in iPad schools do - I think the ethereal lightness of the iPad mini is going to be overwhelmingly desirable.

I have not found the mini to be unusably small, even with iOS being scaled down to fit. There have been occasional apps where certain operations have been fiddly, and I found drawing precisely with a stylus was difficult because of the relative size of the stylus tip. This might be something that can be overcome with a bit of practice but I’m not there yet.

The keyboard is perfectly functional but I couldn’t say I find it as fast or as comfortable to type on as the full size iPad. Over the course of the last two weeks I’ve been using it, I have become much faster with it but still not in the same ballpark as the larger iPad.

This leads me to one of my main concerns with the mini in 1:1 schools: if you’re going to ask pupils to spend a lot of time with this device, consider carefully how much typing they’re going to be asked to do.

That’s not to say the mini is wrong for all schools everywhere. If your model of use extends to typing a few URLs or search terms, using books and other content, the mini may well be a fine choice. I would just suggest that you think very carefully before going 1:1 with the iPad mini. I’m not sure I would.

In School

I think the dividing line between the iPad and the iPad mini is not so much “what you want to do on the device” as much as it’s “how often and for how long you want to do it”. The iPad mini can do anything an iPad 2 can do and, thanks to improved cameras, WiFi and cellular, sometimes it can do it better.

In an established 1:1 school like Cedars, we’re all-in on iPad. We don’t have a computer lab to fall back on. The iPad has to do all the heavy lifting for us. In such a situation, I really don’t see that the iPad mini is a reasonable device to give a pupil. It is, in my opinion, just that side of ‘too small’ to be a 5-days-a-week, 6-hours-a-day tool for pupils. It is in no way too weak a computer to be used that way. I just think that the more restricted keyboard will prove tiring and the fractionally more cramped UI will show itself as problematic over extended use.

In a school where the iPad is deployed as a shared device, the iPad mini might be a fine device to use. Such deployments typically aren’t so focused on extended content creation. Yes, you’ll probably make a few things on the device but because they’re shared, you’re not going to be doing projects that span weeks or get into more detail. If you’re using the iPad mini for a few hours a week, I think it will do a great job for you.

I don’t see cost as a major driving factor towards the iPad mini. At current rates of device churn, in my opinion, most schools should be leasing devices these days. The difference between an identically specified iPad mini and iPad 2 is £60 which, over three years, is a difference of £1.60 per month. To my mind, that’s an irrelevant saving because the most expensive computer deployment is the one that doesn’t work for you. Far, far more important to get the right device.

In the end, though, the beauty is that we now have another great option for using iOS in schools. It’s still the best mobile OS, with the best ecosystem, with the best support, with the best tools. I know this because at every education meeting or conference I go to, iPad is the only tablet people are seriously using. I can’t stomach a future where people with iPads decide that children should get bargain-bin Android devices.

Give it Two Weeks

I initially wasn’t crazy about the iPad mini. This review has lain in my Evernote drafts folder for a couple of weeks while I gained more experience with the device. Having used it more or less continuously since launch day, I can say now that I think it is - overall - a great device.

I was initially very unhappy with the display. I still am, in large part, but I am also aware of what I’m getting in return for giving up the retina display: size and weight gains. Moore’s law will bring us a day when we don’t need to make the resolution/battery tradeoff we make today but I can’t pretend I don’t constantly notice it.

For the first week, I took the iPad mini on the road. I still carried my full-size iPad but didn’t really feel the need to pull it out my bag, except to deliver a presentation. I was forcing myself to use the mini and wasn’t really enjoying it. It was cute that you could get the iPad flavour of iOS in this little package but it wasn’t a ‘real’ iPad. It may seem weird to say that a week of travel didn’t sell me on the device, but a travel week is always a bit of a hiatus from ‘real life’ and I wasn’t really putting the device through its paces.

The second week, though, was different. I was teaching all week and didn’t really have time to chew over questions of should-I-use-this-iPad-or-that-iPad, I just had to get my gear and get up in front of classes hour after hour after hour. It got to Friday and I realised that I had literally not touched my 3rd-generation iPad all week.

That’s when it clicked. When I realised I had - without really thinking - done all the things I need an iPad to do for a whole week without being forced back to a full-size iPad, I saw that the iPad mini is just that: an iPad. No need to over-think the distinction, no real need to develop theories about it: the iPad mini is an iPad in the same way that the 13” and 15” MacBook Pro are both Macs. They’ll both do the same 95% of the job: get the one that suits you best.

The iPad mini reminds me of my first MacBook Air. When the Air first shipped it was a Mac with some serious technical compromises with a design and form factor so compelling that you would re-arrange your entire digital life to make it work. The iPad mini reminds me of that except that it only has one serious compromise: the non-retina display. In every other respect, it’s a full-bore iPad. In fact, I don’t even refer to it as “my iPad mini” any more; I just call it “my iPad”.

So, to wrap up: despite myself, despite my initial impressions and despite my expectations, I love my iPad mini and I find it’s really working well for me. I’m a much heavier iOS user than most people and it has handled everything I’ve thrown at it. I have no doubt that it will work perfectly for a huge number of people. I remain a bit sceptical about pupils using it all day every day in a 1:1 situation in schools. For that application, I still think a 9.7” iPad will be easier and more comfortable to use.

Still, it’s great to have options.