iPad Mini or iPhone Extra-Max? It's perfectly in-between

The 8-inch club isn't for everyone. But when it works, like in the case of the iPad Mini, it's fantastic.

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Apple’s iPad Mini is often the subject of debate, mostly because of its size. Even in its sixth iteration, we still question if it’s practical in any way. Much of this uncertainty comes down to the fact that the iPad Mini operates like a full-sized tablet but it behaves like an oversized phone. You can say the same for most, if not all of the tablets that are similarly sized, like those from the Amazon Fire HD 8 family, or the Samsung Galaxy Tab A7 Lite.

One thing is for certain: there will be fewer instances where we can say definitely that the Mini is the perfect size for anything serious or productive. So more often than not, the make-or-break is whether or not the Mini can offer an experience that pulls you away from your usual go-to device.

In my case, the Mini felt more like an extension of my phone than anything else. The fact that it has a top of the line A15 processor helps too if your phone is of the same class – it feels a little more seamless transitioning from one device to another as there’s no drop-off in performance. Be it gaming, or image and video processing, I couldn’t deny that it was more pleasant on the Mini.

Measuring 8.3" across, the Mini is marginally larger than your largest phone. Two inches isn’t a lot (depending on whom you ask), and it sounds only slightly bigger, but in reality, it’s the aspect ratio that gives the tablet its presence, albeit with the help of a fairly large screen bezel. Bezels aren’t often thought of as an aesthetically speaking feature, but in this case, it doesn’t detract from the iPad Mini’s good looks.

The redesign of the Mini helps too, and it’s a look that might tilt you towards buying one. The new Mini has adopted the sharp, clean lines of its stablemates, which looks rather good in this form factor. The volume and power buttons are all arranged along the top of the frame, so they’re less likely to get in the way when you’re reading in portrait mode. In landscape, they’re out of the way whenever you need to adjust the volume, so that’s a big plus too.

Place the tablet on a stand or use the Smart Case, and the Mini becomes great for watching videos at an intimate distance. The large display is also comfortably sized for gaming, so it’s never so heavy that your hands tire from holding it over time. In the same vein, using the camera isn’t going to feel like taking a picture with a food tray. It helps that the camera is somewhat decent; stuff like Night Mode is missing but for the most part, the images look clean in daylight and the videos are pretty impressive coming off a tablet. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting anyone to care about putting half decent cameras on one, so perhaps this is making me feel oddly generous.

Despite the Mini’s proclivity as a media device, Apple saves the best displays for its higher-end devices. While colours look decent on the Mini, the tablet will struggle with darker scenes that are a little more challenging. Put an iPhone with an OLED display next to it and you’ll know instantly that there’s a gulf in quality – black is deeper on the OLED display and the colours are noticeably richer. Scrolling isn’t quite as smooth as most other Apple devices, but it’s fine if you’re not looking out for it. The screen is rated for 500 nit, which is OK most of the time. It’s not bright enough to face up to the scorching sun, but it does help that nobody wants to be in the sun here in Singapore anyway. So that’s far less of a downside.

On the audio front, the speakers are reasonably loud and clear enough for personal use while the device supports spatial audio as well. I can’t fault the audio experience for a party of one here; it’s a great device to have when you are on public transport. I think spatial audio can be quite gimmicky but it’s a nice touch, especially when you tilt your head and then you realise that the audio projection is relative to where you are facing.

And to complete the trifecta, the battery life isn’t bad either. I could consistently last a day just using it every now and then to browse sites and watch videos. I averaged around eight hours of video bingeing. It’s a nice balance of weight and battery life, actually.

However, when it comes to matters of productivity, I find myself favouring a larger iPad. I have an iPad Air lying around the house, so I naturally gravitated towards that. It took me a while to realise that I could just pick up the Mini instead if I just wanted to scribble some notes. But despite having the iPad OS and option for a stylus, I’m still not quite sold on the Mini as a productivity device. It could well be the fact that I’m a curmudgeonly old git, so I find the display simply too small for these sort of tasks; especially so when you have to spend hours on it.

However, I do appreciate having it around for ‘emergencies’, but I suppose that’s pretty much my threshold. But I do expect that many people will love the fact that they can do split-screen and having Center Window to spit out a batch of emails on a compact device. I’ve been trying, but I think part of the problem is that I can’t block out the knowledge that there’s a full-sized tablet just within reach…

As much as I enjoy joking about the fact that I will turn to the iPad Air at every available opportunity, the reality is that I don’t always enjoy bringing a full-sized tablet out unless I’m expecting to sit down most of the time. In which case, the Mini is far more palatable and far handier. If you’ve literally had to hold onto a tablet for work while on the move – say you’re a field engineer – this is a godsend. That said, the Mini isn’t officially water-resistant, so you will need to keep that in mind.

Furthermore, Apple offers only 64GB and 256GB options, so creatives, who likely need storage space for their media files will regard the Mini as more of a backup. In its defence, the tablet is equipped with a USB 3.1 port, which makes it fairly painless to transfer files to and fro, so it’s not entirely handicapped. It’s probably OK if you’re just working on a couple of images or clips, but this is not something you want to be doing throughout the day – that’s a job for a regular-sized tablet or a laptop. For that matter, unless you need to draw often, a laptop tends to make more sense than a tablet.

But the Mini fills a small gap that your laptop and smartphone – and full-sized tablet – can’t. Think perhaps a mix of 70 per cent entertainment and 30 per cent content creation; the Mini is perfect for reading ebooks and magazines, watching videos on the fly, and taking video calls as you go about your chores at home. Little quality-of-life features like Center Stage, which keeps you in the video frame, is pretty useful here. It’s also the perfect bedside tablet; I mean, would you use anything bigger? Dropping a 13-inch tablet on your face when you doze off isn’t fun.

So at the end of the day, should you get one? Long story short, if you want a tablet, just get a full-sized iPad. Or for that matter, if you don’t like the idea of buying into the Apple ecosystem, a similar-sized tablet. The iPad Mini’s diminutive size makes it less useful as a productive tool but it’s perfect for situations where you find your phone a little too small.

To be fair, many of the arguments here can apply to non-apple devices with the same form factor. But having a relatively simple UI and more importantly, fairly high-end hardware, is arguably more helpful than trying to focus on affordability. I don’t think there’s a point in having a device that you can buy without batting an eyelid but yet doesn’t make you put down your phone and pick it up instead. In that sense, I think the current specs of the Mini puts it in a very good place, and I don’t think there’s a better device out there that does this better.

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