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When I picked up the Retina mini, I immediately remembered why I sold my 3rd gen. iPad last year. It was so cute. It felt so nice in the hand, just one hand was sufficient. But this iPad wasn't for me; it was for the other member of my household. And though I did recall why I dumped the full-sized model for the mini, what a difference a year makes. 

This time I didn't have an iPad 3. I had an iPad Air. I'm rocking an iPad that is almost perfect in every way. It carries none of the shortcomings of the 3rd gen. It is already small enough and light enough to carry everywhere I go, and use all day as a laptop replacement. The mini was the answer to questions asked by the 3rd gen. iPad. With the Air, the questions are moot. 

Some might argue that with the Retina display and pair of new processors: the A7 and M7, the mini is the slightly smaller, identical twin to the iPad Air. I would have to respectfully disagree. An android user might look at it that way, but an iOS user wouldn't. Indeed, that is the correct way to look at it if everything is just reduced to a matter of specs. But an iOS user knows that specs only tell a part of the story. The bigger part is always experience. Using the iPad mini does not provide the same experience as using the iPad air. 

Case in point. I am typing this review on the iPad Air, even though I have a mini with an external keyboard. I would rather type on a big sheet of glass than a good, mini keyboard. For a keyboard jockey like myself, that's saying a lot. One might argue that thumb typing is better on the mini, and they would be right. However, I refuse to thumb type my way through anything longer than a text message. Grown-ups use all ten fingers. 

I can surf every web page on the mini that I can on the Air. But the modern web was designed for 20" monitors. Who, today, would surf the web on a 14" monitor when a 20" is readily available? Of course one could do it, but the experience is degraded. The same is even more true for creative apps such as iMovie, iPhoto, and GarageBand. They are designed for the full/-sized, iPad experience. On the mini, they are shrunk down versions that are just a little cramped. The touch targets are much smaller. Accuracy is a little compromised. The experience is not the same. 

Denying this fundamental truth is like denying that there is a huge difference between the experience of using phone apps vs. tablet apps. Shrinking a big app to a small screen is just as awkward as blowing up a small app for the big screen. Both are possible. Neither provides an optimal experience. Until developers start designing apps, specifically, with the mini in mind, the mini will always have an experiential disadvantage compared to the Air.

I do not want to leave the impression that the iPad MRD is less than a stellar device. It is best in class. I just dispute that it is the same class as the iPad Air. When it comes to premium, small-form tablets, the mini is at the head of the class, with no competition in sight. It really is adorable, with a top-notch display, and a tangible performance boost curtesy of the A7 processor. Those two-things, alone, make the new mini the best, portable game machine on the market. 

The iPad MRD is also a better night-stand tablet than the Air. Not only does it occupy a smaller footprint on your limited, night-stand surface, it is easier to use for reading and gameplay while in bed. If small print presents you with no problem, the mini may be a better choice for book reading. Magazine and graphic novel reading is still the domain of the larger screen. If you are used to reading paperbacks, you will be much happier with the mini.

Ultimately, just like cameras, the best iPad is the one you have with you at the time. Last year, that was the mini for a lot of people, including me. The older style iPad was something you did not take with you casually. The mini was the one that you didn't have to think about. Today, the Air leaves the house as often as I do, so that is no longer a consideration. While the mini can perform all the same tasks as the full-sized model, it only excels at a subset of those tasks. 

Though $100 less expensive, the decision between the two models should never come down to price. It should come down to usage. The iPad Air allows for iPad usage without compromise. Anything the iPad can do, you can do. For most, it is an acceptable notebook replacement. For its size, alone, the mini is not. Then again, it was never meant to be. If you are considering a tablet for the same types of things you would do with a Kindle Fire or Nexus 7, the iPad mini is the only way to go. It can do all that, and much more. 

When it comes to comparisons, there are none. The iPad mini is a premium, small-form tablet. It should never be compared to a $200 piece of junk. You can find tablets for as low as $50. Big deal! That's not competition; that's landfill. The only competitive pressure placed on the iPad mini, is the iPad Air. There are no bad iPads. Well... the 1st gen. mini is still on the market for $100 less than the new one. Done't buy it! In a vacuum, it's not bad. But we do not live in a vacuum. We live in a world where there is an iPad MRD. If you insist on the mini form factor, the MRD is $100 well spent.

David Johnson

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