NEW YORK (AP) — I bet the iPad Mini is going to be on a lot of wish lists this holiday season. I also bet that for a lot of people, it's not going to be the best choice. It's beautiful and light, but Apple made a big compromise in the design, one that means that buyers should look closely at the competition before deciding.
Starting at $329, the iPad Mini is the cheapest iPad. The screen is a third smaller than the regular iPads, and it sits in an exquisitely machined aluminum body. It weighs just 11 ounces — half as much as a full-size iPad — making it easier to hold in one hand. It's just under 8 inches long and less than a third of an inch thick, so it fits easily into a handbag.
The issue is the screen quality. Apple has been on the forefront of a move toward sharper, more colorful screens. It calls them "Retina" displays because the pixels — the little light-emitting squares that make up the screen — are so small that they blend together almost seamlessly in our eyes, removing the impression that we're watching a grid of discrete elements.
The iPad Mini doesn't have a Retina screen. By the standards of last year, it's a good screen, with the same number of pixels as the first iPad and the iPad 2. The latest full-size iPad has four times as many pixels, and it really shows. By comparison, the iPad Mini's screen looks coarse. It looks dull, too, because it doesn't have the same color-boosting technology that the full-size model has.
This is not an entirely fair comparison, as the full-size iPad starts at $499 and weighs twice as much. The real issue is that this year, there are other tablets that are cheaper than the iPad Mini, weigh only slightly more and still have better screens.
Amazon.com Inc.'s Kindle Fire HD costs $199 and has about the same overall size as the Mini. While the Kindle's screen is somewhat smaller (leaving a bigger frame around the edges), it is also sharper, with 30 percent more pixels than the Mini. Colors are slightly brighter, too.
Barnes & Noble Inc.'s Nook HD costs $229 and has a screen that's even sharper than the Kindle HD's. It's got 65 percent more pixels than the iPad Mini.
Why do tablets from two companies chiefly known as book stores beat Apple's latest for screen quality?
Sharper screens are darker, requiring a more powerful backlight to appear bright. That, in turn, would have forced an increase in the battery size. That's the reason the first iPad with a Retina display was thicker and heavier than the iPad 2. So to keep the iPad Mini thin while matching the 10-hour battery life of the bigger iPads, Apple had to compromise on the display.
This can't last, though. By next year, it will likely be even more obvious that Apple is seriously behind in screen quality on its small tablet, and it will have to upgrade to a Retina display somehow. That means this first-generation iPad Mini will look old pretty fast.