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Reality Absorption Field: Sizing up the iPad mini

Welcome to Reality Absorption Field, a new bimonthly column where veteran industry analyst and occasional TUAW TalkCast contributor Ross Rubin will discuss industry developments and how they relate to Apple.

On October 23rd, following presentation of slimmed-down Macs and a beefed-up iPad, Apple introduced the long-anticipated iPad mini. With its 7.9" diagonal screen, the smaller iPad doesn't seem dramatically smaller than its bigger brother. Indeed, it's screen is a bit more than 80 percent as large as that of the iPad 2, with which it shares the same screen resolution. And at $329 (up to double that stuffed with 64 GB of flash memory and LTE), it's also a bit more than 80 percent of the iPad 2's starting price.

At $329, the iPad mini starts at $130 more than the 16 GB Kindle Fire HD or ASUS-built Google Nexus 7. The displays on these 7" devices are about 70 percent of the size of the iPad 2's display, but they cost only half of what the iPad 2 costs. Perhaps in part to justify the price premium, Apple played up both the hardware and software differences between the iPad mini and the Google Nexus 7 at the iPad mini's introduction. On the hardware side, Apple highlighted the iPad mini's lighter weight and premium materials versus the plastic competition. On the software front, Apple showed off the impact of the larger display of the iPad mini on Web content.

Apple, which promotes the importance of pixel counts on its Retina displays, ignored raw pixel counts versus the Nexus 7, which has more than a million pixels as opposed to the iPad mini's 786,432 pixels. But taking into account Chrome's tabs and Android's ever-present soft-buttons as well as the iPad mini's 4:3 aspect ratio, the diminutive iPad was able to show more of a Web page's length in landscape mode. The other card Apple (again) played was the optimization of iPad apps as opposed to scaled smartphone apps. One issue, though, is that many of the companies that Apple has highlighted in these comparisons, particularly Yelp and Twitter, compete at least partially with Google and may be less inclined to optimize for a platform it controls.

There's no definitive answer as to whether the iPad mini is too expensive as buyers have different budgets. It's certainly more expensive than smaller competitors, but is made of more expensive materials that Apple regularly claims are more valued by recyclers. Also, if one is looking for a tablet close to the iPad mini's size that can access LTE networks, the Nexus 7 is out although one could look to the Galaxy Tab 7.7 or the Droid Xyboard 8.2, Those tablets and the iPad mini round out the 8" class of tablets from major vendors, (although Archos also has an offering there). They give up some portability while creating a larger canvas for apps and movies.

The initial reception appears to be very warm. While Apple did not break out iPad mini sales, it noted that, in the first weekend of availability it sold three million iPads, a notable bump from its usual run rate. Most of that was probably due to the iPad mini, which opens up the iPad to less affluent buyers. The fourth-generation iPad, while mostly a dramatic spec bump in terms of processor speed, surely contributed a bump as well as "new" goes a long way with consumers.

Apple certainly would have sold even more iPad minis had it launched them at $299. However, it seems likely that Apple, which has brought retina displays to two MacBooks, iPhone, iPod touch and flagship iPad, will eventually bring it to the iPad mini and may want to leave some margin for the more expensive display. Until then, though, the tradeoff between the iPad mini and certain Android tablets such as the Nexus 7 and Barnes & Noble Nook HD, is one of screen size for resolution. Of course, what you can do on those pixels also matters, and the iPad mini has a broad selection of optimized apps.

But with its size and especially price so far removed from the likes of the Nexus 7 and Kindle HD, the real question for most buyers who value the iPad experience likely won't be between the Nexus 7 and the iPad mini, but between the iPad mini and its favorable competitive position against the iPad 2.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at@rossrubin. Views expressed in Reality Absorption Field are his own.

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