After months of speculation, discussion, hopes, dreams, and general hoopla, Apple finally made it official today: there will indeed be some new iPads on shelves in time for the holidays, and one of them is pint-sized.

In most respects, the larger iPad -actually referred to as “the big iPad” during today’s presentation- is just a refresh of the 9.7-inch tablet we’ve all come to know and love (or loathe, depending on your loyalties). The real news of the day is its youthful compatriot, the little brother of the lineup, the device that Steve Jobs once said Apple would never build. In that October 2010 earnings call, Jobs said the company wasn’t looking at the 7-inch tablet category because “we think the screen is too small to express the software. As a software driven company, we think about the software strategies first.”

Apparently Apple has since gotten over its compunctions about the smaller tablet category, because the iPad Mini is firmly nestled in that very segment -despite the fact that no changes to iOS 6 were announced. Instead, we got new hardware: a device featuring a 7.9-inch IPS LCD driven by an A5 SoC, incorporating a 5MP iSight camera capable of shooting 1080p video, as well as a front-facing FaceTime HD camera. The battery powering all that is rated for the same 10 hours of usage as other iPads. The new device is offered in a variety of storage options, ranging from 16GB to 64GB, and either WiFi-only or WiFi+cellular configurations.

If most of that sounds strikingly familiar, it should: the iPad Mini features the same processor, battery life, and even screen resolution as its most-closely-related sibling, the iPad 2. The improvements in connectivity and camera optics are nice, but the real story is in dimensions: as Apple’s Phil Schiller put it at today’s announcement, the new “incredibly thin and beautiful” iPad Mini is “as thin as a pencil” (7.2mm) and “as light as a pad of paper” (308g-312g depending on model).

The result, with its super-slim bezel and proportionally huge display, is something that looks a bit like an oversized Galaxy Note II. Perhaps more to the point: it looks a lot like a slimmer, sleeker Nexus 7. And Apple clearly had no blushes about drawing that comparison over and over today.

“We’ve worked hard to make it incredibly thin,” Schiller said, “and it’s made of aluminum” versus the Nexus 7’s plastic. The screen, at 7.9 inches versus the Nexus 7’s seven inches, offers a 35% larger display area after some magical mathematics. The bezel is much thinner, and third-party app support from Apple blows Android out of the water. No change there.

“Look at that weak-sauce nonsense over there.”

But is the iPad Mini really better than the Nexus 7, overall? That’s the question that’s already started to flow in from friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter, and it’s the question that shoppers are going to be asking more and more frequently in the weeks leading up to the holiday season. “Which one should I buy?”

As with all buying decisions, the answer is ultimately going to boil down to a combination of budget and personal preferences — but it’s that former category that’s pressing here. As we’ve come to expect from Apple, the iPad Mini is not priced in the same class as the Nexus 7, or its somewhat more-distant cousin, Amazon’s new Kindle Fire. The iPad Mini starts at $329 for the base model, and goes all the way up to $659 for the specced-out version.

For our purposes, let’s make the assumption that people shopping in the 7-inch tablet category are looking to save some cash (that’s the reputation the 7-inch space has gotten thanks to the work of Amazon and Google, and not a comment on the worth of said segment). The cheapest iPad Mini, then, at $329, gets you 16GB of storage and WiFi-only connectivity. The higher-end (till recently) Nexus 7, with the same storage and connectivity options, runs $80 cheaper.

That’s not a direct comparison, of course: the iPad Mini also brings more utility than the Nexus 7 in the form of a rear-facing camera, higher-quality front-facing camera, better battery life, and a much more robust app ecosystem. So from that perspective, its higher price makes sense.

But watching the announcement, it was striking to me how little the iPad Mini impressed from a specs perspective. It’s powered by the same processor found in the now-two generations-old iPad 2. The display resolution, at 1024 x 768, delivers a mere 162 ppi pixel density, well below the 216 ppi featured on the Nexus 7 – that’s a compromise forced on Apple by app resolution compatibility concerns, but it’s still quite a surprise from the company that ushered in the Retina revolution. The iOS user interface is exactly the same thing we’ve seen in various forms since 2007. Not that that’s a surprise.

I came away from the announcement feeling that the iPad Mini was a beautiful device, but an underwhelming one, especially for the price point Apple’s asking.

But I also firmly believe the device will sell out just as fast as, or faster than, any iPad model to date.

We’ve been over this a million times: Apple does a better job of selling its products than any other company in the mobile space. It’s built its success not on undercutting competitors, but on building products that are perceived as superior, then selling them at a premium. And that perception has grown so widely accepted that it doesn’t matter what the iPad Mini is packing under the hood; people will buy it.

Contrary to what gems of wisdom will float up from the internet’s pit of unending despair comment sections, that’s not because Apple customers are stupid people, fooled into thinking a product is better than it really is. It’s because these folks, new and existing Apple customers both, have decided that the iOS product ecosystem is the better choice for them. While they may have been tempted by smaller tablets before, they were reluctant to pull the trigger until Apple arrived to “do it right.”

Right or wrong, that perception is why the iPad Mini’s sales figures are going to set new records for Apple. It’s why Apple can charge $80 more than the closest analogous product without a problem. Because the company understands that people aren’t necessarily looking for the fastest or the thinnest or the highest-capacity. They’re looking for the best experience. And Apple knows how to sell experience. Sure, sometimes the company does so by espousing specs or measurable aspects, but far more often it conveys “experience” by highlighting subjective virtues, and by pitting a product against the competition and saying things like “it’s the most usable of all these devices.”

While that’s obviously not true for a software guy like me -and I’ve said as much before– it does give me pause when normal, everyday people ask me “which small tablet should I get?” Whether I answer Nexus 7 or iPad Mini (or Kindle Fire) will depend on a host of factors, of course, but the important thing is that the Apple product is now a part of the conversation. Before, in 90% of cases, I’d have said “Nexus 7” outright, and that would have been the end of it. Now there’s real competition, offering a refined user experience and a brand cachet no one can match. It’s a 7-inch tablet from Apple, something we’ve never seen before. And though we’ll have to wait for a full review to confirm this, it looks like it’ll do a stellar job of porting the iOS experience to that form factor.

Tech geeks will call it more of the same dull stuff; they’ll say it’s an iPad 2 in a smaller case; they’ll say it’s an oversized iPod Touch or an undersized iPad. And they’ll be correct in varying degrees. But make no mistake: the iPad Mini is also a nuclear explosion in the middle of the 7-inch tablet space, a space formerly dominated by Google and Amazon. And while the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire family aren’t necessarily in mortal danger, they’d be well advised to strap on their rad-suits and get back to innovating before the long, cold winter arrives.


Jobs quote source: AllThingsD

Schiller & Cook quotes, iPad Mini facts & figures source: Apple

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