And, of course, it gives access to Apple's ecosystem of hundreds of thousands of tablet-friendly apps -- plus all the media iTunes has to offer. We can't help you decide which ecosystem, Apple or Google's, is better-suited to your interests, but we do imagine that will be the deciding factor for most. When it comes down to hardware, it's almost no contest between the two, with the iPad mini clearly winning out -- except in one area. That's the display. The Nexus 7 has a higher-resolution panel that's also 16:9, making it better for movie watching. It's also narrower, and thus easier to hold in your hand.
We'd also be remiss if we didn't at least mention the $199 Kindle Fire HD. Amazon's latest also offers a higher-resolution, IPS LCD and has the extra selling point of stereo speakers. It also has a strong suite of content, courtesy of Amazon's many partnerships, but overall we have a hard time comparing these two. Amazon's device is clearly a cut-rate slate designed to push as much digital buying power into the hands of consumers as possible, while Apple's is simply a legitimately nice tablet. It's a legitimately nice tablet that Apple certainly would love for you to fill with premium content downloaded through iTunes, but it never feels like a shopping portal. The Kindle does.
Surely, the most popular accessory for the iPad mini will be the new Smart Cover that, despite being both smaller and of considerably simpler construction, still costs the same $39 as the bigger, 10-inch version. That's a little unfortunate, especially because we don't think this version works as well. There is one positive change: the smaller Smart Cover moves away from the aluminum hinge on the bigger version, a good thing because we've seen plenty of scratches caused by that metal-on-metal contact.
It's still attached magnetically, but where the 10-inch model will immediately snap into the perfect placement every time, we found the mini cover just as eager to attach either too high or too low. It requires a little more precision. Hardly a deal-breaker (how often are you removing your Smart Cover?) but a bit of an annoyance.
The other accessories, and there are plenty of them, all make use of the device's Lightning connector, many existing only to add a little more life to your various iPod docks and chargers. The stubby 30-pin to Lightning adapter is $29, the same cost as the two camera adapters: one USB and one SD. (This is a change from the 30-pin Camera Connection Kit, which included both for $29.) The Lightning to 30-pin adapter (which includes a 0.2 meter cable in the middle) costs $39 and, finally, both the VGA and digital AV adapters are $49. Like the previous Digital AV adapter (which was $39), this one includes HDMI output and has an input so that you can still charge the tablet while it's in use. Handy for those digital signage applications -- or getting in one final, epic Lord of the Rings marathon before December.
This isn't just an Apple tablet made to a budget. This isn't just a shrunken-down iPad. This is, in many ways, Apple's best tablet yet, an incredibly thin, remarkably light, obviously well-constructed device that offers phenomenal battery life. No, the performance doesn't match Apple's latest and yes, that display is a little lacking in resolution, but nothing else here will leave you wanting. At $329, this has a lot to offer over even Apple's more expensive tablets.
Those comparing this to the Kindle Fire HD will have a hard time, as that's a tablet manufactured to a fixed cost and designed to sell you content. This is very much more. Similarly, the hardware here -- the materials, the lightness, the build quality, the overall package as it sits in your hand -- is much nicer than the Nexus 7 and it offers access to the comprehensively more tablet-friendly App Store, but whether that's worth the extra cost depends entirely on the size of your budget -- and your proclivity toward Android.
Regardless, the iPad mini is well worth considering for anybody currently in the market for a tablet. Its cost is compelling, its design superb and it of course gives access to the best selection of tablet-optimized apps on the market. To consider it just a cheap, tiny iPad is a disservice. This is, simply, a great tablet.
Update: This review originally stated (as does Apple's spec page) that the iPad mini has a mono speaker. It is, in fact, a stereo device.
[Last photo by Will Lipman]