heyrick1973 -at- yahoo -dot- co -dot uk

Electronic newspapers

A couple of months ago the regional newspaper "Ouest-France" made a promotion to have an electronic copy of your newspaper subscription in addition to the paper copy. The price for this, as an existing subscriber was an extra €2 per month.
I subscribed to it, partly because I felt that it would be interesting to have an electronic copy on my phone, and partly because I also have access to the Sunday issue (that is not normally delivered - no post on Sundays!) which would otherwise cost €0,95 per issue. Do the maths, however you look at this, I come out ahead! As an aside, there were a number of iPad Minis up for grabs in a draw, because that is supposed to be the best way to enjoy the electronic newspaper. For sure, I would agree that a tablet with a 7-10 inch screen would be better than a dinky little mobile phone!

The Android app, when first released, was buggy as hell (don't have a connection? Crash!) but I saw quite a lot of potential in it. There have been updates to resolve some of the issues, and the app is slowly improving; however on Android it is still fairly resource heavy - each issue counts for approximately 60Mb of space. This is no big deal if you have a large microSD card, however for the Xperia U (4Gb, fixed, no card slot) and other low-resource low-end phones, it gets cramped very quickly. The newspaper is a mixture of PDF and raw text+images which deserves its own write-up, I shall do this sometime soon.


So, from time to time I downloaded the paper and read it. Our post comes around noonish, so it was useful to pluck out the interesting articles prior to the paper actually arriving.
As an aside, part of the reason my French pronunciation is so poor is because I learned a lot of my French from trying to figure out articles in Ouest-France. So when I speak French, I see the words. Unfortunately French words are not said as they are written! Though, as {link}this article demonstrates{/}, you can level the same accusation at English.


Last week I received a letter from Ouest-France. We're they changing the Duo? Something else to offer? I opened the letter and discovered I had to ring somebody to confirm my identity and address as I was the lucky winner of...
...an iPad Mini!


It arrived by post a few days later. I don't know about you, but I'm surprised that nobody asked about taking my photo or something. If a competition is offering a prize worth as much as these things, you'd have thought they'd want to say "hey, check out our winners!".

 

iPad Mini - a first look

There's a sleek, stylish, white box. Inside, the iPad itself on top. Below that, a tiny charger and a lead. The lead is some weird Apple concoction, but rather niftily, it can be inserted either way around - that's a nice touch bound to please dumbasses like myself. There is a simple (I mean brain-dead simple) get-going guide and some Apple stickers inside a folded cardboard case, that I thought at first was a screen wipe.


The device itself. Brushed metal back with a white bezel front. What is instantly noticeable is that the display is larger, it is closer to 4:3 aspect than the pseudo-widescreen common on phones and such. While this means your videos will be letterboxed, it also means that you get more room when using it as a toyfor more serious work. The display is 7.9 inch which isn't as large as the traditional iPad range, though it feels perfectly adequate. With a 1024×768 resolution, it may not be the much exhalted "Retina" display, but it is perfectly easy on the eyes. That and the weight, a little over 300g, mean it is a pleasing thing to hold in your hands.
It is surprisingly thin. Really, if you have a shop near you that sells Apple stuff, go take a look. I honestly don't know how they fit in the display, the motherboard, and have room for a battery. It doesn't feel flimsy at all. Solid glass and metal, it actually feels lighter than you would expect given its solidity. While it probably wouldn't survive a drop onto a tiled floor, it is no cheapo bit of plastic kit either.


Even in bright daylight, the display is clear.

Turning it on, a stylish looking Apple logo, then it wants to look for WiFi. Word to the wise, you need to be connected to get the iPad Mini up and running, either via iTunes on a computer, or having WiFi. I tried to turn my phone into a tethered hotspot but Orange wanted more money for that. The iPad, nicely enough, displayed Orange's response in a window so I knew it wasn't going to work. Had to wait until I got home. [wah!]


Registering was easy and trouble free. I will confess I did not read the licence that I agreed to. I saw it said page 1 of 40 so I just clicked "Accept". Any licence that needs to span 40 pages is likely to not be understood by the average Joe anyway... [and, Apple, you do realise, I trust, that goods sold 'as new' within the EU are supposed to come with a warranty period of two years? (1999/44/EC)]


And then, it was set up and ready for use.


For general impressions, there are a number of quibbles and annoyances, I shall point these out. However the overall impression is that it pretty much outclasses Android in so many senses, perhaps pretty much everything. By way of shining example, one needs only to look at what the official YouTube app looks like compared to the Android version. You might have thought that Google would have wanted to show off on their own operating system, right? I guess not.
Don't worry, I'm not going to turn in to a fanboi - these things are way outside my price range, however I can certainly understand why people might prefer them to Android. Granted, I've not used an Android tablet of similar value, though I'm on my third Android phone which I used to use as a mini tablet...until this arrived and, frankly, blew away the competition.


One of the things I miss is the "widget". I have a weather forecast right there on my home screen on all of my phones. With the iPad, I need to start the AccuWeather app. I also had a widget for turning WiFi on and off. Here, start the Settings app, find WiFi, turn it off. And so on. While I would agree that it can be tempting to make a mess with a plethora of widgets, there are times when such things might be useful - to dangle factoids right there in front of your eyeballs.

I also miss the "back" button. The iPad has a quirky paradigm of little go-back links that look like and , usually at the top of the screen. However if one app starts another, there is no way to step back. You just have to switch apps yourself.
I'm not even certain what/how the multitasking works. Some things (App Store and iBooks) can download in the background, while other things (Dolphin browser, video player mini-server) say you must keep its window open/active and the screen on for stuff to work. Shades of Microsoft here, running a different sort of API for their own apps.
However, since the system runs on a custom kernel and has questionable multitasking capabilities, it feels damn snappy in use.


Before we continue...

Due to the number of images in this review, the screenshots presented here are scaled down to 400×300. To see the original 1024×768 images, just click on the small version. The full size image will open in a new window or tab.


The home screen

As with numerous devices, the iPad comes out of standby to a "lock screen". This displays a picture and a prompt to swipe a part of the screen to go into the system proper. It also has a option to act as a picture frame cycling through a selection of photos and pictures, and also to play music. You can, additionally, opt to have notifications displayed on the lock screen.
Once you have swiped to unlock, you are looking at the main "home" screen. This, as I mentioned, does not have any widgets - just a list of apps. Well, not a list, more a grid of app icons. Big and bold and obvious. There are twenty icons per screen, laid out at 4×5 in portrait or 5×4 in landscape.
There can be numerous home screens that you can swipe between, however I think the method of just displaying all the apps is a bit clumsy. There is a folder option to group related apps that may help, not unlike the "folder" method implemented many moons ago on the Psion 3a. Apps fill the home screens from top left to bottom right. You can place them freely, but moving one jiggles all the others on that home screen. You can't "pin an app here". The same effect can be managed by careful placement, but as I said, it's a bit clumsy.
The bottom of the screen is a task bar that is always present. Here you can place up to six important apps that you want to always be available.

There are five hardware controls on the iPad, asides from the screen. The first four are easy to get out of the way: the on/off button at the top (actually it is a "wake up", go dormant, and reset button like on most mobile phones these days); a slide switch on the side that can either turn off notification sounds (it isn't a mute, music/video will keep playing) or it can lock the display so it can't be rotated (this is a configuration option); then there are the volume up/down selection buttons, these can either turn all volume up and down, or just what is playing without affecting notification sounds (another configuration option), and usefully holding volume down will auto-mute. When in the camera, the volume down doubles as the shutter button.
This leaves the button in the middle of the front of the lower part of the bezel. Push it once to go to the home screen, push it twice to pop up a list of tasks sorted by order of use. If you have accessibility turned on, push it three times to switch to blind-reader mode (there are alternative options too). And if you have Siri turned on, long-press to call upon Siri. Which is a (Norwegian) girl's name...with a male voice in the UK English setting. Um.


The built-in apps

Built into the iPad are some of the essentials - a web browser called Safari which has a nifty offline reader mode, and is surprisingly capable. It has coped just fine with pretty much everything I have thrown at it, with the notable exception of Flash. Steve Jobs apparently hated Flash, and so there is zero support for it on the iPad.
Likewise, there does not appear to be a JVM, though - like Flash - Java apps are getting a bit dated; having said that, it is worth noting that modern "apps" are frequently a Java-like system. Android's "Dalvik" is a sort of JVM. Not sure what iOS apps are.
The browser supports tabbed viewing, and unlike Android it doesn't refuse to open new tabs once you have eight. I just tried it with twenty. Bookmarks, plus a bookmarks bar, are available (although sometimes Safari 'forgets' its bookmarks!). A clearly laid out browsing history, and a "reading list" function that can stash content for reading later when you don't have connectivity - that's pretty nifty. In addition to the usual URL bar, there is also a search bar that will throw your queries to Google (it seems as if the upcoming iOS7 will use Bing, I hope this can be turned off as Google may be The Evil Empire these days, but there's a reason people prefer the Big Data Suckers to Microsoft's offering, and it ain't a political distinction...unlike this).
Perhaps the biggest limitation of the default browser is that it cannot download anything; though Dolphin browser (available as a free app) does allow downloading but this his its own....complications (see later).


Next up is the email software. This is bright, flexible, and easy to use. Not only that, but it is the first email app I have come across on anything mobile that wasn't the eeePC that allows in-line quoting, instead of just shoving the quoted text at the bottom of the message. Whoever wrote that into the spec deserves a beer from me!

The camera... Takes pictures. There is no LED flash so it is a poor performer in dark conditions, but then most LED flashes aren't a patch on a proper burst flash. This isn't such a big deal as the camera seems to cope quite well in low light conditions. An eccentricity is that the camera has an IR filter so pointing a remote control at the camera will show barely a flicker. I wonder why IR is filtered?
This is an Apple creation. Remember, the original Mac was the one with a single mouse button. Therefore it should come as no surprise when I tell you that the only two options possible are to switch on an on-screen grid to aid in photo composition, and to touch the screen to tell the iPad what to focus on, and take the light reading from. There is no white balance, exposure, or anything complicated like that. You pretty much just point and shoot.

There are actually two cameras. The one on the back is 5 megapixel (2592x1936), and the one on the front just above the screen is 2 megapixel (1280x960). To be honest, both perform nicely. Tapping the screen will set up the focus and levels, and if you don't like, tap again. Then tap the little camera icon to take the picture.

Here is an example photo from the rear (2592×1936) camera (remember, click on it to see the original):

And here is more or less the same photo taken with the front (1024×960) camera (original photo was taken upside down, sorry!):

The iPad does video as well, though the device is a little bit unwieldy for use as a video camera. The rear camera can sustain FullHD 1080P without problems. Video recorded this way looks fine, but unfortunately I don't have anything capable of replaying this. My eeePC in max settings just... well, it pretty much wets itself - it doesn't even cope with the slightly quality-reduced 720P versions that YouTube pushes, so the iPad's 1080P burning around a meg and a half per second? No chance!

It might be fun to play with this, but as with the camera, ther are no controls. You get 1080P and that's it. If you want 720P you will need to use the front camera (maybe useful for cheesy hackneyed Blair Witch ripoffs?).
Apple sell a simple video editing package (iMovie) for about a fiver. I'm considering buying it just to enjoy playing - though I'm acutely aware that it is an Apple product that works with Apple video files. Damn shame, as it would have had so much potential if I could have imported video from my other phones. As I said, the iPad is unwieldy as a camera, and you don't want to run around holding something this expensive as the camera (plus, you'd look a bit of a twat).

There is an app called Photo Booth that takes the camera image and applies effects. Great for freaky looking selfies, but I'd imagine this would get old quickly. Though, to be honest I suspect that Apple put this here to show off the screen split into nine previews, all updating in real time without a hint of flicker. Impressive, Apple, very impressive.

There is a basic notepad/jotter and a calendar. The calendar looks to be reasonably good though I've only dabbled so far.
An interesting omission is that there is no calculator.

Apple's Maps is provided, which offers a simpler map with less overall detail than Google's equivalent, but has a few tricks of its own. For a start, the overhead imagery of us was taken last spring. I think Google's imagery is coming on a being a decade old now. In a nearby field is a wood pile that Tiny Alice liked to play around. That disappeared around her first birthday. She's nine now, so the pictures are at least eight years old, if not more. Apple, on the other hand, shows the fallen tree. That went last summer, having remained there since December 2011.

While Streetview is sadly missing from Apple's maps, for selected cities there is a really cool feature which will render the city in 3D. This beats the hell out of anything I've seen from Google Earth (sorry Google, your 3D rendering looks like Quake in comparison). Mom and I spent ages touring Baltimore (her home town). It didn't look like that the last time she was there! There is no 3D for Tokyo or anywhere else in Japan. This is probably just as well or you'd not hear from me for weeks. ☺

Given that Apple's big system-agnostic offering is iTunes, it was a surprise to see that the music player was "functional" and nothing extra. No fancy visualisations or anything (though the SoundScape² app offers this in spades). It is easy to set up playlists, there are repeats and shuffle, but it seems somehow...lacklustre. I can buy music from the iTunes Store, but there is no Shoutcast support, which is a shame as an iPad would make a good media terminal. Happily, Orange's Liveradio app is available which mostly fills the gap, plus TuneIn Radio.

In terms of playback, the headphone jack is a little quiet (this is likely to be EU nannying requiring a limitation on maximum output level). The settings allow for a maximum level to be specified (so the nannying is just annoying), plus you can request the system to fiddle the levels so that everything sounds sort of the same, useful for quiet songs.
The two speakers on the bottom (proper stereo!) are a bit pathetic until you prop your iPad on a solid surface, at which point the sound output is rather louder than you might expect given the size of the speakers, which, trust me, are absolutely miniature.
But complain not - for I am listening to Chihiro Onitsuka with my headphones and I have not needed to flick on the sound cancelling/audio correction for the music is clear and the bass is strong, and I've not even needed to fiddle with the equaliser yet! [the EQ offers a selection of presets, you can't define your own]


Apps

What can make or break a platform is the level of app support. For the iPad there are numerous apps covering all sorts of needs. SFTP? Videos in mkv format? Kindle? They're all here. The only difference between this and the Android world is that the free apps tend to be quite restrictive at times, and the non free apps are really bloody expensive! This is probably why devs prefer to write code for the iThingies - nobody laughs at you if you want to charge twenty euros.
In terms of app installation, I find it annoying that I am asked to enter my AppleID password all the time for free apps, it makes me wonder what is broken that this password isn't requested for in-app purchases leading to the stories of kids running up bills of thousands.

What can I say? There are a lot of apps, and I have installed a number of them - Google Maps / Translate / Drive / YouTube, AccuWeather, BBC News, NHK World (news/streaming), Dolphin browser, WebSSH, TVGuide, Amazon, Crunchyroll, Ouest-France (of course!) and others.
In another twist from Android, you are not shown what "permissions" an app requires. Instead, things which are deemed to be privacy problems (current location, address book, etc) are handled by the operating system asking if you wish to grant the app permission to do 'x', and you can say no.


Configuration

System configuration is a simple and clearly laid out screen with settings and options. It has been pared back so that you can set the stuff that might be necessary, with little else to get in the way. It makes good use of space to show a main menu and its options to the right. Further choices change the right-hand panel if necessary.

What does take some getting used to, if you are an Android guy, is the fact that numerous application settings (if there are any) are part of the main configuration, to provide a centralised resource for all options and adjustments.
That said, applications do sometimes have their settings also accessible within the app itself. It probably depends upon whether the choices are one-off things (cache size, sync audio, etc) or things you are more likely to want to fiddle with a lot.

Perhaps the only criticism of the iPad configuration is the degree of it having been pared down. However, the target audience of Apple products is probably unlikely to want to delve too deeply into nasty nerdy stuff...



Language support

Out of the box, the iPad Mini speaks American English (and will try to autocorrect words such as colour and realizse). This isn't a problem, just change iOS to speak to you in proper British English. Or French, German, Japanese... There are numerous languages available, and changing them requires the device to pause with a black "please wait" screen for several seconds. Then you're good to go. No reboot required.

Here is iOS6 in Japanese:

iOS6 offers: English (American), British English, Japanese, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Portuguese (Portugal - difference??), Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Korean, Chinese (Simplified and Traditional), Russian, Polish, Turkish, ?something in cyrillic?, Arabic, ?Hrvatski?, Chzech, Greek, Hebrew, Romanian, Slovenian, ?Thai?, Behasa (Indonesia/Melayu), Catalan, Magyar, and Vietnamese. So... just a few choices!
Note, however, that this is for operating system software and messages - setting your iPad to Hebrew doesn't mean your apps will appear in Hebrew.


"Keyboards"

The word keyboard is in quotes because there is no physical keyboard. There is, instead, one of those nasty on-screen keyboard things.
Only it isn't so nasty.
When I first turned on my iPad, I hated the keyboard. It didn't offer swipe-to-type, and it has this totally bizarre flawfeature where the characters are shown as capitals, always. However, I turned the iPad to landscape and just started ... typing. Like, normally.

It's a bit weird, given the complete lack of tactile feedback of prodding a piece of glass, so I keep the keyboard tick noise on so I can use my ears to know that each character is being noticed, but that aside I can actually type about as quickly on this as with a real keyboard. To give you an example of what I mean, this entire blog post was written on the iPad itself (then assembled and marked up in Notepad++ like usual). That, if nothing else, ought to demonstate that this is one of the best portable-device keyboards I have used since the Psion 3a.

Not only that, but you can set up multiple keyboards and use the globe key to switch between them. For example, j;ai un clavier français qui corrige automatiquement beaucoup des accents dans les mots françaises, c'est très utile! And then there is the Japanese/Rōmaji keyboard where I can type ko and it will show a bar across the top with options of what I might have wanted, so entering kokoro gives me the options 心, こころ, ココロ, and so on. The first is the correct kanji for "heart", then it written in hiragana, and finally katakana. The top bar offers a lot of options that I have no idea what it all means, but in terms of language support, it certainly appears to be quite capable!

There is also a microphone key, for people who may prefer dictation, or just don't want you to virtual keyboard. It seems to understand me quite well so long as I speak clearly. Rather better than Google's attempt at dictation. This paragraph is spoken to the iPad, and is presented here without any correction. Note that you will need to have a good Wi-Fi connection for this to work, and you will need to remember to speak aloud or punctuation. I am dictating this sentence by sentence. I see above that it has only made two small errors, I'm impressed.

But wait, there is more. Not only is the iPad small enough that you could, in theory, hold it and type with your thumbs, you can actually go a step further and split the keyboard for thumb use by smaller-handed people. Personally, I think this is bordering on the ridiculous, but Apple ought to be commended for their attention to detail to think of such a thing in the first place!

Finally, there is also an emoji keyboard for all manner of smilies and other graphical symbols, however this relies upon advanced Unicode support that is supported well in iOS and more recent versions of OSX.

Android and Windows XP just don't cope (don't even think of asking about RISC OS!), showing a couple at most. So while hoards of tweeny Japanese schoolchildren embrace the delights of emoji, I'll just have to accept that my character support just isn't up to it in most cases. But, hey, wouldn't it be stupidawesome to name a bookmarks folder a girl holding her hands over her head to avoid a big steaming pile of smiling poop. <cough>

As always, text selection is a bit of a pain on touchscreen devices. This is mitigated on the iPad by two methods. Double-tapping a word selects it (in an editor, or long-tap if not in an editor). Words have handles either side, you can drag these to select the exact amount of text you want to cut or copy.

For accurate cursor placement in an editor, long-tap and a magnifying glass will pop up so you just can't go wrong. For sure, it is a lot less fiddly than Android's method. I really like the magnifying glass.


Display

The display built in to the iPad Mini is a 7.9 inch LCD with IPS technology. At a resolution of 1024×768, it offers 138 pixels per inch. It is not a "Retina" display, and some critics panned the iPad Mini on account of this, though it should be noted that the price you pay for a Retina display is increased battery consumption, neverm mind price tag.
You can see pixelation if you look carefully, but at a regular reading distance, the display is perfectly acceptable. The backlight it fairly power hungry, so I tend to run it at about 50-60% brightness unless I really need the extra.

The benefits of IPS over TFT for the display is that it offers a consistent display from all viewing angles. I can hold the iPad at any angle and the display looks the same. There is no fade out or switch to a negative image.
Additionally, IPS does not show rainbow patterns and other distortion when it is touched. You can imagine that this would become annoying on something that you tap repeatedly. And finally, it is able to operate at high speeds without lag or ghosting, so you can better enjoy games and movies. In terms of disadvantage, it uses slightly more power than a TFT, though in terms of overall benefit, I think it is fair to say that it is a worthy choice.

For those who cannot live without the super-sexy Retina display, this winter a new version of the iPad Mini will be released. It will definitely offer a faster processor, but may or may not come with a Retina display (the chances are, it will). Tell me how your battery life is.

In terms of viewing, it is clear, bright, colourful... I don't have any complaint. It isn't capable of displaying true HD content (that's 1280×720 for the smaller incarnation), however it does a good enough job with the resolution that is on offer that I don't feel I am missing anything.

Here is a close-up of an app icon photographed from the screen. The big version on the left is the photograph of the screen, the small version in the middle is the photograph scaled to the same size as the icon from a screenshot, and the screenshot icon is on the right. Don't worry about the hue differences, it is nearly impossible to photograph a screen and get the colours to match up.

And I'll put it yet another way. While you can see pixelation and such if you are looking, in general use and from a reasonable distance (ie not right under your nose) the display is perfectly suitable. I had the opportunity in a shop to compare my iPad with an iPad4 and, yeah, the Retina display was far superior ... if you were looking. For general use, the iPad 4's Retina display was slightly smoother to look at, but the differences between the two are not really so great. The text of the iPad Mini is clear and distinct. The display panel varies from dim to bright to oh-my-god-my-eyes! (on max, it is really bright) There is no flicker. I tried various settings with my digital camera and I just couldn't get flicker. For web pages, writing, reading, watching movies... the display is sharp and clear and while in the future we may laugh at how crappy 1024×768 was, here and now for today, in a hand-held device, I don't see anything wrong with it. It is a size that fits its seven point nine inches perfectly. A resolution high enough that it won't suck to look at it, and a resolution low enough that it is possible to use on-screen controls without resorting to swearing.


Battery life

The claim is for a ten hour battery life. I don't believe I get this, however I turned on my iPad at around 11am, and at nearly 5pm I'm at 22% remaining, so this may be more a matter of perception. Keep in mind that this is with WiFi on and the screen active and the device being used. Not constantly, I do need tea breaks, but a fair amount. I feel that I might get around seven or eight hours, which isn't bad; it is more than I'd get from any of my mobile phones given this degree of interaction. Perhaps I'd save some power if I stopped asking Siri dumb questions!
My advice, since the USB end of the special cable would appear to accept any USB style power source, is to travel with either the power brick or a car lighter socket adaptor. Then you can keep your iPad topped up for long journeys. If you are travelling without access to a power source (train, plane, etc) then switch to airplane mode and knock back the brightness.


Notifications

There are various kinds of notification in iOS.
The first is a pop up alert, akin to an error box. You must dismiss this in order to continue. I can't think that a work-interrupting notification would be particularly useful to anybody.

The alternative, and most useful, style is a brief pop-up notification at the top of the screen. Did you see this sneak into the screenshot of the iPad in Japanese? Go back and look.
Once this notification has happened, there is a notification panel that can be pulled down from the top of the screen.

If you miss the brief on-screen notification, you'd need to check the notification panel manually. This is because, unlike Android, the iOS notification bar along the top of the screen does not provide much in the way of notifications. On the left it says "iPad", in case you somehow managed to forget. Then there is a WiFi icon that also indicates signal strength. In the middle is a clock. On the right is a battery indicator, plus an optional percentage. When music is playing, a little triangle appears on the right. When you have Bluetooth running, the Bluetooth logo also appears. There are also network type icons for iPad Minis with mobile (3G etc) hardware inside.
I think that's about it.

The notification bar is a shining example of minimalism, and it certainly does not display user notifications à la Android.
So, to aid with this, the final possibility is what Apple call "badges". This means the app icon in the home screen will be superimposed with a number. You can see this in the screenshot of the alert notification just above. Look at the icon for the emails (second on the bottom bar) and for the App Store (just to the right of the alert box). I can see I have one outstanding email, and that there are three apps that I can update.


Operating system updates

You might think that Apple kit is expensive, and it is, though something that could offset this expense is the fact that iOS 7 is due for release this Autumn, and it will be free. That's like me buying a PC with Windows7 and the manufacturer saying "here, Windows8 is out now, here's your copy". It is certainly a massive contrast from the world of Android where there are so many fingers in the pie that you can pretty much assume that the version of Android your phone has when you buy it will be the version you have forever. Sure, Google might have updated Android, but has the mobile manufacturer? Has the carrier? My first, a Motorola DEFY, is running 2.1. It had a minor update soon after I bought it, and nothing since. My second, an Xperia Mini Pro, is running 2.3 and has no upgrade. The phone I bought this January, an Xperia U, is running a slightly later 2.3. The updates are attempts to force-feed me more FaceBook integration, nothing for the OS. One of the Xperias has ICS available, however it is reported to be a bit slow/resource heavy, and for reasons known only to Sony, when you have made the switch to ICS, you can't revert back to 2.3 if you don't like it. At any rate, if I want to try Android 4 then I need to get it from Sony's site and upgrade my phone by myself. Orange does not offer the upgrade; and these phones are still being sold with 2.3.x on them.
Every time I read news of a vulnerability or flaw discovered in Android, I know there will be no patch forthcoming. Google whine about how many people are using older versions of their system, yet they appear to have engineered it such that you just can't upgrade parts of the OS without a complete reflash - and that involves the manufacturer (obviously, for drivers and such) plus the carrier (for nothing of value). You can probably guess where the primary lack of interest lies. Plus, let's not forget - you paid your money, you are no longer of interest.

This is why it is a surprise to know that iOS 7 will be available to me. It is easier for Apple, certainly, as Apple - like computer companies of old (Acorn, Atari, etc) make the hardware and the operating system inside, however it could have been a paid upgrade. That it is not actually says quite a lot about their care for their customers, plus there is no big reason for people to stick clinging to ageing versions of the operating system. There won't be a pile of Gingerbreads and XPs in the world of Apple!

As for updates, I think the first install made a minor update, but otherwise for now my checks tell me that I'm all up to date, with iOS 6.1.3.
What will be interesting to watch is when or if Apple release a patch for the Unicode flaw. Certain carefully crafted sequences of Unicode characters cause iOS6 (and OSX) to report that the string length is -1 which causes an invalid memory access or somesuch. It is not currently thought to be a vulnerability - the app performs an out of bounds memory access and the operating system terminates it before it causes problems. Will this be patched? Or will iOS7 be fixed and the upgrade considered a patch? [more details on this]


Screwing with the butler, aka Siri

Siri, a girl in most of the world, except France and the UK, is Apple's idea of a personal assistant. You can talk to herhim using natural language and hoping that you get some semblance of sanity in the result. Siri is quite good at the things she can do, but verges into being useless at other things. Consider the conversation on the left (display cut'n'pasted to show at all):
As you see, Siri is good with questions like "what is the airspeed of an unladen swallow" or "what is the molecular weight of uranium" or "vlc" (starts VLC app) or "play japanese favourites shuffled" (plays that playlist), but ask it more random questions, it gets completely flummoxed.
Burger Kings in France? (there aren't many) Relating to some place in Canada? (wtf?)
A configuration option is to use Japanese dates, so I'm surprised it made such a mess of that instead of saying "25 Heisei" which is the correct answer.
Siri can't understand stuff like "turn the sound down" which is a bit sad. Maybe I should have said "volume down", but I think what I did say was perfectly understandable.
As for the conversation on the upper right - words fail me.

There is something of a game in asking Siri dumb stuff to arrive at dumber answers. Where it is less amusing is when you get dumb answers to normal instructions, commands, and questions. Siri is not "bad", she's just got a way to go to be "good".

Unfortunately the UK English version of Siri sounds a bit like the Butler From Hell. You almost want to hack Siri to start, not with a bing, but with asking "What is thy bidding, Maaaaaaster?". It is said that iOS7 will offer male and female voices. Maybe by the time iOS8 comes around, we'll have accents so I can get Siri to speak Engrish? Then she might pass as cute instead of incredibly smarmy.

Of course, the danger there (and why Siri accents will probably never happen) is while it might be cute to have a young girl's voice telling you that you will now hear your muziku porayoristo (music playlist), all hell would break loose if you started talking to Siri the way she'd be talking to you!


YouTube on the iPad is just so much better

What can I say? From an artist bio to a clean and clear look to a mini playback that can run while you look at stuff, below are some screenshots of the YouTube app for iOS ... just compare this with the one built in to Android and gasp. This is so much better, which is quite astonishing when you consider that Google's app for Google's OS is, well, the lacklustre offering.

Here is Chihiro Onitsuka's bio, the video down the bottom right is playing as I read this. Don't ask me why YouTube likes to use light grey text on white, it's kinda dumb.

And here is playing a video, with its information visible at the same time:

What isn't so good is the YouTube uploader, which seems to be rather glitchy and, anyway, seems to only want to upload 720P content even for 1080P videos. YouTube Capture is a more reliable way to upload, but insists on inserting "Created with YouTube Capture" on the video page, even if all it did was upload a pre-recorded file.


Where's the filing system?

This is Apple. There is no filing system. There is no spoon, either. What you have is a highly compartmentalised arrangement that is conceptually akin to "an app has some space". When you associate a file with an app (either by download or by placing it there via iTunes), that file belongs to that app. Period.

You can (sometimes) transfer files between apps by looking for an "Open in..." button that, when tapped, will show a list of apps that can handle that specific file type. If you select an app, the file is physically copied into the space of the destination app.
Accordingly, there is no such thing as a file explorer. It just isn't possible.
In addition to this, if you have a video uploaded to the iPad then it resides within the chosen video player app, leading to the complication that if your that video player objects to a specific video, you'll need to reupload it to your other video player! [and just for the record, the iPad version of VLC seems to cope with pretty much everything]

In short, if you are used to filing systems and directories and the like, you can forget about all of that. The stock version of iOS does its best to keep each app in a walled garden inaccessible to other apps.


Location services

Location services is, frankly, crap. On better equipped hardware, you can use GPS or GSM or known WiFi signals to permit the iPad to get an idea of its location.

If, on the other hand, you don't have GPS or GSM, and there is no way in hell the AppleMobile and GoogleMobile both have 'seen' your WiFi access point, then the best you'll ever see is a pile of messages prompting you to enable Location services.
For what reason?
It'll never work out where you are.

I hope, for iOS7, that in a situation such as this, you can at least pick a location on a map and say "I am here" and the iPad will register this as your location until it determines otherwise.

As an attempt at a work-around, I have added my WiFi MAC address to the Skyhook database (via this form) and provided a location that is not here but is near enough. Hasn't shown up yet, maybe in a few days?


How to get stuff onto the iPad, aka The Pain of iTunes

Given the iOS protection and separation of apps from each other, it stands to reason that you cannot plug the iPad into a PC and use it like either a removable mass storage device, or an MTP media device.
Oh no.
The way to talk to an iPad is a horribly bloated mess known as iTunes. An unbelievable resource hog, clumsy (seems more interested in selling you music than talking to Apple hardware), and obsessed with wasting time trying to back up the iPad (where's the off button on that?); I find myself praying for a small, tight, program that will do the iPad sync stuff and nothing else.
The alternative is to look for a program (video player, etc) that offers the ability to run as a mini web server, so you can connect in with a web browser and shoot files over WiFi. This, however, is still considerably slower than using the USB lead.


Connectivity

Connectivity of the iPad Mini is... extremely limited.

Here's what you get:

  • WiFi - supports all the usual protocols, b/g/n, wep/wpa/wpa2, etc. Is on par with other hardware. Not quite as good at keeping hold of a weak signal as my eeePC, but matches my phones. In a speed test, it went as fast as everything else.
  • Bluetooth - supports Bluetooth 4. Not sure what this is for, exactly, as there does not seem to be any "Send via Bluetooth" option in the sharing choices. I guess it is for keyboards, headsets, etc. This utter lack of support for PIM File Transfer / PIM Object Push means that you cannot take a photo and push it to a PC. I guess sending files to a non-Apple device is an anathema in Cupertino. Instead, I have to email myself the photo, pick it up on my mobile phone, than Bluetooth push it from the phone. Pffft.
  • USB - not only is it an Apple-specific "Lightning" connector, but the dinky little eight-contact plug contains a microcontroller to talk to the iPad. So if this cable gets damaged, I can't charge up my device from any random USB lead I have around; though Apple sell a little dongle for around $13 (US price, don't know EU price) that will permit you to charge from a generic micro USB lead.
    In terms of raw connectivity, the USB lead talks in two ways. Your Camera Roll (photos and videos) will appear on a PC as a digital camera device. This rarely works and usually says there is no content. Unfortunately there is no way that I found to extract photos via iTunes (given you are supposed to draggy-droppy from the camera device). All other communication goes via iTunes. So don't ever expect to talk to an iPad on a platform that does not have iTunes available.
  • Lightning - the USB lead is actually a type of lead for the Lightning interface. The Lightning connector can also be used with a device to output a copy of the screen in VGA, or HDMI (a different dongle), to connect to digital cameras, to read SD cards, and so on. Those are the official Apple parts, and some have undocumented extras - the camera connection kit can also talk to a properly compliant USB MIDI interface (as in audio steaming, MIDI - most of them should be this).
  • 3.5mm jack - a standard headphone jack. Well, below the freaky contact balls in the socket is some space, so this may have other purposes too, akin to the four-pin jacks used in modern mobile phones. There is an add-on that plugs into this jack to permit credit cards to be swiped (basically a manual magstripe reader). I don't know if there is an extra contact for a microphone or if the output can be switched to be an input?


Maintenance

There really isn't much you can do with an iPad except keep it clean and charged up. If the screen breaks, if the battery wears out... these are not user replaceable parts. You won't see any screws on the outside of the iPad Mini, go find a "teardown" review (such as this one) and you'll see the pain that people go to. Loads of glue and insanely delicate stuff wrapped up inside it all, it is quite clear that replacement parts are something you'll need to get Apple to do.
There is a quandry in this - for some devices (such as most mobile phones) have batteries that you can change (but good luck getting original manufacturer parts a couple of years later) while other devices do not have access to the batteries. I have a bluetooth headset for which the battery has died. I have a media player (Creative Zen) which has the battery inside a glued-together clip-together case. Plus a bluetooth FM transmitter and MP3 speakers with batteries inside (but the case held together by screws). I can only imagine that the iPad battery is a very specialist thing, and I would be extremely wary about using clone parts. Whether or not the battery being buried inside a ton of gunky glue depends entirely upon the service life of the battery and the cost of a replacement. Perhaps it might have been nice if the casing was held together with screws so you, the owner, at least had the option of what to do.


Content creation

Don't expect anything from me. At all.

I would, actually, consider coding for the iPad Mini. And with a bit of extra trouble, you can (apparently) cut code on a Windows platform.

The problem is, the only version of iTunes that permits uploading - both apps and iBooks - is the version of iTunes that runs on a Mac. In essence, if your "real computer" isn't also an Apple, then doing useful development work towards any content specific to the iPad (namely apps and iBooks) is not an option available to you.
This is in direct contrast to the Android ecosystem that has a web-based console to their "play" app store that you have access to as a registered developer; so once you have built your app and packaged it as an apk file, it can be uploaded and submitted.


The hardware specs

Essentially it is a shrunken version of the iPad 2. The processor is the same Apple A5 which means it is a 1GHz dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 with 512Mb of RAM and 16Gb of Flash (though 32/64Gb models also exist).
Graphics support is provided by a dual-core PowerVR Series 5XT SGX543MP2 clocking at 250MHz.
The processor itself, an ARMv7 family processor (actually, the A5 is not unlike a graphics-friendly OMAP3) is normally run at around 500MHz, ramping up when the extra oomph is necessary. The bus frequency is 250MHz for a 64 bit bus, and the memory frequency is 400MHz.

These may not seem terribly exciting, however the iPad is quick and responsive in use, and it is happy to work any way up, rotating its display on the fly to adjust for the new orientation. It 'feels' nippy, and its ability to work with 1080P video kinda trounces my mobile phone of roughly similar specification.


Things I'd like to see (aka the wish list)

I would like to see more use of the notification bar and panel. Some sort of visual notification that there are messages in the panel, maybe a mini black and white icon of each app currently in the notification panel, so it is there if you missed the brief pop-up message.

I would like to see more use of Bluetooth, to be able to send and accept pictures, for instance. It is ridiculous to email photos to myself to transfer them between my phone/computer and the iPad.

I would like to see accents and such for Siri. Why not release a tweak-pack so we can fine-tune how she (not he, thank you!) sounds?

A basic calculator and word processor built in as standard. I can sort of understand the lack of word processor, but to not have a calculator? It is an odd omission.

An option of a pared down iTunes for those who only want to use it for pushing files around.

Better multitasking, so Dolphin browser, for example, can continue running in the background. iOS can do it - App Store and iBooks both do...

Some method (web portal?) to permit those who do not have Macs to consider developing for the iPad. Guys, wake up and smell the instant mochaccino - just because a person has an iPad does not necessarily mean they'll have a Mac. Sure, those who have Macs are probably more likely to buy Apple for their tablet, maybe also their phone; but this does not necessarily hold true looking at it from the other direction. Especially when you consider that, on the whole, tablets are black-box devices but computers are not. You can buy an inexpensive PC and drop your preferred Linux distro on it to have a perfectly useful machine. Tablets? You can customise and add a ton of apps, but the core operating system is going to be left alone by the majority of users. You can't switch OS in a tablet like you can for a boxed computer. So is it logical to not permit people from outside of the Apple ecology to develop? No, I don't believe it is. It strikes me as being a walled garden simply for the sake of "you don't use Apple so nerr!".

Speaking of walled garden - I should point out, in case somebody wasn't aware - that the app store and app mechanism is a walled garden. You can get your iPad apps from the App Store. And that's it. There is no option to obtain apps from third-party sites, and even if you did, you wouldn't be able to get them on to the device. Given that modern phones and tablets are real computers running real operating systems, while I appreciate that Android will let me download and install non-app store apps, this is not critical functionality. Apple's app store, therefore, runs as a tightly controlled walled garden.

It would be nice, as an incidental, to know what sort of permissions apps do use. While iOS provides prompts and options for some permissions, others don't get a mention.


Conclusion

When I received the iPad, I thought of it as a toy and didn't expect to do much more than read the newspaper and watch kittens on YouTube. Truth be told, it is surprisingly versatile, so much so that I've only had my eeePC running a few times this last week, and my Android phone sees use in the car and at work. But at home, the iPad is my new best friend.
Why?
Simple.
  • I can type fairly competently on it.
  • The browser does a respectable imitation of a desktop browser (better, I might suggest, than Android's).
  • For all it may be locked down, it is capable and simple to use. There are restrictions for power user types, however that aside it has managed to assist me in "the usual stuff" without becoming a hindrance or cumbersome. In fact, it is quite pleasant to watch video on this screen.
  • There are sufficient free apps that I can build a core collection of apps to do things that I would like to do, whether it be watching video or connecting to my eeePC using VNC or...

While I would not consider another Apple product (way beyond my pay scale), I can certainly see why it has appeal. As to whether Android is better or iOS is better... I'm not entirely sure that that are aiming for the same demographic. For instance, the Nexus tablet is, on paper, a better performer with a lower price tag. It is also rather plasticky. Something I quite like about this iPad Mini is that it is a solid metal construction. It doesn't feel cheap and fragile. And, as it have said a few times in this review, it's speed in use is quite something. It is no slouch.


 

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