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A Mini with Maxi Impact

All right, so Apple’s huge worldwide network of component suppliers has made it just about impossible to keep secrets. So, there weren’t many surprises to be had at Tuesday’s Apple event in San Jose, CA, where the iPad mini, a fourth generation iPad, and some new Macs were introduced.

One thing is sure: Tim Cook took a much larger amount of time on stage with various announcements, such as the fact that Apple has sold some 100 million iPads so far, and comparing recent iPad sales with those of all the PC makers. The result? If you count the iPad as a PC, Apple is the number one PC maker on the planet.

Of course, the larger amount of attention was focused on the iPad mini and how it might differ from existing smaller tablets, such as Google Nexus 7. During his portion of the presentation, Apple VP Philip Schiller said that the iPad mini contains a 7.9-inch display, not 7.85 inches as previously speculated, which means roughly a third more screen real estate than those 7-inch tablets. But the difference is really more drastic, since Apple uses a 4:3 aspect ratio, compared to the widescreen 16:9 aspect radio of the 7-inch Android tablets. So when you switch the unit to a landscape orientation, you’re getting 67% more screen space on the iPad mini. That’s clearly very significant and a key reason why Apple can get away releasing a smaller tablet and still honor the extravagant claim by Steve Jobs that you’d need to sandpaper your fingers to use the 7-inch tablets.

Compared to the $199 Amazon and Google tablets, the iPad mini starts at $329 for the 16GB version. While paying $130 extra may seem a bit much, consider the greater usability. But the iPad mini is also  lighter than the Kindle Fire HD, weighing 308 grams compared to the Fire HD’s 395 grams. Schiller made a big deal about being able to hold one with one hand, a chronic problem with the full-sized iPad.

Granted, the Amazon tablet has a higher resolution display (1280×800) compared to the iPad mini’s 1024×768), but it’s at best a modest difference, at least in theory. As reviews of the iPad mini appear, you will see direct comparisons of display quality.

The only possible surprise was the speedy introduction of a fourth generation full-size iPad. While there were some rumors of an iPad refresh, this announcement wasn’t telegraphed in as much detail by the rumor sites. The new (or new new) iPad’s specs mostly scale up from the previous model. The processor is a dual-core A6X, with quad-core graphics, compared to the A5X on the third generation model. The promise is twice the performance. In addition, the front camera supports HD, there’s a Lightning connection port and superior Wi-Fi performance. Predictably the price and looks are the same.

According to Apple, preorders for both iPads start on October 26, the same day as Windows 8 and the Microsoft Surface tablets are released. The Wi-Fi versions will go on sale the following week. Contrary to some reports, the 2011 iPad 2 remains in the lineup.

The Mac upgrades were also predictable, including a $1,699 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display and a Mac mini refresh. But the most significant upgrade was the ultra-thin iMac, which receives, as expected, Intel Ivy Bridge processors, and NVIDIA graphics. The major change is a much thinner case, 5mm thick at the edges. Apple had to remove the optical drive to make it that thin, but there’s also the added benefit of a 27-inch model that weighs some eight pounds less than its predecessor.

Other than the slimmer form factor, the most significant change from a performance standpoint is the use of what Apple calls a Fusion drive, a variation of the hybrid drive theme. While previous iMacs have offered the combination of a solid state drive and a mechanical hard drive as costly options, the Fusion Drive, a $250 upgrade for a 1TB mechanism, appears to offer the best of both. There’s a 128GB Flash component that will store the OS and your most frequently used apps; an intelligent management system automatically moves apps to and from Flash storage. Assuming near-SSD performance, the Fusion Drive may just be the perfect option in a custom configuration. While combining traditional hard drives with a Flash memory component is not new, Apple’s data management scheme appears to be unique in the scheme of things compared to other hybrid drives.

The 21.5-inch iMac will debut in November, and the 27-inch model, as predicted by the rumor sites, will go on sale about a month later. Those who hoped for a Mac Pro refresh will, I suppose, have to wait till next year, when Tim Cook promised a major revision in a letter to a Mac user some time back. And, yes, I do expect the Mac Pro to remain the only Mac with an optical drive. They wouldn’t dare eliminate it on that model — or would they?

In one sense, I’m impressed by the iMac revision. In another I’m a bit disappointed, because of the loss of the optical drive, and the fact that installing or replacing the hard drive seems as difficult as ever. However, I’ll withhold judgement until iFixit or some other site specializing in disassembling such gear as a look at the iMac.

But at least I now know what I might have two months to save for. I’m less certain about the possibilities of the iPad mini. Mrs. Steinberg says she prefers the 9.7-inch version, but I’ll let you know what I think soon as I have some extended face time with the smaller model.