Troy Wolverton
San Jose Mercury News

SAN JOSE: In many ways, the iPad Mini is an amazing device. If it were $200 or even $250, it would be a steal.

But at $330, not so much.

I briefly tested the new iPad Mini at Appleís unveiling last week. I was blown away by the physical design of the device.

I really like the original iPad, but it can be unwieldy to hold for extended periods. Thatís one of the reasons why Iíve liked some of the smaller tablets that have hit the market in the past year ó theyíre much more portable than the iPad and more comfortable for reading or watching movies.

But the design of the iPad Mini puts even the latest rival mini-tablets to shame. Despite having a larger screen than those of its nearest rivals, Googleís Nexus 7 and Amazonís Kindle Fire HD, the iPad is lighter and about half as thick as either one. Amazingly, itís also narrower than the Kindle Fire HD.

Better yet, despite its lighter weight, it feels much more solid. The Kindle Fire HD and the Nexus 7 have plastic cases; the iPad Miniís case is aluminum. You might worry about scuffing the iPad Miniís case, but you wonít worry about breaking it.

It feels great in the hand; I didnít want to put it down.

Another great feature of the iPad Mini is that it will run all of the same apps that are available for the larger iPad. Thatís been one of the big advantages of Appleís tablet over its rivals. Users can choose from some 275,000 apps that have been customized for the iPad, which is far more than are available for Android-based tablets such as the Nexus 7, not to mention the Kindle Fire.

The diversity of apps for the iPad also helps to set it apart from the Kindle Fire, in particular. One of the primary uses for a device of this size is as an e-reader. On the iPad Mini, youíll be able to read e-books sold by Amazonís Kindle store, Barnes & Nobleís Nook store or Appleís iBookstore. On the Kindle Fire, you can choose from Amazonís e-books ó and thatís about it, unless you want to go to the trouble to play with your settings to allow the device to install apps from places other than Amazonís app store.

One other advantage of the iPad Mini compared with its main seven-inch rivals is that Apple is offering versions of it that will include 4G radios so you can access the Internet when you are away from home. Youíll pay a cool $130 extra for the feature, but itís better than not having that option.

Interestingly, Apple doesnít seem to have a killer app for the iPad Mini; thereís nothing thatís unique to it, compared with the companyís other handheld devices.

Like the latest iPhones, iPod Touches and the bigger iPad, it has Siri, Appleís speech command system. Like those devices, it has two cameras and the ability to make video calls. It runs the latest version of Appleís iOS software and appears to include all the same apps as the larger iPad.

What actually distinguishes the iPad Mini from many of the latest Apple devices is a shortcoming: It doesnít have a high-resolution ďretina displayĒ screen. The Miniís screen is lower-resolution than that of either the Nexus 7 or the Kindle Fire.

I didnít have either of those devices to compare with the Mini at the Apple unveiling, but that difference in screen resolution will likely be noticeable when the devices are side-by-side. Text and video on the Miniís screen is likely to be less sharp than on those of its rivals. If I were a betting man, I would put a lot of money on Apple upgrading the display of the Mini within two years so that itís in line with its other devices.

One other difference is that the chip inside the iPad Mini is the same one that came with last yearís iPad 2, not the ultrafast next-generation processors that are in the bigger iPad or the iPhone. I didnít notice much of a difference, though. The game Real Racing HD ran smoothly on the iPad Mini, and the device seemed plenty responsive.

These shortcomings aside, the iPad Mini appears to be a better device overall than its rivals. But is it worth the price? I have my doubts.

If youíve been itching to get an iPad, but couldnít swallow the $500 price, $330 for the Mini will look pretty tempting. But if what you really want is a mini tablet, and it doesnít have to be the iPad, that price looks mighty expensive compared with the $200 youíd pay for the Nexus 7 or the Kindle Fire HD. The Miniís beautiful design aside, my first take is that itís not worth that hefty premium over two very good, well-built and easy-to-use devices.

Which is too bad. I like the iPad Mini a lot. But I would have loved it at a better price.