With the iPad mini the Apple tax is back, but this time it’s justified

Did the iPad mini really debut today? I could have sworn it had already been announced.

As expected, it has a 7.9-inch screen (though we all thought it would be 7.85-inches… go figure) with a 1024×768 resolution screen, for a very non-Retina 163ppi pixel density. Inside we have the seemingly ancient dual-core A5 chip that debuted a year ago in the iPhone 4S. While we haven’t been told RAM count, we wouldn’t be surprised to see 512MB.

The iPad mini is also thin, at 7.2mm, and its profile barely overshadows that of the Nexus 7 despite a sizeably smaller screen. It’s made of aluminum and glass, a noteable improvement over the immediate competition. Phil Schiller even compared the iPad mini directly to Google’s top dog, the Nexus 7, in his keynote address.

And how much is the iPad mini? Forget $199 — forget even $299. For Apple’s “every inch an iPad,” you’re paying a minimum of $329. Next week Google is likely going to announce that it is doing away with its 8GB Nexus 7, lowering its 16GB version to $199 ($209CDN). To many Canadians that $120 could be better spent elsewhere. To many Canadians, the $329 entry level for the iPad mini will be considered an “Apple tax.”

Looking at it head-on, the iPad mini doesn’t immediately scream value. Its price is out of the range of the entry-level tablet buyer and is too close to the $499 price of the Retina iPad to be considered a “discount” product. Canadians have plenty of choice in that department, from the $209 Nexus 7 to a bevy of full-sized Android slates for under $400. If it’s discount you want, it’s easy enough to find.

But Schiller wasn’t wrong in pointing out the disparity between Apple’s ecosystem and its closest competitor, especially in the tablet space. While Android itself may be iterating at a constant clip, with plenty of fantastic smartphones compatible with myriad apps designed for various sub-5″ form factors, the same can’t be said for tablets. While there are 275,000 iPad-compatible apps, all of which will run without modification on the iPad mini, there are only a handful of Android tablet apps that have been adapted with care. Before this incites the ire of every Android fan, I’m not saying there are no good Android tablet apps — just look at Netflix, StumbleUpon, Pulse Reader, TED and quite a few others — but there aren’t many. And despite Google’s continued support of the tablet community, releasing a Tablet App Quality Checklist, the financial impetus for developers just isn’t there.

There’s another reason to pay for the Apple tax this time: content. Canadians know the limitations of Google’s and Amazon’s ecosystems all too well: one cannot purchase a movie, subscribe to a magazine or pay for digital music directly from either company. For that you have to go through disparate providers such as Cineplex, Zinio or 7Digital respectively. OEMs are also doing their part to fill the gaps for Canadians; Sony offers both its Music and Video Unlimited services on its tablets. And while these are perfectly reasonable places to procure such content, they’re not central, a theme that Apple has proven again and again works so well.

And until Google or Amazon offers its full range of content to Canadians, Apple will continue to be the place to pay for digital stuff. This includes the latest apps, the newest games and the best content. There are thousands of Canadians who are, and will continue to be, willing to forgo the immediacy of this content to avoid being locked into Apple’s ecosystem. After all, much of it is inaccessible from anywhere but an Apple product.

But many more Canadians have, and will continue to be, happy to buy into the same centralized ecosystem. The $329 entry price of the iPad mini proves that Apple is content not to sell and market a discount iPad, but a smaller iPad that can do everything its more expensive peers can do. That is today’s Apple tax.