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Reporting on gadgets is sometimes like reading tea leaves. You have to divine a fair amount, given only a few signifiers.

Such is the case with rumors trickling out about the iPad mini, which some outlets have reported will be announced later this month. The iPad mini is likely to be a 7.85-inch tablet, designed (and hopefully priced) to go head-to-head with the Kindle Fire and Nexus 7.

AllThingsD has been talking to an analyst named Brian White, of Topeka Capital Markets. White has been traveling around Taipei, talking to the suppliers who will be making component parts for the little iPad. And here’s what White has said.

“Apple did not skimp on the aesthetics of the much anticipated ‘iPad Mini’… In fact, we believe the ‘iPad Mini’ could outshine the new iPad in terms of how the device feels in a consumer’s hands.” (AllThingsD parses this by saying the iPad mini may be “slicker” than the iPad 3.) White further added that “the new ‘iPad Mini’ is more challenging to produce than prior iPad iterations,” and that he believed “supply will initially be constrained.” Nonetheless, the Journal reports that component makers say they’re making 10 million units for Q4 this year–twice as many as Kindle Fires.

Allow me a moment to stare into these tea leaves…

I find it not difficult to believe that the iPad mini “could outshine” the new iPad–particularly if you were to set the iPad 3’s brightness levels low, and the iPad mini’s brightness levels high. When adding the modifier, “in terms of how the device feels in a consumer’s hands,” I confess to feeling less clairvoyant. Undoubtedly a smaller, lighter device would be more pleasant to hold than a larger, heavier one–though I don’t know why White needed to go to China to figure that out. Given that WSJ’s Ian Sherr says that the iPad mini’s screen will have a lower resolution than its larger predecessor, it’s hard to see the iPad mini truly being more dazzling than the iPad 3.

9to5Mac’s Elyse Betters cutely notes: “It is interesting that White has travelled around talking to Asian suppliers and can claim the iPad mini will upstage the original iPad, but he cannot offer one specific detail on how this will happen. Perhaps he is held to secrecy on these topics.”

One designer has put together images of what the iPad mini is likely to look like, and is even selling his own prototypes of the thing, somewhat incredibly.

Beneath all the chatter, one thing remains true: the iPad mini represents one of the first times that Apple is becoming a follower rather than a leader in a gadget category. Apple is responding to the market created by the Kindle Fire, Nook tablet, and so forth, rather than creating a market of its own. And when you come as a challenger in a category dominated by others, you’d better be very, very sure that you’re offering something strong and at a competitive price. There’s no word on what that price will be yet, but at least one analyst has said that pricing the iPad mini at or below $300 would be a game-changer (“But Mom, if you just spend another $100, you can get the iPad mini!”) 

And Ars Technica has ably demonstrated, as far back as July, how Apple could make a 7-inch tablet for that price without sacrificing too much quality.

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Tagged: Computing, A123 Systems

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