Apple’s iPad mini is a 7.9-inch version of the popular tablet. It’s billed as being every inch an iPad. That’s both true and false, when comparing it to its bigger brother, the new fourth generation iPad. There’s good and bad here. Depending on you, the balance could shift in either direction. In our iPad mini review, I’ll provide you a comprehensive look at Apple’s new tablet. The addition of a new member to the iPad family is both a curse and blessing. Choice is great, but it will also make for a difficult decision. Should you buy the iPad mini or the new iPad? Our plan is to complete our fourth generation iPad review and then provide you with a guide that will help you with that decision.
A smaller tablet was never something that we thought we would see from Apple, given Steve Jobs critical comments related to 7-inch tablets on an earnings call back in October of 2010.
…unless your tablet also includes sandpaper, so that the user can sand down their fingers to around one quarter of the present size. Apple’s done extensive user-testing on touch interfaces over many years, and we really understand this stuff. There are clear limits of how close you can physically place elements on a touch screen before users cannot reliably tap, flick or pinch them.
Jobs went on to call them DOA or dead on arrival. That has not been the case. Google’s Nexus 7 has sold rather well, with numbers at 1 million per month, despite a major lack of retail presence when compared with Apple. Before the introduction of the iPad mini, the cost of entry was $499 for a 16GB iPad. That left quite a large pricing umbrella, a gap that competitors such as Google with their Nexus 7 and Amazon with their Kindle Fire HD aimed to fill. The cost of a 16GB Nexus 7 costs $199, as does the Kindle Fire HD. Apple didn’t exactly reverse course on the late CEO’s comments, as the iPad mini is technically 7.9-inches. Make no mistake, that despite its premium price tag of $329, Apple is swimming in the same 7-inch tablet pond.
How is the display on the iPad mini?
The new iPad mini features a 7.9-inch display, with 1024-by-768 resolution at 163 PPI. By opting for that resolution, it essentially it means that all of the existing iPad apps will display properly on this device, but smaller. This does result in UI targets (navigation, buttons) at times being slightly more difficult to hit. While it’s similar but smaller than the display on the larger iPad 2, the glass is placed on top of the display, which delivers a noticeably more vivid and brighter display. Having used an iPad 2 extensively before this device, I see the display on the iPad mini as being an upgrade, but not of the retina variety. Apple’s retina display is 264 PPI. I specifically withheld using the 4th generation iPad with retina display during my first days with the iPad mini, as a test of sorts to see if the lower resolution display would be an issue for me. It was not.
After unlocking, I found the icons sharp and vibrant. Images in the Photos app looked fantastic with great color saturation. The size makes it absolutely perfect for viewing photos with friends and family. Gaming also shines on this smaller device. The 7.9-inch form factor really allows for you to manhandle the mini, which is great when playing accelerometer driven games. I took RealRacing 2 HD for a spin. The bezel allows for a good grip and with two hands. holding the iPad mini was effortless.
To avoid developers from having to redesign their apps for a new display size, Apple makes a bit of a compromise here by going with a 4×3 screen ratio. This size makes it great for web browsing, reading books and a good number of apps. It’s not however ideal for watching movies, requiring you have black bars at the top and bottom of the display. This is less of an issue on the larger iPad, since you still have a large viewing area. When watching media, you’re not able to utilize the full screen, while retaining the integrity of the movie or television show, most of which are shot in a 16×9 aspect ratio. Apple does not want to do anything hardware wise that would adversely affect the shelves of the App Store, which is understandable as it it a huge selling point.
Type is where the iPad mini fails to impress, but that’s not to say it won’t impress you. My wife finds her first generation Kindle Fire provides for a good reading experience. She’s never complained about the pixels. I suspect that if she had spent any significant time with a retina display on an iPad, that opinion would be change rather quickly. The text is not super-sharp, but will probably look better than text on your computer display. There’s a distinct fuzziness to it.
If you have a retina display iPad, that means you’ve purchased a full sized iPad in the past 7 months. When considering the broader tablet market, this is a small demographic of folks that will really see the difference. For most, I don’t see the quality of typeface being an issue for first time tablet buyers or those coming from a first or second generation iPad. As I’ll touch on in my 4th generation iPad vs iPad mini buyer’s guide, the tradeoff here is retina for what is a charming, portable form factor.
What I particularly like about this display is how it dominates the front of the device, with a smaller bezel to the left and right when holding in portrait mode, making the larger version feel like last year’s model. The display offers Fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating, which did little to combat the trail of my flurry of fingers. In the span of a few days, the need for a microfiber cloth cannot be understated.
Seniors considering their first tablet might be better suited to considering the larger, full-sized iPad 2 or 4th generation iPad. In some cases, type can be made larger, but that won’t make it any crisper and the smaller textual buttons and user interface elements could be troublesome.
How are you holding the iPad mini?
This small, yet solid piece of gadgetry can be held in a variety of ways. When typing, I preferred to be all thumbs in portrait mode. This can be accomplished in landscape mode, but requires a bit more shuffling of the mini as you type. If you are going to use this primary e-book reader, holding with one hand in portrait mode might get tiring for your wrist. Despite being just 308 grams light (a slightly more 312g for the 4G LTE version), it’s not Kindle eBook reader light. Expect to switch occasionally to two hands or using your knee as rest. A small compromise when you consider all you can do with this device above and beyond reading.
Some of the ads show the iPad mini being held in a claw-like fashion. This was oddly comfortable at first, displacing the weight, but not ideal for me.
In the end, this is still a two-handed device.
Processor and Speed
The iPad mini uses a dual-core A5 processor, which is the same exact processor used in the iPad 2, released in 2011. Yes, it’s old technology, which is a bit disheartening. Apple has had a good track record when it comes to managing the user experience. It’s been my experience that their products, while often more expensive, are worth the added expenditure. With the iPad mini, although you are spending an additional $129 over competing products, you’re not getting the latest and greatest from Apple when it comes to chipsets. In fact, the A5 processor on the iPad mini returns a lower Geekbench score of 751 when compared to the iPad 2, which is at 785. The fourth generation iPad absolutely blazes with a 1756 score.
While this could be cause for concern, it wasn’t reflected in my real world usage. The performance of the iPad mini was zippy, with no lag, save for the App Store app (a problem on all iOS devices).
Using a mix of apps, a good portion of which were pulled from our best free apps for the iPad mini, not a one had any performance issues.
No doubt that using the A5 allows for higher profit margins, but it in no way affects your ability to use the heck out of this tablet.
What are the storage capacities?
You can select (3) storage configurations. 16GB, 32GB, 64GB in either black/slate or silver/white.
What about cellular options?
Not available at launch, you will have the option to add 4G LTE to the above storage configurations. In the US, you can select between AT&T or Verizon options. The cost is an additional $129. Both offer a range of data plans. Unlike the iPhone, you’re not required to commit or even purchase a data plan.
The iPad mini is a thing of beauty that couples impeccable design with high quality build materials. It’s expensive when compared to other tablets, but it also feels expensive. Years of making iPhones and iPads shows in the refinement here. The aluminum back is made of the same material used in Apple’s MacBook line. The choice to go with aluminum helps keep the weight down to .68 pounds. You’ll hear plenty about how the iPad mini is incredibly light and thin. While it’s certainly both of those, I hoped it would have been lighter and thinner, given the lack of a retina display. I’d be surprised if Apple’s engineers don’t figure out a way to include an upgraded display, without changing the footprint of the hardware.
Having just reviewed the 5th generation iPod touch, I found similarities in the build quality. The iPad mini looks more a larger, 4×3 version of the iPod touch. There is a wake/sleep button at the top, a sliding mute switch and a minor change from previous iPads are the individual buttons for volume control. Everything about this device feels very solid, with a definitive click heard when you press a button. The home button felt no different than other recent iOS devices. On the bottom are stereo speakers, when holding in landscape, there isn’t true stereo, since they are located in one location. Sound was more than adequate, on par or perhaps a tad louder than the full-sized iPad. Small device does not translate to small sound.
What started with the iPhone 5 is a transition to the new Lightning connector from the older 30-pin connector, which has been in use for the past ten years or so. Apple has cut the cord so to speak, in order to provide for a new, smaller connector. It’s sturdy and it’s no longer orientation specific. There is no wrong way to plug-in the new connector. That’s a good thing. If there are small gains in the speed of syncing, these are not readily apparent to me in my experience.
The camera on the back is a 5 megapixel with an ƒ/2.4 aperture. Expectations here are iPod touch 5th generation quality images. The bigger issue for me is that size here matters. In landscape mode, you can easily hold frame, focus and shoot images. Unlike the bigger iPad, you can get closer in on the subject. I can count the amount of photos I’ve taken with my iPads and they were all for the review process. I can honestly say that I’d seriously use the camera on the mini for those random moments where I happen to be couch surfing and my 13 month old does something photo-worthy. The iPhone 5 still trounces all, but this is the best among the iPads.
Like every iPad before it, this one offers stellar battery life that promises mixed use of up to 10 hours. Testing battery life on these is a tough task, as they don’t go down without a fight. Recharging is done using the included 5 watt USB Power Adapter. With the mini at 29%, it took approximately 3 hours to reach 100%, so you can safely estimate four hours to fully charge a depleted battery.
iOS and the App Store
Having experienced widespread power outages in Long Island as part of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I relied on the first generation iPad for entertainment. I say this because even going back to the original model, which has a Geekbench score of 454, didn’t feel as if I was taking a major step back. I attribute this to iOS, which in my experience, has an affinity for providing good performance without the need to overcompensate with RAM or chipsets. In my opinion, iOS has become a bit stagnant, but that shouldn’t diminish the greatness of the operating system. With an extremely large user base across an assortment of devices, they’ve continued to refine and improve. The iPad mini ships with iOS 6, with new features like deep Facebook integration and support for Siri’s expanded feature set.
Apple’s App Store has over 275,000 applications that have been optimized for the iPad, including this one. A good number of apps are universal, meaning that you purchase them once and can utilize them on both an iPhone or iPad. That means that current iPhone owners likely have a stable of apps that will be compatible with the mini.
Are you an early adopter?
It carries the iPad moniker, but carries with it many first generation product woes, despite the benefits from the bloodlines of the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch. I’ve made the case that the premium is worth it when compared to other products. How about if we reverse course, instead comparing the mini upward, with the cost of the entry level 16GB model at $171 less than the full size model. An argument could be made that it costs more to manufacture smaller, complex technology. That would be true if they managed to overcome cost and engineering issues in order to shoehorn a retina display in the iPad mini. That’s not the case here, with an older processor and display on board. For now, this is sufficient enough for Apple to sell a fair amount of these. My personal opinion is that the price coupled with the form factor will make this the fastest selling iPad of all time when all is said and done. I would not be surprised that when the next upgrade cycle comes around, to see Apple upgrade the display and processor, while keeping the $329 entry level price. The current generation could then slip drop to $279 putting in more pressure on competition in the small tablet space.
Apple chose to upgrade the big boy seven months in, leaving the 3rd generation EOL. The desire to upgrade all of their devices to Lightning connector likely played a role in that decision. With technology, there is always going to be a newer product around the corner. Waiting can lead to more waiting, instead of enjoying what’s available today. The resale on Apple products is very good, so there is always the option of selling your iPad, if those new features are what you would deem worthy. I’m including this in the review, because there are a few glaring omissions with the mini and you might find yourself feeling early adopter blues if they are addressed in mid to late 2013.
iPad mini Review: Pros & Cons
- Lighter, thinner and more portable than any iPad
- It’s fast, fluid and provides every bit the iPad experience.
- iOS and App ecosystem is unbeatable
- Exceptional build quality
- Form factor lends itself to being great for gaming, Facetime.
- Camera provides decent photos and smaller size lends itself to picture taking
- Faster WiFi
- User interface elements (buttons, menus, type) are smaller and may prove difficult to select for some
- Fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating did little to prevent fingerprints
- Lacks Apple’s best technology (A5, non-retina display)
- 16×9 would have been better for media consumption, despite need for developers to target new display
What’s hard to put in words is just how great if feels to hold the iPad mini in your hands. It just feels right. I found it to be an incredibly capable little tablet. I remember when Apple released the first iPad. Admittedly, I was unsure of how it would fit within my digital life that included a laptop, desktop computer, various iPods, and an iPhone. The iPad experience was so an iOS experience on steroids trumping that of the iPhone. The size and battery life found me choosing it over a laptop for media consumption, browsing and interacting with social networks. Enter the iPad mini, which once again redefines portability. I believe that many will find themselves using the iPad mini in ways they might not have used an iPad. It’s not pocketable, but the size will make you want to take it on the go, more so than any previous iPad. Great technology is technology that you use and use often. When a device becomes 53% lighter and 23% thinner, it is going to greatly affect usability, often in a good way.
All that being said, the iPad mini had me feeling like Captain Kirk being seduced by of those highly attractive aliens. My initial interaction with the iPad mini was filled with gadget lust and dare I say love. There’s plenty to like about the iPad mini and it’s the perfect first tablet, save for seniors who might struggle with the small UI touch points and less than great type. If all Apple did here was shrink the entire iPad experience, the choice for me would have been easy. The size is almost perfect and the bezel reduction is a major plus. Developers would have more work to make their apps compatible, but a true 16×9 ratio for a device that screams ‘use me for media consumption‘ would have been more desirable. It’s also a checkmark next to lower cost alternatives including the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD.
Deciding on whether the iPad mini is for you is akin to the classic glass half full or glass half empty analogy. Which you camp you are in is highly dependent upon your past experiences with tablets or your willingness to accept tradeoffs. Those who have experienced an iPad with a retina display will still be wooed by the form factor, forced to make I found to be an extremely difficult trade-off. Over the past few days, I could be found muttering, “why didn’t they figure out a way to include a retina display“. If you avoid one for a period of time, you might find yourself able to get by without that stunning display.
For first time tablet buyers, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better tablet at this price point and only the hyper-critical will take issue with the feature set. When shopping the iPad mini vs Kindle Fire HD vs Nexus 7, the additional premium here is justified with the robust app selection and finely tuned operating system. Those looking to avoid the sting of being an early adopter could wait it out, but then you’d miss out on what could be a year plus of a delightful tablet experience.