Last year Apple introduced the iPad mini, a second size option for its tablet lineup. In addition to being, well, miniature, it featured a beautiful design — so beautiful, in fact, that the iPad Air now mimics it. More importantly, with a starting price of $329, consumers at last got an iPad at a more mid-range price point. As you can imagine, it appealed to folks who couldn’t afford the full-sized model, and it was also intriguing for people who craved something a little more portable. By the same token, it was also panned by power users who thought the mini should have the same high-end specs and Retina display as the 10-inch model. In short, Apple had two iPads that were capable of attracting two different groups of people.
This year Apple stirred the pot. The new iPad mini not only features nicer hardware than its predecessor; it’s also equipped with the same specs as its larger sibling, the iPad Air. For starters, the 2013 mini adds a Retina display, along with Apple’s top-of-the-line A7 processor and a larger battery. But, it also comes at a higher cost. We know, we know: It’s a premium tablet, but is $399 too much to pay for a brand-new 8-inch slate? Is there anything else in the mid-sized tablet market that would work at a lower price? And since the two iPads are no very similar, are there any factors to consider outside of size?
We can explain the hardware of the new iPad mini in one sentence: It’s an iPad Air hit by a shrink ray. In many ways, the new mini appears to be a modest, iterative update. Dive a little deeper, however, and the new iPad mini represents an apparent shift in Apple’s product strategy. How so? To answer this question, let’s go back to last year, when Apple made it clear at its fall event that the iPad mini shouldn’t be regarded as a scaled-down iPad. This smaller tablet should have its very own personality, Apple said, and should be viewed in a different light than its larger sibling. It even featured a beautiful design that more closely resembled an iPhone 5 or fifth-generation iPod touch than the fourth-gen iPad, with its chamfered edges and rounded back. Unfortunately, it didn’t have a Retina display, nor was it as powerful as the 10-inch version. It was a great tablet in terms of size and portability, but it seemed like Apple was reserving its latest and greatest features for the full-sized model.
iPad mini with Retina display vs. the iPad mini (2012)
This year is a different story. Not only did the iPad (now called the iPad Air) get redesigned to look just like the mini, but it also offers virtually the same specs as the smaller model. In many respects, the smaller tablet is now a scaled-down iPad Air — precisely what Apple seemed to be avoiding last year when it debuted the original mini with inferior specs. Now, the company wants its tablets to be equal in everything but screen size, so you don’t have to feel like you’re making any sacrifices by choosing the mini. (We also can’t help but wonder if Apple plans to extend this philosophy to iPhones by offering more than one size.)
Well, they’re almost equal; you will notice a few minor variations. For instance, the Air’s battery is larger, mainly thanks to its bigger size, but Apple’s 10-hour battery life claims apply to both regardless. The mini’s processor also doesn’t run quite as fast, but we’ll discuss that more in just a moment. What’s more, there are also a few differences between this year’s mini and last year’s model, one of which is size and weight. At 200 x 134.7 x 7.5mm, the 2013 edition offers the same width and length as the original, but it’s 0.3mm thicker. And whereas the iPad Air is much lighter than its predecessor, the new mini gains 29 grams from last year’s model. This may seem odd if little else has changed under the hood, but the new mini features a much larger battery (23.8Whr versus 16.3Whr), which was probably necessary to compensate for that power-draining Retina display. Don’t let the dimensions fool you, though — unless you’re playing with them side by side and actively looking for differences, you won’t be able to tell.
The unibody aluminum enclosure has also remained unchanged, which means it’s as solidly built as ever. That said, we’ve noticed that the back doesn’t heat up as much during gaming and other activities as it used to. That means the mini is even more comfortable to use — and it was pretty easy to handle even the first time around. It’s worth noting that we also noticed this drop-off in heat dissipation on the iPad Air, so this may very well be a by-product of the A7 chip that’s present in both devices.
Under the hood, WiFi performance has been dramatically improved thanks to multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) technology, which is a fancy way of saying that your WiFi can now take advantage of two antennas instead of one. The theoretical max is 300 Mbps, although few people will have the means or need to take advantage of speeds that fast. This tech is quickly becoming popular in flagship phones and tablets, so it’s good to see Apple adopt it now. The company also inserted a second mic for noise canceling, which is ideal for videos, FaceTime calls and Siri voice recognition.
The review unit provided to us by Apple was a cellular model, which features much better compatibility with global LTE providers than the original. In years past, iOS devices were spread out across several different SKUs, each one carrying a specific set of frequencies to ensure compatibility with hundreds of operators around the globe. This is no longer the case, as Apple now uses a baseband that offers support for 14 LTE bands (1/2/3/4/5/7/8/13/17/18/19/20/25/26), DC-HSPA+, UMTS, GSM/EDGE, CDMA and EVDO (Rev. A and B). If you’re not sure of a carrier’s network settings, don’t fret: The mini will detect which network you’re using and download the proper settings for you.
Just like with the iPad Air, the home button looks the same as on earlier models. Normally this might not be worth pointing out, but in this case it’s significant because it means Touch ID (aka the iPhone fingerprint sensor) remains exclusive to the iPhone 5s. Whether this is due to supply constraints or it’s something Apple doesn’t think iPad users want, the company isn’t saying. Still, we’ve enjoyed Touch ID on the 5s and can’t wait to see it eventually implemented in iPads.
High-resolution displays are a must-have on premium tablets these days — since inexpensive devices like the Nexus 7 offer beautiful panels with 1,920 x 1,200 resolution, we’re happy to see the mini’s screen get a much-needed bump to Retina status. By the numbers, the mini features a 2,048 x 1,536 display and boasts a pixel density of 324 pixels per inch. In comparison, this is twice the density of the original mini’s 163 ppi. What’s more, the new mini has the same exact resolution as the iPad Air, but because the Air’s screen is larger, it has a lower pixel density of 264 ppi. The mini also matches the Nexus 7’s pixel density, even with a screen that’s an inch larger.
Even though numbers don’t always match up with user experience, they’re quite telling here. The 1,024 x 768 display on last year’s model wasn’t horrible, but our tired eyes were yearning for a nicer experience for consuming photos and video, and reading text. As you might expect, doubling up the pixel density is not only easily noticeable; it’s also refreshing. High-definition videos look glorious; fonts have never looked sharper; and images that show fantastic details on the new mini simply look fuzzy on the old mini. There’s very little difference in color reproduction however, but then again, it was already pretty good on last year’s model, so we’re quite happy with the results. All told, this is one of the best displays we’ve seen on a tablet.
Though our unit came with iOS 7.0.3 preloaded, Apple pushed an update to version 7.0.4 while we were working on this review. Since it’s a simple bug fix, the user interface remains unchanged. In general, though, you’ll notice slight improvements in the overall user experience thanks to the faster A7 chip and M7 coprocessor. We’ll discuss those points later in the review.
Imaging is another area where the new iPad mini and the iPad Air share identical components. Heck, the 5-megapixel f/2.4 rear-facing camera was used on the previous-gen mini as well, which tells us that Apple doesn’t believe people care about taking professional-quality photos with their tablets. Even if people aren’t swapping out their point-and-shoots in favor of a tablet, however, Apple has a knack for making its picture-taking experience a relatively stress-free one. No worrying about tweaking manual settings or waiting several seconds to take the shot; the user interface is simple and the shutter lag is quite minimal compared to most other devices. Most importantly, the results are surprisingly good for a tablet — pictures are reasonably detailed with accurate colors, and they look fantastic on the mini’s Retina display. The camera doesn’t handle low-light conditions particularly well, and there’s no LED flash to rescue you either, but still, it meets our expectations.
Videos are recorded at 1080p resolution and a bit rate of 17.3 Mbps, and as we expected, the footage looks pretty good. Moving objects are perfectly smooth and the colors are fairly accurate. Audio was a mixed bag, because the secondary mic for noise cancellation works well for FaceTime video chatting. In other words, our selfie videos sounded great, but my voice wasn’t very loud when taking home movies of my kids or anything else. The FaceTime camera, which records at 720p and 10.6 Mbps, also fares pretty nicely (for a front-facing camera, anyway). Still, there were times my hand accidentally covered the mic and muffled my voice.
Performance and battery life
Apple’s new A7 chip first debuted on the iPhone 5s and quickly showed up on the iPad Air too, albeit with a slightly higher clock speed (the Air runs at 1.4GHz; the 5s, 1.3GHz). Now the same dual-core 64-bit chip is being used in the new mini, but it has the same 1.3GHz clock speed as the 5s. Yes, this means the benchmarks may not be quite as fast on the mini as they are on the Air (see the table below), but we’re not looking at a drastic difference. In fact, the only times you might notice a discrepancy is in side-by-side comparisons, and even then the performance gap is rather subtle.
More importantly, the differences between this mini and last year’s model are actually quite significant, since the tablet made a two-generation jump from Apple’s A5 chip to the A7. Everything loads faster; there are fewer frame skips when playing games; and we had a great experience with both 32- and 64-bit apps. And if you don’t think there’s enough of a difference between the A5 and A7, we recommend you play with an original mini for a few minutes and then repeat the same tasks on the new version. The improvement is immediately obvious. On both devices, we played some of the usual games — Infinity Blade III and Asphalt 8 come to mind — and new games like Epoch 2 and Lego LOTR, and it’s really hard to go back.
As you can see, the new mini ranks just slightly below the Air thanks to the lower clock speed, but again, unless you’re playing graphics-intensive games, you won’t have much of a reason to pick the larger tablet over the smaller one. The differences between the two minis, on the other hand, are simply astounding; the A5 on the original doesn’t come close to any of the A7 devices we’ve tested.
Much to our satisfaction, Apple’s official battery life claims on the iPad Air appeared to be rather conservative, and fortunately the iPad mini also beats the company’s estimates. Both devices are supposed to get 10 hours of video playback, and in our standard video rundown test, which consists of playing a 720p movie on an eternal loop with LTE connected and at a fixed display brightness, our unit managed 11 hours and 55 minutes of life. This isn’t quite as good as the Air’s 13:45 or the original mini’s 12:43, but when you consider we achieved that latter result on the WiFi-only model, the gap in battery life isn’t really surprising: LTE naturally causes a small dip in battery life. When all was said and done, we were able to get through almost two days of normal use, including web browsing, email, social media, video playback and the occasional game.
The new iPad mini with Retina display comes in “space gray” and silver colors, both of which look the same as on the Air. You’ll also be able to choose one of four storage options ranging from 16GB to 128GB (the latter option is new for the iPad mini, since the original maxed out at 64GB). Finally, there’s also the matter of picking WiFi-only or WiFi+Cellular. The cellular model is decked out just like the Air, combining GSM/EDGE, UMTS/DC-HSPA+, EVDO and 14-band LTE and covering most networks around the world. The least-expensive WiFi-only model is $399, while its cellular-enabled counterpart starts at $529; if you want more storage, you’ll need to pay an extra $100 for each higher tier, which means the 128GB WiFi-only version goes for $699 and WiFi+Cellular is $829.
Sadly, the new mini costs $70 more than last year’s model at the time of launch, which is a head-scratching move. Sure, it’s a nicer tablet than the previous model, but all next-gen iOS products are nicer than their predecessors, and rarely have we seen a price increase associated with those improvements. After all, even after the full-sized iPad got a Retina display, the starting price stayed the same at $499.
Those who need a larger screen will still get a great experience with the iPad Air, which features the same configuration options as the mini and a 9.7-inch display starting at $499 for the baseline model. If you don’t care to spend extra for the top-of-the-line iPads, Apple now offers the original 7.9-inch iPad mini for $299, a $30 discount from its launch price. The 16GB iPad 2 is also still available for $399 (WiFi-only) and $529 (WiFi+Cellular).
There are also plenty of possibilities on the Android side, especially in the mid-sized category. The Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 is available for the same base price of $399, and it comes with an active digitizer and S Pen stylus. The LG G Pad 8.3 is another decent option for $350. The Google Nexus 7 (2013) is one of our favorite Android tablets and comes in at $229, which is an incredible price for the features it offers; we’d say this is one of the strongest competitors stepping up to challenge the iPad mini. The Tegra Note 7 is a well-performing Tegra 4 gaming tablet that’s launching this week for $199. And let’s not count Amazon out with the Kindle Fire HDX line, which starts at $229 for the 7-inch model and $379 for the 8.9-inch. Of course, this also means that you don’t get the same Google Play access as other Android devices, and it features “Special Offers” (read: ads).
In the course of a year, the iPad mini has hit puberty, and matured quite a bit. It’s an iterative update, for sure, but one that makes it vastly better than the original. Because it now offers a Retina display, fast connectivity and a powerful processor, the mini now shares top-tier product status with the iPad Air. This is precisely the iPad mini we’ve been waiting for, but it comes with a price hike of $70 over last year’s model. Despite its wondrous feature set, some budget-minded buyers may look toward less expensive tablets like the Nexus 7, which also offers a brilliant display and top-notch specs, but for significantly less money.
But, let’s face it: Plenty of potential buyers won’t have a problem paying up, especially those of you who’ve been eagerly awaiting a mini with Retina display. And we can’t blame anyone for being tempted, either, because the mini seems to have finally reached its full potential. We say, two high-quality iPads are better than one, even if it does make it harder to decide which to buy.
Edgar Alvarez contributed to this review.