Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)
(as rated late 2013)
(as rated late 2013)
(originally rated late 2012)
(originally rated late 2012)
Pros: A smaller and much easier to carry sequel to the iPad 2, benefitting from newer industrial design elements and technologies introduced in the fifth-generation iPod touch. Generally very solid build quality and highly attractive fit and finish, relying on thin but strong glass painted in either black or silver, plus an aluminum rear shell. Runs virtually all of the over 700,000 apps in Apple’s App Store, including the 250,000 designed for full-sized iPads. Includes a 7.9” screen that looks at least as good as the iPad 2’s, and iPad-like run times, while weighing around half as much as Apple’s full-sized tablets. Users will find either landscape or portrait keyboard size to be nearly ideal for virtual typing—easier than on full iPads or iPhones. Available in the same capacities and LTE cellular options as full-sized iPads, including the same Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4 wireless technologies, without compromises. Includes two bona-fide good cameras, stereo speakers, and an integrated microphone with Siri and Dictation capabilities.
Cons: Battery on Wi-Fi model falls modestly short of Apple’s 10-hour claim under some circumstances; cellular run time similarly falls below 9-hour estimate. Base $329 price tag is a little high, especially considering the additional expense of Lightning accessories and Apple’s decision to pack in an unnecessarily slow charger; $130 cellular premium remains somewhat steep, and arguably less necessary given the increasing availability of smartphone personal hotspots. Screen, while considerably better in colors, blacks, and viewing angles than would be expected from a pre-Retina display, falls short of Retina pixel density and thus sharpness—an issue in only certain situations, particularly when dealing with very small text. Front glass has a tiny bit of give relative to prior iPads, making a thin sound when tapped for typing, and seemingly becoming more susceptible to cracking. Rear camera is a hint behind current full-sized iPads despite similar specs. While comparable to the last two iPads, the A5 processor inside this model is a couple of steps behind the most recent iPad.
Although Apple has had a handful of misfires in the iPod family over the last several years, the one most critics got wrong was the iPod mini—a smaller, redesigned iPod that arrived in 2004 with roughly 1/4 the base iPod’s storage capacity but sold for 5/6 of the $299 price. At the time, the mini was criticized because its price wasn’t “low enough” given its diminished capacity, but instantly strong sales of the model quickly forced skeptics to re-evaluate its value and potential. As it turned out, the smaller size mattered a lot, as did other features the iPod didn’t have, including body color options and a redesigned, simpler Click Wheel controller. And while the price wasn’t “low” by absolute standards, it was low enough, hitting the magic $249 number that typically guarantees strong mainstream sales. The iPod mini quickly became Apple’s most successful iPod, and a runaway international hit, generating plenty of buzz and attention until the company abruptly replaced it with the even more impressive iPod nano a year and a half later.
While the iPad mini ($329-$529/16GB-64GB Wi-Fi, $459-$659/16-64GB Wi-Fi + Cellular) and iPod mini don’t share the exact same story, there are more conceptual parallels than might be obvious given the eight years that separate their introductions. Both trade primarily on the fact that they are physically smaller and only slightly less capable versions of Apple’s flagship portable products. Each has been criticized for not matching up to the on-paper specs of earlier, similar products. They also both sell at only relatively small discounts relative to the full-sized models they’re based upon, and would seem to be ripe for either post-release price drops or fairly rapid upgrades.
But the minis are also both paradigm-shifting products—ones that are highly likely to change the very natures of their namesake families. Up until the iPod mini’s release, the discussion over iPods was largely how much music they could hold and how many hours they could play music before running out of power; afterwards, the value of size, weight, color options, and other capabilities became a critical differentiator for both minis and full-sized iPods. The release of the iPad mini signals that Apple has embraced the same reality, reluctantly acknowledging that there is value in single-handed tablets, but wisely showing up late to the party with a great gift: a solidly built and easy to carry tablet that’s better in almost all regards than the more expensive, 9.7”-screened iPad 2. Just like the iPod mini, people who join the iPad family for the first time with the iPad mini are going to fall completely in love with this device. And even some people who saw themselves as 9.7” iPad lifers will be reconsidering that decision after trying the mini for themselves. Yes, it’s truly that compelling.
As we discuss further in our comprehensive review of the iPad mini, the single biggest issue faced by Apple’s new model isn’t its $329 asking price or the quality of the overall experience it delivers for those dollars, but rather the tacit understanding of what it lacks. The iPad mini looks, feels, and mostly acts like an oversized fifth-generation iPod touch. It has the same Apple A5 chip inside, not the faster A5X of the third-generation iPad or the even faster A6X of the fourth-generation iPad. And it lacks the Retina pixel density of those full-sized iPads, as well: the iPad mini’s 1024x768 (0.79MP) resolution is comparable to the 1136x640 (0.73MP) resolution of the latest iPod touch, just with different dimensions.
However, those dimensions actually turn out to be a critical differentiator between the iPad mini and the iPod touch because of the software trick they enable here. Since Apple has kept the same 4:3 aspect ratio of the iPad for the iPad mini, literally every app and game you run on the smaller device runs just about identically to the way it looks on the iPad 2. While most games aren’t terribly different from the iPod touch to the iPad, this often makes a huge difference for apps, many of which were substantially improved when they were redesigned for the iPad’s larger display. Contrary to Apple’s initial dismissal of small rival tablets as “tweeners”—not convenient enough to be pocketed, nor capable enough to run tablet apps—the iPad mini actually winds up in a sweet spot where typing is substantially easier than on iPods, iPhones, or prior iPads, and everything save for the large-screen movie experience benefits from having a lighter, easier display to carry around. In most ways, the iPad mini offers users the best of all worlds. Across the pages that follow, we’ll explain why Apple’s smallest tablet is its best current tablet for most people, setting a design standard that the full-sized iPad should follow in 2013. Read on for all the details.
[Editor’s Note: On November 16, 2012, we added a new section discussing the just-released iPad mini with Wi-Fi + Cellular, available on the eighth page of this review. On November 6, 2013, we updated the rating of the iPad mini to reflect its changed status relative to the subsequently-released iPad mini with Retina displayi.]