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.
As hackneyed and in some cases incorrect as the analogy was with prior devices, there’s no better way to describe the new iPad mini than as a larger iPod touch—quite specifically the just-released fifth-generation model. Apple used that iPod to debut a colored aluminum body with a polished front bezel, and has carried most of the same design elements over to the iPad mini: the classic silver aluminum mini has a white glass face, and the handsome “slate” aluminum mini has a black glass face. Gone are the visual interruptions on the iPod touch’s rear, for good and bad: the standard iPad mini has no plastic antenna cover, no jutting-out rear camera lens, no unnecessary attachment for a wrist strap, and—as the only actual loss—no LED flash. Just like the iPod touch, the black mini has a jet black reflective Apple logo, while the silver mini has a silver reflective logo, but the designs are otherwise boldly minimalist, a natural extension of the even more elegant visual language Apple introduced in the iPhone 5.
Yet there’s no mistaking the iPad mini for an iPod in either size or other features—it’s otherwise all iPad. We’ll more fully discuss the screen in the next section, but it’s the same shape and resolution as the iPad 1 and iPad 2’s, only 7.9” on the diagonal rather than 9.7”. The Home Button is in the same location below the screen, with a FaceTime HD camera in the same position above the screen. There are still volume buttons and a mute/orientation switch on the right side, a headphone port on the top left, a microphone hole at top center, and a thin Sleep/Wake button at top right. As with the latest iPod touch, it feels a little too small to us, but not unusably so.
There’s also a substantial collection of speaker holes on the bottom. Two sets of 28 small holes are found off to the left and the right of the Lightning connector on the iPad mini’s bottom, surprisingly introducing stereo speakers for the first time in any of Apple’s iOS product lines. We discuss them further in the Audio section of this review.
Despite all of these similarities to the iPad, the iPad mini feels fundamentally different in your hands thanks to its smaller size and lighter weight. The numbers are obviously different—7.87” tall by 5.3” wide by 0.28” deep at a weight of 0.68 pounds (Wi-Fi) or 0.69 pounds (Wi-Fi + Cellular), versus 9.5” tall by 7.31” wide by 0.37” deep, at 1.44 or 1.46 pounds—but this is a situation where measurements really just don’t convey the full story. In nearly three years of picking up iPads, we have never found ourselves trying to support or pick one up with only two fingers; three fingers is a minimum, and under most circumstances, you’ll want to support a 9.7” iPad with two hands. The iPad mini can and will often be gripped by two or three fingers, and apart from typing or playing games, there is never a strict need to hold it with a second hand.
Part of how Apple accomplished this was by thinning the front screen bezel significantly on the left and right sides. A full-sized iPad gives you nearly 0.7” of space per side to rest your thumb while holding the device; the iPad mini shaves this down to roughly 0.25”—only a little bit more than 1/3 the space, which one might guess is inadequate. It’s not. That’s actually around twice the size of the left and right frames around the iPod touch’s screen; once the size and weight of the device decrease enough, you needn’t wrap your thumb as fully around the front for support, and the bezel can shrink. Just in case you accidentally rub your finger around the screen’s edge, Apple has implemented a new software feature to auto-detect and ignore accidental screen border finger input. During testing, this feature proved inconspicuous; we never had a problem getting the iPad mini to do what we needed it to do.
It needs to be said that the iPad mini does not feel “impossibly light,” nor does it feel insanely thin; Apple appears to have deliberately chosen to emphasize its solidity relative to competitors. Instead, it feels “right.” Right like the full-sized iPad—something you don’t worry about accidentally crushing in a bag—and right like something that’s telling you it’s made from quality materials, by manufacturing experts. There is no mistaking the $329 iPad mini for the discontinued $99 HP TouchPad, which looked and felt like a piece of junk. Apple may not have satisfied everyone with its $329 base asking price, but it sure did a good job of justifying it here—better than the new iPod touch.
Only two small things about the new design might lead some users to feel otherwise.* First, the front glass feels a little thinner, or at least not as firmly supported by the screen inside. Unlike Apple’s other iPads, which have felt packed with screens up to the edge of the glass, the iPad mini screen makes more of a plink than a plunk sound when it’s typed on, and feels like it’s giving just a little under pressure. We would guess that this will change in a subsequent iteration with a different screen or touch sensor technology, but it takes a little getting used to, and may lead to more easily cracked screens; one of our four iPad minis developed an edge-to-edge crack after less than two weeks of use without having been dropped, a serious issue mitigated considerably by the fact that a local Apple Store replaced it without any hassle. A comparatively tiny issue is that the Home Button is also a little smaller than on past iPads—closer to an iPod touch—and could stand to be just a little larger. [Editor’s Note: This paragraph was updated on November 16, 2012, at the same time as our new cellular section was added.]
There’s also a carryover issue from past iPads: the continued tendency of the screen to attract smudges and fingerprints, a problem that is only remedied by anti-smudge screen films that are only just beginning to become available. Apple has tried oleophobic coatings on its devices, but they haven’t been able to stop the rapid onset of smudges, which within days cover the screen and look like the photograph here.
Given the choice to package the iPad mini like the iPod touch or the full-sized iPad, Apple went with a smaller but otherwise nearly identical version of the iPad’s white cardboard box. The front of each package shows a 3/4 angled perspective of a powered-on iPad mini, revealing its white and silver or black and slate body, while black “iPad mini” labels and silver Apple logos are on the box’s sides.
Apple’s packaging claims that iTunes 11 is required for synchronization of the iPad mini with a Mac or PC, but that’s not accurate: iTunes 10.7 generally works just fine, although it displays a full-sized, black-bezeled iPad icon when either mini is initially connected, then no icons thereafter. Most of the things we attempted to synchronize with iTunes 11 worked fine, save for TV shows, which experienced some issues. Transfers of 1GB of media content to the iPad mini with iTunes 10.7 required one minute on average for the actual data, but iTunes required an additional 15-30 seconds just to “prepare” for the transfer process. We’d expect that there will be changes and improvements when iTunes 11 is released, which is now expected to be in late November following a one-month delay from the original October release date.
Inside the package are a Lightning to USB Cable, a 5W USB Power Adapter, an instruction card, warranty pamphlet, and two Apple stickers. The only surprise is the Adapter, which was the subject of confusing reports up until the day of the iPad mini’s release. It was claimed, inaccurately, that the iPad mini would ship with the same 12W USB Power Adapter now included with the fourth-generation iPad, a charger capable of rapidly refueling all iPads. Instead, the adapter inside the box is a smaller but same-priced model identical to the one that has been packaged with iPhones for years, capped at 1 Amp of output—with a needlessly longer charging time for the iPad mini as a consequence. As noted in our Battery and Charging Times section below, this is a sneaky trick, and Apple should really not be stooping to nickel-and-dime shenanigans for a premium-priced product.