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.
Rumors in advance of the iPad mini’s release suggested that Apple chose the 7.9” screen size for a very specific and not particularly heart-warming reason: at that size, it could continue to use the same, arguably outdated LCD panels it had been using in pre-Retina iPhones and iPods, merely cutting 7.85”, 1024x768-pixel rectangles rather than 3.5”, 480x320 ones. The widespread availability and low price of these older screens would have made them an ideal choice for a super-cheap iPad, it was said, so it was more or less understood that Apple would forego a super high-resolution display in exchange for a price savings.
In our view, the only reason the iPad mini’s screen quality is being debated is the device’s $329 price tag. Had the mini arrived at the impossible price of $199, an aggressive price of $249, or a typical Apple-style price of $299, few people would have questioned it. But when the base iPad mini sells for more than the $199 or $299 iPod touches with Retina screens—technology that has also been marketed heavily by Apple as a key advantage of full-sized iPads—it seems absent. So why would Apple hold off on it? Possibly because it can. Most first-time iPad customers will love the way the iPad mini looks right now, and it’ll be a perfect incentive to inspire upgrades in a subsequent model—a year from now, a thin, power-sipping IGZO technology screen may well be available in volumes Apple would need for iPad mini production. If you really need the better screen, wait. That’s all there is to it.
So should you wait? Apple’s made that decision a lot more difficult than might be imagined. Despite whatever similarities there may be in LCD components, the iPad mini’s screen does not look like an iPhone 3GS’s or third-generation iPod touch’s: apart from glass glare, the screen does not suffer from negative blacks, poor off-angle viewing, or streaky backlighting. Instead, you get most of the improvements that have been seen in Retina-equipped screens, only without the raw resolution: blacks look relatively deep, colors are richer, and there’s a nice balance of tones. Dithering that was obvious on the pre-Retina displays is gone, in favor of solid colors—ones that aren’t quite as saturated as on the latest iPads, but are good enough for now, and enough to let users do respectable photo editing on a much-bigger-than-camera-sized screen. We noted that our iPad mini screens had a slightly more yellow tint than our Retina iPads do, though like past Apple devices, it’s more attributable to a “warm” color calibration than anything else.
How much of a problem is the resolution? That’s going to be a matter of personal debate, but our editors’ take is simple: most of the time, not much. If you’ve used an iPad or iPad 2 before, seeing the same 1024x768 graphics on a nearly 2” smaller screen will actually look like an improvement—the same number of pixels in a smaller space always does. DVD-quality videos looked virtually the same on the iPad mini as they do on full-sized iPads, and even higher-resolution 720p videos looked fantastic on the small screen, though nearly all videos are letterboxed (or zoomed in to odd crops) because of the display’s 4:3 aspect ratio. Most users won’t realize that the iPad mini automatically downloads the 720p version of “HD” videos from the iTunes Store by default, saving space, versus the Retina iPads’ automatic downloading of larger, higher-resolution 1080p videos they can display at the cost of additional storage. Except in close-proximity testing, they won’t notice the difference in video quality, either; it’s there, but not obvious when video is in motion. We’ll discuss the impact on gaming in the next section of this review.
If you’re using the iPad mini for typical business or reading purposes, you’ll likely be so happy with how much better the software experience is on this device than an iPod touch that you won’t particularly mind that the fonts, buttons, and backgrounds in apps and web pages aren’t quite pixel-level sharp. The only issues you’ll experience will be with particularly small text, which like the original iPads benefits from manual zooming in from time to time. We’ll discuss that point further in the next section, as well, but it suffices to say that resolution will not be a serious issue for most apps on the iPad mini.