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.
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“Just a big iPod touch” was the phrase that some people used in an effort to diminish the original iPad, implying that Apple had done little more than stretch out a small device, give it a new screen and battery, and jack up the price. That wasn’t true: the iPad was as important for its software differences as its hardware. While Apple hurt itself by unveiling the iPad without a killer app to show off what the new 9.7” display could do, it had actually redesigned most of the iPhone’s built-in applications to take better advantage of the extra real estate, fundamentally improving them in the process. iPad apps turned out to be good enough that Apple and developers used them as the basis for nearly identical Mac apps, and the built-in apps have received various tweaks during two subsequent iOS updates. It’s a big deal, though not particularly surprising, that they’re all intact on the iPad mini.
What that means is that a fresh-from-box iPad mini is ready to do all sorts of things immediately, before you ever visit Apple’s massive App Store. You can play videos, music, and photos from dedicated apps, each now capable of accessing content stored on the device, plus media stored elsewhere: videos shared by your home computers, plus music and photos stored on Apple’s free iCloud servers. Three separate apps (Camera, FaceTime, and Photo Booth) yet you make use of the iPad mini’s twin cameras, as discussed further in the following section of this review. You can take notes by typing on a notepad, the contents of which can be instantly synced to a computer via iCloud, send and receive e-mail or instant messages, use full-screen 2-D and 3-D maps, and of course, browse the web with the integrated, highly capable Safari browser. All have the extra features of the iPad versions of these apps, such as separate scrolling left-of-screen lists and right-of-screen viewer windows and larger keyboards.
This is almost always a good thing—Apple’s apps are just better on the iPad than on its smaller devices, because you can do more without going back and forth between screens. Moreover, typing is tremendously better on the iPad mini; large-handed users will quickly find text entry easier than on any past iOS device, in either widescreen or portrait mode, and only small (primarily cosmetic) tweaks have been made to the keyboards relative to the full-sized iPad’s. And because of the two-pane app interfaces, apps such as Mail, Messages, and Notes let you simultaneously see lists while focusing on the specific content of a given piece of content. In almost every case, the iPad version of an app is better than the iPhone/iPod touch version; only some third-party apps with poorly designed user interfaces, such as the recently updated Twitter for iPad, look or feel better in their smaller versions.
While most of these apps felt every bit as good on the iPad mini as on a current full-sized iPad, Safari’s visual performance on the iPad mini wasn’t ideal. On the 9.7” iPad and iPad 2 displays, there were times when Apple’s automatically resized web pages didn’t look perfect—particularly in the text—but they were so much better than early iPhones and iPod touches that the rough pixels didn’t really matter. With the iPad mini, the same jagged text at a smaller size becomes just a little less readable, an issue that’s more pronounced when viewing fully zoomed-out pages in portrait mode than landscape. This is the only time when the iPad mini approaches the experience of using a pre-Retina iPhone or iPod touch, and if you’re a heavy web browser, it might bother you more. We did notice some unusual graphics glitches in web pages when rendering certain test web pages on the iPad mini, including an odd tendency of Safari to flicker between improperly and properly anti-aliased versions of some graphic elements, but found that this problem also exists on the latest iOS 6 version for the iPad 2, as well. It’s a bug that will hopefully be addressed in iOS 6.0.2 or 6.1.
One of the things you’ll find here but not on the iPad 2 is Siri, the voice-recognizing assistant that can be called up by holding down the Home Button, asked questions, and used for dictation. Siri’s performance is virtually identical on the iPad mini to the full-sized iPads, which is to say very good so long as Apple’s servers are cooperative and the top microphone is in your general direction. You can use it to “play The End by The Beatles,” and it does a very good job with artist, song and album names. Additionally, Siri typically gets 98 words out of 100 correct when used as a dictation device, which is excellent; the feature is more limited by its scope, reliability, and familiarity with personally-specific proper nouns than anything else.
You also get a highly competent Calendar app, Clock app, and Reminders app that are all tied into Siri, enabling you to merely speak your desire to schedule a meeting or event, set a sonic alarm, or receive a text or beeping reminder. The seemingly minor convenience of being able to “set an alarm for 7:45am” or “create an event for Madeline’s birthday on July 7” merely by speaking the words to a nearby iPad mini continues to feel like a futuristic and welcome feature of iOS. And thanks to iCloud, these notifications synchronize across all of your iOS 5 or newer devices, and Mac computers. Only one somewhat noteworthy iOS 6 feature is missing from the iPad mini, just as it is on the iPad, and that’s the digital wallet feature Passbook. Whether people will want to carry boarding passes, movie tickets, and the like on an iPad mini is open to debate, but if it can be done on the iPod touch, it should be done here, too.
Some users will similarly debate the iPad mini’s value with reading apps, such as Apple’s free iBooks and various Newsstand-supported periodicals. Coming from 3.5”-screened iPhones and iPod touches, we’ve generally found any larger screen size to be welcome for reading, and we generally had no problem reading even two-page widescreen spreads in books and other publications on the iPad mini’s 7.9” display. Our own 2013 iPhone + iPod Buyers’ Guide and New iPad Buyers’ Guide were optimized for small screens, and many other books and magazines were readied for pre-Retina iPads, as well; publications and books we tested almost universally struck us as very readable, regardless of the technologies they used. That said, some users may find the iPad mini’s widescreen to be too small for reading small text on two-page spreads, in which case zooming in or changing orientations are both options.
Gamers will be surprised at how good most 3-D games wind up looking on the screen, again because the sharpness of individual pixels isn’t necessarily critical when those pixels are constantly in motion. The big jump in iPad 3-D graphics performance actually came with the iPad 2, which the iPad mini is based upon, while third-generation iPad games have effectively presented the same polygons, textures, and effects with sharper edges and a little extra detail—something that will change with the fourth-generation iPad, but hasn’t happened yet.
The iPad mini is effectively equivalent to the iPad 2 as a gaming device: games with static 2-D images don’t look quite as impressive as on the Retina iPads, as you’ll be able to see pixels, but we strongly suspect that most people just won’t care. Frame rate issues, however, were apparent in a number of recent cutting-edge 3-D games on the iPad mini; optimizations will be necessary to make these titles run smoother.
For the spec-obsessed, we’ll note that the iPad mini’s Geekbench 2 overall CPU and GPU benchmarking results placed it at 752, virtually identical to the score of 748 reached by the third-generation iPad, despite significant differences in their A5/A5X processors and RAM (512MB versus 1GB). They were both ahead of the slower-running A5 chip in the fifth-generation iPod touch, which scored a 524, and behind the iPhone 5, which scored an 856. The fourth-generation iPad blew all of the other iOS devices away with a Geekbench score of 1769.
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