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.
Almost identical to the fifth-generation iPod touch, the iPad mini has two cameras built in: a front-facing FaceTime HD camera with 1280x960 still image and 1280x720 video capabilities, and a rear-facing camera with 2592x1936 (5-Megapixel) resolution. In short, these cameras represent huge improvements over the poor versions found in the iPad 2, particularly for FaceTime calling and rear still photography; they do not rival the overall quality of good standalone point-and-shoot digital cameras, but come close enough to budget models, and well exceed the performance of cameras found on inexpensive tablets.
Screenshots can’t show you a key asset of Apple’s cameras: the frame rate of on-screen video is always smooth, regardless of whether you’re previewing still images, making video recordings, or FaceTime video conferencing. Competitors have included cameras with seemingly good capture resolutions but very poor frame rates, such that on-screen video looks stilted and jittery, even when you’re just trying to hold the camera still for previewing a shot. Apple historically prioritized smooth frame rates over raw resolution, so that the experience of looking at the screens of its earlier devices was never jarring, regardless of how clean the images were. With the iPad mini, you get very good performance in both respects: smooth frame rates and respectable resolutions for both front and back cameras, according to their purposes.
The iPad mini’s front 1280x960 camera takes decent still pictures—grainy but sharp, with “good enough” color rendition and pretty obvious noise. While this doesn’t sound fantastic, this camera has enough pixels to fill the iPad mini’s screen, and it’s primarily used for FaceTime video calling, where visible compression and low-resolution tradeoffs were historically necessary just to let two people communicate over the Internet. Since it’s capable of FaceTime HD calling, which the iPad, iPad 2, and iPad 3 were not, the iPad mini’s video chats actually look better than on any iPad save for the new fourth-generation model, which is virtually identical. So long as you have the bandwidth for a high-resolution connection, you’ll send (and possibly see) noticeably clearer and less grainy video during FaceTime calls, as well as recording higher-quality front-facing video when necessary.
On the back is the 5-Megapixel still and 1080p video camera, which is effectively carried over from the third-generation iPad and fifth-generation iPod touch. As a general statement, still image quality is highly similar between these three devices, though it should be noted that the iPad mini has a smaller lens than the latest full-sized iPads, and sometimes gathers just a hint less light, resulting in tiny ISO differences that rarely create major differences between their photos. Video quality is also similar, producing considerable noise in low to medium indoor lighting, and really thriving in bright light outdoors. Improved low light performance and sensor-level noise improvements would be at the top of our list for future iPad mini cameras.
Audio, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and AirPlay Performance
Headphone port audio performance is very similar between the iPad mini and its full-sized brother—both have relatively low static floors, the ability to replicate nearly the entire audio spectrum without distortion, and very little interference in their audio signals. When initially connecting high-end headphones, you may hear a quick series of very tiny clicks as the iPad checks for a wired remote control, but they’re nearly inaudible and not a major issue; similar sounds can be heard on most of Apple’s portable devices. We noticed a very tiny increase in treble sharpness on the iPad mini relative to the third- and fourth-generation iPads, but it was so minor that the difference was only apparent through expensive headphones.
As noted earlier in this review, the iPad mini is the first iPad to include stereo speakers. Somewhat surprisingly, Apple initially avoided describing them in the plural as “speakers” or acknowledging that they were stereo until an Amazon comparison ad suggested that the mini was monaural. Why wouldn’t Apple boast about this new feature? Most likely because they’re so close together and only “stereo” to the extent that you’re holding the iPad close to your face in portrait orientation. And yes, they do in fact perform two-channel sound, but at an aggregate volume level comparable to the iPhone 5, only with a little added clarity. The full-sized iPad is a bit louder, and in the same fidelity class: entirely adequate for casual listening to music or videos on a desk or nightstand.
The iPad mini is compatible with the same range of Bluetooth 2.0/2.1/3.0/4.0 and AirPlay wireless accessories that the third- and fourth-generation iPads can use, and though we could go into exhaustive detail regarding all of them, it suffices to say that Bluetooth performance is effectively identical to full-sized iPads—there was nothing unusual about pairing the mini with Bluetooth car stereos, speakers, or headphones, including the latest Bluetooth 4.0 speakers we’ve tested.
Wi-Fi performance on the iPad mini is akin to the full-sized iPads, capable of supporting 802.11a/b/g/n networks, and operating on either 2.4GHz or 5GHz 802.11n frequencies. Data transfer speeds appeared to be essentially identical between the iPad mini and the Retina iPads, achieving download speeds of 15 to 28Mbps, and upload speeds in the 3Mbps range, both heavily network bandwidth-dependent. Range and robustness did not appear to be issues at all during our testing across a large space.
AirPlay speakers also worked normally, with the same caching delays we’ve noticed relative to Bluetooth. Most AirPlay video features worked great with the Apple TV, as well: streaming music, photos, and even 720p videos worked without problems. On the other hand, AirPlay Mirroring was spotty. This feature enables an iPad mini to wirelessly share whatever’s on the screen with a television, and while it worked reasonably for the iPad’s own UI and built-in applications, we noticed significant frame rate drop-offs when trying to play games—a problem that began to show up in earlier iOS 6 devices, as well. Apple has not yet shipped wired video accessories to enable the iPad mini, fourth-generation iPad, iPhone 5, or fifth-generation iPod touch to perform video through TVs without the Apple TV, so it’s not entirely clear whether the issue is in these iOS devices or the Apple TV, but we’d suspect the latter.
Wired Accessories, Including Camera and 30-Pin Dock Connector Adapters
Though we haven’t been particularly thrilled about the way Apple has handled the transition from its classic Dock Connector to the newer, smaller Lightning port found on the iPad mini and its other recent devices, the standard is here to stay for the time being, and it does have some advantages—particularly for new iPad users—though also some consequences.
On the positive side, the $19 Lightning to USB Cables Apple is currently selling and supplying with its devices are a little better than the Dock Connector cables they replaced. They can be plugged in rightside up or upside down, working in either orientation—a small convenience you’ll appreciate more as you use them—and they are giving Apple a little more room to squeeze extra things into its casings, such as the iPad mini’s second speaker. That wasn’t the case with the fourth-generation iPad, but it will presumably be a benefit with the fifth-generation version next year.
Apple has also introduced the $29 Lightning to 30-Pin Adapter and $39 Lightning to 30-Pin Adapter (0.2m), which enable the iPad mini, fourth-generation iPad, iPhone 5, fifth-generation iPod touch, and seventh-generation iPod nano to connect to most Dock Connector-based accessories.
While seriously overpriced, these Adapters do let the mini perform just like earlier devices with speakers, audio accessories, and data accessories—notably including the prior-generation iPad Camera Connection Kit and USB CoreMIDI music accessories —and only have problems with video accessories. When the prior Dock Connector-based Digital AV or VGA Adapters are connected, the iPad mini puts up a “this accessory is not supported by iPad” dialogue box, and seemingly awaits as-yet-unreleased Lightning to VGA and Digital AV (HDMI) Adapters for wired video output.
It’s also worth mentioning that Apple has introduced the Lightning to SD Card Camera Reader and Lightning to USB Camera Adapter, two redesigned versions of accessories that were previously available for older iPads. Both new accessories feature cabled connectors rather than oversized Dock Connector housings, and consequently are going to be compatible with virtually every iPad mini case on the market—something that couldn’t be said about their predecessors. Our tests suggest that these camera accessories perform at the same speed as the prior Dock Connector versions when connected to the same Lightning port-equipped devices using Lightning to 30-Pin Adapters. The Lightning to SD Card Camera Reader notably took 1 minute and 1 second to transfer 100 photos (188MB) from an SD card to the iPad mini, versus 33 seconds on the fourth-generation iPad, and 1 minute and 39 seconds on the third-generation iPad.
Unfortunately, most of Apple’s new Lightning accessories cost more than their predecessors. The SD and USB Camera adapters now sell for $29 each, as opposed to coming together in a $29 kit, and there are similarly unnecessary premiums across other Lightning accessories. The $49 Digital AV (HDMI) and VGA Adapters sell for $10 to $20 more than their prior versions. Third-party accessory makers warn that recent changes to Apple’s Made for iPad program will lead to similarly inflated prices for future accessories, as well, quite possibly including unnecessarily $40 car chargers that once could have been had for $20 with identical functionality. Buying into the iPad mini means implicitly accepting an even higher “Apple tax” that had already bordered on problematic, and will now restrict the ability of other companies to produce reasonably-priced products. The only way to signal your distaste is not to buy the new Lightning accessories, or hold off on the purchase of Lightning-equipped Apple devices until they or their accessory prices fall.