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.
One of the major challenges Apple has faced over the past several years has been an inability of both critics and consumers to fully grasp the importance of devices it releases in new form factors—until something, perhaps their unexpected popularity, clicks conceptually and begins to make sense. Just as the iPod mini was written off by some people as underpowered and overpriced, the iPhone and iPad were derided by pundits and competitors alike before they were widely embraced as paradigm changers. So it’s not hugely surprising that excitement over the iPad mini seemed to dissipate once Apple announced its $329 starting price and non-Retina screen technology. If either of these factors had been different, the iPad mini would easily have been the immediate must-have gift of the season, but instead, Apple quickly found itself having to defend the price and deflect concerns about the display.
While we have no desire to advocate on Apple’s behalf, the fact is that the iPad mini is its own best spokesperson—no cute commercial or razor-sharp marketing phrase will be able to sell this device as easily as it sells itself when handled for the first time. The “we don’t build junk” and “every inch an iPad” pitches Apple is using might come across as hubris, but they’re so clearly accurate when handling and using the iPad mini that we would fully agree with them. Even after years of using and loving full-sized iPads, the iPad mini feels so right and works so well that several of our editors are nearly ready to personally transition to these smaller devices, a serious change akin to our gradual moves from 15” and 13” MacBook Pros to 11” MacBook Airs. That iPad minis are available with the same capacities and 4G/LTE cellular capabilities as full-sized iPads makes a strong case for treating the devices identically; like Apple’s laptops, they may eventually be distinguished more by the size of their screens, batteries, and speakers than core functionality.
That isn’t to say that everything’s rosy with the iPad mini, though. Apple has used the Lightning port as an excuse to justify ever-increasing accessory prices, and only the tip of the iceberg is currently visible: people may believe that $19 cables and $29-$49 adapters are only temporary, but from what we’ve heard, developers believe that this is Apple’s “new normal”—overpriced Lightning accessories that are no better than their Dock Connector predecessors. Combine that with Apple’s decision to ship the mini with a less powerful wall adapter than it’s capable of using, and you begin to wonder how much nickel-and-diming Tim Cook’s Apple hopes to accomplish with these devices. We would expect a marginally profitable or loss-leading company to make its margins on accessories for a cut-price tablet, but a cash-flush Apple selling premium products at premium pricing should be better than that.
Judged strictly on its own merits, the iPad mini is an excellent new tablet—so great that it represents a threat to both iPod touches and full-sized iPads, as its size and capabilities are arguably ideal for doing virtually everything they can do. It wouldn’t be a shock to see a future version cut at least a little into iPhone sales as well, at least for people who get used to carrying it around all day in something other than a pants pocket. Far from being the “tweener” that Apple’s executive team once mocked, the iPad mini has emerged fully formed as a product with its own value. Today, it has only one competitive problem: the fact that its rivals are already competent enough to justify considerably lower entry prices, and keep improving every few months. Considered in isolation, we would highly recommend this version on its own merits; however, competitive pressure will compel Apple to make the next version even better and possibly less expensive. Consequently, if this version doesn’t have the specific feature or price point you’re looking for, hold off for six or twelve months and see what it comes up with. As things tend to go with Apple, you’ll love it if you buy it now, but you’ll probably want the next version even more.