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.
Apart from size and weight, the iPad mini’s arguably biggest advantage over the iPad 2 is support for LTE wireless networks—an optional feature that debuted in March 2012’s third-generation iPad and September 2012’s iPhone 5 before arriving for the iPad mini on November 15, two weeks after the release of the Wi-Fi-only version. Just like the full-sized iPad, the iPad mini’s cellular versions sell for $130 premiums over the Wi-Fi models, starting at $459 (16GB), and continuing to $559 (32GB) and $659 (64GB) models. Apple calls them “iPad minis with Wi-Fi + Cellular,” and sells black and white versions at each capacity. Three separate U.S. models are sold unlocked but designed for specific cellular providers’ networks, following the same model as the full-sized iPad.
There’s one noteworthy difference between the Wi-Fi + Cellular iPad minis and all of their predecessors. While the cellular antenna compartment remains on the top, interrupting the front bezel before stretching across the top and back, but this time, the plastic panel is now color-matched to the iPad’s painted glass bezel. Unlike Apple’s white full-sized cellular iPads, which had black antenna covers, the white cellular iPad mini has a white antenna cover to match the modest bits of white plastic found inside its headphone and Lightning port holes. The black mini continues to have a black plastic cover to match its now slate aluminum rear, which makes the difference in materials less conspicuous.
While this isn’t a huge change, it enables the white iPad mini to look better than Apple’s color-mismatched white iPod touch, which mixed white, silver, and black across its surfaces. It also improves on the three generations of full-sized white cellular iPads that have shipped with mismatched antenna compartments, a welcome enhancement that we wouldn’t be surprised to see in a fifth-generation iPad next year.
By comparison, changes to the packaging and pack-ins for the cellular model are minimal. Neither the front nor the sides of the box provide any indication that the Wi-Fi + Cellular model is different from the Wi-Fi-only iPad mini; the only indications are on two stickers on the back of the box. The first includes the phrase “iPad mini Wi-Fi Cell [XX]GB [White/Black],” with the Verizon and Sprint versions adding carrier initials. A second sticker has a cellular tower icon, plus a list of cellular standards supported by the device. AT&T’s version lists GSM and EDGE on 850/900/1800/1900MHz frequencies, UMTS, HSPA+, and DC-HSDPA across 850/900/1900/2100MHz, and LTE on bands 4 and 17. The Verizon version notes that it supports CDMA EV-DO Rev. A and Rev. B (800/1900/2100MHz frequencies), as well as GSM, EDGE, UMTS, and HSPA+/DC-HSDPA on the same frequencies and bands as AT&T’s version, with LTE support on bands 1, 3, 5, 13, and 25. CDMA support is also included in the Sprint iPad mini, but not the AT&T version.
The same Lightning to USB Cable and 5W USB Power Adapter are included in the package, augmented only by one of Apple’s “slightly better than paperclip” SIM Card removal tools, and a nano SIM card that’s now housed inside a tray on the mini’s lower right edge. Apple’s included instruction card has been updated to note the location of the SIM tray, and there’s a small image inside the cardboard wrapper showing how the tray can be ejected with the tool, but that’s it. Everything else is physically the same as with the Wi-Fi-only iPad mini.
Setting up cellular service remains extremely easy. After you’ve stepped through the gray startup screens to activate the iPad mini—a process that can incidentally be handled for free using the cellular connection rather than Wi-Fi or iTunes—you go into Settings and Cellular Data, using the View Account button to set up service with your provider. Users who purchase the AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint iPad minis will be instantly taken to account signup or transfer pages for those devices, and activation of cellular service will typically require mere minutes after you’ve finished entering your address and credit card information.
A small box will appear on screen to confirm that the device has been activated, and the “iPad” name at the upper right corner will become the carrier’s name with a cellular signal bar and network indicator (generally “o” for pre-3G, “3G,” “4G,” or “LTE”); turning off the cellular antenna in settings is indicated with a switch from the cellular provider’s name back to “iPad.” Because each iPad mini is shipped unlocked, you can replace the nano SIM when traveling by purchasing a pre-paid card from an international provider, assuming that the provider offers nano SIMs. They’re becoming increasingly common.
Just as with prior iPads, the cellular iPad mini does not require a long-term service agreement: in exchange for buying the device at its full, unsubsidized price, users can purchase cellular data in one-month blocks as needed, switching between data plans as their needs change. Each provider has its own collection of service tiers, with AT&T’s starting at $15 for 250MB of data and Verizon at $20 for 1GB of data, each climbing from there. As with the iPhone, AT&T continues to hold its “Mobile Hotspot” feature hostage on the iPad, requiring users to pay $50 per month for a 5GB plus Hotspot plan, while Verizon offers its identical “Personal Hotspot” for free at every price point. This means that the Verizon iPad can share any one of its cellular data plans with a computer; AT&T doesn’t do this, and Sprint offers $20-$50 Mobile Hotspot add-ons, as well.
Although this and some comparatively smaller plan price differences are good reasons to prefer one iPad cellular provider over the other, the major differentiators between companies are cellular speeds and network footprints. With roughly 440 covered cities, Verizon’s LTE network is the largest, now available to roughly 80% of the U.S.‘s population, though far less of its actual geographic territory. AT&T’s LTE network covers around 110 cities, with promises of rapid expansion over the next six months, and Sprint’s LTE network has roughly 50, with the promise of 100 in the near future. Numbers aside, Sprint’s LTE network is currently limited to only a handful of states, so AT&T’s and Verizon’s networks are certainly better options for most users. Because there’s still no Sprint LTE coverage where we work and live, we’ve opted not to test that version of the iPad mini; without an LTE connection, its peak speeds are roughly equivalent to Verizon’s pre-LTE 3G network—dog slow.
As was the case with the third-generation iPad and iPhone 5, the iPad mini comes with some LTE-related caveats. Verizon’s LTE service is indeed more widespread geographically than AT&T’s, but AT&T’s LTE tends to be faster for downloads where it’s available, sometimes by a factor of 2:1. When you add to this the fact that AT&T’s non-LTE “4G” backup service is faster than Verizon’s non-LTE “3G” service for downloads by a similar 2:1 or 3:1 ratio, you may come to the conclusion—as our editors generally have—that AT&T’s service is, despite significant non-speed caveats, safer for downloading. However, uploads may be another story; Verizon’s iPad mini LTE upload speeds weren’t phenomenal in our testing, but they were faster than AT&T’s in areas with middling LTE signals.
All of this boils down to some specific recommendations. If you live in and travel to places with guaranteed Verizon LTE coverage, you’ll get very fast download speeds, solid upload speeds, free Personal Hotspot use, and FaceTime Over Cellular video calling. Our local tests showed Verizon’s LTE network running at download speeds ranging from 8-30Mbps, with 3-15Mbps LTE uploads. But where Verizon doesn’t offer LTE, its roughly 0.5-1.5Mbps 3G download speeds and 0.5-1Mbps 3G upload speeds are so slow that you’ll find the Hotspot and FaceTime Over Cellular features to be all but unusable. Where we test, AT&T’s 4G download speeds tend to be in the 3-4Mbps range, with 4G uploads in the 1-2Mbps range; its LTE speeds range from 9-60Mbps for downloads, and 0.5-20Mbps for uploads. You give up free Hotspot and FaceTime Over Cellular features, but have the opportunity to achieve faster LTE and non-LTE speeds. You can choose the option that’s better for you.
Note that these numbers proved to be consistent from the third- and fourth-generation iPads to the iPad mini, as well. We noticed only one anomaly with AT&T LTE iPads and iPad minis relative to the AT&T LTE iPhone 5 that’s worth mentioning, and that’s as-yet-unexplained slower uploading when connected to the same 2-3 bar LTE network in our primary testing location. As we’ve seen consistent results from iPad to iPad, reporting upload speeds roughly 1/3 as fast as the iPhone 5 in the exact same location, we’re not sure whether this is due to an issue with specific AT&T towers, iPad LTE hardware, or something else.
Apple promises that the iPad mini will achieve up to 9 hours of battery life when browsing web sites using the cellular connection, so we ran our standard battery test on the Verizon iPad mini to see how it did. With three bars of LTE strength in our standard testing location, the Verizon iPad mini hit 8 hours and 11 minutes on our test, which loads a new web page once per minute with the screen at 50% brightness. While this is a bit below Apple’s nine-hour claim, and falls around an hour shy of what we saw with the third-generation cellular iPad, it’s nearly two hours behind our test result for the fourth-generation cellular iPad. Subsequent testing on an AT&T iPad mini ran for 8 hours and 29 minutes on the same test. We also conducted another test and saw how much screen brightness impacted cellular run time: dropping the brightness to around 35% on the AT&T model led to a 9 hour and 12 minute run time, which is to say that you can really squeeze out some extra longevity if you compromise on illumination.
Our impressions of the iPad mini with Wi-Fi + Cellular are basically the same as they have been for the full-sized cellular iPads—excellent technology with very good battery life at a slightly unappealing price premium. Due to both its lower overall price and more convenient size, there’s little question in our minds that the 7.9”-screened mini will find its way into more travel bags and car dashboards than any full-sized iPad, however, just as the mini feels around $30 more expensive than it should be, the $130 cellular premium is another $30 above its natural price point, taking a notch off of what would otherwise be a high recommendation. Add to this the increasing penetration of personal/mobile hotspot features on smartphone plans, enabling iPhone and other users to share their cellular data on an as-needed basis with their iPads, and the need to pay extra for the iPad mini with Wi-Fi + Cellular’s LTE service becomes even more questionable. That said, if you don’t have a smartphone with hotspot functionality, and you’re willing to pay the extra dollars for this model, you’ll find the iPad mini with Wi-Fi + Cellular’s “data anywhere” option to be extremely useful when you’re away from a home, school, or office Wi-Fi network. The price premium is just steep enough to deter impulse purchases, something we continue to hope (though not expect) will change for the next generation of these devices.