Review: Apple iPad mini with Retina display (16GB/32GB/64GB/128GB)
Pros: Nearly identical in size but significantly evolved inside, this 7.9”-screened tablet is five times as powerful as the original iPad mini, and only around 10% behind the iPad Air in overall performance. Retina display enables fine-detail reading, web browsing, and game playing that were markedly less impressive before; display quality appears to be consistent between units. Delivers roughly one hour better battery life than first mini under most conditions, even during cellular use, and now includes 10W adapter for faster recharging. Dual-microphone system offers sonic improvements under some circumstances. Offered in a wide range of capacities, as well as improved cellular models that are more usable internationally. Now bundled with free iLife and iWork applications, and compatible with over 1 million iOS apps, including 450,000 designed specifically for iPads.
Cons: New 326 PPI Retina display matches past iPads in resolution but falls noticeably short in color performance; some screens also have image retention issues. Larger battery adds slightly to thickness and weight of original iPad mini. A7 processor speed matches the iPhone 5s rather than the iPad Air, while lacking the enhanced camera features and Touch ID functionality introduced with the new iPhone. Rear camera is noticeably inferior to the iPhone 5s and 5c. Cellular premium remains steep, and most users will find 16GB models underequipped for their needs. Entry price has jumped $70 from prior model, which was already markedly more expensive than direct rivals.
The iPad mini with Retina display is currently Apple’s second most powerful tablet computer — the sequel to 2012’s first-generation iPad mini, and a smaller version of 2013’s iPad Air. It’s the second Apple tablet with a 7.9” screen, and the first Apple 7.9” screen with 2048x1536 resolution, for a dot pitch of 326 pixels per inch (PPI). Even at a distance of six inches away, those pixels are visibly indistinguishable from each other; this dot density is higher than most printed color documents, as well as the 9.7”-screened, 264-PPI iPad Air. Since Apple kept the screen resolution the same between the iPad Air and Retina iPad mini, identical image detail is displayed on both devices, but pictures look a little crisper on the 1.8”-smaller diagonal screen. Compared with the original iPad mini, the differences are obvious from a foot or two away, and profoundly noticeable up close.
The Retina iPad mini has almost exactly the same external features, controls, and ports as the iPad Air, in almost exactly the same places. Shaped like a thin slate, the iPad mini is made substantially from matte aluminum and glossy glass, the former softly curving around the sides and ending at polished, chamfered edges around the latter. The glass face frames a tiny FaceTime camera, the 4:3 aspect ratio screen, and a single circular Home Button, the latter notably without the iPhone 5s’s Touch ID fingerprint authentication feature. Like most prior iPads, the front glass includes your choice of a white or black bezel, this time respectively paired with either a bright silver or Space Gray metal chassis. The Space Gray chassis is lighter in color than the 2012 “slate” iPad mini, while the silver chassis looks just like its predecessor.
On the top edge are a 3.5mm headphone port, tiny pill-shaped microphone hole, and a larger pill-shaped Sleep/Wake button. Unlike the first iPad mini, there’s a second pill-shaped hole centered roughly 0.45” below the top one, housing an echo- and ambient noise-canceling second microphone. Separate pill-shaped volume buttons and a two-position switch are found on its right side, rather than the iPhone’s traditional left, while speaker ventilation holes are found on both sides of a Lightning port on the bottom.
The matte-finished back is interrupted by three glossy parts: a camera lens at the top, an Apple logo in the middle, and an iPad name mark on the bottom alongside tiny regulatory information. You won’t find a camera-assisting LED flash immediately next to the camera; this feature is only found on iPhones and the fifth-generation iPod touch.
Just like the iPad Air, Apple sells the Retina iPad mini in Wi-Fi-only and Wi-Fi + Cellular versions, with a $100 gap between identically configured mini and Air models. Consequently, the Wi-Fi versions of the Retina iPad mini come in four storage capacities ($399/16GB, $499/32GB, $599/64GB, $699/128GB), while the Wi-Fi + Cellular versions sell at $130 premiums ($629/16GB, $729/32GB, $829/64GB, $929/128GB), adding a collection of globally-compatible GSM, CDMA, and LTE antennas for use on cellular data networks. This year, there’s only one cellular iPad mini rather than separate cellular models for different carriers, so they vary only in the nano-SIM card that comes pre-installed.
You can easily tell a cellular iPad mini apart from a Wi-Fi-only version by the presence of a large matte plastic antenna compartment on the top edge; it’s white on the silver iPad mini, and black on the Space Gray iPad mini, matching the color but not the texture of the front glass bezel. A nano-SIM tray is found at the lower right corner of the cellular iPad mini when viewed from the front, and absent on the Wi-Fi-only version.
As of the date of release, the Retina iPad mini ships with iOS 7.0.3, a bug-fixed update to the September 2013 release of Apple’s iOS 7 operating system, reviewed here. In brief, iOS 7 completely changed the look of iOS’s user interface, dumping heavily shadowed and detailed graphics in favor of flat colors, gradients, translucency effects, and heavy-handed animations. Public response to iOS 7 has been polarized, with some users refusing to adopt it because of its looks, and others loving numerous other improvements Apple made along with the visual tweaks. One of the improvements is full support for the 64-bit A7 processor found in the iPhone 5s, iPad Air, and Retina iPad mini, a change that can’t be seen but results in faster app performance.
Unlike the regular iPad mini, the Retina mini includes both “1X” and “2X” support for running 960x640-resolution iPhone and iPod touch apps at their native or upscaled resolutions, the former with significant black bars on all sides of the screen. The 1X feature was notably dropped from non-Retina iPads, including the original iPad mini, with the release of iOS 7.0. There are currently over 1 million iOS applications in the App Store, with full iPad interfaces in over 450,000 of them, leaving around 550,000 to work with this feature.
It needs to be noted that iOS 7 debuted for iPads before it was completely ready for prime time, exhibiting occasional crashes of the built-in applications and less than completely smooth animations, amongst other small issues. During our testing of the iPad mini, we continued to note instabilities, occasional app crashes, and other unnecessary hiccups in performance. For instance, the Safari browser crashed six times during one of our extended web tests, a remarkable number of problems for a “final” public release of iOS software. While we expect that a much-improved version 7.1 will address the problems (and possibly introduce new functionality), Apple has set no timetable for such a release.
One major software asset of the iPad mini goes beyond iOS 7. In September and October 2013, Apple announced that it would make its previously $5-$10 iLife and iWork applications free with the purchase of all new iOS devices. As a result, the latest versions of the photo editor iPhoto, video editor iMovie, music production suite GarageBand, word processor Pages, spreadsheet app Numbers, and presentation creator Keynote can all be downloaded at no charge when you’re setting up the iPad mini. While there has been some opinionated and reasonable debate over some significant iOS 7-related changes Apple made to these apps, the fact that they’re free mitigates much of the criticism, and gives every iPad mini user a great initial set of tools for creating and editing content.