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.
We mentioned in our iPad Air review that Apple has generally avoided engaging in spec comparisons with its rivals; rather than treating iPads as computers with conspicuous clock speeds or differing quantities of RAM, Apple merely describes the iPads’ processors as “A4,” “A5,” “A5X,” “A6X,” and “A7,” occasionally calling out a processor’s number of cores (“single-core,” “dual-core,” “quad-core”) and similar improvements in their graphics features. The positive is that these simple descriptions make it easy for users to get a good general sense of a model’s performance — iPod touches, iPad 2s, and first-gen iPad minis all run on A5 chips, with roughly comparable features — but they also omit meaningful technical differences that Apple may hide beneath the surface. That’s exactly what happened with the Retina iPad mini.
Apple’s special event for the iPad Air and Retina iPad mini suggested implicitly that the devices were the same except for screen size: the iPad Air got the 64-bit A7 processor introduced with the iPhone 5s, and the iPad mini also got an A7, a point that we’ve previously noted was somewhat unusual conceptually. Since an iPad’s Retina display has over four times as many pixels as an iPhone’s Retina display, the same processor will seem to run slower in the iPad, like putting a motorcycle engine inside a car. Historically, Apple avoided this problem by giving each iPad a better processor and/or more RAM than the last iPhone, but that seemed to stop with the iPad Air: the iPhone 5s had 1GB of RAM and an A7, as did the Air. Yet Apple quietly helped the Air by bumping its processor speed from 1.3GHz to 1.4GHz, a single-digit percentage improvement in performance that nonetheless narrowed the display gap a little.
Loaded with a 1.3GHz A7 and 1GB of RAM, the Retina iPad mini has received a major bump from the antiquated 1GHz A5 chip and 512MB of RAM in the original mini, but it wasn’t as lucky as the iPad Air. Geekbench 3 reports the new mini’s single-core score as 1373; that’s over five times better than the original mini’s 263, but nearly identical to the 1322 scored by the iPhone 5s, and down from the 1477 score of the iPad Air. In dual-core mode, the Retina mini rated a 2478, again up five times from the first mini’s 494, versus 2266 on the iPhone 5s and 2692 on the iPad Air. These numbers translate to roughly 7% lower single-core performance and 8% lower multi-core performance for the Retina iPad mini than the iPad Air.
Consequently, even though the numbers suggest that the Retina iPad mini is more powerful than today’s flagship iPhone and less powerful than the flagship iPad, Retina display demands and other factors mean that the real-world performance often feels more like the iPhone’s in the lead, followed by the Air, while the mini brings up the rear — similar to the fourth-generation iPad’s overall iOS and app experience, which is to say not as snappy as the iPad Air’s, but not importantly different, either. There’s a certain level of responsiveness in unlocking the mini, scrolling through Home Screens, and loading apps that timed animation delays in iOS 7 now dictate more than the raw speed of the chips inside a device, so there are few opportunities for the Retina model to really impress here. All of these elements feel a little smoother and look a lot cleaner than the prior iPad mini—it’s impossible to miss the increased pixel-level detail in background art and icons, but otherwise you’ll need to dig into apps to see the differences.
Because it has fewer on-screen pixels to worry about, the iPhone 5s’s animations tend to be the smoothest of the bunch. For instance, if you rotate the orientation of the device to change the display of a photo, the iPhone 5s will spin it smoothly and quickly. On the iPad Air, the same rotation will feel a little more labored, and the Retina mini will be a hint behind that. Load an automated app on the iPad Air and the Retina iPad mini and they’ll seem to be virtually identical at first, but after a few minutes of use, a one-second gap may be obvious between them. Or try using each device’s rear camera to shoot several photos in HDR mode. The iPhone 5s will save 8-Megapixel HDR images almost instantly, while the iPad Air’s and Retina iPad mini’s 5MP cameras will take a hint longer to save smaller images. Each is a huge improvement over the first iPad mini, which can take three or four seconds between HDR shots.
There was another area in which both new iPads completely blew away the prior iPad mini: photo importation using Apple’s Lightning to SD Card Reader. Between the iPad Air and Retina iPad mini, you’ll see nearly identical speeds — we transferred a collection of 127 photos in 45-50 seconds on each new iPad. The same task took the first-generation iPad mini 4 minutes and 3 seconds. That’s the sort of quality of life improvement you’ll find hidden in the Retina iPad mini, and if other apps can be optimized for similar performance leaps, users will be thrilled.
One major caveat in assessing performance is each iPad’s profound dependence on iOS for smooth performance. As noted in the Big Picture section of this review, iOS 7 remains underwhelming in performance on all iPads, regardless of model. It’s highly possible that Apple will tweak iOS 7.1 to improve graphic smoothness and speed, particularly on the Retina iPad mini and iPad Air, but until that happens, iOS may look a little rough around the edges.
Thus far, game performance differences are very subtle between the iPad Air and Retina iPad mini. On recently-released games such as Epic Games’ Infinity Blade III and Chillingo’s Anomaly 2, frame rates and load times are nearly identical between the devices, with the iPad Air occasionally demonstrating a slight improvement in speed. Pre-A7 titles such as Vector Unit’s Riptide GP2 similarly look just a little smoother on the Air than the Retina mini, but the frame rates are not as fast as the iPhone 5s. That said, you’re more likely to notice differences in color between the devices, as discussed further in the next section of this review.
One other processor-related factor worth noting is device warmth. Just like the iPad Air, the Retina iPad mini became slightly warm to the touch when it was running an extended 50% brightness test of Infinity Blade III, with the heat specifically radiating from its central right hand side. We’d call the warmth level lower than the iPad Air, which as we noted would be imperceptible to anyone actually playing the game; most people will call it a non-issue. The unit’s heat level increased markedly when the screen brightness was at 100% during extended gaming, but didn’t become uncomfortable to the touch. Since few people will be playing battery-killing games at full screen brightness, we’d again describe the warmth as a non-issue for most users, but our guess is that thermal challenges played as much of a role in capping the Retina mini’s A7 speed as anything else.
Just like the iPhone 5s and iPad Air, the Retina iPad mini’s A7 is bundled with an M7 coprocessor, capable of passively measuring accelerometer, compass, and gyroscope data without demanding the A7’s resources. On the iPhone 5s, M7 was touted as a way to improve fitness apps, turn-by-turn walking navigation, and battery life when the device hasn’t been moved for some period of time. We mentioned in our iPad Air review that Apple provided no examples of what M7 does inside the 9.7” tablet, save for giving users “a better experience” based on the device’s movement. Similarly, its Retina iPad mini page offers no concrete benefits of M7 in a 7.9” tablet, beyond freeing “A7 to focus on other tasks” for a “better iPad experience” and “great battery life.” We’ll have to see whether future iPad applications make any use of the feature.