Review: Apple iPad mini with Retina display (16GB/32GB/64GB/128GB) | iLounge

Review

Review: Apple iPad mini with Retina display (16GB/32GB/64GB/128GB)

A-
Highly Recommended

Company: Apple Inc.

Website: www.Apple.com

Model: iPad mini (with Retina display)

Price: $399-$699 Wi-Fi / $529-$829 Cellular/LTE

Compatible: PC/Mac/iCloud

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Jeremy Horwitz

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.

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Comparing the Retina iPad mini’s input and output characteristics to its immediate predecessor isn’t as challenging as the iPad Air to fourth-generation iPad comparisons we performed earlier this month, but there are some differences worth noting. Here they are:

Screen

The single biggest difference between the first-generation iPad mini and its sequel is the switch from a 7.9” 1024x768 screen to a 7.9” 2048x1536 Retina display. By doubling the pixels on each axis, the Retina iPad mini has four times the resolution of its predecessor, a change that’s extremely easy to spot on first use and understand on further inspection. At virtually any reasonable distance from your face, the individual pixels can’t be seen. If you (for whatever reason) pull out a camera with a macro lens, you’ll see a massive difference in the size and clarity of pixels, as shown below.

There are just as many pixels as on the 9.7” iPad Air, but the individual pixels are smaller on the mini, making images look crisper, while still enabling seriously tiny web site and book text to be readable if you have enough vision acuity for the task. Despite our use of the 9.7” Air for reading all sorts of books and periodicals, we had worried that the mini’s smaller display might not be up to the same task. But in practice, the mini was fantastic; whatever we could read on the Air was legible on the mini, too. To underscore one critical point, if the mini’s screen isn’t being judged against the Air’s or a MacBook Pro with a Retina display, it looks great.

We tested cookbooks such as the previously-available Made in Spain and the just-released version of Modernist Cuisine at Home. Both of these books were originally designed for pages substantially larger than the iPad Air’s and iPad mini’s screens, but they were each fully legible without the need for prescription eyewear.

Made in Spain was merely resized but otherwise untouched for iBooks release; we were able to read its text without zooming in, but had to look closely at the screen—no problem, in our view. By contrast, Modernist Cuisine at Home was completely reformatted by Inkling for iPad consumption, and can be read easily at any distance.

Conventional eBooks such as the recently-released Maximum Flavor, Marvel’s comic books, magazines, and numerous tested web pages were all only modestly smaller on the Retina mini than on the iPad Air, most of the time without any implication for added zooming-in or other manual adjustments while reading. Pages that were difficult to read on the original iPad mini became crystal clear on the new model thanks to the quadrupled resolution. Overall, we loved reading on the Retina mini.

The first three of the Retina iPad minis we tested appeared to be identical in screen calibration and quality. None of the screens had visible dead pixels or obvious variations in color — they were consistent from unit to unit. Reports suggested that Apple is sourcing screens for this model from multiple companies, but at least from our small sampling, they all appeared to look the same.

Many people would stop at this point and declare the Retina mini a clear winner over the Air — same pixels in a smaller display means greater portability and convenience, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the whole story here. As it turns out, there are differences in the actual quality of the two iPads’ pixels, specifically their color accuracy. The iPad Air’s colors are visibly richer and more vivid than the Retina mini’s, something we noticed when playing games such as Anomaly 2 where the Air’s rich blues looked faded on the mini, and when comparing photographs that had more muted pinks and reds on the mini.

Shock set in when we loaded Vector Unit’s game Riptide GP2 on the Air and mini and tried to use color wheels to match character costumes between them. The identical wheels looked so different on the screens that we couldn’t believe it.

We had suspected this might be an issue based on similar differences in color gamut between prior 264 PPI Retina iPads and 326 PPI iPhones, but hoped that Apple would opt to keep its iPads consistent by boosting color accuracy for the iPad mini. For the moment, the iPad Air has enough of an edge over the Retina mini that we’d prefer the bigger model for color-correcting images, but like the iPhone 5 family, the new mini does a way better job than pre-Retina screens found on the original iPad mini and even current-generation MacBook Airs. Blacks and whites are more pure on the Retina mini, and the detail differences are again gigantic.

Viewing angles and brightness are virtually identical between the new and old iPad minis, which is to say unobjectionable under most circumstances. The Retina iPad mini’s peak brightness level is just a tiny bit lower than the first-generation model’s (shown in white immediately above), and its minimum brightness is almost identically lower as well. Users hoping for a brighter and more intense screen won’t find it in the Retina mini, but as one reader asked us to confirm, the new model may be a tad less intrusive for night reading in a dark bedroom. On a modestly related note, we continue to find the fingerprint attraction of the Retina mini — and all iPad screens — to be mildly disgusting when seen with the screen turned off, and something that really could stand to be improved upon in future models.

A second issue became apparent when we received our Wi-Fi + Cellular version of the iPad mini for testing. Reports suggested that Apple had sourced two different types of Retina iPad mini screens—IPS and IGZO displays—and that the latter screens suffered from an issue called “image retention,” whereby a picture held static on the screen for a length of time would linger, ghostlike, after the screen changed. Our initial three units had no image retention issues, but under very specific testing conditions, our fourth unit’s screen unquestionably continued to show faint traces of a high-contrast test image after it was displayed for only 30 seconds, fading soon thereafter. Most users won’t notice any real-world image retention issues even if their screens are affected, but it’s a difference Apple may address midway through this model’s life cycle.

Cameras

Apple didn’t make a big deal about changes to the iPad mini’s cameras, but there are tiny differences to report here. The 1280x720 front camera has switched from what OS X Aperture reports as the first-generation iPad mini’s 2.18mm f/2.4 camera to a barely smaller 2.15mm f/2.4 camera. Apple says that the pixels on the new camera are bigger and backside illuminated, but in practice we saw only one difference: the new grainy camera produces slightly lighter but otherwise extremely similar images to the old grainy camera. It shares the same general characteristics with the iPhone 5c and 5s front cameras.

The 5-Megapixel still/1080p 30fps video back camera is reported by OS X Aperture as a 3.3mm f/2.4 lens, seemingly identical to the rear camera in the original iPad mini. We noticed no differences in their performance; they both snap 5.0 Megapixel (2592x1936) stills and 1080p videos. Just as we said with the iPad Air, Apple has left this rear camera noticeably under-equipped relative to the iPhone 5s and even the iPhone 5c. Beyond continuing to omit the panorama recording mode and realtime filters found on most iPhones and iPod touches, the Retina iPad mini doesn’t get the Slo-Mo camera or Burst Mode recording of the iPhone 5s, and continues to snap images at 1-2 frames per second.

The resolution is lower than the 8-Megapixel iPhone 5s camera, and pixel-level detail leans toward the grainy and slightly washed out; only when photos are resized and/or viewed from a distance do they look comparable, as shown here. It’s a shame that Apple treats its tablets as second-class citizens for photography and videography, as they’re clearly its most powerful tools for processing photos and videos; users shouldn’t need a recent-model smartphone to take advantage of these powers.

Microphones

Noted only briefly during the Retina iPad mini’s introduction, what used to be a single top-mounted microphone on the first-generation mini has evolved into a proper dual-microphone system here. As mentioned earlier in this review, the original mini’s tiny pill-shaped hole remains on top, centered between the left side headphone port and right side Sleep/Wake button, but now there’s a second pill-shaped hole immediately below the first one on the back. Some early iPad mini cases suggested that the feature was originally planned for the first-generation model, but it never actually materialized until now.

There were two places that we expected the new microphone system might excel: in Siri/dictation, and during FaceTime calls. Siri performance was basically identical between the devices under normal usage conditions — the Retina mini and original mini both did a very impressive job with transcription accuracy when nothing else was competing for their mics’ attention. However, when we turned on a song and played it through speakers right behind the two devices, the Retina mini continued to transcribe correctly while the original mini dropped words and in some cases entire segments of sentences. Frequent Siri and dictation users will find the Retina mini better under some circumstances. FaceTime callers will similarly note that the Retina mini can isolate your voice and make it sound clear compared with the prior iPad mini’s intelligible but echo-filled rendition, which contains the ambient reflections of a small room.

Speaker, Headphone Port + Lightning Port Audio

Changes to the Retina iPad mini’s audio output are much less dramatic than the ones we saw with the transition from the fourth-generation iPad to the iPad Air. As before, there are actually two speakers on the Retina iPad mini’s bottom, and when it’s held in portrait orientation with its Lightning connector facing the bottom, you can clearly hear true left- and right-channel stereo separation that appears to expand just past the tablet’s width. Just like the iPad Air and prior iPad mini, which also include stereo speakers, if you turn the Retina iPad mini to landscape orientation, the apparent separation will disappear. The new model’s speakers are ever so slightly less distorted than the original mini’s at their identical peak volume, a very subtle change.

Even with premium-quality headphones, audio from the Retina iPad mini’s headphone port is indistinguishable from its predecessor’s. Audio remains so clean that you can’t hear any white noise, and quite powerful besides, with enough juice to fuel larger headphones. Lightning port audio is similarly unchanged from the original iPad mini.

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Editors' Note: iLounge only reviews products in "final" form, but many companies now change their offerings - sometimes several times - after our reviews have been published. This iLounge article provides more information on this practice, known as revving.

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