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.
When Apple discusses iPad batteries, it tends to bury the specifics in favor of broad metrics — and ones it reuses for every device across each generation. The 2010 iPad promised 10 hours of Wi-Fi web browsing or video playback versus 9 hours of cellular web browsing, numbers that were claimed to be identical for the iPad 2, third-generation iPad, fourth-generation iPad, first iPad mini, and the iPad Air. In reality, the numbers weren’t really the same, nor were the batteries: the first iPad used a 24.8 Watt-Hour (Wh) battery, followed by a 25 Wh battery in the iPad 2, 42.5 Wh batteries in the third- and fourth-gen iPads, a 16.3 Wh original iPad mini battery, and a 32.4 Wh iPad Air battery. Straightforward as those numbers might seem to be, major processor and screen differences between the models actually meant that real-world battery life went up on the iPad 2, down on the third, up on the fourth, and way up on the iPad Air — contrary to what might be guessed from the battery sizes — while the first iPad mini was closest to the original iPad in run time, despite a much smaller battery.
If you’re not already confused, here’s another couple of curveballs: Apple says that the Retina iPad mini has a 23.8 Wh battery pack inside, but a teardown revealed that it’s actually a 24.3 Wh cell — virtually identical to the 24.8 Wh capacity of the original iPad. Yet since the new mini’s screen and processor are considerably different from both the original iPad and first-generation iPad mini, the battery life was a complete mystery to us going into testing. We expected that Apple might follow the third-generation iPad formula, by which the battery life goes up but the real-world longevity goes down; thankfully, that wasn’t the case at all with the Retina iPad mini.
Wi-Fi Web Browsing. Apple always promises 10 hours of battery life for web browsing on an iPad at 50% brightness, but the original iPad mini only hit 9 hours and 11 minutes at 50% brightness on our standard web browsing test. By comparison, the Retina iPad mini achieved 10 hours and 35 minutes, a big jump over its predecessor. Apple’s iPad Air hit a new high of 11 hours and 34 minutes on this test, running for roughly one hour longer than the new mini.
Cellular Web Browsing. Apple’s claim of a 9-hour run time has remained unchanged for this test from model to model, as well. The iPad Air blew us away by hitting 10 hours and 28 minutes on Verizon LTE, and 11 hours and 8 minutes on AT&T LTE, the best results we’ve ever seen on this test. Last year’s iPad mini achieved 8 hours and 29 minutes of LTE run time on AT&T or 8 hours and 11 minutes on Verizon, falling short of Apple’s marks. We achieved a 9 hour and 46 minute LTE run time for the AT&T Retina iPad mini, an improvement of 1 hour and 17 minutes relative to the prior model, and significantly above Apple’s 9-hour promised performance.
Video. Apple promises 10 hours of continuous video playback per full charge, assuming that screen brightness and speaker output are both set to 50%. The first iPad mini actually ran for 10 hours and 46 minutes with Wi-Fi on, and the Retina iPad mini ran for 13 hours and 57 minutes with Wi-Fi on— identical down to the minute of the iPad Air’s result, which ran for the same 13 hours and 57 minutes of video playback time in our tests earlier this month. Although we suspect more efficient decoding software is playing a big role in this result, this is great performance for an iPad mini, and should excite anyone hoping to watch videos for extended periods of time on an iPad.
Gaming and Mixed-Use Testing. Apple’s battery estimates always combine a relatively low-impact measure — web browsing — with video playback, which was historically demanding but has become less so over time. We always prefer to see what each iPad can do when pushed harder. Continuous game-playing tends to exhaust an iOS device’s battery quickly — with the screen and speaker both at 50%, Epic Games’ 3-D-intense fighting game Infinity Blade III ran for 7 hours and 23 minutes on the iPad Air. By contrast, the Retina iPad mini achieved a 6 hour and 48 minute run time, versus 3 hours and 42 minutes on the iPhone 5s. The Retina mini ran for nearly a half-hour longer than the fourth-gen iPad’s 6 hour and 21-minute result last year with Epic’s less demanding predecessor Infinity Blade II, and 8 minutes longer than the original iPad mini’s result with that title. During mixed-use testing, including gaming, web browsing, book reading, music playback and other app usage, we found that users can realistically expect to get 9-10 hours of run time from a device at 50% brightness, a roughly one-hour improvement on last year’s model.
FaceTime Video Calling. As mentioned in our iPad Air review, continuous FaceTime video calling was the only test where the iPad Air fell short of the fourth-generation iPad. Last year, we saw a run time of 8 hours and 56 minutes for the full-sized iPad, versus 6 hours and 3 minutes on the first iPad mini. The iPad Air hit 7 hours and 45 minutes, and the Retina iPad mini ran for 6 hours and 48 minutes. While that’s around an hour less than the Air, it’s 45 minutes better than the original mini.
Battery Recharging Time
Last year, Apple confused users by packing in an underpowered 5W USB Power Adapter with the first iPad mini — the same adapter it includes with iPhones, historically capable of charging most iPads at only half their peak 10W speeds. Because of this choice, Apple added nearly 2 hours of unnecessary recharging time (4 hours, 38 minutes total) to a device that could actually refuel completely in 2 hours and 50 minutes from a 10W USB Power Adapter or fairly recent Apple computer with a 2.1-Amp USB port. While shipping an iPad with an underpowered charger isn’t exactly a crime against humanity, the extra time wasted on unnecessarily long recharging does add up; if you recharged the mini once per day for a year, that’s around 650 wasted extra hours for no good reason: Apple even sold the 5W and 10W chargers for the same price.
Thankfully, the Retina iPad mini instead comes packaged with a 10W USB Power Adapter, which enables it to refuel in 3 hours and 38 minutes — slower than the first iPad mini if you self-supplied a better charger, but faster than the original mini with the charger Apple included in that box. Since the Retina mini’s battery is so much larger than its predecessor’s, the added recharge time isn’t surprising, but by contrast with the 5- to 6-hour recharge times of the third- and fourth-generation iPads, it goes by in a flash. The iPad Air notably takes 4 hours and 22 minutes to refuel completely, and like the Retina iPad mini is capped at 10W/2.1-Amp recharging speeds; more powerful 12W/2.4-Amp chargers offer no performance benefit here.
Wi-Fi + Cellular Performance, Plus Cellular Plan Changes
Mirroring improvements to the iPad Air, two under-the-hood changes to the Retina iPad mini fall into the “welcome but likely not earthshaking” category. One is the addition of additional multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) Wi-Fi antennas to every Retina iPad mini — a feature which, when paired with an 802.11n MIMO-compatible router, is capable of simultaneously receiving on two antennas and broadcasting on two antennas for a theoretical improvement in Wi-Fi speed. Given typical home broadband data caps of 15-20Mb/second downloading and 1-2Mb/second uploading, most users have already achieved those numbers with prior iOS devices, and will see no difference with the Retina iPad mini.
Another change to the Retina iPad mini is specific to the Wi-Fi + Cellular models. After years of offering separate cellular iPads for different domestic and international wireless networks, Apple finally united all of its cellular antennas within a single model. The result is a single Retina iPad mini with Wi-Fi + Cellular that can be used pretty much anywhere internationally with whatever the best local network may be: LTE, UMTS, HSPA, HSPA+, DC-HSDPA, GSM/EDGE, and CDMA EV-DO Rev. A/Rev. B. Every LTE network Apple has previously supported with different iPhone or iPad models now works with the Retina iPad mini — just like the iPad Air — so if you’re planning to travel overseas, or switch domestic carriers at will, one of these models is a fantastic choice. All you need to do is pop the nano-SIM card out, replace it, and sign up for another account. Most carriers have no annual contracts for iPads, making switching relatively painless.
On November 22, 2013, we updated this with Retina iPad mini with Wi-Fi + Cellular results, and there were no surprises whatsoever; there was no apparent difference between Apple’s devices in reported signal strength or speed when they were placed in the same physical locations. The Retina mini’s LTE performance was identical to the iPhone 5s and iPad Air, with roughly 20Mbps downloading and 14Mbps uploading speeds using AT&T at a 5-dot service location with heavy local congestion. By comparison, in another 5-dot service location with very little LTE demand, the same devices hit roughly 65Mbps downloading and 12Mbps for uploading.
The results will be highly variable from location to location, dependent as much on the local LTE-using population density as on one’s proximity to LTE towers. You can see our iPad Air cellular test results here.
As we mentioned in the iPad Air review, cellular data plan options for iPads are in the midst of changing, as well. In addition to “data sharing” options that rolled out over the past year, enabling typically contract-bound iPhone customers to pay an extra fee each month to keep an iPad on the same data plan and split limited data between them, U.S. cellular companies have recently changed their contract-free standalone data plan options.
In addition to its prior $15/$30/$50 “auto-renew” but cancelable monthly plans, AT&T is now offering a $5 24-hour/250MB plan and $25 3-month/1GB plan, neither automatically renewing. Sprint has $5 25MB, $10 100MB, and $15 2GB plans, Verizon is offering an entry-level $20 plan with 1GB of data, and T-Mobile has an incredible deal to try and win customers — 200MB of free data for the life of the iPad mini, which is to say that users can sign up now, hold onto a T-Mobile nano-SIM card and account, and come back to it as needed. While the carriers vary wildly in network coverage and data speeds, these new packages are certainly appealing for infrequent or low-bandwidth cellular data users.