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.
Every time Apple releases an ever-so-slightly changed device chassis, the biggest question we get (and wonder about ourselves) is whether the new device will work with old accessories such as cases. The Retina iPad mini has increased in depth by a negligable 0.01”, even less of a change than Apple needed from the iPad 2 to the third iPad (0.03”). As a result, the Retina mini tends to just squeeze into form-fitting cases designed precisely for its predecessor, akin to a bodybuilder trying to wear a polo shirt. Old cases typically don’t take the Retina model’s second microphone into account, either, but that may or may not matter to you. Ideally, you’ll hold off a month or so for cases that can accommodate either model properly, but an old case will generally do in a pinch. Apple’s past iPad mini Smart Covers and new iPad mini Smart Cases will work without any issues.
If you’re upgrading from an old iPad to the Retina mini, you may need new cables and other accessories, as well. In late 2012, Apple introduced Lightning, the replacement for its nine-year-old Dock Connector accessory standard. Lightning connectors first appeared in the iPhone 5, fifth-generation iPod touch, and seventh-generation iPod nano, followed soon thereafter by the first iPad mini and fourth-generation iPad. The Lightning connector is a small silver and white plug with eight visible gold pins on each side, and unlike its predecessor can be inserted forward or backward into any Lightning port; both sides work. Apple rapidly released a bunch of Lightning accessories, including $19-$29 charging cables, $29-$39 Dock Connector adapters, and camera accessories such as the $29 Lightning to SD Card Reader. It has not released Lightning docks for iPads, but has encouraged developers to do so.
Third-party developers have had a full year to develop Lightning accessories, but due to high prices and stringent manufacturing rules, very few Lightning speakers and docks have been released, particularly for iPads. As we noted in a mid-year Editorial on Lightning accessories, some developers have been waiting for Apple to address compatibility problems between Lightning docks and cases, a standoff that may not be remedied any time soon. Consequently, many speaker developers have shifted over to the broadly-compatible Bluetooth streaming audio standard — supported by all iOS devices — and sometimes include USB ports on their speakers to let users charge devices with self-supplied cables. Apple’s overpriced Lightning to 30-Pin Adapters offer a makeshift way to make some Dock Connector accessories work with the Lightning port, and tend to work better with iPad minis than full-sized iPads.
As noted in the battery test section above, previously-released battery packs and car chargers will behave a little differently with the Retina iPad mini than its predecessor. Any car charger with at least 2.1-Amp output will recharge the iPad mini at full speed; 1-Amp chargers will refuel this model quite slowly. Similarly, regardless of whether they’re generic USB port- or Lightning plug-equipped, batteries with iPad-ready 2.1-Amp output will deliver less of a recharge to the Retina iPad mini than the original model. For instance, SwitchEasy’s 6000mAh battery Tanks recharged the Retina mini by 59%, versus an average of 93% with the original mini in July. Just Mobile’s 6000mAh Gum++ was able to recharge the first iPad mini to 91%, but only restored 61% power to the Retina iPad mini — 2/3 of the prior charge. On the other hand, the company’s 11,200mAh Gum Max Duo delivered a 129% charge for the Retina iPad mini, which is to say a complete recharge plus 29% more when the mini needs it. That’s way more run time than Gum Max Duo delivers for a fourth-generation iPad (75%) or an iPad Air (95%).
Bluetooth accessories we tested ranged from speakers to headphones to the latest digital styluses, and we had no issues with pairing or using them — the Retina iPad mini has Bluetooth 4 inside like its predecessor, and is as responsive and strong at both broadcasting and receiving as we’d expected. There were no apparent Bluetooth performance differences between this mini and the iPad Air, or this mini and its predecessor.
Using AirPlay screen mirroring to send the iPad Mini’s content to the Apple TV was also unchanged relative to the iPad Air: the latency is low enough to stream music and even twitch action games to the Apple TV, but the streamed frame rate is low and doesn’t match the iPad’s screen, even during UI interactions. iPad video is also presented on the Apple TV within a significantly cropped window regardless of whether you’re in landscape or portrait orientation, and whether you’re using a 720p or 1080p Apple TV, likely because Apple doesn’t want to upscale the 1024x768 images it’s sending to the TV, or downsample 2048x1536 video. The result isn’t fantastic, but it generally works.
Our just-released 2014 iPad/iPhone/iPod Buyers’ Guide spotlights the best first-generation iPad mini cases of the year, and they’ll work with the Retina mini so long as rear microphone support isn’t necessary for you. We’re particularly fond of ZeroChroma’s excellent Vario-SC, tied for 2013’s iPad Case of the Year, which has an extremely well-designed stand integrated into the back. Until updated cases with stands arrive, you can consider standalone desktop stands previously developed for iPads, as there are some excellent metal options such as Belkin’s FlipBlade Adjust and Cooler Master’s JAS mini at affordable prices. Some of our editors like Apple’s iPad Mini Smart Covers, which double as screen covers and simple stands.