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.
Our iPad Air review noted that Apple has been stubborn on full-sized iPad pricing: the flagship iPad hasn’t dropped a cent in price or gained any storage capacity since Apple first introduced the family in 2010, and that’s despite significant price competition from rival products such as Amazon’s Kindle Fire, Microsoft’s Surface, and Samsung’s Galaxy Tabs. In the past, Apple essentially scoffed at its competitors and watched them go down in flames, but evidence is mounting not only that more value-laden products are finally succeeding, but also that consumers are transitioning from laptops to tablets — all the reason in the world for Apple to stop treating iPads like glorified media players and instead give them computer-like storage capacities, arguably at more aggressive prices.
Unfortunately, the “what capacity is right for me?” question is clouded by ambiguity over the way people are really using iPads today. Just like computer hard drives, there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all iPad storage capacity. That’s why Apple sells both the Retina iPad mini and iPad Air in four different storage capacities, enabling you to choose the size that you think is right for your needs. An iPad that might seem unimaginably capacious for one person might be the only place another person stores her large music, video, or photo library; the Retina iPad mini is notably the first mini to be offered in a 128GB storage capacity, so it’s on par with the iPad Air in this regard. On the other hand, someone who can’t imagine anyone being content with less than a 64GB iPad might forget that some iPads are used as cash registers, interactive kiosks at art galleries, or video streamers, barely holding anything at all. There’s clearly a market for low-storage iPads, but sort of like the little-known, education-focused eMac, Apple shouldn’t hold up the bigger family’s progress to offer something “good enough” for bulk purchases.
There’s no question that the world has changed since Apple originally introduced the iPad in 2010. It marketed that tablet as “our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price,” a seemingly hyperbolic pitch that turned out to be pretty close to spot on. Yet no such claim was made about the iPad mini’s $329 price last year; many people thought the price was around $30 too high given that rival 7” tablets could be had for $199 — a $100 price premium seemed “right” for a smaller version of the vaunted iPad. Yet Apple believed that people who were willing to spend $299 on the iPad mini were willing to spend $329, and this year, it raised the price of the Retina mini by another $70, creating a $155 gap with Amazon’s unsubsidized 7” Kindle Fire HDX and a $170 gap with Google’s latest Nexus 7. Both have Retina iPad-rivaling screens, 16GB of storage, and similar battery life.
Our editors understand the reasoning behind Apple’s pricing — there aren’t enough Retina minis to go around, so why sell them for too little — but disagreed internally on how much of an impact the pricing would have. One editor opined that the $70 price jump would lead some people to freeze on buying the Retina mini, but three others felt that most users interested in a Retina mini wouldn’t be stopped by the $399 price tag. Still, there’s no ignoring that Apple’s 16GB Retina mini price point is so markedly higher than rivals that it doesn’t seem sustainable in the long term. It could always change course in a heartbeat whenever inventory stabilizes, dumping the original 16GB $299 mini in favor of a $299 Retina model, but that doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon. Apple just went through the trouble of manufacturing new Space Gray first-generation iPad minis, indicating that the entry-level model is sticking around for another year. And it hasn’t done an abrupt mid-cycle price drop since the early days of the iPhone. This isn’t to say that it’s impossible, just that we wouldn’t hold our breath waiting for it to happen.
All of our editors agreed that Apple isn’t operating in a vacuum, contrary to what some people have suggested. It can sell a smaller number of units and reap record per-unit profits, or expand its manufacturing capacity to sell more units at lower prices and make even more money in the process. To the extent that it chooses the former strategy when its competitors opt for the latter, it will appear to do well while actually losing market share. That position has already started to erode Apple’s support with developers who have watched the Android market grow into something worth participating in, and the better Android becomes, the less chance Apple will have to win the mass-market back.
Alleviating this problem is simple: the 32GB iPad mini should become the $399 model, regardless of whether Apple drops the 16GB Retina mini entirely or keeps it around as a $299 starter model for people without the need for on-board storage. Apple’s evolution from 32-bit non-Retina devices to 64-bit Retina minis has effectively left the 16GB model too low on capacity to widely recommend as a frequently used media player and computer. More detailed Retina graphics and larger 64-bit apps are pushing developers to double their prior storage demands, and it’s not uncommon for big iOS games to hit 1GB (Real Racing 3) or 1.5GB (Infinity Blade III), with rare apps (The Orchestra) tipping the scales at nearly 2GB. HD iTunes movies routinely exceed 5GB a piece, and during testing, we had trouble placing three videos at once on a 16GB iPad mini. Given that it actually has only 12.8GB of formatted storage capacity, it’s easy to understand how quickly adults and kids will get frustrated swapping content on and off a low-capacity iPad. Frustrated users have other options, and after finding Apple’s entry-level models too constraining and overpriced relative to competitors, we wouldn’t be surprised if they vote with their pocketbooks and try other options instead.