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.
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Concluding our review of the excellent iPad Air, we suggested that the key question in early November wasn’t so much whether the 9.7” screened device was better than the upcoming 7.9” Retina iPad mini, but how demand would cleave between these models: many people passed on the 2012 iPad mini solely due to the absence of a Retina display, so once that omission was resolved, conventional wisdom had it that the smaller, less expensive model would take the lead over the full-sized iPad Air… assuming nothing else was wrong with the Retina mini.
Less than two weeks later, the Retina iPad mini is finally a known and properly tested quantity, so we can begin to really estimate what the demand will be like — though not the supply. Contrary to initial reports, the Retina mini isn’t just a smaller iPad Air, since there are screen, performance, and battery differences to consider. The mini’s A7 processor is around 7%-8% slower than the Air’s, battery life is shorter by around one hour per test, and the display’s colors aren’t as vivid. These aren’t huge surprises, but it’s disappointing that Apple isn’t as forthcoming with the real-world performance characteristics of its iPads as it is with Macs; the time has come for the company to provide slightly more granular chip speed, RAM size, battery estimates, and screen characteristics so consumers have a better sense of the differences between models before making a purchase.
On the other hand, the Retina iPad mini offers a suite of major improvements relative to the original mini. It’s around 5 times faster, delivers roughly an hour of extra battery life under most testing conditions, and has so much additional screen detail that the differences are practically night and day. Even if the Retina mini isn’t Apple’s best on-the-go tool for color-sensitive photo and video editing, it’s a lot better than the first version, and certainly a great device for game playing, web browsing, and reading. Contrary to early predictions, it’s totally viable for reading smaller digital replicas of newspapers and magazines; the only question is whether your eyes are sharp enough to read the tiny, legible print it’s capable of displaying.
From where we stand, the choice between iPad models is a close one, and there’s no decisive winner this year. The iPad mini with Retina display nearly matches the performance of 2013’s top full-sized iPad within a package nearly identical to 2012’s smallest iPad, exceeding Apple’s rough performance estimates while compromising in ways that only power users will care about. It’s an excellent iPad, saddled more by its screen’s so-so color rendition, pricing and capacity issues than any other factor. Despite those issues, the Retina iPad mini is easy to recommend; both the Wi-Fi-only and now internationally compatible Wi-Fi + Cellular versions merit the same A- rating. By contrast, the same-rated iPad Air offers the advantages of additional screen real estate and color, faster performance, and additional battery life, though you’ll pay more and have to carry something larger and heavier as a consequence. If you’re considering purchasing either device, our advice would be to compare the Retina mini with the iPad Air in person, then decide whether the performance and pricing differences lean in one model’s favor. We suspect that the mini will win more fans, but wouldn’t steer you away from buying whichever of these excellent tablets calls out to you. Bigger changes are likely in store for 2014’s models, but these are great evolutions of past iPads, and the best Apple tablets we’ve yet tested.
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