Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Pros: A smaller and much easier to carry sequel to the iPad 2, benefitting from newer industrial design elements and technologies introduced in the fifth-generation iPod touch. Generally very solid build quality and highly attractive fit and finish, relying on thin but strong glass painted in either black or silver, plus an aluminum rear shell. Runs virtually all of the over 700,000 apps in Apple’s App Store, including the 250,000 designed for full-sized iPads. Includes a 7.9” screen that looks at least as good as the iPad 2’s, and iPad-like run times, while weighing around half as much as Apple’s full-sized tablets. Users will find either landscape or portrait keyboard size to be nearly ideal for virtual typing—easier than on full iPads or iPhones. Available in the same capacities and LTE cellular options as full-sized iPads, including the same Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4 wireless technologies, without compromises. Includes two bona-fide good cameras, stereo speakers, and an integrated microphone with Siri and Dictation capabilities.

Cons: Battery on Wi-Fi model falls modestly short of Apple’s 10-hour claim under some circumstances; cellular run time similarly falls below 9-hour estimate. Base $329 price tag is a little high, especially considering the additional expense of Lightning accessories and Apple’s decision to pack in an unnecessarily slow charger; $130 cellular premium remains somewhat steep, and arguably less necessary given the increasing availability of smartphone personal hotspots. Screen, while considerably better in colors, blacks, and viewing angles than would be expected from a pre-Retina display, falls short of Retina pixel density and thus sharpness—an issue in only certain situations, particularly when dealing with very small text. Front glass has a tiny bit of give relative to prior iPads, making a thin sound when tapped for typing, and seemingly becoming more susceptible to cracking. Rear camera is a hint behind current full-sized iPads despite similar specs. While comparable to the last two iPads, the A5 processor inside this model is a couple of steps behind the most recent iPad.

Using a design and technology that come directly from the fifth-generation iPod touch and iPad 2, Apple’s new iPad mini ($329-$659) has been created as a compromise between the latest 4″-screened iPod and the 9.7″ screened iPad. Considerably smaller and lighter than the standard iPad, the iPad mini sports a 7.9″ screen and is capable of easily being held in one hand for use, yet still runs all the apps and games designed for the iPad 2, original iPad, iPhones, and iPod touches — the iPad mini’s 1024×768 (0.79MP) resolution is comparable to the 1136×640 (0.73MP) resolution of the latest iPod touch, just with different dimensions. Inside the mini is the same A5 processor found in the iPad 2 and new iPod touch, with promised battery life identical to iPads: 10 hours of Wi-Fi browsing and general use, 9 hours of cellular browsing in the 4G/LTE version, which is sold at $130 premiums over the $329-$529 Wi-Fi models. The same 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB storage capacities are offered, each in silver metal and white glass or slate metal and black glass versions akin to the iPod touch. Each comes with a Lightning to USB Cable and — contrary to pre-release reports — a slower 5W USB Power Adapter than the full-sized iPad; the included instructions are now a single small card, printed on the front and back. We’ll have a complete review of the new iPad mini very soon.

Although Apple has had a handful of misfires in the iPod family over the last several years, the one most critics got wrong was the iPod mini—a smaller, redesigned iPod that arrived in 2004 with roughly 1/4 the base iPod’s storage capacity but sold for 5/6 of the $299 price. At the time, the mini was criticized because its price wasn’t “low enough” given its diminished capacity, but instantly strong sales of the model quickly forced skeptics to re-evaluate its value and potential. As it turned out, the smaller size mattered a lot, as did other features the iPod didn’t have, including body color options and a redesigned, simpler Click Wheel controller. And while the price wasn’t “low” by absolute standards, it was low enough, hitting the magic $249 number that typically guarantees strong mainstream sales. The iPod mini quickly became Apple’s most successful iPod, and a runaway international hit, generating plenty of buzz and attention until the company abruptly replaced it with the even more impressive iPod nano a year and a half later.

While the iPad mini ($329-$529/16GB-64GB Wi-Fi, $459-$659/16-64GB Wi-Fi + Cellular) and iPod mini don’t share the exact same story, there are more conceptual parallels than might be obvious given the eight years that separate their introductions. Both trade primarily on the fact that they are physically smaller and only slightly less capable versions of Apple’s flagship portable products. Each has been criticized for not matching up to the on-paper specs of earlier, similar products. They also both sell at only relatively small discounts relative to the full-sized models they’re based upon, and would seem to be ripe for either post-release price drops or fairly rapid upgrades.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

But the minis are also both paradigm-shifting products—ones that are highly likely to change the very natures of their namesake families. Up until the iPod mini’s release, the discussion over iPods was largely how much music they could hold and how many hours they could play music before running out of power; afterwards, the value of size, weight, color options, and other capabilities became a critical differentiator for both minis and full-sized iPods. The release of the iPad mini signals that Apple has embraced the same reality, reluctantly acknowledging that there is value in single-handed tablets, but wisely showing up late to the party with a great gift: a solidly built and easy to carry tablet that’s better in almost all regards than the more expensive, 9.7”-screened iPad 2. Just like the iPod mini, people who join the iPad family for the first time with the iPad mini are going to fall completely in love with this device. And even some people who saw themselves as 9.7” iPad lifers will be reconsidering that decision after trying the mini for themselves. Yes, it’s truly that compelling.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

As we discuss further in our comprehensive review of the iPad mini, the single biggest issue faced by Apple’s new model isn’t its $329 asking price or the quality of the overall experience it delivers for those dollars, but rather the tacit understanding of what it lacks. The iPad mini looks, feels, and mostly acts like an oversized fifth-generation iPod touch. It has the same Apple A5 chip inside, not the faster A5X of the third-generation iPad or the even faster A6X of the fourth-generation iPad. And it lacks the Retina pixel density of those full-sized iPads, as well: the iPad mini’s 1024×768 (0.79MP) resolution is comparable to the 1136×640 (0.73MP) resolution of the latest iPod touch, just with different dimensions.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

However, those dimensions actually turn out to be a critical differentiator between the iPad mini and the iPod touch because of the software trick they enable here. Since Apple has kept the same 4:3 aspect ratio of the iPad for the iPad mini, literally every app and game you run on the smaller device runs just about identically to the way it looks on the iPad 2. While most games aren’t terribly different from the iPod touch to the iPad, this often makes a huge difference for apps, many of which were substantially improved when they were redesigned for the iPad’s larger display. Contrary to Apple’s initial dismissal of small rival tablets as “tweeners”—not convenient enough to be pocketed, nor capable enough to run tablet apps—the iPad mini actually winds up in a sweet spot where typing is substantially easier than on iPods, iPhones, or prior iPads, and everything save for the large-screen movie experience benefits from having a lighter, easier display to carry around. In most ways, the iPad mini offers users the best of all worlds. Across the pages that follow, we’ll explain why Apple’s smallest tablet is its best current tablet for most people, setting a design standard that the full-sized iPad should follow in 2013. Read on for all the details.

[Editor’s Note: On November 16, 2012, we added a new section discussing the just-released iPad mini with Wi-Fi + Cellular, available on the eighth page of this review. On November 6, 2013, we updated the rating of the iPad mini to reflect its changed status relative to the subsequently-released iPad mini with Retina displayi.]

iPad mini: The Body, Packaging, and Pack-Ins

As hackneyed and in some cases incorrect as the analogy was with prior devices, there’s no better way to describe the new iPad mini than as a larger iPod touch—quite specifically the just-released fifth-generation model. Apple used that iPod to debut a colored aluminum body with a polished front bezel, and has carried most of the same design elements over to the iPad mini: the classic silver aluminum mini has a white glass face, and the handsome “slate” aluminum mini has a black glass face. Gone are the visual interruptions on the iPod touch’s rear, for good and bad: the standard iPad mini has no plastic antenna cover, no jutting-out rear camera lens, no unnecessary attachment for a wrist strap, and—as the only actual loss—no LED flash. Just like the iPod touch, the black mini has a jet black reflective Apple logo, while the silver mini has a silver reflective logo, but the designs are otherwise boldly minimalist, a natural extension of the even more elegant visual language Apple introduced in the iPhone 5.

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Yet there’s no mistaking the iPad mini for an iPod in either size or other features—it’s otherwise all iPad. We’ll more fully discuss the screen in the next section, but it’s the same shape and resolution as the iPad 1 and iPad 2’s, only 7.9” on the diagonal rather than 9.7”. The Home Button is in the same location below the screen, with a FaceTime HD camera in the same position above the screen. There are still volume buttons and a mute/orientation switch on the right side, a headphone port on the top left, a microphone hole at top center, and a thin Sleep/Wake button at top right. As with the latest iPod touch, it feels a little too small to us, but not unusably so.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

There’s also a substantial collection of speaker holes on the bottom. Two sets of 28 small holes are found off to the left and the right of the Lightning connector on the iPad mini’s bottom, surprisingly introducing stereo speakers for the first time in any of Apple’s iOS product lines. We discuss them further in the Audio section of this review.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Despite all of these similarities to the iPad, the iPad mini feels fundamentally different in your hands thanks to its smaller size and lighter weight. The numbers are obviously different—7.87” tall by 5.3” wide by 0.28” deep at a weight of 0.68 pounds (Wi-Fi) or 0.69 pounds (Wi-Fi + Cellular), versus 9.5” tall by 7.31” wide by 0.37” deep, at 1.44 or 1.46 pounds—but this is a situation where measurements really just don’t convey the full story. In nearly three years of picking up iPads, we have never found ourselves trying to support or pick one up with only two fingers; three fingers is a minimum, and under most circumstances, you’ll want to support a 9.7” iPad with two hands. The iPad mini can and will often be gripped by two or three fingers, and apart from typing or playing games, there is never a strict need to hold it with a second hand.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Part of how Apple accomplished this was by thinning the front screen bezel significantly on the left and right sides. A full-sized iPad gives you nearly 0.7” of space per side to rest your thumb while holding the device; the iPad mini shaves this down to roughly 0.25”—only a little bit more than 1/3 the space, which one might guess is inadequate. It’s not. That’s actually around twice the size of the left and right frames around the iPod touch’s screen; once the size and weight of the device decrease enough, you needn’t wrap your thumb as fully around the front for support, and the bezel can shrink. Just in case you accidentally rub your finger around the screen’s edge, Apple has implemented a new software feature to auto-detect and ignore accidental screen border finger input. During testing, this feature proved inconspicuous; we never had a problem getting the iPad mini to do what we needed it to do.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

It needs to be said that the iPad mini does not feel “impossibly light,” nor does it feel insanely thin; Apple appears to have deliberately chosen to emphasize its solidity relative to competitors. Instead, it feels “right.” Right like the full-sized iPad—something you don’t worry about accidentally crushing in a bag—and right like something that’s telling you it’s made from quality materials, by manufacturing experts. There is no mistaking the $329 iPad mini for the discontinued $99 HP TouchPad, which looked and felt like a piece of junk. Apple may not have satisfied everyone with its $329 base asking price, but it sure did a good job of justifying it here—better than the new iPod touch.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Only two small things about the new design might lead some users to feel otherwise.* First, the front glass feels a little thinner, or at least not as firmly supported by the screen inside. Unlike Apple’s other iPads, which have felt packed with screens up to the edge of the glass, the iPad mini screen makes more of a plink than a plunk sound when it’s typed on, and feels like it’s giving just a little under pressure. We would guess that this will change in a subsequent iteration with a different screen or touch sensor technology, but it takes a little getting used to, and may lead to more easily cracked screens; one of our four iPad minis developed an edge-to-edge crack after less than two weeks of use without having been dropped, a serious issue mitigated considerably by the fact that a local Apple Store replaced it without any hassle. A comparatively tiny issue is that the Home Button is also a little smaller than on past iPads—closer to an iPod touch—and could stand to be just a little larger. [Editor’s Note: This paragraph was updated on November 16, 2012, at the same time as our new cellular section was added.]

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

There’s also a carryover issue from past iPads: the continued tendency of the screen to attract smudges and fingerprints, a problem that is only remedied by anti-smudge screen films that are only just beginning to become available. Apple has tried oleophobic coatings on its devices, but they haven’t been able to stop the rapid onset of smudges, which within days cover the screen and look like the photograph here.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Given the choice to package the iPad mini like the iPod touch or the full-sized iPad, Apple went with a smaller but otherwise nearly identical version of the iPad’s white cardboard box. The front of each package shows a 3/4 angled perspective of a powered-on iPad mini, revealing its white and silver or black and slate body, while black “iPad mini” labels and silver Apple logos are on the box’s sides.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Apple’s packaging claims that iTunes 11 is required for synchronization of the iPad mini with a Mac or PC, but that’s not accurate: iTunes 10.7 generally works just fine, although it displays a full-sized, black-bezeled iPad icon when either mini is initially connected, then no icons thereafter. Most of the things we attempted to synchronize with iTunes 11 worked fine, save for TV shows, which experienced some issues. Transfers of 1GB of media content to the iPad mini with iTunes 10.7 required one minute on average for the actual data, but iTunes required an additional 15-30 seconds just to “prepare” for the transfer process. We’d expect that there will be changes and improvements when iTunes 11 is released, which is now expected to be in late November following a one-month delay from the original October release date.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Inside the package are a Lightning to USB Cable, a 5W USB Power Adapter, an instruction card, warranty pamphlet, and two Apple stickers. The only surprise is the Adapter, which was the subject of confusing reports up until the day of the iPad mini’s release. It was claimed, inaccurately, that the iPad mini would ship with the same 12W USB Power Adapter now included with the fourth-generation iPad, a charger capable of rapidly refueling all iPads. Instead, the adapter inside the box is a smaller but same-priced model identical to the one that has been packaged with iPhones for years, capped at 1 Amp of output—with a needlessly longer charging time for the iPad mini as a consequence. As noted in our Battery and Charging Times section below, this is a sneaky trick, and Apple should really not be stooping to nickel-and-dime shenanigans for a premium-priced product.

iPad mini Screen Quality and Comparisons

Rumors in advance of the iPad mini’s release suggested that Apple chose the 7.9” screen size for a very specific and not particularly heart-warming reason: at that size, it could continue to use the same, arguably outdated LCD panels it had been using in pre-Retina iPhones and iPods, merely cutting 7.85”, 1024×768-pixel rectangles rather than 3.5”, 480×320 ones. The widespread availability and low price of these older screens would have made them an ideal choice for a super-cheap iPad, it was said, so it was more or less understood that Apple would forego a super high-resolution display in exchange for a price savings.

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

In our view, the only reason the iPad mini’s screen quality is being debated is the device’s $329 price tag. Had the mini arrived at the impossible price of $199, an aggressive price of $249, or a typical Apple-style price of $299, few people would have questioned it. But when the base iPad mini sells for more than the $199 or $299 iPod touches with Retina screens—technology that has also been marketed heavily by Apple as a key advantage of full-sized iPads—it seems absent. So why would Apple hold off on it? Possibly because it can. Most first-time iPad customers will love the way the iPad mini looks right now, and it’ll be a perfect incentive to inspire upgrades in a subsequent model—a year from now, a thin, power-sipping IGZO technology screen may well be available in volumes Apple would need for iPad mini production. If you really need the better screen, wait. That’s all there is to it.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

So should you wait? Apple’s made that decision a lot more difficult than might be imagined. Despite whatever similarities there may be in LCD components, the iPad mini’s screen does not look like an iPhone 3GS’s or third-generation iPod touch’s: apart from glass glare, the screen does not suffer from negative blacks, poor off-angle viewing, or streaky backlighting. Instead, you get most of the improvements that have been seen in Retina-equipped screens, only without the raw resolution: blacks look relatively deep, colors are richer, and there’s a nice balance of tones. Dithering that was obvious on the pre-Retina displays is gone, in favor of solid colors—ones that aren’t quite as saturated as on the latest iPads, but are good enough for now, and enough to let users do respectable photo editing on a much-bigger-than-camera-sized screen. We noted that our iPad mini screens had a slightly more yellow tint than our Retina iPads do, though like past Apple devices, it’s more attributable to a “warm” color calibration than anything else.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

How much of a problem is the resolution? That’s going to be a matter of personal debate, but our editors’ take is simple: most of the time, not much. If you’ve used an iPad or iPad 2 before, seeing the same 1024×768 graphics on a nearly 2” smaller screen will actually look like an improvement—the same number of pixels in a smaller space always does. DVD-quality videos looked virtually the same on the iPad mini as they do on full-sized iPads, and even higher-resolution 720p videos looked fantastic on the small screen, though nearly all videos are letterboxed (or zoomed in to odd crops) because of the display’s 4:3 aspect ratio. Most users won’t realize that the iPad mini automatically downloads the 720p version of “HD” videos from the iTunes Store by default, saving space, versus the Retina iPads’ automatic downloading of larger, higher-resolution 1080p videos they can display at the cost of additional storage. Except in close-proximity testing, they won’t notice the difference in video quality, either; it’s there, but not obvious when video is in motion. We’ll discuss the impact on gaming in the next section of this review.

If you’re using the iPad mini for typical business or reading purposes, you’ll likely be so happy with how much better the software experience is on this device than an iPod touch that you won’t particularly mind that the fonts, buttons, and backgrounds in apps and web pages aren’t quite pixel-level sharp. The only issues you’ll experience will be with particularly small text, which like the original iPads benefits from manual zooming in from time to time. We’ll discuss that point further in the next section, as well, but it suffices to say that resolution will not be a serious issue for most apps on the iPad mini.

The iPad mini iOS Experience: Like an iPad, Not an iPod

“Just a big iPod touch” was the phrase that some people used in an effort to diminish the original iPad, implying that Apple had done little more than stretch out a small device, give it a new screen and battery, and jack up the price. That wasn’t true: the iPad was as important for its software differences as its hardware. While Apple hurt itself by unveiling the iPad without a killer app to show off what the new 9.7” display could do, it had actually redesigned most of the iPhone’s built-in applications to take better advantage of the extra real estate, fundamentally improving them in the process. iPad apps turned out to be good enough that Apple and developers used them as the basis for nearly identical Mac apps, and the built-in apps have received various tweaks during two subsequent iOS updates. It’s a big deal, though not particularly surprising, that they’re all intact on the iPad mini.

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

What that means is that a fresh-from-box iPad mini is ready to do all sorts of things immediately, before you ever visit Apple’s massive App Store. You can play videos, music, and photos from dedicated apps, each now capable of accessing content stored on the device, plus media stored elsewhere: videos shared by your home computers, plus music and photos stored on Apple’s free iCloud servers. Three separate apps (Camera, FaceTime, and Photo Booth) yet you make use of the iPad mini’s twin cameras, as discussed further in the following section of this review. You can take notes by typing on a notepad, the contents of which can be instantly synced to a computer via iCloud, send and receive e-mail or instant messages, use full-screen 2-D and 3-D maps, and of course, browse the web with the integrated, highly capable Safari browser. All have the extra features of the iPad versions of these apps, such as separate scrolling left-of-screen lists and right-of-screen viewer windows and larger keyboards.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

This is almost always a good thing—Apple’s apps are just better on the iPad than on its smaller devices, because you can do more without going back and forth between screens. Moreover, typing is tremendously better on the iPad mini; large-handed users will quickly find text entry easier than on any past iOS device, in either widescreen or portrait mode, and only small (primarily cosmetic) tweaks have been made to the keyboards relative to the full-sized iPad’s. And because of the two-pane app interfaces, apps such as Mail, Messages, and Notes let you simultaneously see lists while focusing on the specific content of a given piece of content. In almost every case, the iPad version of an app is better than the iPhone/iPod touch version; only some third-party apps with poorly designed user interfaces, such as the recently updated Twitter for iPad, look or feel better in their smaller versions.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

While most of these apps felt every bit as good on the iPad mini as on a current full-sized iPad, Safari’s visual performance on the iPad mini wasn’t ideal. On the 9.7” iPad and iPad 2 displays, there were times when Apple’s automatically resized web pages didn’t look perfect—particularly in the text—but they were so much better than early iPhones and iPod touches that the rough pixels didn’t really matter. With the iPad mini, the same jagged text at a smaller size becomes just a little less readable, an issue that’s more pronounced when viewing fully zoomed-out pages in portrait mode than landscape. This is the only time when the iPad mini approaches the experience of using a pre-Retina iPhone or iPod touch, and if you’re a heavy web browser, it might bother you more. We did notice some unusual graphics glitches in web pages when rendering certain test web pages on the iPad mini, including an odd tendency of Safari to flicker between improperly and properly anti-aliased versions of some graphic elements, but found that this problem also exists on the latest iOS 6 version for the iPad 2, as well. It’s a bug that will hopefully be addressed in iOS 6.0.2 or 6.1.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

One of the things you’ll find here but not on the iPad 2 is Siri, the voice-recognizing assistant that can be called up by holding down the Home Button, asked questions, and used for dictation. Siri’s performance is virtually identical on the iPad mini to the full-sized iPads, which is to say very good so long as Apple’s servers are cooperative and the top microphone is in your general direction. You can use it to “play The End by The Beatles,” and it does a very good job with artist, song and album names. Additionally, Siri typically gets 98 words out of 100 correct when used as a dictation device, which is excellent; the feature is more limited by its scope, reliability, and familiarity with personally-specific proper nouns than anything else.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

You also get a highly competent Calendar app, Clock app, and Reminders app that are all tied into Siri, enabling you to merely speak your desire to schedule a meeting or event, set a sonic alarm, or receive a text or beeping reminder. The seemingly minor convenience of being able to “set an alarm for 7:45am” or “create an event for Madeline’s birthday on July 7” merely by speaking the words to a nearby iPad mini continues to feel like a futuristic and welcome feature of iOS. And thanks to iCloud, these notifications synchronize across all of your iOS 5 or newer devices, and Mac computers. Only one somewhat noteworthy iOS 6 feature is missing from the iPad mini, just as it is on the iPad, and that’s the digital wallet feature Passbook. Whether people will want to carry boarding passes, movie tickets, and the like on an iPad mini is open to debate, but if it can be done on the iPod touch, it should be done here, too.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Some users will similarly debate the iPad mini’s value with reading apps, such as Apple’s free iBooks and various Newsstand-supported periodicals. Coming from 3.5”-screened iPhones and iPod touches, we’ve generally found any larger screen size to be welcome for reading, and we generally had no problem reading even two-page widescreen spreads in books and other publications on the iPad mini’s 7.9” display. Our own 2013 iPhone + iPod Buyers’ Guide and New iPad Buyers’ Guide were optimized for small screens, and many other books and magazines were readied for pre-Retina iPads, as well; publications and books we tested almost universally struck us as very readable, regardless of the technologies they used. That said, some users may find the iPad mini’s widescreen to be too small for reading small text on two-page spreads, in which case zooming in or changing orientations are both options.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Gamers will be surprised at how good most 3-D games wind up looking on the screen, again because the sharpness of individual pixels isn’t necessarily critical when those pixels are constantly in motion. The big jump in iPad 3-D graphics performance actually came with the iPad 2, which the iPad mini is based upon, while third-generation iPad games have effectively presented the same polygons, textures, and effects with sharper edges and a little extra detail—something that will change with the fourth-generation iPad, but hasn’t happened yet.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

The iPad mini is effectively equivalent to the iPad 2 as a gaming device: games with static 2-D images don’t look quite as impressive as on the Retina iPads, as you’ll be able to see pixels, but we strongly suspect that most people just won’t care. Frame rate issues, however, were apparent in a number of recent cutting-edge 3-D games on the iPad mini; optimizations will be necessary to make these titles run smoother.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

For the spec-obsessed, we’ll note that the iPad mini’s Geekbench 2 overall CPU and GPU benchmarking results placed it at 752, virtually identical to the score of 748 reached by the third-generation iPad, despite significant differences in their A5/A5X processors and RAM (512MB versus 1GB). They were both ahead of the slower-running A5 chip in the fifth-generation iPod touch, which scored a 524, and behind the iPhone 5, which scored an 856. The fourth-generation iPad blew all of the other iOS devices away with a Geekbench score of 1769.

iPad mini Camera / Audio / Speaker Performance + Accessories

Almost identical to the fifth-generation iPod touch, the iPad mini has two cameras built in: a front-facing FaceTime HD camera with 1280×960 still image and 1280×720 video capabilities, and a rear-facing camera with 2592×1936 (5-Megapixel) resolution. In short, these cameras represent huge improvements over the poor versions found in the iPad 2, particularly for FaceTime calling and rear still photography; they do not rival the overall quality of good standalone point-and-shoot digital cameras, but come close enough to budget models, and well exceed the performance of cameras found on inexpensive tablets.

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Screenshots can’t show you a key asset of Apple’s cameras: the frame rate of on-screen video is always smooth, regardless of whether you’re previewing still images, making video recordings, or FaceTime video conferencing. Competitors have included cameras with seemingly good capture resolutions but very poor frame rates, such that on-screen video looks stilted and jittery, even when you’re just trying to hold the camera still for previewing a shot. Apple historically prioritized smooth frame rates over raw resolution, so that the experience of looking at the screens of its earlier devices was never jarring, regardless of how clean the images were. With the iPad mini, you get very good performance in both respects: smooth frame rates and respectable resolutions for both front and back cameras, according to their purposes.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

The iPad mini’s front 1280×960 camera takes decent still pictures—grainy but sharp, with “good enough” color rendition and pretty obvious noise. While this doesn’t sound fantastic, this camera has enough pixels to fill the iPad mini’s screen, and it’s primarily used for FaceTime video calling, where visible compression and low-resolution tradeoffs were historically necessary just to let two people communicate over the Internet. Since it’s capable of FaceTime HD calling, which the iPad, iPad 2, and iPad 3 were not, the iPad mini’s video chats actually look better than on any iPad save for the new fourth-generation model, which is virtually identical. So long as you have the bandwidth for a high-resolution connection, you’ll send (and possibly see) noticeably clearer and less grainy video during FaceTime calls, as well as recording higher-quality front-facing video when necessary.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

On the back is the 5-Megapixel still and 1080p video camera, which is effectively carried over from the third-generation iPad and fifth-generation iPod touch. As a general statement, still image quality is highly similar between these three devices, though it should be noted that the iPad mini has a smaller lens than the latest full-sized iPads, and sometimes gathers just a hint less light, resulting in tiny ISO differences that rarely create major differences between their photos. Video quality is also similar, producing considerable noise in low to medium indoor lighting, and really thriving in bright light outdoors. Improved low light performance and sensor-level noise improvements would be at the top of our list for future iPad mini cameras.

Audio, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and AirPlay Performance

Headphone port audio performance is very similar between the iPad mini and its full-sized brother—both have relatively low static floors, the ability to replicate nearly the entire audio spectrum without distortion, and very little interference in their audio signals. When initially connecting high-end headphones, you may hear a quick series of very tiny clicks as the iPad checks for a wired remote control, but they’re nearly inaudible and not a major issue; similar sounds can be heard on most of Apple’s portable devices. We noticed a very tiny increase in treble sharpness on the iPad mini relative to the third- and fourth-generation iPads, but it was so minor that the difference was only apparent through expensive headphones.

As noted earlier in this review, the iPad mini is the first iPad to include stereo speakers. Somewhat surprisingly, Apple initially avoided describing them in the plural as “speakers” or acknowledging that they were stereo until an Amazon comparison ad suggested that the mini was monaural. Why wouldn’t Apple boast about this new feature? Most likely because they’re so close together and only “stereo” to the extent that you’re holding the iPad close to your face in portrait orientation. And yes, they do in fact perform two-channel sound, but at an aggregate volume level comparable to the iPhone 5, only with a little added clarity. The full-sized iPad is a bit louder, and in the same fidelity class: entirely adequate for casual listening to music or videos on a desk or nightstand.

The iPad mini is compatible with the same range of Bluetooth 2.0/2.1/3.0/4.0 and AirPlay wireless accessories that the third- and fourth-generation iPads can use, and though we could go into exhaustive detail regarding all of them, it suffices to say that Bluetooth performance is effectively identical to full-sized iPads—there was nothing unusual about pairing the mini with Bluetooth car stereos, speakers, or headphones, including the latest Bluetooth 4.0 speakers we’ve tested.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Wi-Fi performance on the iPad mini is akin to the full-sized iPads, capable of supporting 802.11a/b/g/n networks, and operating on either 2.4GHz or 5GHz 802.11n frequencies. Data transfer speeds appeared to be essentially identical between the iPad mini and the Retina iPads, achieving download speeds of 15 to 28Mbps, and upload speeds in the 3Mbps range, both heavily network bandwidth-dependent. Range and robustness did not appear to be issues at all during our testing across a large space.

AirPlay speakers also worked normally, with the same caching delays we’ve noticed relative to Bluetooth. Most AirPlay video features worked great with the Apple TV, as well: streaming music, photos, and even 720p videos worked without problems. On the other hand, AirPlay Mirroring was spotty. This feature enables an iPad mini to wirelessly share whatever’s on the screen with a television, and while it worked reasonably for the iPad’s own UI and built-in applications, we noticed significant frame rate drop-offs when trying to play games—a problem that began to show up in earlier iOS 6 devices, as well. Apple has not yet shipped wired video accessories to enable the iPad mini, fourth-generation iPad, iPhone 5, or fifth-generation iPod touch to perform video through TVs without the Apple TV, so it’s not entirely clear whether the issue is in these iOS devices or the Apple TV, but we’d suspect the latter.

Wired Accessories, Including Camera and 30-Pin Dock Connector Adapters

Though we haven’t been particularly thrilled about the way Apple has handled the transition from its classic Dock Connector to the newer, smaller Lightning port found on the iPad mini and its other recent devices, the standard is here to stay for the time being, and it does have some advantages—particularly for new iPad users—though also some consequences.

On the positive side, the $19 Lightning to USB Cables Apple is currently selling and supplying with its devices are a little better than the Dock Connector cables they replaced. They can be plugged in rightside up or upside down, working in either orientation—a small convenience you’ll appreciate more as you use them—and they are giving Apple a little more room to squeeze extra things into its casings, such as the iPad mini’s second speaker. That wasn’t the case with the fourth-generation iPad, but it will presumably be a benefit with the fifth-generation version next year.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Apple has also introduced the $29 Lightning to 30-Pin Adapter and $39 Lightning to 30-Pin Adapter (0.2m), which enable the iPad mini, fourth-generation iPad, iPhone 5, fifth-generation iPod touch, and seventh-generation iPod nano to connect to most Dock Connector-based accessories.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

While seriously overpriced, these Adapters do let the mini perform just like earlier devices with speakers, audio accessories, and data accessories—notably including the prior-generation iPad Camera Connection Kit and USB CoreMIDI music accessories —and only have problems with video accessories. When the prior Dock Connector-based Digital AV or VGA Adapters are connected, the iPad mini puts up a “this accessory is not supported by iPad” dialogue box, and seemingly awaits as-yet-unreleased Lightning to VGA and Digital AV (HDMI) Adapters for wired video output.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

It’s also worth mentioning that Apple has introduced the Lightning to SD Card Camera Reader and Lightning to USB Camera Adapter, two redesigned versions of accessories that were previously available for older iPads. Both new accessories feature cabled connectors rather than oversized Dock Connector housings, and consequently are going to be compatible with virtually every iPad mini case on the market—something that couldn’t be said about their predecessors. Our tests suggest that these camera accessories perform at the same speed as the prior Dock Connector versions when connected to the same Lightning port-equipped devices using Lightning to 30-Pin Adapters. The Lightning to SD Card Camera Reader notably took 1 minute and 1 second to transfer 100 photos (188MB) from an SD card to the iPad mini, versus 33 seconds on the fourth-generation iPad, and 1 minute and 39 seconds on the third-generation iPad.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Unfortunately, most of Apple’s new Lightning accessories cost more than their predecessors. The SD and USB Camera adapters now sell for $29 each, as opposed to coming together in a $29 kit, and there are similarly unnecessary premiums across other Lightning accessories. The $49 Digital AV (HDMI) and VGA Adapters sell for $10 to $20 more than their prior versions. Third-party accessory makers warn that recent changes to Apple’s Made for iPad program will lead to similarly inflated prices for future accessories, as well, quite possibly including unnecessarily $40 car chargers that once could have been had for $20 with identical functionality. Buying into the iPad mini means implicitly accepting an even higher “Apple tax” that had already bordered on problematic, and will now restrict the ability of other companies to produce reasonably-priced products. The only way to signal your distaste is not to buy the new Lightning accessories, or hold off on the purchase of Lightning-equipped Apple devices until they or their accessory prices fall.

iPad mini Battery Tests + Charging Times

One of the bigger mysteries surrounding the iPad mini even after its launch was how Apple would handle recharging. In past years, Apple made two separate claims about its batteries—their run time under specific usage scenarios, typically 9-10 hours, and then their recharge times, which were generally around 4 hours. The latter claim suspiciously disappeared when the third-generation iPad was released, and it was subsequently discovered that a huge, slow-charging battery was the reason: 6.5-hour recharge times weren’t uncommon, but Apple didn’t want to advertise that fact. This week, Apple released a new 12W USB Power Adapter that cuts the charge times down for the last two iPads, and there was a claim that the iPad mini would have the same charger in its box, too.

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

As noted earlier in this review, it doesn’t—instead, Apple has included a 5W USB Power Adapter that’s identical to the ones it’s been shipping with iPhones for years. This isn’t necessarily crazy, but its disappointing, as the iPad mini turns out to be capable of much faster charging than the iPhone. The iPad mini contains a 4490mAh rechargeable battery, which is around three times as large as an iPhone battery, 70% the size of an iPad or iPad 2 battery, and only 40% the size of a Retina iPad battery. With the packed-in 5W Adapter, the iPad mini recharged in 4 hours and 38 minutes—longer than early iPads, but shorter than the problematic Retina iPads. Plugged into the new 12W USB Power Adapter, however, the iPad mini went from empty to full in 2 hours and 50 minutes, a fantastic speed.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Why wouldn’t Apple include the better adapter, since it sells each for the same $19 price? We can only guess that it wouldn’t make sense to pack in the slower, less capable charger unless it wanted to find a way to sell some people a second adapter. Some might suggest that the included 5W Adapter is smaller, and therefore better, but we’d be willing to bet that the average person would sooner shave roughly two hours off every recharge time than modestly reduce the size of the included wall charger.

Owners of recent Mac computers have the ability to charge at least one iPad at 2.1-Amp speeds, so if you have one of these Macs, you may find that your iPad mini charges faster than with its included adapter. A 2011-vintage iMac reported that the iPad mini was drawing 2.1 Amps of current, which is to say that it’s certainly capable of fully using all of the iPad chargers that have been released over the last few years—assuming you use one of Apple’s Lightning to USB Cables or Adapters with them.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Other battery test results were generally pretty good given the size and weight of the iPad mini, though generally somewhat below the performance of full-sized iPads. For instance, Apple promises that the iPad mini can get up to 10 hours of Wi-Fi web browsing on a single battery charge, the same as its promise for every iPad model. In our testing, however, the iPad mini actually lasted for 9 hours, 11 minutes on our standard web browsing test, with the screen at 50% brightness. This is 55 minutes less than the same test on the third-generation iPad, 49 minutes below Apple’s 10-hour claim, and 43 minutes below the fourth-generation iPad. [Editor’s Note, November 16, 2012: Cellular test results are now discussed on the eighth page of this review.]

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Apple claims that the iPad mini can play videos for up to 10 hours on a single charge, the same as its web browsing time. In our testing, however, the iPad mini surpassed that number, running for 10 hours and 46 minutes with 50% volume on the speaker and 50% brightness on the screen, plus an active (but not actively used) Wi-Fi connection—a very good result, though below the 12 hour and 56 minute run time of the third-generation iPad, and the 13 hour and 52 minute run time of the fourth-generation iPad.

Apple doesn’t provide estimates for the iPad mini’s game playing run time, but we run the test regardless as many people use iPads as gaming devices. Results for this test always come out below the web and video times—the third-generation iPad achieved 6 hours and 42 minutes at 50% brightness with 50% speaker volume, playing Infinity Blade II continuously. The iPad mini roughly matched it, hitting 6 hours and 40 minutes on the same settings with the same game. Notably, the third-generation iPad’s run time for this test was a nearly identical 6 hours and 42 minutes, and the fourth-generation iPad fell just a bit shorter at 6 hours and 21 minutes; both Retina-equipped iPads were pushing far more pixels than the mini, though.

Two other tests we like to run test an iPad’s ability to serve for extended times as a camera. The iPad mini was able to record video with its rear camera for 5 hours and 36 minutes—around 16% battery loss per hour. This is lower than full-sized iPads, which typically get a little over 7 hours of recording time. The iPad mini ran for 6 hours and 3 minutes of continuous FaceTime video calling, as well.

Overall, the iPad mini’s battery performance was pretty much in line with our expectations: roughly equivalent to the full-sized iPad for marquee tasks, and a little below it for others. Most users will find its running times to be more than acceptable, and in the event that they’re not, recharging—with the right computer or adapter—is so quick that you’ll be back up and running in little time.

Conclusions

One of the major challenges Apple has faced over the past several years has been an inability of both critics and consumers to fully grasp the importance of devices it releases in new form factors—until something, perhaps their unexpected popularity, clicks conceptually and begins to make sense. Just as the iPod mini was written off by some people as underpowered and overpriced, the iPhone and iPad were derided by pundits and competitors alike before they were widely embraced as paradigm changers. So it’s not hugely surprising that excitement over the iPad mini seemed to dissipate once Apple announced its $329 starting price and non-Retina screen technology. If either of these factors had been different, the iPad mini would easily have been the immediate must-have gift of the season, but instead, Apple quickly found itself having to defend the price and deflect concerns about the display.

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

While we have no desire to advocate on Apple’s behalf, the fact is that the iPad mini is its own best spokesperson—no cute commercial or razor-sharp marketing phrase will be able to sell this device as easily as it sells itself when handled for the first time. The “we don’t build junk” and “every inch an iPad” pitches Apple is using might come across as hubris, but they’re so clearly accurate when handling and using the iPad mini that we would fully agree with them. Even after years of using and loving full-sized iPads, the iPad mini feels so right and works so well that several of our editors are nearly ready to personally transition to these smaller devices, a serious change akin to our gradual moves from 15” and 13” MacBook Pros to 11” MacBook Airs. That iPad minis are available with the same capacities and 4G/LTE cellular capabilities as full-sized iPads makes a strong case for treating the devices identically; like Apple’s laptops, they may eventually be distinguished more by the size of their screens, batteries, and speakers than core functionality.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

That isn’t to say that everything’s rosy with the iPad mini, though. Apple has used the Lightning port as an excuse to justify ever-increasing accessory prices, and only the tip of the iceberg is currently visible: people may believe that $19 cables and $29-$49 adapters are only temporary, but from what we’ve heard, developers believe that this is Apple’s “new normal”—overpriced Lightning accessories that are no better than their Dock Connector predecessors. Combine that with Apple’s decision to ship the mini with a less powerful wall adapter than it’s capable of using, and you begin to wonder how much nickel-and-diming Tim Cook’s Apple hopes to accomplish with these devices. We would expect a marginally profitable or loss-leading company to make its margins on accessories for a cut-price tablet, but a cash-flush Apple selling premium products at premium pricing should be better than that.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Judged strictly on its own merits, the iPad mini is an excellent new tablet—so great that it represents a threat to both iPod touches and full-sized iPads, as its size and capabilities are arguably ideal for doing virtually everything they can do. It wouldn’t be a shock to see a future version cut at least a little into iPhone sales as well, at least for people who get used to carrying it around all day in something other than a pants pocket. Far from being the “tweener” that Apple’s executive team once mocked, the iPad mini has emerged fully formed as a product with its own value. Today, it has only one competitive problem: the fact that its rivals are already competent enough to justify considerably lower entry prices, and keep improving every few months. Considered in isolation, we would highly recommend this version on its own merits; however, competitive pressure will compel Apple to make the next version even better and possibly less expensive. Consequently, if this version doesn’t have the specific feature or price point you’re looking for, hold off for six or twelve months and see what it comes up with. As things tend to go with Apple, you’ll love it if you buy it now, but you’ll probably want the next version even more.

Postscript: iPad mini LTE Speeds, Battery Tests, and Network Recommendations

Apart from size and weight, the iPad mini’s arguably biggest advantage over the iPad 2 is support for LTE wireless networks—an optional feature that debuted in March 2012’s third-generation iPad and September 2012’s iPhone 5 before arriving for the iPad mini on November 15, two weeks after the release of the Wi-Fi-only version. Just like the full-sized iPad, the iPad mini’s cellular versions sell for $130 premiums over the Wi-Fi models, starting at $459 (16GB), and continuing to $559 (32GB) and $659 (64GB) models. Apple calls them “iPad minis with Wi-Fi + Cellular,” and sells black and white versions at each capacity. Three separate U.S. models are sold unlocked but designed for specific cellular providers’ networks, following the same model as the full-sized iPad.

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

There’s one noteworthy difference between the Wi-Fi + Cellular iPad minis and all of their predecessors. While the cellular antenna compartment remains on the top, interrupting the front bezel before stretching across the top and back, but this time, the plastic panel is now color-matched to the iPad’s painted glass bezel. Unlike Apple’s white full-sized cellular iPads, which had black antenna covers, the white cellular iPad mini has a white antenna cover to match the modest bits of white plastic found inside its headphone and Lightning port holes. The black mini continues to have a black plastic cover to match its now slate aluminum rear, which makes the difference in materials less conspicuous.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

While this isn’t a huge change, it enables the white iPad mini to look better than Apple’s color-mismatched white iPod touch, which mixed white, silver, and black across its surfaces. It also improves on the three generations of full-sized white cellular iPads that have shipped with mismatched antenna compartments, a welcome enhancement that we wouldn’t be surprised to see in a fifth-generation iPad next year.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

By comparison, changes to the packaging and pack-ins for the cellular model are minimal. Neither the front nor the sides of the box provide any indication that the Wi-Fi + Cellular model is different from the Wi-Fi-only iPad mini; the only indications are on two stickers on the back of the box. The first includes the phrase “iPad mini Wi-Fi Cell [XX]GB [White/Black],” with the Verizon and Sprint versions adding carrier initials. A second sticker has a cellular tower icon, plus a list of cellular standards supported by the device. AT&T’s version lists GSM and EDGE on 850/900/1800/1900MHz frequencies, UMTS, HSPA+, and DC-HSDPA across 850/900/1900/2100MHz, and LTE on bands 4 and 17. The Verizon version notes that it supports CDMA EV-DO Rev. A and Rev. B (800/1900/2100MHz frequencies), as well as GSM, EDGE, UMTS, and HSPA+/DC-HSDPA on the same frequencies and bands as AT&T’s version, with LTE support on bands 1, 3, 5, 13, and 25. CDMA support is also included in the Sprint iPad mini, but not the AT&T version.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

The same Lightning to USB Cable and 5W USB Power Adapter are included in the package, augmented only by one of Apple’s “slightly better than paperclip” SIM Card removal tools, and a nano SIM card that’s now housed inside a tray on the mini’s lower right edge. Apple’s included instruction card has been updated to note the location of the SIM tray, and there’s a small image inside the cardboard wrapper showing how the tray can be ejected with the tool, but that’s it. Everything else is physically the same as with the Wi-Fi-only iPad mini.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Setting up cellular service remains extremely easy. After you’ve stepped through the gray startup screens to activate the iPad mini—a process that can incidentally be handled for free using the cellular connection rather than Wi-Fi or iTunes—you go into Settings and Cellular Data, using the View Account button to set up service with your provider. Users who purchase the AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint iPad minis will be instantly taken to account signup or transfer pages for those devices, and activation of cellular service will typically require mere minutes after you’ve finished entering your address and credit card information.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

A small box will appear on screen to confirm that the device has been activated, and the “iPad” name at the upper right corner will become the carrier’s name with a cellular signal bar and network indicator (generally “o” for pre-3G, “3G,” “4G,” or “LTE”); turning off the cellular antenna in settings is indicated with a switch from the cellular provider’s name back to “iPad.” Because each iPad mini is shipped unlocked, you can replace the nano SIM when traveling by purchasing a pre-paid card from an international provider, assuming that the provider offers nano SIMs. They’re becoming increasingly common.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Just as with prior iPads, the cellular iPad mini does not require a long-term service agreement: in exchange for buying the device at its full, unsubsidized price, users can purchase cellular data in one-month blocks as needed, switching between data plans as their needs change. Each provider has its own collection of service tiers, with AT&T’s starting at $15 for 250MB of data and Verizon at $20 for 1GB of data, each climbing from there. As with the iPhone, AT&T continues to hold its “Mobile Hotspot” feature hostage on the iPad, requiring users to pay $50 per month for a 5GB plus Hotspot plan, while Verizon offers its identical “Personal Hotspot” for free at every price point. This means that the Verizon iPad can share any one of its cellular data plans with a computer; AT&T doesn’t do this, and Sprint offers $20-$50 Mobile Hotspot add-ons, as well.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Although this and some comparatively smaller plan price differences are good reasons to prefer one iPad cellular provider over the other, the major differentiators between companies are cellular speeds and network footprints. With roughly 440 covered cities, Verizon’s LTE network is the largest, now available to roughly 80% of the U.S.‘s population, though far less of its actual geographic territory. AT&T’s LTE network covers around 110 cities, with promises of rapid expansion over the next six months, and Sprint’s LTE network has roughly 50, with the promise of 100 in the near future. Numbers aside, Sprint’s LTE network is currently limited to only a handful of states, so AT&T’s and Verizon’s networks are certainly better options for most users. Because there’s still no Sprint LTE coverage where we work and live, we’ve opted not to test that version of the iPad mini; without an LTE connection, its peak speeds are roughly equivalent to Verizon’s pre-LTE 3G network—dog slow.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

As was the case with the third-generation iPad and iPhone 5, the iPad mini comes with some LTE-related caveats. Verizon’s LTE service is indeed more widespread geographically than AT&T’s, but AT&T’s LTE tends to be faster for downloads where it’s available, sometimes by a factor of 2:1. When you add to this the fact that AT&T’s non-LTE “4G” backup service is faster than Verizon’s non-LTE “3G” service for downloads by a similar 2:1 or 3:1 ratio, you may come to the conclusion—as our editors generally have—that AT&T’s service is, despite significant non-speed caveats, safer for downloading. However, uploads may be another story; Verizon’s iPad mini LTE upload speeds weren’t phenomenal in our testing, but they were faster than AT&T’s in areas with middling LTE signals.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

All of this boils down to some specific recommendations. If you live in and travel to places with guaranteed Verizon LTE coverage, you’ll get very fast download speeds, solid upload speeds, free Personal Hotspot use, and FaceTime Over Cellular video calling. Our local tests showed Verizon’s LTE network running at download speeds ranging from 8-30Mbps, with 3-15Mbps LTE uploads. But where Verizon doesn’t offer LTE, its roughly 0.5-1.5Mbps 3G download speeds and 0.5-1Mbps 3G upload speeds are so slow that you’ll find the Hotspot and FaceTime Over Cellular features to be all but unusable. Where we test, AT&T’s 4G download speeds tend to be in the 3-4Mbps range, with 4G uploads in the 1-2Mbps range; its LTE speeds range from 9-60Mbps for downloads, and 0.5-20Mbps for uploads. You give up free Hotspot and FaceTime Over Cellular features, but have the opportunity to achieve faster LTE and non-LTE speeds. You can choose the option that’s better for you.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Note that these numbers proved to be consistent from the third- and fourth-generation iPads to the iPad mini, as well. We noticed only one anomaly with AT&T LTE iPads and iPad minis relative to the AT&T LTE iPhone 5 that’s worth mentioning, and that’s as-yet-unexplained slower uploading when connected to the same 2-3 bar LTE network in our primary testing location. As we’ve seen consistent results from iPad to iPad, reporting upload speeds roughly 1/3 as fast as the iPhone 5 in the exact same location, we’re not sure whether this is due to an issue with specific AT&T towers, iPad LTE hardware, or something else.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Apple promises that the iPad mini will achieve up to 9 hours of battery life when browsing web sites using the cellular connection, so we ran our standard battery test on the Verizon iPad mini to see how it did. With three bars of LTE strength in our standard testing location, the Verizon iPad mini hit 8 hours and 11 minutes on our test, which loads a new web page once per minute with the screen at 50% brightness. While this is a bit below Apple’s nine-hour claim, and falls around an hour shy of what we saw with the third-generation cellular iPad, it’s nearly two hours behind our test result for the fourth-generation cellular iPad. Subsequent testing on an AT&T iPad mini ran for 8 hours and 29 minutes on the same test. We also conducted another test and saw how much screen brightness impacted cellular run time: dropping the brightness to around 35% on the AT&T model led to a 9 hour and 12 minute run time, which is to say that you can really squeeze out some extra longevity if you compromise on illumination.

 

Review: Apple iPad mini (16GB/32GB/64GB)

Our impressions of the iPad mini with Wi-Fi + Cellular are basically the same as they have been for the full-sized cellular iPads—excellent technology with very good battery life at a slightly unappealing price premium. Due to both its lower overall price and more convenient size, there’s little question in our minds that the 7.9”-screened mini will find its way into more travel bags and car dashboards than any full-sized iPad, however, just as the mini feels around $30 more expensive than it should be, the $130 cellular premium is another $30 above its natural price point, taking a notch off of what would otherwise be a high recommendation. Add to this the increasing penetration of personal/mobile hotspot features on smartphone plans, enabling iPhone and other users to share their cellular data on an as-needed basis with their iPads, and the need to pay extra for the iPad mini with Wi-Fi + Cellular’s LTE service becomes even more questionable. That said, if you don’t have a smartphone with hotspot functionality, and you’re willing to pay the extra dollars for this model, you’ll find the iPad mini with Wi-Fi + Cellular’s “data anywhere” option to be extremely useful when you’re away from a home, school, or office Wi-Fi network. The price premium is just steep enough to deter impulse purchases, something we continue to hope (though not expect) will change for the next generation of these devices.

Our Rating

B+
Recommended

iPad mini with Wi-Fi
(as rated late 2013)

B
Recommended

iPad mini with Wi-Fi + Cellular
(as rated late 2013)

A-
Highly Recommended

iPad mini with Wi-Fi
(originally rated late 2012)

B+
Recommended

iPad mini with Wi-Fi + Cellular
(originally rated late 2012)

Company and Price

Company: Apple Inc.

Website: www.Apple.com

Model: iPad mini

Price: $329-$529 Wi-Fi / $459-$659 4G

Compatible: PC / Mac / iCloud

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