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.
Released 11 days after the supposedly “identical but larger” iPad Air, Apple’s new iPad mini with Retina Display ($399-$829) is rolling out in limited quantities to eight countries right now. With the same physical footprint as the first iPad mini but 0.3 millimeters thicker (7.5 versus 7.2mm) and 0.05 pounds heavier (0.73 versus 0.68 pounds), the Retina version of the iPad mini is most noticeably different for three reasons: it has a new 326dpi 2048×1536 screen, an A7 processor versus the original’s A5, and a second microphone on the back for noise cancellation. In early testing, we’ve noted that the screen appears to be pretty much as expected relative to the iPad Air’s version, which is to say visibly crisper due to the higher dot pitch, while retaining similar color characteristics. Also, the A7 processor has been benchmarked at 1.3GHz — a bit slower than the iPad Air’s 1.4GHz version. We’re anxious to see the differences in performance and battery life relative to the Air, and are already putting multiple new units through our battery of tests.
The iPad mini with Retina display ($399-$829) became inevitable the day its predecessor was announced in October 2012: legions of people explicitly skipped the excellent first-generation iPad mini because they wanted a version with a high-resolution 2048×1536 display, rather than the iPad 2-like 1024×768 screen Apple initially offered. One year later, Apple announced exactly that product, and less than one month later, it began to arrive in stores. In short, the Retina iPad mini is nearly as great as we hoped it would be, but just like past iPads, it arrives with some small caveats of its own.
Over the past year, Apple figured out how to mass-manufacture an iPad mini-sized device with the screen resolution, capabilities and battery life of a full-sized Retina iPad — a process that isn’t as simple as it might have seemed when customers began asking for it last year. A brand-new high-resolution display was needed, as were a processor that ran cooler than prior iPad chips, and a more powerful battery that could fit into such a small enclosure. Simultaneous work on the iPhone 5s and iPad Air helped Apple put together all of the pieces it needed for the Retina iPad mini, ultimately requiring only the slightest bumps in thickness and weight over its predecessor. Much as the first iPad mini directly paralleled the iPad 2 with a little DNA from the iPhone 4S, the Retina iPad mini parallels the iPad Air with a little influence from the iPhone 5s.
“Parallels” turns out to be the key word here, as initial optimism that the Retina iPad mini would be a “no compromise” little brother to the iPad Air has now been replaced with a more realistic understanding of its capabilities. For $100 more than the first-generation mini and $100 less than the iPad Air, you can expect screen, battery, and processor improvements that are collectively around five times better than the former, and only 10% behind the latter, though the importance of each difference will vary from person to person. While the Retina mini’s recharging time, weight, and price have all increased from the original mini, it’s still faster, lighter, and more affordable than the Air. So the new iPad mini most certainly is a compromise, but it’s still a great product, and the only question our editors debated was whether it was roughly equal to or better than its larger sibling.
Since the iPad mini with Retina display has so much in common with the iPad Air, there’s some overlap between our reviews of these devices, but you’ll find plenty of new detail on the differences between them in the pages that follow. Initially published on November 14, 2013, this review is based upon testing of four separate Retina iPad minis, and was updated on November 22 and 23 to include additional details on the Wi-Fi + Cellular model that lagged behind the Wi-Fi-only version in availability. We hope you enjoy all of the details we’ve compiled for you; click on the navigation drop-down to see our comprehensive nine-page review in digestible pieces.
Big Picture: The Retina iPad mini, iOS 7, iLife + iWork
The iPad mini with Retina display is currently Apple’s second most powerful tablet computer — the sequel to 2012’s first-generation iPad mini, and a smaller version of 2013’s iPad Air. It’s the second Apple tablet with a 7.9” screen, and the first Apple 7.9” screen with 2048×1536 resolution, for a dot pitch of 326 pixels per inch (PPI). Even at a distance of six inches away, those pixels are visibly indistinguishable from each other; this dot density is higher than most printed color documents, as well as the 9.7”-screened, 264-PPI iPad Air. Since Apple kept the screen resolution the same between the iPad Air and Retina iPad mini, identical image detail is displayed on both devices, but pictures look a little crisper on the 1.8”-smaller diagonal screen. Compared with the original iPad mini, the differences are obvious from a foot or two away, and profoundly noticeable up close.
The Retina iPad mini has almost exactly the same external features, controls, and ports as the iPad Air, in almost exactly the same places. Shaped like a thin slate, the iPad mini is made substantially from matte aluminum and glossy glass, the former softly curving around the sides and ending at polished, chamfered edges around the latter. The glass face frames a tiny FaceTime camera, the 4:3 aspect ratio screen, and a single circular Home Button, the latter notably without the iPhone 5s’s Touch ID fingerprint authentication feature. Like most prior iPads, the front glass includes your choice of a white or black bezel, this time respectively paired with either a bright silver or Space Gray metal chassis. The Space Gray chassis is lighter in color than the 2012 “slate” iPad mini, while the silver chassis looks just like its predecessor.
On the top edge are a 3.5mm headphone port, tiny pill-shaped microphone hole, and a larger pill-shaped Sleep/Wake button. Unlike the first iPad mini, there’s a second pill-shaped hole centered roughly 0.45” below the top one, housing an echo- and ambient noise-canceling second microphone. Separate pill-shaped volume buttons and a two-position switch are found on its right side, rather than the iPhone’s traditional left, while speaker ventilation holes are found on both sides of a Lightning port on the bottom.
The matte-finished back is interrupted by three glossy parts: a camera lens at the top, an Apple logo in the middle, and an iPad name mark on the bottom alongside tiny regulatory information. You won’t find a camera-assisting LED flash immediately next to the camera; this feature is only found on iPhones and the fifth-generation iPod touch.
Just like the iPad Air, Apple sells the Retina iPad mini in Wi-Fi-only and Wi-Fi + Cellular versions, with a $100 gap between identically configured mini and Air models. Consequently, the Wi-Fi versions of the Retina iPad mini come in four storage capacities ($399/16GB, $499/32GB, $599/64GB, $699/128GB), while the Wi-Fi + Cellular versions sell at $130 premiums ($629/16GB, $729/32GB, $829/64GB, $929/128GB), adding a collection of globally-compatible GSM, CDMA, and LTE antennas for use on cellular data networks. This year, there’s only one cellular iPad mini rather than separate cellular models for different carriers, so they vary only in the nano-SIM card that comes pre-installed.
You can easily tell a cellular iPad mini apart from a Wi-Fi-only version by the presence of a large matte plastic antenna compartment on the top edge; it’s white on the silver iPad mini, and black on the Space Gray iPad mini, matching the color but not the texture of the front glass bezel. A nano-SIM tray is found at the lower right corner of the cellular iPad mini when viewed from the front, and absent on the Wi-Fi-only version.
As of the date of release, the Retina iPad mini ships with iOS 7.0.3, a bug-fixed update to the September 2013 release of Apple’s iOS 7 operating system, reviewed here. In brief, iOS 7 completely changed the look of iOS’s user interface, dumping heavily shadowed and detailed graphics in favor of flat colors, gradients, translucency effects, and heavy-handed animations. Public response to iOS 7 has been polarized, with some users refusing to adopt it because of its looks, and others loving numerous other improvements Apple made along with the visual tweaks. One of the improvements is full support for the 64-bit A7 processor found in the iPhone 5s, iPad Air, and Retina iPad mini, a change that can’t be seen but results in faster app performance.
Unlike the regular iPad mini, the Retina mini includes both “1X” and “2X” support for running 960×640-resolution iPhone and iPod touch apps at their native or upscaled resolutions, the former with significant black bars on all sides of the screen. The 1X feature was notably dropped from non-Retina iPads, including the original iPad mini, with the release of iOS 7.0. There are currently over 1 million iOS applications in the App Store, with full iPad interfaces in over 450,000 of them, leaving around 550,000 to work with this feature.
It needs to be noted that iOS 7 debuted for iPads before it was completely ready for prime time, exhibiting occasional crashes of the built-in applications and less than completely smooth animations, amongst other small issues. During our testing of the iPad mini, we continued to note instabilities, occasional app crashes, and other unnecessary hiccups in performance. For instance, the Safari browser crashed six times during one of our extended web tests, a remarkable number of problems for a “final” public release of iOS software. While we expect that a much-improved version 7.1 will address the problems (and possibly introduce new functionality), Apple has set no timetable for such a release.
One major software asset of the iPad mini goes beyond iOS 7. In September and October 2013, Apple announced that it would make its previously $5-$10 iLife and iWork applications free with the purchase of all new iOS devices. As a result, the latest versions of the photo editor iPhoto, video editor iMovie, music production suite GarageBand, word processor Pages, spreadsheet app Numbers, and presentation creator Keynote can all be downloaded at no charge when you’re setting up the iPad mini. While there has been some opinionated and reasonable debate over some significant iOS 7-related changes Apple made to these apps, the fact that they’re free mitigates much of the criticism, and gives every iPad mini user a great initial set of tools for creating and editing content.
Changes, Detailed: The Retina iPad mini’s Body + Packaging
Apple’s Retina iPad mini is almost identical to both the first-generation iPad mini and the subsequent iPad Air. The first iPad mini measured 7.87” tall by 5.3” wide by 0.28” deep, and the Retina model measures 7.87” by 5.3” by 0.29”, a hair-thin difference in thickness that can hardly be seen. A white first-generation mini sits next to a Space Gray Retina mini in the shot below.
Unlike the third-generation iPad, which grew by 0.03” from the iPad 2, most original mini cases will fit the Retina mini, albeit just a little too snugly. Weight takes a tiny jump from the first mini’s 0.68/0.69 pounds to the Retina mini’s 0.73/0.75 pounds, a gain of 23 grams for the Retina Wi-Fi model and 29 grams for the Wi-Fi + Cellular version. Users familiar with the first iPad mini’s weight will notice the slightest added heft in the Retina Wi-Fi version, but after a few back-and-forths — perhaps less — the difference will probably feel next to meaningless. Users stepping up from the original Wi-Fi to the Retina Wi-Fi + Cellular version will be most likely to notice the difference.
While the changes are small from the mini to Retina mini, the gap between the Retina mini and iPad Air is somewhat more substantial. At 9.4” tall by 6.6” wide with a depth of 0.29”, the Air is 1.53” taller, 1.3” wider, and identical in thickness, with an added 0.27 pounds of Wi-Fi weight or 0.3 pounds of Wi-Fi + Cellular weight. Depending on your perspective, these differences will mean that the Air is only modestly larger given its noticeably bigger screen size and slightly better capabilities, or that the mini is delivering a remarkably similar experience in a far more purse-friendly package. Like its predecessor, the Retina mini’s body fits almost completely within the footprint of the iPad Air’s screen, even though the 7.9” and 9.7” tablets otherwise contain very similar parts. Describing the mini as an uncompromised smaller Air is partially inaccurate, but for the average person, the compromises will be on the fine edge of triviality.
For instance, the Air has more holes on the bottom to ventilate its larger speakers — 40 holes per speaker versus 28 on the mini, for trivia fans — but that’s the sort of seriously minor distinction we’re talking about here. Just like the Air got a dual-microphone echo-canceling system, the Retina mini got one in the exact same location. And also like the Air, Apple has cut the regulatory information from three lines of text down to two on the Retina iPad mini. If you look really carefully at the backs of original and Retina silver minis, you’ll notice that the metal ring around the camera now matches the rest of the rear shell rather than the shinier Apple logo. This change was telegraphed with the iPad Air, and was just as easy to miss there.
Weight aside, the Retina iPad mini hasn’t changed much in feel from the prior model, and is quite like the Air in that its front glass feels thin, “plinking” with a tap versus the “plunk” of earlier iPads’ heavier glass. Similarly, the chamfered metal edges are attractive yet warn against tossing the mini around like a toy — unless you have it inside of a very resilient case. On that note, we have had two first-generation minis inside splash-resistant Hard Candy ShockDrop and Griffin Survivor cases for nearly a year, each without a single scratch or dent despite active use by two young children. New and old iPad mini models alike are light enough to carry anywhere and hold even for extended periods of time without fatigue, but they both benefit from supportive rear stands for full-length movie viewing.
Despite the iPad Air’s considerable size and weight reductions, the iPad mini remains far better-suited to two-thumbed typing while being held, particularly in portrait orientation. There’s only one negative to the mini’s smaller size, and that’s the challenge developers have faced in developing mini-matching physical keyboard accessories. Unlike the full-sized iPad or iPad Air, which are wide enough to pair with only lightly compromised keyboard cases, not a single mini-sized keyboard has been great due to key cramping and relocation compromises. Apart from that difference, the iPad mini and Air are so similar to one another that Apple could easily drop the “mini” moniker altogether in favor of inch designations, as it uses for its computers.
On a related note, it’s interesting that the iPad mini’s box hasn’t been changed to reflect the full “iPad mini with Retina display” name. Made from predominantly white cardboard for each of the two device color schemes, the box’s sides still read just “iPad mini,” with the Retina display indication hiding on a hastily-attached rear sticker, unlike the seemingly permanent change to the side box markings of the iPad Air. The front of the box still has a sharply-angled mini positioned such that its cellular antenna compartment (or lack thereof) isn’t visible, reducing the number of different boxes Apple needs to make, while the screenshot has shifted from a watery surface with iOS 6 icons to a cosmic backdrop with iOS 7’s UI.
While the iPad Air’s box was conspicuously narrower than the prior iPad’s, the Retina iPad mini’s box is actually taller than the original mini’s, but with the same footprint — the growth is a surprise given how near-imperceptibly thicker the Retina model is. Once again, we discovered that it wasn’t the tablet that was consuming so much space, but rather the power adapter: Apple’s 10W USB Power Adapter is bigger than the 5W version shipped with the first iPad mini, and identical in size and shape to the 12W version shipped with the iPad Air, becoming the only impediment to shrinking the rest of the box. Since both the iPad Air and Retina iPad mini draw only 10 Watts/2.1 Amps of power at maximum, and this adapter alone has made the thinness-obsessive Apple waste untold space in bulk shipments, we’d have to imagine that it’s working on a smaller charger.
All of the other pack-ins are predictable. Each Retina iPad mini comes with a Lightning to USB Cable identical to ones shipped with other Apple devices, a very basic instruction card, warranty information, and two Apple logo stickers. Cellular versions of the Retina iPad mini generally also include a nano-SIM card and SIM tray removal tool, the latter inside the instruction packet. The cellular instruction card and information envelope are ever so slightly different to explain the added pieces.
The 1.3GHz A7: Retina iPad mini’s iOS 7 + App Performance
We mentioned in our iPad Air review that Apple has generally avoided engaging in spec comparisons with its rivals; rather than treating iPads as computers with conspicuous clock speeds or differing quantities of RAM, Apple merely describes the iPads’ processors as “A4,” “A5,” “A5X,” “A6X,” and “A7,” occasionally calling out a processor’s number of cores (“single-core,” “dual-core,” “quad-core”) and similar improvements in their graphics features. The positive is that these simple descriptions make it easy for users to get a good general sense of a model’s performance — iPod touches, iPad 2s, and first-gen iPad minis all run on A5 chips, with roughly comparable features — but they also omit meaningful technical differences that Apple may hide beneath the surface. That’s exactly what happened with the Retina iPad mini.
Apple’s special event for the iPad Air and Retina iPad mini suggested implicitly that the devices were the same except for screen size: the iPad Air got the 64-bit A7 processor introduced with the iPhone 5s, and the iPad mini also got an A7, a point that we’ve previously noted was somewhat unusual conceptually. Since an iPad’s Retina display has over four times as many pixels as an iPhone’s Retina display, the same processor will seem to run slower in the iPad, like putting a motorcycle engine inside a car. Historically, Apple avoided this problem by giving each iPad a better processor and/or more RAM than the last iPhone, but that seemed to stop with the iPad Air: the iPhone 5s had 1GB of RAM and an A7, as did the Air. Yet Apple quietly helped the Air by bumping its processor speed from 1.3GHz to 1.4GHz, a single-digit percentage improvement in performance that nonetheless narrowed the display gap a little.
Loaded with a 1.3GHz A7 and 1GB of RAM, the Retina iPad mini has received a major bump from the antiquated 1GHz A5 chip and 512MB of RAM in the original mini, but it wasn’t as lucky as the iPad Air. Geekbench 3 reports the new mini’s single-core score as 1373; that’s over five times better than the original mini’s 263, but nearly identical to the 1322 scored by the iPhone 5s, and down from the 1477 score of the iPad Air. In dual-core mode, the Retina mini rated a 2478, again up five times from the first mini’s 494, versus 2266 on the iPhone 5s and 2692 on the iPad Air. These numbers translate to roughly 7% lower single-core performance and 8% lower multi-core performance for the Retina iPad mini than the iPad Air.
Consequently, even though the numbers suggest that the Retina iPad mini is more powerful than today’s flagship iPhone and less powerful than the flagship iPad, Retina display demands and other factors mean that the real-world performance often feels more like the iPhone’s in the lead, followed by the Air, while the mini brings up the rear — similar to the fourth-generation iPad’s overall iOS and app experience, which is to say not as snappy as the iPad Air’s, but not importantly different, either. There’s a certain level of responsiveness in unlocking the mini, scrolling through Home Screens, and loading apps that timed animation delays in iOS 7 now dictate more than the raw speed of the chips inside a device, so there are few opportunities for the Retina model to really impress here. All of these elements feel a little smoother and look a lot cleaner than the prior iPad mini—it’s impossible to miss the increased pixel-level detail in background art and icons, but otherwise you’ll need to dig into apps to see the differences.
Because it has fewer on-screen pixels to worry about, the iPhone 5s’s animations tend to be the smoothest of the bunch. For instance, if you rotate the orientation of the device to change the display of a photo, the iPhone 5s will spin it smoothly and quickly. On the iPad Air, the same rotation will feel a little more labored, and the Retina mini will be a hint behind that. Load an automated app on the iPad Air and the Retina iPad mini and they’ll seem to be virtually identical at first, but after a few minutes of use, a one-second gap may be obvious between them. Or try using each device’s rear camera to shoot several photos in HDR mode. The iPhone 5s will save 8-Megapixel HDR images almost instantly, while the iPad Air’s and Retina iPad mini’s 5MP cameras will take a hint longer to save smaller images. Each is a huge improvement over the first iPad mini, which can take three or four seconds between HDR shots.
There was another area in which both new iPads completely blew away the prior iPad mini: photo importation using Apple’s Lightning to SD Card Reader. Between the iPad Air and Retina iPad mini, you’ll see nearly identical speeds — we transferred a collection of 127 photos in 45-50 seconds on each new iPad. The same task took the first-generation iPad mini 4 minutes and 3 seconds. That’s the sort of quality of life improvement you’ll find hidden in the Retina iPad mini, and if other apps can be optimized for similar performance leaps, users will be thrilled.
One major caveat in assessing performance is each iPad’s profound dependence on iOS for smooth performance. As noted in the Big Picture section of this review, iOS 7 remains underwhelming in performance on all iPads, regardless of model. It’s highly possible that Apple will tweak iOS 7.1 to improve graphic smoothness and speed, particularly on the Retina iPad mini and iPad Air, but until that happens, iOS may look a little rough around the edges.
Thus far, game performance differences are very subtle between the iPad Air and Retina iPad mini. On recently-released games such as Epic Games’ Infinity Blade III and Chillingo’s Anomaly 2, frame rates and load times are nearly identical between the devices, with the iPad Air occasionally demonstrating a slight improvement in speed. Pre-A7 titles such as Vector Unit’s Riptide GP2 similarly look just a little smoother on the Air than the Retina mini, but the frame rates are not as fast as the iPhone 5s. That said, you’re more likely to notice differences in color between the devices, as discussed further in the next section of this review.
One other processor-related factor worth noting is device warmth. Just like the iPad Air, the Retina iPad mini became slightly warm to the touch when it was running an extended 50% brightness test of Infinity Blade III, with the heat specifically radiating from its central right hand side. We’d call the warmth level lower than the iPad Air, which as we noted would be imperceptible to anyone actually playing the game; most people will call it a non-issue. The unit’s heat level increased markedly when the screen brightness was at 100% during extended gaming, but didn’t become uncomfortable to the touch. Since few people will be playing battery-killing games at full screen brightness, we’d again describe the warmth as a non-issue for most users, but our guess is that thermal challenges played as much of a role in capping the Retina mini’s A7 speed as anything else.
Just like the iPhone 5s and iPad Air, the Retina iPad mini’s A7 is bundled with an M7 coprocessor, capable of passively measuring accelerometer, compass, and gyroscope data without demanding the A7’s resources. On the iPhone 5s, M7 was touted as a way to improve fitness apps, turn-by-turn walking navigation, and battery life when the device hasn’t been moved for some period of time. We mentioned in our iPad Air review that Apple provided no examples of what M7 does inside the 9.7” tablet, save for giving users “a better experience” based on the device’s movement. Similarly, its Retina iPad mini page offers no concrete benefits of M7 in a 7.9” tablet, beyond freeing “A7 to focus on other tasks” for a “better iPad experience” and “great battery life.” We’ll have to see whether future iPad applications make any use of the feature.
Retina iPad mini I/O: Screen, Cameras, Microphones, Speakers + Ports
Comparing the Retina iPad mini’s input and output characteristics to its immediate predecessor isn’t as challenging as the iPad Air to fourth-generation iPad comparisons we performed earlier this month, but there are some differences worth noting. Here they are:
The single biggest difference between the first-generation iPad mini and its sequel is the switch from a 7.9” 1024×768 screen to a 7.9” 2048×1536 Retina display. By doubling the pixels on each axis, the Retina iPad mini has four times the resolution of its predecessor, a change that’s extremely easy to spot on first use and understand on further inspection. At virtually any reasonable distance from your face, the individual pixels can’t be seen. If you (for whatever reason) pull out a camera with a macro lens, you’ll see a massive difference in the size and clarity of pixels, as shown below.
There are just as many pixels as on the 9.7” iPad Air, but the individual pixels are smaller on the mini, making images look crisper, while still enabling seriously tiny web site and book text to be readable if you have enough vision acuity for the task. Despite our use of the 9.7” Air for reading all sorts of books and periodicals, we had worried that the mini’s smaller display might not be up to the same task. But in practice, the mini was fantastic; whatever we could read on the Air was legible on the mini, too. To underscore one critical point, if the mini’s screen isn’t being judged against the Air’s or a MacBook Pro with a Retina display, it looks great.
We tested cookbooks such as the previously-available Made in Spain and the just-released version of Modernist Cuisine at Home. Both of these books were originally designed for pages substantially larger than the iPad Air’s and iPad mini’s screens, but they were each fully legible without the need for prescription eyewear.
Made in Spain was merely resized but otherwise untouched for iBooks release; we were able to read its text without zooming in, but had to look closely at the screen—no problem, in our view. By contrast, Modernist Cuisine at Home was completely reformatted by Inkling for iPad consumption, and can be read easily at any distance.
Conventional eBooks such as the recently-released Maximum Flavor, Marvel’s comic books, magazines, and numerous tested web pages were all only modestly smaller on the Retina mini than on the iPad Air, most of the time without any implication for added zooming-in or other manual adjustments while reading. Pages that were difficult to read on the original iPad mini became crystal clear on the new model thanks to the quadrupled resolution. Overall, we loved reading on the Retina mini.
The first three of the Retina iPad minis we tested appeared to be identical in screen calibration and quality. None of the screens had visible dead pixels or obvious variations in color — they were consistent from unit to unit. Reports suggested that Apple is sourcing screens for this model from multiple companies, but at least from our small sampling, they all appeared to look the same.
Many people would stop at this point and declare the Retina mini a clear winner over the Air — same pixels in a smaller display means greater portability and convenience, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the whole story here. As it turns out, there are differences in the actual quality of the two iPads’ pixels, specifically their color accuracy. The iPad Air’s colors are visibly richer and more vivid than the Retina mini’s, something we noticed when playing games such as Anomaly 2 where the Air’s rich blues looked faded on the mini, and when comparing photographs that had more muted pinks and reds on the mini.
Shock set in when we loaded Vector Unit’s game Riptide GP2 on the Air and mini and tried to use color wheels to match character costumes between them. The identical wheels looked so different on the screens that we couldn’t believe it.
We had suspected this might be an issue based on similar differences in color gamut between prior 264 PPI Retina iPads and 326 PPI iPhones, but hoped that Apple would opt to keep its iPads consistent by boosting color accuracy for the iPad mini. For the moment, the iPad Air has enough of an edge over the Retina mini that we’d prefer the bigger model for color-correcting images, but like the iPhone 5 family, the new mini does a way better job than pre-Retina screens found on the original iPad mini and even current-generation MacBook Airs. Blacks and whites are more pure on the Retina mini, and the detail differences are again gigantic.
Viewing angles and brightness are virtually identical between the new and old iPad minis, which is to say unobjectionable under most circumstances. The Retina iPad mini’s peak brightness level is just a tiny bit lower than the first-generation model’s (shown in white immediately above), and its minimum brightness is almost identically lower as well. Users hoping for a brighter and more intense screen won’t find it in the Retina mini, but as one reader asked us to confirm, the new model may be a tad less intrusive for night reading in a dark bedroom. On a modestly related note, we continue to find the fingerprint attraction of the Retina mini — and all iPad screens — to be mildly disgusting when seen with the screen turned off, and something that really could stand to be improved upon in future models.
A second issue became apparent when we received our Wi-Fi + Cellular version of the iPad mini for testing. Reports suggested that Apple had sourced two different types of Retina iPad mini screens—IPS and IGZO displays—and that the latter screens suffered from an issue called “image retention,” whereby a picture held static on the screen for a length of time would linger, ghostlike, after the screen changed. Our initial three units had no image retention issues, but under very specific testing conditions, our fourth unit’s screen unquestionably continued to show faint traces of a high-contrast test image after it was displayed for only 30 seconds, fading soon thereafter. Most users won’t notice any real-world image retention issues even if their screens are affected, but it’s a difference Apple may address midway through this model’s life cycle.
Apple didn’t make a big deal about changes to the iPad mini’s cameras, but there are tiny differences to report here. The 1280×720 front camera has switched from what OS X Aperture reports as the first-generation iPad mini’s 2.18mm f/2.4 camera to a barely smaller 2.15mm f/2.4 camera. Apple says that the pixels on the new camera are bigger and backside illuminated, but in practice we saw only one difference: the new grainy camera produces slightly lighter but otherwise extremely similar images to the old grainy camera. It shares the same general characteristics with the iPhone 5c and 5s front cameras.
The 5-Megapixel still/1080p 30fps video back camera is reported by OS X Aperture as a 3.3mm f/2.4 lens, seemingly identical to the rear camera in the original iPad mini. We noticed no differences in their performance; they both snap 5.0 Megapixel (2592×1936) stills and 1080p videos. Just as we said with the iPad Air, Apple has left this rear camera noticeably under-equipped relative to the iPhone 5s and even the iPhone 5c. Beyond continuing to omit the panorama recording mode and realtime filters found on most iPhones and iPod touches, the Retina iPad mini doesn’t get the Slo-Mo camera or Burst Mode recording of the iPhone 5s, and continues to snap images at 1-2 frames per second.
The resolution is lower than the 8-Megapixel iPhone 5s camera, and pixel-level detail leans toward the grainy and slightly washed out; only when photos are resized and/or viewed from a distance do they look comparable, as shown here. It’s a shame that Apple treats its tablets as second-class citizens for photography and videography, as they’re clearly its most powerful tools for processing photos and videos; users shouldn’t need a recent-model smartphone to take advantage of these powers.
Noted only briefly during the Retina iPad mini’s introduction, what used to be a single top-mounted microphone on the first-generation mini has evolved into a proper dual-microphone system here. As mentioned earlier in this review, the original mini’s tiny pill-shaped hole remains on top, centered between the left side headphone port and right side Sleep/Wake button, but now there’s a second pill-shaped hole immediately below the first one on the back. Some early iPad mini cases suggested that the feature was originally planned for the first-generation model, but it never actually materialized until now.
There were two places that we expected the new microphone system might excel: in Siri/dictation, and during FaceTime calls. Siri performance was basically identical between the devices under normal usage conditions — the Retina mini and original mini both did a very impressive job with transcription accuracy when nothing else was competing for their mics’ attention. However, when we turned on a song and played it through speakers right behind the two devices, the Retina mini continued to transcribe correctly while the original mini dropped words and in some cases entire segments of sentences. Frequent Siri and dictation users will find the Retina mini better under some circumstances. FaceTime callers will similarly note that the Retina mini can isolate your voice and make it sound clear compared with the prior iPad mini’s intelligible but echo-filled rendition, which contains the ambient reflections of a small room.
Speaker, Headphone Port + Lightning Port Audio
Changes to the Retina iPad mini’s audio output are much less dramatic than the ones we saw with the transition from the fourth-generation iPad to the iPad Air. As before, there are actually two speakers on the Retina iPad mini’s bottom, and when it’s held in portrait orientation with its Lightning connector facing the bottom, you can clearly hear true left- and right-channel stereo separation that appears to expand just past the tablet’s width. Just like the iPad Air and prior iPad mini, which also include stereo speakers, if you turn the Retina iPad mini to landscape orientation, the apparent separation will disappear. The new model’s speakers are ever so slightly less distorted than the original mini’s at their identical peak volume, a very subtle change.
Even with premium-quality headphones, audio from the Retina iPad mini’s headphone port is indistinguishable from its predecessor’s. Audio remains so clean that you can’t hear any white noise, and quite powerful besides, with enough juice to fuel larger headphones. Lightning port audio is similarly unchanged from the original iPad mini.
Retina iPad mini: Battery + Cellular + Wi-Fi
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.
Lightning Connector + Accessories (Including Bluetooth + Apple TV)
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 1024×768 images it’s sending to the TV, or downsample 2048×1536 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.
A Few Words on Capacities And Pricing
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.
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.
Company and Price
Company: Apple Inc.
Price: $399-$699 Wi-Fi / $529-$829 Cellular/LTE