Review: iPad mini 4

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Gizmag reviews the new iPad mini 4, a big improvement over its predecessors, but still a questionable purchase(Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag)

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Once seen as the future of the iPad, the iPad mini is now a lower-priority device, losing ground to oversized smartphones on one side, and bigger tablets that double as PCs on the other. Too bad, then, that the best iPad mini by far is launching to an increasingly indifferent public.

The iPad mini 4 is lighter, thinner and faster than its predecessors, with a higher-quality (though the same resolution) display. If you still have a need for an iPad mini, and you don't mind paying US$399 or more when mini-tablets can now be had for under $100, then this is absolutely the one to get.

The first question is: do you still want or need an iPad mini?

When the original model launched nearly three years ago, Apple's biggest smartphone had a 4-inch display, and Android phones were still just creeping into 5 inches and larger territory. The Phablet Invasion was already underway, but not nearly at full force.

From the other end, Apple's larger iPad at the time had wide bezels and a (relatively) thick and heavy build with rounded back. The iPad mini's design was a year ahead of its larger counterpart; we didn't see Apple's ultra-light, thin-bezeled, flat-backed look bleed into the 9.7-inch model until the iPad Air arrived in late 2013.

Just as the stage was set perfectly for the iPad mini in 2012, there have been a few scenery changes since then that have pushed it out of the spotlight.

Today the iPad mini is a somewhat niche device for people who either still use small-ish phones, or are content with a tablet that doesn't offer a radically different experience from phablets. We also can't forget children – who may find the mini's smaller build to be the perfect size for digging into the App Store's gaming library.

The phablet comparison isn't completely fair, mind you, as the iPad mini's 7.9-inch display is still 129 percent bigger than the iPhone 6 Plus' 5.5-incher – that's still a big difference. But on an experience level, phablets get just close enough to mini-tablet territory to make the latter feel a bit unnecessary. It's a bit like buying a minivan when you already own an SUV.

If you are one of the dwindling few who's still in the market for an iPad mini, then you get a great tablet in this fourth version. This is the one we were dreaming of after the first model launched in 2012.

The iPad mini 4 is even more comfortable in hand than that first model, and has a better display and faster performance than all three previous models. In many ways it's a smaller iPad Air 2, and even though that means it's rocking a year-old system-on-a-chip, it still makes for a pretty damn powerful machine.

Like the Air 2, the new mini has an anti-reflective coating on its screen, making it a little better for reading in direct sunlight. Its Retina Display also has a wider color gamut compared to the iPad minis 2 and 3.

One area where the iPad Air 2 mini metaphor doesn't completely hold up is in processor benchmarks. The Air 2 has a tri-core A8X chip, while the mini 4 has a dual core A8. Same generation of Apple silicon, but different variants. In Geekbench 3's multi-core benchmark, the iPad mini 4 scores only 68 percent as fast as its bigger counterpart. Though in the single core test, it does come closer, at 95 percent as fast.

In our experience, the new mini doesn't feel noticeably slower than the iPad Air 2, but if you're buying a tablet for longer-term use, it's possible future apps, games and iOS updates will tax the mini 4 a hair more than they will the Air 2.

Battery life is good as well. Apple rates it for the same "up to 10 hours surfing the web, watching video or listening to music" (over Wi-Fi) as it rates all other iPads. In our video streaming test (with brightness set to 25 lux at a distance of 10 inches in an otherwise dark room), the iPad mini 4 dropped just 8 percent per hour, a good score.

The iPad mini 4 is the best iPad mini yet, and easily one of your best options in this category. But at $399 and up, it's too close to the iPad Air 2's pricing to highly recommend. We have both devices in house right now, and the Air 2 feels nearly as light and comfortable in hand, with a 53 percent bigger display. With retailers often discounting the iPad Air 2 into the iPad mini 4's price range (if you live in the US, Staples is a good store to keep an eye on), it's hard to recommend going with the mini 4, unless you actually prefer the smaller size.

The iPad mini 4 is available now, starting at $399 for a 16 GB Wi-Fi only model. For more on its big brother, you can revisit Gizmag's iPad Air 2 review from last year.

Product page: Apple

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