The original iPad mini was a great product, but it had one glaring flaw: its screen's resolution just wasn't on a par with the rest of Apple's recent devices. So now, a year after the release of the first iPad mini, we have the inevitable follow-up with a razor-sharp Retina Display. Does it live up to expectations? Join Gizmag, as we review Apple's second-generation iPad mini.
Same kitchen, new entrée
As we mentioned in our initial hands-on, the new iPad mini is made up of familiar ingredients. Its design is almost identical to the first-gen iPad mini, its performance is like the iPhone 5s and iPad Air, and its Retina Display provides the same eye-candy as Apple's recent iPhones, full-sized iPads, and MacBooks. Throw those ingredients into the pot, stir them up, and when you open the oven, you'll see the Retina iPad mini.
So if you've used those other products, you could probably write this review without even using the Retina iPad mini. There aren't any individual elements that we haven't seen before. What is unique and unprecedented is seeing them all together in one device. And we think that device is, without question, the best miniature tablet ever made – and quite possibly the best tablet ever made.
Still an iPad mini
Much like the first iPad mini, the Retina iPad mini is almost startlingly light. Pick it up, and your hand thanks you. It's easy to hold in one hand. It's also easy to grip, thanks to some software that lets you grasp the edge of the screen without registering that as a touch. And it does this while feeling very premium and high-end, as you'd expect from an Apple product.
Remember when the full-sized iPad got its first Retina Display, and it actually got a little thicker and heavier than the previous year's model? We're looking at the same thing here. The Retina mini is four percent thicker and 7.5 percent heavier than the non-Retina iPad mini. Is this cause for concern?
Well, though it's too bad Apple had to add a little weight here, we also don't think the extra heft is a big deal. If you use the non-Retina iPad mini, put it down, and then immediately pick up the Retina mini, you'll notice a difference. But if you haven't used the original iPad mini in a while, you might not even notice that the new model is a little heavier.
Even with that extra smidge of weight and thickness, the Retina mini's build and form factor are still in the same league as the original model. Still light, still compact, still comfortable. And when you consider everything else that Apple threw in here, we think that small movement in the wrong direction is a small price to pay.
What can you say about the new iPad mini's Retina Display? It's exactly what you'd expect. Razor-sharp text, crisp images, great colors. It's basically an iPhone Retina Display stretched out to mini tablet size (both pack 326 pixels into each inch). And since you're typically going to hold the iPad mini farther away from your eyes than an iPhone, that same pixel density is going to look even better here.
The 2,048 x 1,536 Retina Display is the most welcome addition to the iPad mini, as it solves the biggest problem with the original. Going from the non-Retina mini to the Retina mini is like getting a new prescription for your eyes. It's as if a veil has been lifted, lifting with it the compromise from the original iPad mini.
I still think Apple pretty much nailed the iPad mini's screen size and shape. Most Android tablets use a 16:10 aspect ratio, which is better for widescreen videos, but also makes for a narrower screen in portrait mode. The iPad's 4:3 ratio gives you a wider portrait mode, but is still great in landscape. The only drawback is that widescreen movies and videos will have significant black bars above and below (just like on every other iPad).
And the 7.9-in screen is a great balance of size and portability. Go much bigger, and you have a large tablet that isn't quite as portable or comfortable to hold (though the iPad Air is one notable exception to that). Go much smaller, and the screen real estate is compromised.
Speaking of screen size, remember that there's a huge difference between the iPad mini's 7.9-in screen (with a 4:3 aspect ratio) and Android tablets' 7-in screens (with 16:10 aspect ratios). You'd think 7.9" would be just a little bigger than 7", right? Maybe by around 12 percent?
Nope. The iPad mini gives you 34 percent more screen real estate than 7-in rivals like the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX. Plus those tablets use onscreen navigation buttons, which makes the iPad mini's advantage even bigger. They're all considered "mini tablets," but some are a lot more "mini" than others.
The first iPad mini had the same Apple A5 system-on-a-chip that was found in 2011's iPad 2. Launching in late 2012, the iPad mini was a bit underwhelming in the performance department.
No more. The Retina iPad mini is as fast as any iPhone or iPad, as well as pretty much any other mobile device. It has the same A7 silicon found in the iPhone 5s and iPad Air. The days of the iPad mini being an underpowered tablet are over.
What does that mean in experience? Well, basically that you have nothing to worry about. Apps open in a heartbeat, you can multitask with ease, and anything App Store apps can throw at it, it can handle. In one year, the performance of the iPad mini has leaped forward two generations.
With 4x the pixels, much faster performance, and (more or less) the same size and weight, does battery life take a hit?
Not at all. I found the Retina iPad mini's battery life to be outstanding. In our standard test, where we streamed video with brightness set at 75 percent, it lasted an insane ten hours and 50 minutes. The iPad Air was the previous record holder in this test, but the Retina iPad mini shattered it by 25 percent.
Worth the price of admission?
So the Retina iPad mini is an outstanding tablet, quite possibly the ideal size for many users, with a screen and performance that are miles ahead of last year's model. Upgrading is a no-brainer, right?
Maybe, but not necessarily. See, Apple also boosted the Retina mini's starting price, to US$400. That's an extra $70 added to the original model's $330 price tag when it launched. That non-Retina iPad mini, meanwhile, dropped a bit to $300.
While we appreciate things like high-resolution displays and cutting edge performance, it's possible you're less worried about things like that. And in that case, the 1st-gen iPad mini is still worth considering. If its display doesn't bother you, then it gives you the same terrific app selection, a slightly lighter and thinner build, and it saves you $100.
Then there are rivals like the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX. The Retina iPad mini gives you a much bigger screen and much better tablet app selection (the App Store's 475,000+ tablet app library is still in a league of its own), but it also costs an extra $170. Putting cost aside, we think the iPad mini is the superior tablet. Taking cost into account, though, that decision gets a little harder.
Of course there's also the iPad Air. The Air and the Retina mini are, more or less, the same tablets in different sizes. The Air is ridiculously light for a full-sized tablet, but the mini is 29 percent lighter. The mini also has the same number of pixels packed into a smaller screen, the same great performance, and it costs $100 less.
It's a tough call, but I actually prefer the iPad mini. Its screen doesn't feel undersized at all to me. In fact, it makes the 9.7-in iPad Air look oversized. I think that's why Apple boosted the specs and the price of this year's mini. It's now the flagship iPad for many customers. The full-sized iPad Air is now for those who – whether because they're using it as a laptop replacement or just want a bigger landscape for apps and games – prefer that spacious 9.7-in screen.
So it's really going to come down to what you want out of a tablet, and how much you're willing to invest in it. If a tablet is a big part of your life, you don't need a huge screen, and you can afford it, then the Retina iPad mini might be the best tablet you can buy today. But if staying under a certain budget is a factor, then cheaper slates like the 2013 Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HDX, and even the non-Retina iPad mini might also be worth checking out.
In a way, Apple's approach to the tablet market is similar to the way it positions its Macs against Windows PCs. You could easily argue that MacBooks are the best laptops, but you're also going to pay a premium for them. Apple's "our products are worth paying for because they're the best" mentality is the same with the new iPad Mini.
It isn't our job to tell you where your tablet shopping priorities should lie. Nope, we're only sharing our experience of using it, and asking if it's a product worthy of your attention. With the Retina iPad mini, our answer to that question is hell yes. If you don't mind spending $400 or so on a tablet, then we recommending putting the Retina iPad mini at or near the top of your list. That is, if you can get your hands on one: supplies have been pretty tight at launch, and they might get tighter as the holiday shopping season kicks into full swing.
The iPad mini with Retina Display is available now. For more on tablets, you can check out our hands-on comparison of the iPad Air to the Retina iPad mini and our 2013 Tablet Comparison Guide.
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