|Introduction and Specifications|
|Thanks to the discourse that was exposed during Samsung and Apple’s legal spat in California, e-mail records revealed that Eddy Cue (senior vice president of Internet Software and Services at Apple) was pushing for a 7” iPad in 2011. Reportedly, Steve Jobs was very much against the 7” form factor, asserting that the 9.7” display on the original iPad was the absolute ideal size for a tablet. Eventually, Apple caved to the demands of the market, and perhaps demands from within its own mothership, as it revealed the iPad mini. In typical Apple fashion, the original mini was priced higher than other 7” slates in the market, with the company all but conceding the sub-$300 tablet market, while plenty of others fought it out at the bottom end of the price scale.
A year later, the next iteration of the iPad mini has been unwrapped, but it’s not your average revamp. Apple claimed that the first iPad mini was “every inch an iPad,” but many argued that the lackluster specifications, omission of a Retina display, and the lofty price tag left a lot to be desired. The iPad mini with Retina display, however, makes good on that claim in many ways. Apple could have easily shoved an aging A6 processor into the new mini, but instead, the specifications closely rival those found in the full-sized iPad Air (our review here).
In fact, let’s take a look at what exactly you’ll find under the hood:
|Design and User Experience|
|If you’ve seen an iPad mini, you’ve seen an iPad mini with Retina display. Well, until you turn the panel on. On the exterior, the mini hasn’t changed (much), which means that first-generation accessories such as cases and screen protectors will also work on this generation. There’s a 0.03mm increase in the thickness, but it’s so subtle that the vast majority of peripherals won’t be impacted by it. In fact, the new mini is the same thickness as the new iPad Air, though the mini weighs a fair amount less (0.73 pounds for the Retina mini compared to 1 pound for the iPad Air).
The unibody design is back in full force, with rounded corners, twin speakers along the bottom, and a Lightning port. Along the edges, you’ll find a power button up top, with volume rockers + a mute switch (which doubles as an orientation lock) on the right side. As has become the norm with Apple, the design here is nothing short of beautiful. It’s simple, understated, and very rigid. Unfortunately, the rear is pretty prone to showing scratches, but it’s still plenty sturdy. We’d recommend picking up a case if you’re interested in keeping your new slate free from nicks, but if you aren’t concerned about a few battle scars, the unit itself can certainly take a beating and keep on ticking.
The main exterior change is the LCD. The original iPad mini had a relatively ho hum 1024x768 resolution, while the new guy on the block ratchets it up to 2048x1536. For those crunching the numbers, that’s the exact same resolution as the iPad Air boasts, which means that the new mini actually has a higher pixel density. In practice, the LCD is simply stunning. It’s a pleasure to gawk at, with colors showing as rich, details sharp, and viewing angles amongst the best in the industry. At 326ppi, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more spectacular display on any mobile product.
While we’re on the topic of hardware, it’s worth bemoaning the lack of a Touch ID fingerprint sensor. Strangely, Apple opted to not include the token feature of the iPhone 5s on the new iPads. It’s probably a decision made due to cost and supply chain constraints, but either way, the new iPad mini has a traditional, clickable Home button that does not read your fingerprint. It’s unfortunate, but it’s not a deal-breaker. The reality is that people unlock their phones more than their tablets, often by orders of magnitude. Touch ID doesn’t feel essential on a tablet.
The iPad mini with Retina display feels exactly like the original, which is to say: it’s really light; it’s rigid and sturdy; and it’s possible to use it one-handed. That last fact is what truly sets it apart from the iPad Air. While the full-sized iPad Air is respectable on many levels, it’s just too big for many consumers. For those who prefer a more portable tablet, the iPad mini’s size is far more suitable.
On the software side, iOS 7 feels light and nimble on the new mini. That’s largely thanks to the 64-bit power-plant packed within. The new mini was gifted with the same A7 processor that’s embedded within the more expensive iPad Air and iPhone 5s. There’s 1GB of memory, as well as a quad-core graphics chip (PowerVR G6430). Apple’s iWork productivity suite is now free for any who wishes to download, with Pages (for document processing), Numbers (for spreadsheets), Keynote (for presentations), and iMovie + iPhoto offering up loads of sleek ways to get work done on the go. These apps are undoubtedly worth the download; Apple has engineered them to work well on the tablet, which can’t be said for some apps in the App Store.
One of the iPad’s greatest differentiating factors is the monumental amount of apps in the App Store that are tailored for tablet use. In the Windows and Android worlds, it’s still tough to find apps that are tooled specifically to work on larger displays. Don’t get us wrong; there are still plenty of programs that aren’t built to scale beyond the size of an iPhone, but overall, the Apple App Store is home to more tablet-optimized programs than any other ecosystem.
Overall, whisking through the OS, swapping in and out of apps, and flipping the screen between vertical and horizontal orientations was a breeze. Unlike Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition — which inexplicably stuttered in typical use — the iPad mini with Retina display manages the increase in pixel count with poise. The entire experience can best be described as fluid, with no annoying hang-ups or lag to speak of. Even with a bombardment of notifications flying in during a 1080p movie viewing, there were no dropped frames or slowdowns.
For the most part, iOS 7 is iOS 7 -- it's a solid update from Apple for mobile devices. For more on our take on the operating system itself, be sure to check out the software section of our iPhone 5s review.
|Performance: CPU and Web Browsing|
Pages load fast and respond the way you would expect, though by limiting the iPad mini's RAM to just 1GB, tabs will sometimes need to reload if you open a handful of them. As we said in our iPad Air review, we'd really like to see Apple double up the amount of RAM in its flagship tablet line.
|Performance: Graphics and GLBenchmark|
The iPad mini with Retina display nearly topped the chart in the off-screen test (with the iPad Air edging it out ever-so-slightly), though it couldn't keep up with NVIDIA's SHIELD in the on-screen test (mostly because of the SHEILD's lower screen resolution). Still, this is yet more evidence that the A7 SoC inside the latest iPads is more than capable of playing games and handling heavy graphics workloads.
|Performance: Battery Life and Camera|
iPad mini with Retina display Camera Performance -
On the phone side of things, Apple’s iPhone lineup has raised the bar significantly in imaging. By and large, the latest iPhone quickly becomes the camera to beat when looking at imaging performance. Sure, Nokia’s latest Lumia products go toe-to-toe, but there’s something to be said for Apple’s integrated hardware and software that pulls the most out of its optics.
On the tablet side, we’ll confess to never being big fans of capturing images or video with a slate. It just feels awkward, to be honest. However, the smaller iPad mini frame makes it at least marginally more acceptable in public. On the hardware side, the new iPad mini with Retina display includes the exact same 5MP iSight rear-facing camera as the original. It’s quite strange that Apple didn’t slip in an improved module here, but alas…
Unedited iPad mini with Retina display camera samples; click any to enlarge
iPad mini with Retina display Battery Life -
In our standard web browsing rundown test, which regularly reloads a Web page while cellular data is active, Wi-Fi is on and Mail / Twitter / Facebook are set to update every 15 minutes, we saw the iPad mini's battery exhaust itself after 11 hours. In everyday use, we had no issues getting through an entire workday. All told, we squeezed around 19 hours of use out of a single charge by using the iPad mini as we normally would -- involving multiple hours of browsing / checking notifications, and nonstop push updates from five connected accounts. For what it’s worth, Apple claims up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video, or listening to music, though our use found the claim to be a bit conservative.
|Summary and Conclusion|
|Performance Summary: It comes as no surprise that the iPad mini with Retina display is a barn-burner when it comes to performance. It’s the first 7” slate to be equipped with a 64-bit processor, and considering that the internal composition here is quite similar to that found in the iPhone 5s and the iPad Air, we expected very similar benchmarking results. Apple's decision to include the top-of-the-line A7 processor in the smaller of the two iPads is commendable. Given that it’s the cheaper of the two, Apple could have perhaps gone with a cheaper, slower A6 processor. We’re thrilled to see the mini getting premium treatment, even if the MSRP on the Retina-equipped mini is $70 higher than the MSRP on the original. Frankly, that price hike feels justified for the performance boost that comes with the optimized A7 SoC.
From a design standpoint, there’s really nothing to see here that wasn’t seen already in the initial version of the iPad mini, but the overall package is far more compelling. The form factor suits those who are only interested in smaller tablets that can be used in one-handed operation, but more importantly, the iPad mini with Retina display offers plenty of reasons for those who ignored the first edition to finally bite. There’s a meaningful amount of prospective customers who waited on buying an iPad mini until Apple revealed one with a Retina panel; after all, it’s pretty tough to use a non-Retina display on an Apple product once your eyes have been treated to Apple's high res panel.
But Apple did more than just increase the pixel count; it also threw in a potent processor to ensure that iOS 7 could run fluidly. The iPad mini with Retina display is fairly deceptive from that perspective. At a glance, the hardware looks the same, signaling a rather humdrum revision. But in practice, it’s a strong update from the first gen model.
The only major niggle is the major price. At $399 and up, you won’t find a more expensive 7” slate that’s not dipped in gold. The high-flying Nexus 7 starts at just $229, and it’s really tough to say with a straight face that the new iPad mini offers $170 more than Google’s alternative. While the iOS ecosystem’s strength can’t be denied — and that’s certainly worth some amount depending on your existing reliance on it — the new iPad mini isn’t priced to compete. It’s priced into a category of its own. Attempting to compare this slate with the cadre of other 7” tablets will simply lead to a lot of out-of-whack conclusions, and that’s just fine by Apple. The company is moving in the opposite direction of bargain basement, giving Android and Windows-based slates even more latitude to fight it out for consumers who aren’t willing to spend more than $200 or $250 for a tablet -- and depending on who you talk to, that may be a fair swath of the market.
So, if the iPad mini with Retina display isn’t really competing with the likes of the Nexus 7, what’s it competing against? The answer could, in fact, the iPad Air. The only real competitor is another of Apple’s products, which retails at $100 more. Given that framing, the mini seems the more practical of the two. You get the same internal prowess, the exact same screen resolution, and a savings of $100. Plus, it’s more compact and more mobile, though obviously images are going to look smaller on its smaller 7-inch display. If you’re sold on the iOS ecosystem and are evaluating your iPad options, the mini is tough to ignore, as long as a 7 or 8-inch device is something you're considering. If you aren’t married to the iProduct universe, the Nexus 7 is probably a more practical, cost-effective choice when you look at the price delta.