Design and User Experience
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.