When the iPad debuted, cynics called it a giant iPod touch. But Apple’s tablet turned out to be much more: more powerful, more capable, more useful, more everything. Instead of being arithmetically bigger than the iPod touch, the iPad offered exponentially more of everything that was good about it.
Now the iPad mini is out, some of the same cynics are claiming it’s just a smaller iPad. This time around, such a description is more apt, as the mini offers nearly all the features, power and capabilities of its full-size siblings. It even runs all the same apps. The result is a device that – far more than the Mac mini or even the old iPod mini – gives you nearly everything of its non-mini namesake in a smaller package.
But calling it a smaller iPad glosses over what makes the mini unique.
Small is beautiful
At 200mm tall and 135mm wide, the mini has just 60 percent of the footprint of the fourth-generation iPad. Even more impressive is that thanks to its 7.2mm thickness (yes, it’s even thinner than the iPhone 5) and 308g weight, the iPad mini is just 46 percent of the volume of the standard model and 47 percent of the weight. Yet it has a 7.9in display that’s a full 66 percent of the screen area of a full-size iPad.
Put simply, the mini gives you two thirds of an iPad at half the overall size and weight. This means it’s usable in situations where a full-size tablet isn’t practical. You can hold it in one hand and slip it into the pocket of a jacket. Remember the adage that the best camera is the one you have with you? The best tablet is the one you have with you, and we’ve already found ourselves taking the mini to places we wouldn’t have taken a standard iPad.
Just as striking as the mini’s smaller size and higher screen-to-body ratio is its overall design, which in some ways has more in common with the iPhone 5 and iPod touch than with the full-size iPad. The first thing you’ll notice is that the bezel framing the display is much narrower along the longer edges than on an iPad, allowing Apple to squeeze as much screen area as possible into a smaller package.
Flip it around, and you’ll see that unlike the tapered, brushed-aluminium back of the full-size iPad, the mini’s unibody enclosure is more squared off at the edges, like the original and latest iPod touch models. The colour of the back varies, too: on the black option, the back and sides are matte, slate-black aluminium with matching buttons and switches; while the white-bezel iPad gives you a matte, silver-aluminium back with matching controls. And like the iPhone 5, the iPad mini has polished, chamfered edges between its body and the glass front.
There’s absolutely no give or flex to the body, and the fit and finish are as good as anything Apple has ever done: the design and construction are that impressive. We thought Google’s Nexus 7 tablet felt sturdy, but even though the iPad mini has a 24 percent larger footprint across roughly half the thickness, it feels much more solid.
Like the fourth-generation iPad, the mini is available in three capacities, each in black or white. Each colour/capacity combination is available with or without cellular connectivity.
Of the many rumours swirling around prior to the mini’s announcement, the most common had it as a smaller version of the iPad 2 – it’s actually somewhere between the second- and fourth-generation tablets.
The mini uses the same dual-core A5 processor, at the same clock speed, as the iPad 2; includes the same 512MB of RAM; and features a display with the same resolution, 1,024 x 768 pixels. But the mini has the 1.2-megapixel FaceTime HD (720p-capable) front camera and 5-megapixel (1080p-capable) back camera of the latest full-size iPad.
The mini also matches the latest iPad when it comes to wireless, offering Bluetooth 4.0 and improved 5GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi performance thanks to channel bonding. Of course, the mini also uses Apple’s new Lightning connector instead of the older 30-pin.
Thanks to its iPad 2-matching processor, graphics capabilities and screen resolution, the mini should offer performance on a par with that tablet. Indeed, in our benchmark speed testing, it performed identically to the iPad 2 in every test except for our web page-load test, where it beat its bigger brother by roughly 40 percent, most likely because of the aforementioned 5GHz Wi-Fi enhancements in the mini.
Real-world testing echoed these findings, as the mini felt much like an iPad 2 when playing games and watching videos. With rare exceptions, we experienced no stuttering or slowdowns, even when playing graphic-heavy games or mirroring the iPad’s screen to an Apple TV.
In fact, on a few high-end games, the mini – like the iPad 2 before it – at times performed just as well as the third-generation iPad in terms of maintaining smooth graphics, because this Retina model has to push four times as many pixels. The iPad mini also never got uncomfortably hot during heavy use – just warm.
Thanks to its enhanced Wi-Fi capabilities, the mini offers noticeably better performance than the iPad 2 when loading web pages or streaming video – at least if you’re connected to a 5GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi network. However, as with the iPad 2, the smaller model’s 512MB of RAM means you’ll experience more Safari-tab reloads than with a recent full-size iPad.
Battery life, and charging
In terms of battery life, Apple says the iPad mini can last as long on a full charge as the standard iPad: up to 10 hours of Wi-Fi web surfing, watching video or listening to music; or up to nine hours of web surfing over a cellular-data connection. In our standard battery test, which involves looping a full-screen video at specific volume and screen-brightness levels, the mini lasted nine hours and 12 minutes, compared to nine hours and 21 minutes for the iPad 4.
Speaking of charging, the mini includes Apple’s 5W USB charger, like the iPhone 5, rather than the 10W or 12W chargers you get with full-size tablets. This makes sense when you consider that while the fourth-generation iPad has a 42.5 Watt-hour battery, the mini uses a 16.3 Watt-hour battery, so it will actually charge, using the 5W charger, more quickly than the latest iPad with its 12W charger. On the other hand, the smaller tablet’s battery capacity is three times that of the iPhone 5’s, so it will take considerably longer to charge the mini than an iPhone.
The mini actually surpasses the latest full-size iPad in one specification: along the bottom edge, bookending the Lightning-connector port, you’ll find two speakers, rather than just one. However, you don’t get much stereo separation, given how close together the speakers are. The mini’s audio also sounds tinnier than that of the full-size iPad, probably because the mini’s speaker drivers are smaller or have smaller enclosures around them, or both.
The standard iPad plays louder and it sounds better at the loudest levels; the tinniness of the mini’s audio starts to get a little grating at higher volumes. Overall, the smaller model’s speakers are closer in performance to that of the iPhone 5, although the tablet sounds a bit clearer.
There’s one way, however, in which the mini’s speaker layout offers an improvement over its siblings: because there are two, you’re less likely to cover them with your hand when holding the mini in landscape orientation. In our testing watching video and playing games, at least one of the speakers was always unobstructed.
No Retina display
Surely the most controversial aspect of the iPad mini is that, contrary to Apple’s recent trend towards high-resolution screens, it doesn’t have a Retina display. Instead, it offers the same screen resolution as the original iPad and the iPad 2: 1024 x 768 pixels. That’s considerably lower than the 2048 x 1,536 screens of the third- and fourth-generation models.
Does it really matter? That depends largely on your frame of reference. The pixel density of the iPad mini is just 163 pixels per inch (ppi), compared to 264ppi for the third- and fourth-gen iPads, and 326ppi for the latest iPhone and iPod touch models. If you’re accustomed to one of those displays, the mini’s lower pixel density is immediately noticeable. This is especially the case with text, which is blockier; but everything – graphics, images, interface elements, you name it – simply looks less sharp.
That’s surely disappointing to Retina veterans who’ve been pining for an iPad mini for reading. A tablet this size with a Retina-quality display would be a near-perfect reading device: all the great reading apps and services available for the iPad, in a book-sized package.
At the same time, if you’re coming from an iPad 2 or the original model, the mini’s screen looks considerably better. That’s because these older tablets offered 1024 x 768 pixels in a 9.7in (diagonal) screen, whereas the iPad mini has the same number of pixels in a 7.9in screen: the 163ppi pixel density of the iPad mini is considerably higher than the 132ppi of the older models.
We should also point out that while the screen looked noticeably non-Retina when we first started reading on it (after seven months of daily use of Retina iOS devices), we quickly acclimatised. After three days of only using the iPad mini, we still noticed the lower pixel density, but the difference wasn’t nearly as glaring. Ultimately we liked the mini’s size and weight more than we disliked the fact it didn’t have a Retina display.
Remember that most people in the world have never used a Retina-quality display, let alone used one regularly enough to find the mini’s screen fuzzy. These are the people Apple is marketing the tablet to, not those of us who already have a recent iOS device.
Despite the Retina controversy, giving the mini a screen resolution identical to that of the iPad 2 was perhaps the savviest decision Apple made when designing the mini. It means that any iPad app compatible with the iPad 2 (which Apple still sells) works with the mini. And since even the latest iPad apps are written to work on both Retina and non-Retina iPads, this means the mini has several hundred thousand native apps ready and waiting for it.
A Retina display on the mini would have been one specifically optimised for its size, and yet another resolution for developers to target. That would have meant only a handful of iPad mini-optimised apps available at launch, with other apps scaled up or down.
For now, any iPad app on the App Store will work with the mini. In fact, if you’ve already got a full-size iPad, you can restore your mini from an iTunes or iCloud backup of that full-size model.
Am I holding this right?
The mini’s chamfered edges aren’t just for looks; they also make the front edges more comfortable when holding it. And although the squared-off edges don’t feel quite as nice as the tapered edges of the standard iPad, the mini is so much lighter that it’s far more comfortable to hold for extended periods.
The chances are that you won’t be holding the mini with your hand all the way around the back, like the actors in Apple’s TV adverts, but it’s light enough to hold in portrait orientation by placing your hand behind the back and your thumb either on the bottom bezel or along the longer side of the device.
The iPad mini can’t match the light weight of Amazon’s standard Kindle (170g) or the Paperwhite (213g), but 312g is still light enough for long reading sessions. We’ve used the mini for several two-hour stretches of reading, and have no complaints about the weight or size. It was a welcome change from reading on the full iPad.
Speaking of holding while reading, one concern we had about the mini was that its thinner long-edge bezels would result in unintended touchscreen actions. But Apple says iOS 6 can differentiate between touching and holding, and we found this to be true. In Instapaper, for example, holding the mini by the edge of the screen does nothing… except let you hold the tablet comfortably. In our testing, touching the edge of the screen for less than a second and a half is interpreted as a tap; longer touches are ignored.
Don’t confuse ‘mini’ with ‘lite’. With the exception of a Retina display, this slimmed-down tablet gives you the full iPad experience, including access to over 275,000 iPad-optimised apps, in a device that’s about half the overall size and weight of the standard iPad. Retina purists will baulk at the screen, but most people will be wowed enough by the mini’s features, performance, design and build quality to accept the screen for what it is: very good, but not Retina.