iPad mini with Retina display review: a smaller, lighter iPad Air
Last year, apple released a product many of us were convinced would never happen, a miniature tablet.
The late Steve Jobs himself talked poorly of smaller tablets, from a usability standpoint, on an earnings call just two years ago. Nonetheless, the company pushed forward to provide the iPad mini in 2012.
While many of us may not have agreed with what Jobs said at the time – that 7-inch tablets would have to be sold with sandpaper so users could whittle their fingertips down to one-fourth their current size – there may have been some truth to what he was saying. The iPad mini was a compromise, not only in display size, but also in performance, display quality, and profit margin for the company.
Suffice it to say, the original iPad mini may be one of the most disappointing Apple products in recent memory.
Apple heard the complaints loud and clear, however, and this year it released the new and improved iPad mini with Retina display. It’s sports the same design, but newer internals, a much improved display, and far fewer compromises than before.
One unexpected change alongside the newer iPad mini was a bump in price.
Is it worth the upgrade and the extra cash? We’ve spent eight days with the iPad mini with Retina display and below are our thoughts!
Video Review · Specs & Hardware · Software · Camera · Performance · Battery Life · Call/Network · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me
Specs & Hardware
From afar, if you saw the new iPad mini, you may never know it. It looks virtually identical to its predecessor. Apple only made a few, tiny modifications to its chassis, most of which will go unnoticed by the masses.
First, likely to accommodate for the higher-resolution display and new battery, the tablet is 0.3mm thicker than before. At only 7.5mm thick, it’s still remarkably thin. And the modifications added 23g to its heft, though its still comparatively lightweight at 331g.
The only other visible change is the addition of another microphone on the backside, near the top edge.
Aside from that, it has the same basic shape and design – rounded edges, a chamfered front trim, minimal bezel along the sides of the display, and speakers separated by the Lightning port along the bottom edge.
The biggest changes from last year’s iPad mini are internal. The iPad mini with Retina display features practically the same specifications as its larger sibling, the iPad Air. It’s powered by Apple’s A7 chipset, a 1.3GHz dual-core CPU paired with a quad-core GPU. It comes with 1GB of DDR3 RAM, a 5-megapixel rear camera, 1.2-megapixel front shooter, and a 23.8Wh battery. And it comes with Bluetooth 4.0 and Wi-Fi b/g/n.
Buyers have three options when picking hardware: color, capacity, and connectivity. Like the Air, the iPad mini with Retina display comes in either Space Gray or Silver, Wi-Fi only or LTE, and it comes in either 16, 32, 64, or 128GB storage options.
The previous model shipped with a 7.9-inch 1,024 by 768 pixel resolution display, which sported a laughable (at least by today’s standards) density: 162 pixels per inch. This year’s iPad mini bears quadruple the resolution, 2,048 by 1,536 pixels, at the same size, for double the density – 324 pixels per inch.
The difference is immediately noticeable. The new iPad mini’s display is markedly sharper and cleaner. The edges of text and icons are no longer jagged, but are now smooth and crisp. Video playback is now in full HD, and everything simply looks … better.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This display is far from the best we’ve seen. In fact, the iPad Air, which we reviewed two weeks ago, has a noticeably better and more saturated panel. By itself, the new iPad mini’s Retina display looks great. Next to the iPad Air, looking at the very same images, it’s clear the smaller panel isn’t nearly as vibrant and can be more likened, at least in color reproduction, to the original mini.
We figure Apple had a quality choice to make: clarity or color reproduction. If given the option, we would have likely made the same choice, a much clearer picture for marginally worse color gamut.
The quality of built and materials, thankfully, have not changed at all. And that means the iPad mini with Retina display is one of the best built tablets under 8-inches … by a significantly wide margin. Its build quality, materials, size, weight, and appearance are all phenomenal. The improved specifications and display resolution bump are seriously welcomed. But it’s still not quite perfect.
The display, while much better, still isn’t the best. And the speaker placement is questionable. It doesn’t offer great stereo separation and it’s entirely too easy to cover and muffle the sound with the palm of your hand when not using headphones.
Despite some minor issues and concerns, though, we’re impressed with the new iPad mini’s hardware.
Naturally, Apple’s most recent tablet comes with the most current version of iOS 7 – currently version 7.0.4.
The iOS 7 update was the most dramatic change since the induction of the mobile operating system in early 2007. It brought some much-needed changes to the aging interface, swapping gradients for flat design. It also brought a more vibrant color palette and a handful of useful features.
Control Center, hands down, is the most notable addition in iOS 7. Accessed by a swipe up from the bottom of the display, Control Center provides quick settings toggles, sliders for volume and brightness, music controls, as well as shortcuts to the Camera and Clock apps.
Siri and Notification Center also received refreshed UIs, sporting the same smoked glass appearance as Control Center and establishing a hierarchy of layers throughout the operating system. Opening any of these at any given time continues to show the below interface in a transparent layer.
Siri has also adopted some new features, such as the ability to toggle settings via voice commands. Telling Siri to “turn up the brightness” will result in a slight increase in well … brightness. Telling it to switch off Wi-Fi will toggle Wi-Fi off. You get the idea.
Notification Center is now (slightly) more useful. It’s separated into three panes: Today, All, and Missed. Today gives a preview of the day – current weather conditions, calendar entries, and upcoming events; the All tab displays all missed notifications; and Missed shows the notifications you missed while the tablet was in standby.
Outside the vast UI improvements, however, iOS has not fundamentally changed. It’s the same iOS we’ve always used, and that’s not terribly fascinating, especially on a tablet; iOS was designed for smartphones, not tablets, and tablet optimization could certainly be better.
The extra display real estate is utilized in some places, but more often and obviously by third-party developers with split-view applications. The Settings and Contacts applications, for instance, offer split panes to view more than one stream of content at once. But in comparison to the competition, such as the Galaxy Note series, Windows tablets, and even other tablets which offer floating windows and true simultasking, the iPad is starting to feel a bit dated.
Apple has helped the issue by bringing the multitasking gestures forwards and making them more noticeable. Swiping between applications is easily done by swiping either left or right with four fingers. A four-finger swipe upwards will open the task switcher. And pinching with five fingers will bring you back to the home screen.
So while two applications can’t run simultaneously (or side by side), task switching using the gestures is quick, effective, and intuitive.
The UI is fresh, yes still straight to the point. And the amount of content available is as broad as ever – applications, games, movies, television shows, books, magazines, and much more are only ever a few clicks away. That certainly counts for a lot. At the end of the day, however, we can’t help but feel Apple is missing the larger picture here, a key factor which would help further differentiate its tablets from iPhones and iPods.
The software is fine. But despite the fresh UI, it’s still long in the tooth. And the lack of customization and glanceable information aid in making it utterly boring and useless … unless you load your device with tons of content.
In comparison to the tablet competition, the built-in software is rather limited. While the UI is quite similar to the iPhone camera interface, it’s lacking most the features. It only offers three shooting modes: Video, Photo, and Square (which is really only a different aspect ratio). The only toggle is for HDR mode.
Fortunately, image quality isn’t awful. It isn’t great either, but in great lighting (likely outdoors), pictures sometimes turn out great. Colors are true to life and contrast is decent, though they tend to err on the warm side. At five megapixels, the detail could be better. But we’ve certainly seen worse images.
The worst part of the image sensor is how quick to overexpose it is, and the auto-focus often led to a poorly focused image. Indoors and low light performance leaves much to be desired, littering images with considerable noise and artifacts.
Either way, it should suffice in a pinch.
The video quality is far more impressive, providing more vibrant colors, relatively steady shooting (even when walking), and decent audio. We had some trouble with pans, which were often jittery, as were fast moving objects in frame.
And, of course, the front fact camera serves its purpose – nothing more, nothing less. It makes for decent video calls and low quality stills (read: selfies). Don’t expect much from this 1.2-megapixel shooter, and you’ll be plenty pleased.
Unlike the A5 in the original iPad mini, we were unable to bog the iPad mini with Retina display down. It was quick to respond to any and all user input – opening applications, quickly swapping between apps, returning home, or opening Control and Notification Center. It was consistently quick at every task we threw at it.
The tablet may be limited to only running one task at a time, but it was able to handle all of our favorite graphic intensive games – Asphalt 8, Infinity Blade III, and FIFA 14 – without a problem.
Placement notwithstanding, the speakers on the new iPad mini are moderately loud with decent sound. Of course, they’re light on the low end with a high bias towards the mids and highs. At full volume there is slight distortion.
They’re actually fairly decent speakers, but we’re still not fond of the location.
However, we have no complaints about battery performance. With the same internals as the Air yet a smaller battery powering the show (23.8Wh vs 32.4Wh), we were skeptical about the mini’s stamina at first. But the difference in display size appears to have offset that difference. The iPad mini managed to survive up to two days of abuse from us during our testing.
Through hours of Web browsing, typing plain text documents, playing games with both light and heavy graphics, streaming movies through Netflix, benchmarking, posting to several social accounts, and emailing, we were unable to kill the iPad mini with Retina display in a single day. That’s not to say it isn’t possible. It certainly is, but it takes determination. Most will only have to charge the iPad mini every day and a half to two days – or even three or four days for lighter users with the Wi-Fi model.
Over the weekend, we unplugged the iPad mini on Saturday morning around 9:00 AM. We used it constantly throughout the day and quite a bit on Sunday, as well. Come Sunday evening around midnight, the iPad mini had roughly 40 percent charge remaining.
Stamina is great. Just keep an eye on that sneaky brightness slider. It tends to unnecessarily creep up and errs on the side of too bright. We turned the Auto-Brightness setting off and simply adjusted brightness through Control Center to avoid unnecessary battery drain.
+ Great, high density display
+ Incredible performance
+ Great battery life
+ Extremely lightweight and portable
+ Virtually endless supply of content for consumption
– Speaker placement isn’t the best
– iOS 7 is in need of further tablet optimization
– Moderately expensive
– Just big enough to not fit in some jacket pockets
Pricing and Availability
Here in the US, the iPad mini with Retina display went on sale at Apple stores and other third-party retailers on November 12. It’s also currently available in Hong Kong, Australia, China, Singapore, New Zealand, and Japan.
Pricing for the new iPad mini in 16GB starts at $399, plus applicable taxes. As per the norm, each capacity model increases by $100 – 32GB for $499, 64GB for $599, and 128GB for $699. For LTE connectivity, add $130 to each model, meaning the price can go up to a staggering $829, plus tax.
Apple is currently dealing with a limited supply of the iPad mini with Retina display.
To say the original iPad mini was a disappointment would be an understatement for many. The display and the internals were not up to snuff, and it didn’t take long for people to realize. But Apple seemingly listened to the complaints and has come back with an impressive update, the iPad mini with Retina display.
Is it perfect? Not at all. The display could still use some work, we’re not particularly fond of the speaker placement, and the software is a constant struggle for those who simply want more out of a tablet.
While we can’t say the iPad mini with Retina display was all we were hoping for, we can say this: it’s a fantastic tablet, one of the best we’ve ever used. Many smaller tablets are a compromise in build quality, specs, or some other important factor. And the original iPad mini was more likened to its smaller foes, compromises in all directions. This, however, is the whole package; it’s a miniature iPad Air, and that’s worth getting excited about.
It has the same internals, the same resolution display, similar performance, similar battery life, a similar design, and it’s $100 cheaper.
The iPad mini with Retina display is not the best deal in the tablet market. That title still resides with one very small, very awesome tablet: the 2013 Nexus 7. But the new iPad mini is one of the best tablets money can buy, and if what you’re after is the renowned performance and experience of a full-sized iPad in a smaller package, the iPad mini with Retina display is your only choice.