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iPad mini review

Apple takes on a new market with a smaller tablet

Gallery Photo: Hands-on with the iPad mini

The iPad mini has arrived — and so has our review. Just last week, Apple introduced the world to the newest member of its wildly successful tablet line, an adorable, diminutive slate with a 7.9-inch display. It even had an adorable ad to show along with it: an iPad mini joining in with a full-sized iPad to play "Heart and Soul" on the piano.

But to think of the iPad mini as a companion to the 3rd or 4th generation iPad — some kind of secondary player to the bigger version — would probably be a mistake. With a price tag starting at $329 and heading all the way up to $659 (with LTE and 64GB of storage), this isn't really a step down from the existing iPad (well, the iPad 2 at least) as much as it is a step to the side. At least, that's the impression I get. Want a big iPad that isn't too expensive? Get the 2nd gen one. Want one that you can throw in a bag or keep on the nightstand? Get the iPad mini. You fly business class and work in photography? Let me point you in the direction of the new 4th generation model.

But regardless of market positioning, the iPad mini has to be viewed in a world with a $199 Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD — two strong performers that are a far cry, at least in price, from the iPad mini. Even though Apple might want consumers to see these as separate product categories, consumers may only see that $129 gulf.

On the other hand, Apple has a lot to fill that gulf, including the absolute best software ecosystem for tablets on the planet right now. But is the iPad mini worth the stretch, or would you be smarter to save the cash and saddle up to another device?

Video Review

Video Review

Hardware

Hardware and design


Moments after I held the iPad mini at Apple's event in San Jose, I hurriedly wrote that it made other tablets in this class feel like toys. Perhaps I was a bit hard on the competition in the heat of the moment, but I will say that there isn't a single product in the 7-inch tablet market that comes close to the look, feel, or build quality of the new iPad. It is absolutely gorgeous to see, and in your hand has the reassuring solidness of a product that's built to last.

If the iPhone 5 is reminiscent of jewelry, the iPad mini is like a solidly made watch.

In fact, the iPhone 5 and the mini have a lot in common. They both share a metal housing (in silver or black) that's lean and smooth, with that reflective, chamfered edge that runs around the border of the display. The iPad mini's paint job is similar to the iPhone's, but smoother, and on the black version I tested has a glint of blue and purple to it in certain light. It looks dangerous, and it feels great.

It looks dangerous, and it feels great
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The iPad mini's design stands above the competition

All of the standard iPad button and switch placement is intact here, save for the move of the speaker grille to the bottom of the device (it's been around back for iPads previous to this version), along with the new Lightning port. And that's a good-sounding set of stereo speakers, by the way. You'll find separate volume buttons on the right side beneath the mute / rotation lock toggle, and the power / sleep button on the top, just as expected. The front of the device is all glass, save for an HD camera in the center of the top bezel (as you hold it in portrait) and the home button on the bottom. There's also a 5-megapixel camera on the back.

Though the iPad mini sports a slightly larger display than other devices in this class, its profile feels extremely lean. Sometimes too lean. The device weighs just 0.68 pounds, and it's only 0.28 inches thick (noticeably thinner than the Nexus 7's 0.41 inches or Fire HD's 0.4 inches). I actually had a little trouble holding onto the device when I wasn't using the Smart Cover due to the back being as smooth as it is, and the frame being so thin. Maybe it's just my big hands, but I wanted a little more to grab onto. In that regard, I prefer the feel of the Nexus 7.

That problem was exacerbated by how wide the device feels in your hand, as well as the lack of a significant bezel around the left and right of the screen in portrait. Maybe it's just old habit, but I didn't feel completely comfortable putting my thumb over the screen itself. Apple has apparently included some new palm rejection logic in the iPad mini's version of iOS which wards off unwanted touches, and it did seem to work. It may have caused other issues, however, which I'll touch on in the software section.

Minor quibbles aside, the iPad mini stands head and shoulders above the competition in terms of design, the caliber of its components, and the solidness of how it's been built. But it also has another quality, one that's nearly as important: the device has personality. I've started to think of it as a constant companion — small enough to throw in a bag or carry around the house. There's something endearing about the mini that makes you want to keep it on-hand and use it often. It's a feeling the larger iPad never elicited in me.

Specs and cameras

Specs and cameras

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Inside the mini, you'll find specs essentially identical to the iPad 2, save for a few alterations. The system is built atop the two-generations-old A5 CPU, appears to sport a dangerously tiny 512MB of RAM, and ships in 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB storage capacities (I tested the 64GB, Wi-Fi-only version). All the requisite radios are here too: Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n, 2.4GHz and 5GHz), Bluetooth 4.0, and eventually you'll be able to buy a version with CDMA, GSM, and LTE cellular options. As you would expect, a light sensor, accelerometer, and gyroscope are here as well. It really is a mini version of the iPad 2, except for the cameras, which are significantly improved.

As you may know, I'm not a fan of people taking photos with tablets. Just as with previous models I've tested, I find the act to be not only awkward, but embarrassing as well. The slightly more diminutive size of the iPad mini does make the experience slightly better, and its 5 megapixel backside camera is actually not terrible for general shots. In fact, its color tone and low light performance was better than what I've seen on many newer smartphones. It was sometimes difficult to get a clean image due to shakiness, but that has more to do with the odd physicality of taking a photo with a tablet than it does with the actual camera.

The front-facing FaceTime HD camera is fine for video chatting (and I think is a lot more comfortable than chatting with the full size iPad), but won't be useful for anything more than that.

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Low light performance was better than what I've seen on many smartphones
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Display

Display

There's no question that the screen does look lower-res
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Much has been made about the display on the iPad mini. The IPS screen measures 7.9 inches diagonally, and is 1024 x 768 in resolution. For those keeping count, it's the same resolution as the original iPad. That makes for a pixel density of 163 ppi, which as you might guess doesn't seem too terrific next to devices like the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD (each 216 ppi), Nook Color HD (243 ppi), or the big daddy 4th generation iPad (264 ppi). It's also much lower in pixel density than pretty much any smartphone on the market right now.

But how does it look? Well for starters, it's a really good looking display in general terms. Apple is using the same treatment here as it does on the iPhone 5 and iPad, and it makes for a crystal-clear screen that seems to hover just a tiny bit beneath glass. Colors are vibrant and blacks are deep, and games, photos, and video look terrific.

That's only half the story, however. There's no question that to the naked eye this screen does look lower in resolution than its nearest competition. Pixels are noticeable, especially in webpages, books, and when viewing email — and that can be distracting sometimes. Since Apple is the company that's gotten our eyes used to the hey-look-no-pixels trick of the Retina display, it's hard to take a step back and not notice. I don't think the lower resolution is a deal-breaker in this product, but it is a compromise you have to be aware of. It simply doesn't look as clear as other products on the market.

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Software, battery

Software, performance, battery

Its app selection is an embarrassment of riches
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The biggest change in the software on the iPad mini that you need to be aware of is... everything is smaller. 99 out of 100 times while using it, this wasn't an issue, but it did take some getting used to in places. For instance, because the screen real estate is so much larger than an iPhone but icons are now roughly iPhone size, apps with lots of navigational elements can be a little less intuitive to navigate. Furthermore, the keyboard size feels altered — most notably in portrait — and the keys don't seem tall enough for my fingers. On the other hand, the mini makes landscape typing a lot easier.

Supposedly, the software on the mini has been tweaked to reject unwanted touches on the sides of the display, and during my testing it did seem to keep my thumb from making accidental moves in apps. The flip side to that, however, is that it sometimes seems to overcompensate and reject touches you intended — meaning that sometimes apps don't respond the way you want. It wasn't a huge problem, but it could be annoying at times, so I hope that Apple makes some effort to fine-tune this in future updates.

Other than that, iOS on the iPad mini is exactly the same as the software on a regular iPad. That's it. The end. Fin.

I'm not going to go into great detail about iOS 6 since we've already seen it on other products (and in fact have a review of it right here). What I will say is that the fact that it is for all intents and purposes a regular iPad makes it easily the most attractive tablet in this size range when it comes to software.

It's easy to become used to how vast and impressive the library is for the iPad, but using the mini reminded me of just how right Apple got this part of their ecosystem. Compared to the Nexus 7 or the Fire HD... well, there is no comparison. The iPad's app selection is an embarrassment of riches, and using apps like the powerful Paper or GarageBand, or playing games like the incredibly fun PunchQuest or Letterpress really makes a tremendous case for why a consumer might spend that extra $129.

Performance on the device was expectedly snappy. I didn't see any weirdness, stuttering, or lag that would cause alarm, though some heavier apps and games took noticeably longer to load up than they do on the new 4th generation (or even 3rd generation) iPad. I think for the time being, the mini can handle what developers are throwing at it just fine — but I do have my concerns about the shelf life of this product considering how much older its internals are. Given Apple's habit of rapid-fire obsolescing of products, your timeline for the mini may be shorter than you expect.

Battery life was — not surprisingly — everything Apple claimed it would be. On the tablets more than on any other product the company makes, it seems to be hitting its targets on longevity. I spent some pretty heavy days in mixed use (intermittent sessions of email, web browsing, Twitter, IRC, game playing, music, and video playback), and didn't have to worry about charging until about the middle or evening the next day. Overall, I was more than satisfied with the iPad mini's battery performance.

I didn't have to worry about charging
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LTE Model

LTE Model

Adding cellular connectivity to a small tablet feels like a no-brainer
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Hardware-wise, the LTE version of the iPad mini is virtually identical to the Wi-Fi-only version, the only real difference is the black bar on the top rear. Battery life has been nearly identical as well, though if you're using a lot of cellular data you're probably more likely to see a dip. We tested the Verizon version of the iPad mini, averaging download and upload speeds of around 8Mbps each. Those speeds are more a testament to the fact that Verizon's LTE network has slowed slightly thanks to the iPhone 5 than to the iPad's capabilities.

Adding cellular connectivity to a small tablet feels like a no-brainer, moreso than it does on a full-size 10-inch tablet. You're much more likely to be toting it around with you in places without Wi-Fi coverage and it's a real boon to just have data simply available when you do. If you frequently tether, the iPad mini makes a lot of sense too. iOS 6 is simply rock-solid when tethering via USB and the iPad mini lasts forever as a Wi-Fi hotspot — though there are still some issues getting the initial connection going with iOS. The $130 price premium for an LTE version is a bit steep (especially compared to the $50 premium on the Nexus 7 + Mobile), but if you have it to spend, you should.

Wrap-Up

  • Apple iPad mini (Wi-Fi)
  • Apple iPad mini (Wi-Fi + LTE)
Apple raises the bar yet again

The iPad mini is an excellent tablet — but it's not a very cheap one. Whether that's by design, or due to market forces beyond Apple's control, I can't say for sure. I can't think of another company that cares as much about how its products are designed and built — or one that knows how to maximize a supply chain as skillfully — so something tells me it's no accident that this tablet isn't selling for $200. It doesn't feel like Apple is racing to some lowest-price bottom — rather it seems to be trying to raise the floor.

And it does raise the floor here. There's no tablet in this size range that's as beautifully constructed, works as flawlessly, or has such an incredible software selection. Would I prefer a higher-res display? Certainly. Would I trade it for the app selection or hardware design? For the consistency and smoothness of its software, or reliability of its battery? Absolutely not. And as someone who's been living with (and loving) Google's Nexus 7 tablet for a few months, I don't say that lightly.

The iPad mini hasn't wrapped up the "cheapest tablet" market by any stretch of the imagination. But the "best small tablet" market? Consider it captured.

GOOD STUFF

  • Fantastic design and build quality
  • Software selection second to none
  • Great battery life

BAD STUFF

  • Screen is lower resolution than the competition
  • Can sometimes be a little awkward to hold
  • Expensive

THE BREAKDOWN

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  • 10
  • Design 9
  • Display 7
  • Camera(s) 8
  • Speakers 9
  • Performance 8
  • Software 8
  • Battery life 9
  • Ecosystem 10
Adding LTE is expensive, but it's worth it

Adding LTE to the iPad mini takes an already excellent tablet and makes it better, but just as the iPad mini itself isn't cheap, neither is opting for 4G data. Whether the high prices are due to design decisions or to market forces beyond Apple's control, I can't say for sure. I can't think of another company that cares as much about how its products are designed and built — or one that knows how to maximize a supply chain as skillfully — so something tells me it's no accident that this tablet isn't selling for $200. It doesn't feel like Apple is racing to some lowest-price bottom — rather it seems to be trying to raise the floor.

And it does raise the floor here. There's no tablet in this size range that's as beautifully constructed, works as flawlessly, or has such an incredible software selection. Would I prefer a higher-res display? Certainly. Would I trade it for the app selection or hardware design? For the consistency and smoothness of its software, or reliability of its battery? Absolutely not. And as someone who's been living with (and loving) Google's Nexus 7 tablet for a few months, I don't say that lightly.

The iPad mini hasn't wrapped up the "cheapest tablet" market by any stretch of the imagination. But the "best small tablet" market? Consider it captured.

GOOD STUFF

  • Fantastic design and build quality
  • Software selection second to none
  • Great battery life

BAD STUFF

  • Screen is lower resolution than the competition
  • Can sometimes be a little awkward to hold
  • Expensive

THE BREAKDOWN

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • Design 9
  • Display 7
  • Camera(s) 8
  • Speakers 9
  • Performance 8
  • Software 8
  • Battery life 9
  • Ecosystem 10
The Verge
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