The iPad mini has been rumored for nearly as long as the original iPad has existed, but it wasn't clear early on how many of those rumors were based on fact and how many were based on hope. Hope, that was, for a smaller, more portable tablet that would bring access to all the Apple ecosystem had to offer, in a package you could easily hold in one hand. Specifically, a package more affordable than the 10-incher.
That's this, the 7.9-inch, $329 iPad mini that sports a screen with the same resolution as the iPad 2 -- only smaller. As we put this one through its paces it quickly became clear that this is far more than a cheaper, smaller iPad. This is a thinner, lighter device that deserves independent consideration. In many ways, it's actually better than the 10-inch slate from which it was born. But is it better for you? Join us after the break as we find out.
The iPad mini looks a lot more like a blown-up iPod touch than a shrunken-down fourth-generation iPad.
Apple wanted to be very clear at its product-packed iPad mini launch event that this isn't just a shrunken-down iPad. And, indeed, that starts with a very different case design. While the second, third and fourth generations of iPads have all been more or less indistinguishable, the iPad mini's anodized aluminum back looks entirely different. In fact, the whole thing looks a lot more like a blown-up fifth-generation iPod touch than a shrunken-down fourth-generation iPad.
The profile itself is more rounded than the full-size iPad, lacking the sharp taper at the edges. This, we presume, gives a little more room for the battery inside, but it also makes this a more comfortable slate to carry around. The edges on the 10-inch iPad can cut into your hand if you're the sort who carries yours wherever you go. Not so with the mini.
Of course, that's helped greatly by the decrease in weight here. The WiFi-only iPad mini weighs just 0.68 pounds (308 grams), which is less than half the weight of the fourth-generation iPad. It's far thinner, too, at 7.2mm (vs. 9.4) and measures 7.87 x 5.3 inches (200 x 135mm) on the other dimensions. Inside that plane is a 7.9-inch, 1,024 x 768 IPS LCD which has significantly smaller bezels than those found in other iPads. It's thanks to those bezels that a display this size can be housed in a slate this size, but still that 5.3-inch horizontal span may be a bit of a problem for some.
The joy of a 7-inch tablet is walking across the office or the airport, holding the slate in one hand while tapping away at it with the other.
To us, the joy of a 7-inch tablet is walking across the office or the airport, holding the slate in one hand while tapping away at it with the other. The Nexus 7, with its 16:9 aspect ratio, is relatively narrow and easy to carry securely one-handed -- even by those whose mittens are size S. With the iPad mini, holding the slate in the same way can be a bit of a reach. This editor, who wears XL gloves, had no problem palming the littler iPad, but when we handed it to other, dainty-fingered people they sometimes struggled to hold it securely.
The scrawny bezels on either side actually exacerbate this issue to some degree, as those who must loop a thumb around the front of the device when holding it are forced to put that thumb right on the display. Thankfully, every app we tried handled this situation without issue, Kindle and iBooks turning pages and acting normally even with that stray opposable member making square contact on the digitizer.
Overall, the tablet is very comfortable to hold; its thinness and lightness are both attributes that must be perceived first-hand. That 7.2mm depth is exactly the same as the fourth-generation iPod touch, which even today is an impressively svelte device. We reviewed the black model, which features a dark bezel and anodized back to match. It's cool and matte to the touch, which we find very appealing, but time will tell just how durable this black version will prove. Those who are scratch-averse may want to think about the white and silver variety, which will likely hide those markings a bit better.
The layout of the buttons is familiar, but different. The volume rocker and orientation lock switches are on the upper portion of the right side, but here up and down are distinct buttons, not like the integrated rocker on the full-size iPad. It's also not like the three-way rocker found on the latest iPod nano, which features an integrated play/pause button. That's a bit unfortunate, as we'd like to see that find its way across the product line, but perhaps it will in future revisions. (Yes, we're expecting more.)
The power button is up top, looking and feeling very much like those on older iPads. There's a small slit for a microphone up there as well, and on the other side, the 3.5mm headphone jack, which bucks the trend of bottom-placement found on nearly every other Apple mobile device. On the left side of the device nothing, and on the bottom is where the Lightning connector lives. Like the iPhone 5, that connector is flanked by two sets of two rows of holes, drilled to let the device's sound out. It's reasonably loud and, since it's on the bottom not the back, the sound is closer to traveling in the right direction to meet your ears, but it's still a less than ideal listening experience. You'll want a set of headphones -- which, as with other iPads, are not included.
The only other button is on the front, a smaller version of the same Home button found on the iPad. Curiously, it's even smaller than the button on the iPhone, making it very petite indeed. Around back, there's just one detail to concern yourself with: the lens assembly for the 5-megapixel iSight camera stuffed in the upper-left. That's paired with a 1.2-megapixel FaceTime HD center-cut in the bezel atop the LCD.
Mini owners may have to make do with some resolution envy, but they at least won't be lacking in any other regard.
No, this isn't Retina, but maintaining the same resolution as a 10-inch display shrunken down to 7.9 means a necessary boost in pixel density: 163ppi. That's a nice increase over the iPad 2's 132ppi, but it still falls short of the 264ppi of the fourth-generation iPad -- not to mention, the iPhone 5's 326dpi. Naturally, this means that text isn't anywhere near as sharp as on the newer iPads, but this is still a very nice-looking display.
In fact we found the brightness and color reproduction to be improved over the iPad 2, comparable to the latest Retina displays. Colors are very pleasing to the eye and viewing angles, as ever with an Apple display, do not disappoint. You can line up as many friends as you like and sit them shoulder-to-shoulder, they'll all have a bright, clear picture. Yes, mini owners may have to make do with some resolution envy, but they at least won't be lacking in any other regard.
Performance and battery life
Results (higher is better)
Apple iPad mini
Apple iPad (late 2012)
Apple iPad (2012)
Apple iPad 2
Apple iPhone 5
Apple iPhone 4S
These numbers pale in comparison to the new, fourth-gen iPad but we think that in day-to-day usage the relative lack of performance won't be as noticeable. Apps do load more slowly but most are still up and running within a second or two and when it comes to general web surfing tasks the iPad mini easily kept up with our taps and swipes. So, perhaps not the greatest performance in the Apple lineup, but there is one place where it bests the rest: battery life.
Apple iPad mini
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7
Apple iPad (late 2012)
Apple iPad 2
ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
Apple iPad (2012)
9:52 (HSPA) / 9:37 (LTE)
Google Nexus 7
Motorola Xoom 2
Lenovo IdeaPad K1
Acer Iconia Tab A200
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus
Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet
Archos 80 G9
RIM BlackBerry PlayBook
Acer Iconia Tab A500
T-Mobile Springboard (Huawei MediaPad)
Samsung Galaxy Tab
Motorola Xyboard 8.2
In our standard battery run-down test, which entails looping a video with WiFi enabled and a fixed display brightness, the iPad mini managed an astounding 12 hours and 43 minutes. This gives it the longest battery life of any tablet we've ever tested, besting even the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 by 42 minutes. Indeed during the course of our testing the battery on the iPad mini exceeded our expectations, expectations that were already high thanks to the consistently great battery life offered by the iPad family.
The iPad 2 never saw HDR nor the Panorama mode that wowed us so on the iPhone 5, and neither does the iPad mini. It does, however, have a better camera than the iPad 2, a 5-megapixel shooter with an f/2.4 lens, and a 1.2-megapixel Facetime HD camera up front. The one 'round back appears to be the same camera module used on the iPhone 4 and as such, it takes good quality images. No, they don't quite pop like the 8-megapixel shooter on the iPhone 5, nor does this tablet manage low-light shooting as well as Apple's latest round of CPUs, but in our opinion tablets should only be used to take pictures in a pinch, and as such the iPad mini does just fine.
It also takes reasonably good video, shooting at 1080p like all the latest Apple devices. But again, the combination of a lower-res sensor and the lack of a newer image processing chip means image stabilization isn't nearly as good here as on the iPhone 5. So, you'll want to hold steady while shooting, but remember to do so in a place with enough ambient light; do that and you'll get yourself some quality footage.
You can't tally up any iPad's chances in the market without comparing it against all the other iPads in the market, and so we'll start by comparing the mini to its siblings, of which there are two at present. First is the iPad 2, available only in 16GB sizes either WiFi-only or a 3G model, each priced $70 more than the same-sized mini. For that $70 more you get a bigger screen and lower-resolution cameras front and back. For us, this is a no-brainer. Get the mini. Unless you suffer from ailing eyesight and need a larger portal into the iOS world, the smaller device is far and away the better one.
The choice between this and the new fourth-generation iPad is a bit more challenging. It's a considerably more expensive device, starting at $499, and of course a bigger and heavier one, too. Still, battery life on that guy is impressively good (over 11 hours) and the performance is stellar -- living up to and exceeding Apple's "2x faster" claims. Still, speed isn't everything and while we love that big, Retina display we're not entirely sure that we prefer it to the tiny, lightweight form factor of the mini. In fact, we found ourselves enjoying the portability of the mini so much that we'd probably give that one the nod, but this decision will almost certainly come down to personal preference. So, if you can, head to an Apple Store and try out both.
Moving outside of the ecosystem, most people are comparing the iPad mini to the Nexus 7. To some degree that's a natural comparison, as this is Apple's cheapest tablet compared to Google's low-cost device. In practice, these are very different devices, starting with the cost: $199 for a 16GB Nexus 7 vs. $329 for the iPad. The designs are strikingly different, too, with the Nexus having a high-quality but somewhat discount feel versus the overwhelmingly high-end iPad mini. In no way does Apple's latest feel like a tablet that was made to a budget. It simply feels like an Apple device. %Gallery-169154%
And, of course, it gives access to Apple's ecosystem of hundreds of thousands of tablet-friendly apps -- plus all the media iTunes has to offer. We can't help you decide which ecosystem, Apple or Google's, is better-suited to your interests, but we do imagine that will be the deciding factor for most. When it comes down to hardware, it's almost no contest between the two, with the iPad mini clearly winning out -- except in one area. That's the display. The Nexus 7 has a higher-resolution panel that's also 16:9, making it better for movie watching. It's also narrower, and thus easier to hold in your hand.
We'd also be remiss if we didn't at least mention the $199 Kindle Fire HD. Amazon's latest also offers a higher-resolution, IPS LCD and has the extra selling point of stereo speakers. It also has a strong suite of content, courtesy of Amazon's many partnerships, but overall we have a hard time comparing these two. Amazon's device is clearly a cut-rate slate designed to push as much digital buying power into the hands of consumers as possible, while Apple's is simply a legitimately nice tablet. It's a legitimately nice tablet that Apple certainly would love for you to fill with premium content downloaded through iTunes, but it never feels like a shopping portal. The Kindle does.
Surely, the most popular accessory for the iPad mini will be the new Smart Cover that, despite being both smaller and of considerably simpler construction, still costs the same $39 as the bigger, 10-inch version. That's a little unfortunate, especially because we don't think this version works as well. There is one positive change: the smaller Smart Cover moves away from the aluminum hinge on the bigger version, a good thing because we've seen plenty of scratches caused by that metal-on-metal contact.
It's still attached magnetically, but where the 10-inch model will immediately snap into the perfect placement every time, we found the mini cover just as eager to attach either too high or too low. It requires a little more precision. Hardly a deal-breaker (how often are you removing your Smart Cover?) but a bit of an annoyance.
The other accessories, and there are plenty of them, all make use of the device's Lightning connector, many existing only to add a little more life to your various iPod docks and chargers. The stubby 30-pin to Lightning adapter is $29, the same cost as the two camera adapters: one USB and one SD. (This is a change from the 30-pin Camera Connection Kit, which included both for $29.) The Lightning to 30-pin adapter (which includes a 0.2 meter cable in the middle) costs $39 and, finally, both the VGA and digital AV adapters are $49. Like the previous Digital AV adapter (which was $39), this one includes HDMI output and has an input so that you can still charge the tablet while it's in use. Handy for those digital signage applications -- or getting in one final, epic Lord of the Rings marathon before December.
This isn't just an Apple tablet made to a budget. This isn't just a shrunken-down iPad. This is, in many ways, Apple's best tablet yet, an incredibly thin, remarkably light, obviously well-constructed device that offers phenomenal battery life. No, the performance doesn't match Apple's latest and yes, that display is a little lacking in resolution, but nothing else here will leave you wanting. At $329, this has a lot to offer over even Apple's more expensive tablets.
Those comparing this to the Kindle Fire HD will have a hard time, as that's a tablet manufactured to a fixed cost and designed to sell you content. This is very much more. Similarly, the hardware here -- the materials, the lightness, the build quality, the overall package as it sits in your hand -- is much nicer than the Nexus 7 and it offers access to the comprehensively more tablet-friendly App Store, but whether that's worth the extra cost depends entirely on the size of your budget -- and your proclivity toward Android.
Regardless, the iPad mini is well worth considering for anybody currently in the market for a tablet. Its cost is compelling, its design superb and it of course gives access to the best selection of tablet-optimized apps on the market. To consider it just a cheap, tiny iPad is a disservice. This is, simply, a great tablet.
Update: This review originally stated (as does Apple's spec page) that the iPad mini has a mono speaker. It is, in fact, a stereo device.
[Last photo by Will Lipman]