Videos are recorded at 1080p resolution and a bit rate of 17.3 Mbps, and as we expected, the footage looks pretty good. Moving objects are perfectly smooth and the colors are fairly accurate. Audio was a mixed bag, because the secondary mic for noise cancellation works well for FaceTime video chatting. In other words, our selfie videos sounded great, but my voice wasn't very loud when taking home movies of my kids or anything else. The FaceTime camera, which records at 720p and 10.6 Mbps, also fares pretty nicely (for a front-facing camera, anyway). Still, there were times my hand accidentally covered the mic and muffled my voice.
Performance and battery life
Apple's new A7 chip first debuted on the iPhone 5s and quickly showed up on the iPad Air too, albeit with a slightly higher clock speed (the Air runs at 1.4GHz; the 5s, 1.3GHz). Now the same dual-core 64-bit chip is being used in the new mini, but it has the same 1.3GHz clock speed as the 5s. Yes, this means the benchmarks may not be quite as fast on the mini as they are on the Air (see the table below), but we're not looking at a drastic difference. In fact, the only times you might notice a discrepancy is in side-by-side comparisons, and even then the performance gap is rather subtle.
More importantly, the differences between this mini and last year's model are actually quite significant, since the tablet made a two-generation jump from Apple's A5 chip to the A7. Everything loads faster; there are fewer frame skips when playing games; and we had a great experience with both 32- and 64-bit apps. And if you don't think there's enough of a difference between the A5 and A7, we recommend you play with an original mini for a few minutes and then repeat the same tasks on the new version. The improvement is immediately obvious. On both devices, we played some of the usual games -- Infinity Blade III and Asphalt 8 come to mind -- and new games like Epoch 2 and Lego LOTR, and it's really hard to go back.
As you can see, the new mini ranks just slightly below the Air thanks to the lower clock speed, but again, unless you're playing graphics-intensive games, you won't have much of a reason to pick the larger tablet over the smaller one. The differences between the two minis, on the other hand, are simply astounding; the A5 on the original doesn't come close to any of the A7 devices we've tested.
Much to our satisfaction, Apple's official battery life claims on the iPad Air appeared to be rather conservative, and fortunately the iPad mini also beats the company's estimates. Both devices are supposed to get 10 hours of video playback, and in our standard video rundown test, which consists of playing a 720p movie on an eternal loop with LTE connected and at a fixed display brightness, our unit managed 11 hours and 55 minutes of life. This isn't quite as good as the Air's 13:45 or the original mini's 12:43, but when you consider we achieved that latter result on the WiFi-only model, the gap in battery life isn't really surprising: LTE naturally causes a small dip in battery life. When all was said and done, we were able to get through almost two days of normal use, including web browsing, email, social media, video playback and the occasional game.
Configuration options and the competition
The new iPad mini with Retina display comes in "space gray" and silver colors, both of which look the same as on the Air. You'll also be able to choose one of four storage options ranging from 16GB to 128GB (the latter option is new for the iPad mini, since the original maxed out at 64GB). Finally, there's also the matter of picking WiFi-only or WiFi+Cellular. The cellular model is decked out just like the Air, combining GSM/EDGE, UMTS/DC-HSPA+, EVDO and 14-band LTE and covering most networks around the world. The least-expensive WiFi-only model is $399, while its cellular-enabled counterpart starts at $529; if you want more storage, you'll need to pay an extra $100 for each higher tier, which means the 128GB WiFi-only version goes for $699 and WiFi+Cellular is $829.
Sadly, the new mini costs $70 more than last year's model at the time of launch, which is a head-scratching move. Sure, it's a nicer tablet than the previous model, but all next-gen iOS products are nicer than their predecessors, and rarely have we seen a price increase associated with those improvements. After all, even after the full-sized iPad got a Retina display, the starting price stayed the same at $499.
Those who need a larger screen will still get a great experience with the iPad Air, which features the same configuration options as the mini and a 9.7-inch display starting at $499 for the baseline model. If you don't care to spend extra for the top-of-the-line iPads, Apple now offers the original 7.9-inch iPad mini for $299, a $30 discount from its launch price. The 16GB iPad 2 is also still available for $399 (WiFi-only) and $529 (WiFi+Cellular).
There are also plenty of possibilities on the Android side, especially in the mid-sized category. The Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 is available for the same base price of $399, and it comes with an active digitizer and S Pen stylus. The LG G Pad 8.3 is another decent option for $350. The Google Nexus 7 (2013) is one of our favorite Android tablets and comes in at $229, which is an incredible price for the features it offers; we'd say this is one of the strongest competitors stepping up to challenge the iPad mini. The Tegra Note 7 is a well-performing Tegra 4 gaming tablet that's launching this week for $199. And let's not count Amazon out with the Kindle Fire HDX line, which starts at $229 for the 7-inch model and $379 for the 8.9-inch. Of course, this also means that you don't get the same Google Play access as other Android devices, and it features "Special Offers" (read: ads).
In the course of a year, the iPad mini has hit puberty, and matured quite a bit. It's an iterative update, for sure, but one that makes it vastly better than the original. Because it now offers a Retina display, fast connectivity and a powerful processor, the mini now shares top-tier product status with the iPad Air. This is precisely the iPad mini we've been waiting for, but it comes with a price hike of $70 over last year's model. Despite its wondrous feature set, some budget-minded buyers may look toward less expensive tablets like the Nexus 7, which also offers a brilliant display and top-notch specs, but for significantly less money.
But, let's face it: Plenty of potential buyers won't have a problem paying up, especially those of you who've been eagerly awaiting a mini with Retina display. And we can't blame anyone for being tempted, either, because the mini seems to have finally reached its full potential. We say, two high-quality iPads are better than one, even if it does make it harder to decide which to buy.
Edgar Alvarez contributed to this review.