This year is a different story. Not only did the iPad (now called the iPad Air) get redesigned to look just like the mini, but it also offers virtually the same specs as the smaller model. In many respects, the smaller tablet is now a scaled-down iPad Air -- precisely what Apple seemed to be avoiding last year when it debuted the original mini with inferior specs. Now, the company wants its tablets to be equal in everything but screen size, so you don't have to feel like you're making any sacrifices by choosing the mini. (We also can't help but wonder if Apple plans to extend this philosophy to iPhones by offering more than one size.)
Well, they're almost equal; you will notice a few minor variations. For instance, the Air's battery is larger, mainly thanks to its bigger size, but Apple's 10-hour battery life claims apply to both regardless. The mini's processor also doesn't run quite as fast, but we'll discuss that more in just a moment. What's more, there are also a few differences between this year's mini and last year's model, one of which is size and weight. At 200 x 134.7 x 7.5mm, the 2013 edition offers the same width and length as the original, but it's 0.3mm thicker. And whereas the iPad Air is much lighter than its predecessor, the new mini gains 29 grams from last year's model. This may seem odd if little else has changed under the hood, but the new mini features a much larger battery (23.8Whr versus 16.3Whr), which was probably necessary to compensate for that power-draining Retina display. Don't let the dimensions fool you, though -- unless you're playing with them side by side and actively looking for differences, you won't be able to tell.
The unibody aluminum enclosure has also remained unchanged, which means it's as solidly built as ever. That said, we've noticed that the back doesn't heat up as much during gaming and other activities as it used to. That means the mini is even more comfortable to use -- and it was pretty easy to handle even the first time around. It's worth noting that we also noticed this drop-off in heat dissipation on the iPad Air, so this may very well be a by-product of the A7 chip that's present in both devices.
Under the hood, WiFi performance has been dramatically improved thanks to multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) technology, which is a fancy way of saying that your WiFi can now take advantage of two antennas instead of one. The theoretical max is 300 Mbps, although few people will have the means or need to take advantage of speeds that fast. This tech is quickly becoming popular in flagship phones and tablets, so it's good to see Apple adopt it now. The company also inserted a second mic for noise canceling, which is ideal for videos, FaceTime calls and Siri voice recognition.
The review unit provided to us by Apple was a cellular model, which features much better compatibility with global LTE providers than the original. In years past, iOS devices were spread out across several different SKUs, each one carrying a specific set of frequencies to ensure compatibility with hundreds of operators around the globe. This is no longer the case, as Apple now uses a baseband that offers support for 14 LTE bands (1/2/3/4/5/7/8/13/17/18/19/20/25/26), DC-HSPA+, UMTS, GSM/EDGE, CDMA and EVDO (Rev. A and B). If you're not sure of a carrier's network settings, don't fret: The mini will detect which network you're using and download the proper settings for you.
Just like with the iPad Air, the home button looks the same as on earlier models. Normally this might not be worth pointing out, but in this case it's significant because it means Touch ID (aka the iPhone fingerprint sensor) remains exclusive to the iPhone 5s. Whether this is due to supply constraints or it's something Apple doesn't think iPad users want, the company isn't saying. Still, we've enjoyed Touch ID on the 5s and can't wait to see it eventually implemented in iPads.
High-resolution displays are a must-have on premium tablets these days -- since inexpensive devices like the Nexus 7 offer beautiful panels with 1,920 x 1,200 resolution, we're happy to see the mini's screen get a much-needed bump to Retina status. By the numbers, the mini features a 2,048 x 1,536 display and boasts a pixel density of 324 pixels per inch. In comparison, this is twice the density of the original mini's 163 ppi. What's more, the new mini has the same exact resolution as the iPad Air, but because the Air's screen is larger, it has a lower pixel density of 264 ppi. The mini also matches the Nexus 7's pixel density, even with a screen that's an inch larger.
Even though numbers don't always match up with user experience, they're quite telling here. The 1,024 x 768 display on last year's model wasn't horrible, but our tired eyes were yearning for a nicer experience for consuming photos and video, and reading text. As you might expect, doubling up the pixel density is not only easily noticeable; it's also refreshing. High-definition videos look glorious; fonts have never looked sharper; and images that show fantastic details on the new mini simply look fuzzy on the old mini. There's very little difference in color reproduction however, but then again, it was already pretty good on last year's model, so we're quite happy with the results. All told, this is one of the best displays we've seen on a tablet.
Though our unit came with iOS 7.0.3 preloaded, Apple pushed an update to version 7.0.4 while we were working on this review. Since it's a simple bug fix, the user interface remains unchanged. In general, though, you'll notice slight improvements in the overall user experience thanks to the faster A7 chip and M7 coprocessor. We'll discuss those points later in the review.
Imaging is another area where the new iPad mini and the iPad Air share identical components. Heck, the 5-megapixel f/2.4 rear-facing camera was used on the previous-gen mini as well, which tells us that Apple doesn't believe people care about taking professional-quality photos with their tablets. Even if people aren't swapping out their point-and-shoots in favor of a tablet, however, Apple has a knack for making its picture-taking experience a relatively stress-free one. No worrying about tweaking manual settings or waiting several seconds to take the shot; the user interface is simple and the shutter lag is quite minimal compared to most other devices. Most importantly, the results are surprisingly good for a tablet -- pictures are reasonably detailed with accurate colors, and they look fantastic on the mini's Retina display. The camera doesn't handle low-light conditions particularly well, and there's no LED flash to rescue you either, but still, it meets our expectations.