Since the first iPad was released back in 2010, rumors circulated that Apple would release a smaller version, but it never materialized, despite leaks and suppliers talking about it, until now. Nearly three years after the first iPad, Apple finally got around to releasing a new, smaller version of their popular, genre-defining tablet and they call it the iPad Mini. Does it live up to the hype, is it everything we had hoped for and will it steal the thunder from other tablets like Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD and Google’s Nexus 7? Read on for my review.
So Apple, under Tim Cook’s leadership, has released a mini iPad, a tablet that former Apple CEO Steve Jobs said was DOA (Dead on Arrival) because it would require people to take sandpaper to their finger tips, in order to make them smaller. But if you believe the PR spin that Tim Cook recently said about the size, that Apple didn’t make a 7-inch tablet, they made a 7.9 inch tablet, which is 35% larger than other 7-inch models, then “technically” they didn’t lie. Either way, the new iPad Mini is a smaller iPad and puts Apple into another category within the tablet market, a market they continue to dominate with over 50% marketshare.
Let’s be clear, I bought the iPad Mini for my wife, as I currently own a third generation iPad and a Nexus 7. It’s not that I don’t want one, it’s just that I have no need for one. That’s not to say that millions of other folks don’t, which is now perfectly clear from the iPad Mini’s release weekend, where it is believed Apple sold well over 2 million units. The iPad Mini is a beautifully designed piece of hardware. The moment you open the box, like with any Apple product, the iPad Mini screams elegance and sophistication. Upon picking it up, you’ll undoubtedly notice the iPad Mini’s thin frame and light weight. It’s hard to believe that this device is actually thinner than the already impossibly thin iPhone 5, but at 7.2mm, it’s beats the iPhone 5 by 0.4mm. The design of the iPad Mini is so sleek and to me, it should have been the design of the iPad 3, or even the 4 for that matter, but I foresee the larger iPad adopting a similar design next year. The front of the Mini, in this case, features black glass, but white is also available, with a much thinner side bezel compared to it’s larger brother. But even with this thinner edge, I didn’t find holding the iPad Mini difficult at all and never once had any accidental “touches” when using apps. The back of the black model is coated in the same blue/black anodized paint that is found on the black iPhone 5 (the white model’s back remains like the other existing iPads, with a raw aluminum backing). Because of this, you may want to put a case on your iPad or even a Zagg Invisible Shield with “full” coverage to prevent the back from scratching. On the top of the Mini is the power/sleep button and the 3.5mm headphone jack, which I found to be little stiff, I really had to push the headphone stick in the port, hard, for it to click in properly, at least the first time I tried it. On the bottom, you’ll find dual speakers which offer stereo sound that surround the small dock port for the new lightning cable that Apple introduced with the iPhone 5. The exterior of the new smaller iPad is spectacular, its exactly what you’d expect from Apple, a high-end design with high-end materials that meld together to create a stunning product.
As for the interior of the iPad Mini, this is where things get interesting. On paper, and according to some critics, the iPad Mini is outdated. It uses a two-year old A5 dual core processor, the same processor that was used in the iPad 2. That being said, the A5 was never a slouch and doesn’t still doesn’t show its age, thanks to iOS. I played a ton of games on the Mini, everything from Infinity Blade II to Where’s Waldo, and never experienced a hint of lag or a drop in frame rate. The processor holds its ground and powers the Mini beautifully, screen transitions were smooth and responsive.
iPads are known for their great battery life and the iPad Mini doesn’t disappoint. Apple packed in an extremely thin 16.3-watt-hour battery that provides 10 hours of life, when searching the internet, listening to music or watching movies. A little bonus that I thought was cool, was the fact that the Mini came with its battery charged up to 93%, right out of the box, so it was ready to go the moment I opened it. I can’t say for sure that everyone will have that same experience, but it was nice nonetheless. Like the iPad 2, the Mini features 512MB of RAM, not the 1GB of the iPad 3/4 or iPhone 5, but as I said, gaming wasn’t an issue and I highly doubt the average consumer would even know the difference.
Unlike many other 7-inch or smaller tablets, the iPad Mini feature two cameras, a 1.5 HD iSight camera on the front for HD Facetime and a 5-megapixel iSight camera on the back. Both tested out fairly well. The rear camera, while good, is obviously not the 8-megapixel camera found on the iPhone 5, or even the iPhone 4S. Regardless, I’m sure people will be pleased, if they ever decide to take pictures with the iPad’s rear camera (because let’s face it, shooting pictures or video with a tablet looks goofy as hell). It’s also a feature that it’s closest competitors, Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD and Google’s Nexus 7 do not have, however, it does also contribute to the fact that the iPad Mini is more expensive than those tablets.
The biggest controversy with the new iPad Mini has to be the device’s display. In a world were we’re seeing 720p displays in phones (soon, thanks to HTC, we’ll see a 1080p display), Retina displays on Macbooks, iPhones and iPads, many Apple fans and critics alike, where taken by surprise when Apple announced the new iPad Mini wouldn’t feature a Retina display, but instead a display with the same resolution as the two year old iPad 2, 1024 x 768. Now before I get into my feelings on the display, here’s why Apple “supposedly” didn’t include a Retina display in the Mini. There are two reasons actually, cost and compatibility. Apple has to compete with the Kindle Fire HD and the Nexus 7, both of which start at $199, but Apple typically makes money on their hardware, not their services—with the exception of money made off app sales. Because Apple already included two cameras and a more industrial design with materials and manufacturing costing a tad more, the addition of a Retina display in a 7-inch+ tablet would have driven the cost up to the point where it wouldn’t be able to compete at an effective price point. As with any piece of technology, the price on components always go down over time, so by the time Apple makes the next Mini, we should see a Retina display in a 7.9 screen. Compatibility, the other issue, is something Apple take very serious, as they want to avoid the fragmentation issue that still plagues Android. Currently, there are only two screen resolutions—when it comes to iPads, not iPhones—that iOS supports, the 1024×768 found on the iPad 2 and the massive 2,048 by 1,536 found in the iPad 3 and 4. If Apple created a new resolution, it would force developers to make their apps work in that new resolution, thus creating a bigger headache.
Okay, so with that out of the way, how bad is the display on the iPad Mini? You’ve probably seen quotes from John Gruber, who called it awful and his wife calling it ugly. Truth be told, it’s not that bad. It worked well for the iPad 2 and granted it’s not a Retina display, but because it’s the iPad 2′s resolution, shrunk down to fit a smaller screen, it tightens up those pixels, giving the Mini a better display than the iPad 2. The colors are bright and vibrant, viewing angles are great and with the brightness turned up to about 75%, it works really well. The only bad thing that anyone has said, and can say, is that it’s not a Retina display. Apparently Apple has spoiled us all with those gorgeous pixel tight displays on MacBooks, iPhones and larger iPads, but it’s hardly a deal breaker. For would be buyers who have never used an iPad 3 or 4 for an extended period of time—i.e. owned one—I think they’d be hard pressed to find a complaint with the Mini’s display. Does it play in HD, no, it doesn’t. It has the pixels in the width, but it’s about 200 pixel (give or take) shy of true HD vertically. But to call this display ugly, is an injustice, it’s a beautiful display that simply isn’t “Retina Quality.” I watched several hours of Netflix, HBO GO and a few shows via the ABC app and my eyes never felt deprived. The only time I noticed anything, was when I went back to my own iPad 3, but for my wife and anyone who happens to pick up an iPad Mini, you won’t be disappointed.
To wrap up this review, let me say this… if you must have a Retina display on your iPad, then skip this version and wait till next year’s model. If pixels don’t matter and you just want a tablet that looks beautiful and is designed and constructed in a meticulous way, and you enjoy apps that are built for your device, then head to an Apple store or a local retailer that is selling the iPad Mini and check it out for yourself. It’s extremely light and easy to hold, it features the most custom built apps of any tablet and performs like a champ. Sure, you could save $70 and get a Kindle Fire HD or Google’s Nexus 7, but with the iPad Mini (or any iPad) you can get Amazon’s Kindle e-Reader App, Google’s Book app, Amazon’s Prime Video player, Gmail, Google Search with some Google Now functionality, YouTube, etc… basically you can get just about all the apps that are found on competing tablets for the Mini, something competitors can’t say about their tablets. When you consider the amount of apps, services, construction and detail poured into this tablet, $329 is more than reasonable. It’s the best small tablet on the market, Retina display or not. Period.