Apple iPad mini with Retina Display review

Pros

  • Beautifully built
  • Fast
  • Sharp screen
  • Excellent app options

Cons

  • Expensive
  • A touch wide for easy one-handed use

The new Apple iPad mini with Retina Display (which starts at £319 and runs to £659) is just a shrunken iPad Air. It's so similar to Apple's flagship tablet that your decision between the two slates will pretty much be completely based on size and price. Like the Air, this is one of the slimmest and best built tablets you'll find anywhere. It's an absolute pleasure to use. But unlike the large screen Air, the iPad mini has many viable small tablet competitors that are much less expensive, making it less of a must-buy and more of a luxury purchase.

Design

The new mini is superficially identical to the old one. If you look really closely, you'll find that it's ever so slightly thicker (by 0.3mm) and ever so slightly heavier (by 20 grams) to accommodate a larger battery for the new high-res screen. At 135 x 7.5 x 200mm (WxDxH) and 331 grams, it’ll still fit in old iPad mini cases.

As we’ve said, the difference between the new mini and the iPad Air (see our review of the Air here) is really about size and price, not weight. I just held both tablets in my hands, and now that the Air is only 140 grams more, the weight difference between the two tablets doesn't feel meaningful.

The mini still has the 4:3 aspect ratio which makes it compatible with iPad apps, but it’s noticeably thicker – and less usable one-handed – than the competing Google Nexus 7 and Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7. Its metal-and-glass construction is still tightly elegant, with a shiny chamfered edge around the corner. The narrow side bezel echoes the iPad Air's, and like the Air, it comes in silver and space grey.

The 7.9in, 2,048 x 1,536-pixel IPS LCD touchscreen is bright and sharp. It's the exact same resolution as the iPad Air, but it’s a higher pixel density – 324 ppi to the Air's 253 ppi, and in fact the mini is almost the same density as the iPhone 5S.

All of the screen elements are slightly smaller than they are on the Air, and that’s something you notice in productivity apps with lots of tiny screen elements like iPhoto. They're still usable, but you need slightly sharper eyes and fingers than you do on the big iPad. (Incidentally, see the image below for a size comparison pic of the iPad Air stood next to the new iPad mini).

Wireless and battery life

The mini comes in a dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi version, and a cellular variant with 4G LTE. Wi-Fi performance was good, but not quite as good as the iPad Air. Testing with a Meraki MR16 router through a metal door, I saw 13-14Mbps down on the mini but 18-19Mbps down on the Air. Bluetooth 4.0 is also on board; the cellular version, but not the Wi-Fi-only version, has GPS.

Battery life was 6 hours and 8 minutes playing video with the screen set to max brightness. That's better than the Kindle Fire, but not as good as the Nexus, and it's just about the same as the iPad Air.

Performance and multimedia

The iPad mini has a 1.3GHz Apple A7 processor, the same speed as the iPhone 5S and slightly slower than the Air's 1.4GHz. It scored slightly less on the Geekbench and Sunspider benchmarks than the Air, but matched the Air's result on the Browsermark test and the GFXBench graphics test. Both tablets are faster than the Nexus 7, and although Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX outpaces the iPads on graphics and processor tests, the iPads' Safari browser showed superior results on the browser tests.

The slight slowdown didn't visibly affect app performance, and both of the new iPads are much faster than previous models. High-end, accelerometer-based games like Asphalt 8: Airborne and Need for Speed: Most Wanted are actually more playable here than on the Air, because it's easier to handle and tilt the smaller device. iPhoto and iMovie also work smoothly.

The M7 motion coprocessor also makes an appearance here. Apple showed me how diary app Day One, for instance, can monitor how much you walk or travel with the iPad in your bag.

iOS is still a simple grid of icons that is passionately focused on touch. Read our in-depth iOS 7 review if you want the full details.

The mini's 5-megapixel main camera and 1.2-megapixel front camera are almost exactly the same as the big iPad's. I noticed that when shooting side by side, the big iPad sometimes selected slightly higher ISOs – 64 as opposed to 50, 500 as opposed to 400 – making the big iPad's photos a little brighter, but just a touch noisier. The HDR mode also still doesn't do much; a bright sky will blow out in any image. I'm really splitting hairs here, though. These are very good cameras for a tablet.

Like the Air, the Mini has a pair of bottom-ported speakers. While the speaker grilles are smaller than the Air's, they generated almost exactly the same volume: 86 or 87 decibels at a distance of 6in. As is the case with other iPads, if you want to play your video on a TV you can use an HDMI adapter cable or Apple's proprietary wireless streaming system, AirPlay.

Also like the Air, the mini comes in 16, 32, 64, and 128GB models, starting at £319 for the Wi-Fi variant and £419 for the cellular model, and adding £80 each time you double your storage capacity. The 128GB tablet has 115GB free for your files.

Verdict

If iPads were the only tablets in existence, you'd be able to make your decision between the Air and mini completely based on size. I prefer the iPad Air to Apple's smaller slate because I think that once something isn't truly handheld or pocket-sized like the mini (in other words, it's wider than a Nexus 7 or a Kindle), a roomier view on the world and larger touch targets trump slightly better portability. But that's just a taste issue.

The bigger concern is that the mini's small tablet competitors all cost much less, and they're also great devices. The £199 Amazon Kindle Fire HDX is beautifully built, with a gorgeously sharp screen and a fast web browser. The £199 Google Nexus 7 is even more portable than the mini and has a competitive app selection. The £300 Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 comes with a pressure-sensitive stylus, and an equivalent stylus for the iPad will run to a fair bit of extra money on top of Apple’s basic asking price of £319.

And yes, it's true that I made the same argument last year. It gets a little tougher this year because 2013's iPad mini is much nicer than last year's; the processor and screen are both much, much better. But the competition has improved as well.

So you're paying £120 extra here (up from last year's £70 difference) to get iOS apps rather than Android apps. If you're an iPhone user, or you're attracted by unique iOS exclusives like the Infinity Blade series of games, Toca Boca kids' apps, or the iWork office suite, that investment will probably be worth it. However, I think all of those apps play even better on the big iPad.

If you're looking for cross-platform applications like Kindle book reading, comics reading, casual games, or web browsing, you can get them on a great tablet that costs a lot less. That makes the iPad mini a very highly rated tablet, but it’s not quite up there with the Nexus 7 when you factor in the price.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

Apple iPad mini with Retina Display

Wi-Fi Compatibility

802.11a/b/g/n; 2.4GHz/5GHz bands

Screen Resolution

2048 x 1536 pixels

Operating System

Apple iOS 7

Dimensions

135 x 7.5 x 200mm (WxDxH)

Weight

331g

Screen Type

Retina

Video Camera Resolution

720p Front

Camera Resolution

5-megapixels

Storage Capacity

16GB

Cellular Technology

HSPA+, 4G LTE

Screen Pixels Per Inch

326

Bluetooth Version

4.0

Screen Size

7.9in

CPU

Apple A7

Ports

Apple Lightning

Storage Type

SSD