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Apple iPad mini Wi-Fi review

TabletsReviews
8/10
by Riyad Emeran, 13 Nov 2012Reviews
Apple iPad mini Wi-Fi review
Best Buy

Believe it or not, I’ve never owned an iPad. I always found the iPad too big and too heavy to carry around with me, and since my wife’s iPad already lived at home, if I really wanted to use one while lounging on the sofa I could. What I really wanted was a smaller, lighter iPad, but Steve Jobs made it painfully clear that my wish wasn’t going to be granted.

I was sorely tempted to buy a Nexus 7 when Google launched its 7in tablet back in July – not only was it a solid piece of kit, but it was also extremely affordable. But by then, rumours of a 7in iPad were already circulating, and given that my desktop, laptop and phone are all Apple, I figured it was worth waiting.

Design

As it turned out, the iPad mini isn’t a 7in tablet, it actually has a 7.9in screen, but it’s still significantly smaller and lighter than the full size iPad. Apple has managed to keep the dimensions down by reducing the size of the bezel around the screen. There’s a far narrower bezel to the left and right of the screen than there is to the top and bottom – Apple couldn’t reduce the top and bottom bezels too much since the camera and home buttons live there.

One of the reasons that tablet manufacturers have given for the customarily generous bezels is that it ensures that the user can hold the device comfortably without accidentally interacting with the touch screen. However, the iPad mini can recognise when your thumb or finger is holding the device, as opposed to interacting with it – in practice this worked flawlessly, and never has my resting thumb at the edge of the screen caused any problems.

The mini is significantly smaller than the regular iPad in every dimension (200 x 134.7mm compared to 241.2 x 185.7mm), while at only 7.2mm thick, the iPad mini is 23 per cent thinner than its sibling, with its 9.4mm depth. But it’s the weight of the iPad mini that really stands out compared to its big brother. While the iPad weighs in at 652g, the iPad mini weighs less than half as much at 308g. So, while I always found the iPad too heavy to hold while watching a movie or reading an eBook, the iPad mini presents no such issue.

Apple offers the iPad mini in two colour combinations – a black bezel with a slate back, and a white bezel with a silver back. I would have liked a black bezel with a silver back, but there’s no mixing and matching allowed, so I went for the black bezel with slate back and hope that it proves more resilient than the iPhone 5 slate back.

Screen

Of course it’s not just the screen size that separates the iPad and iPad mini, there’s also a small matter of resolution. The full-size iPad comes with Apple’s Retina display moniker, thanks to its impressive 2,048 x 1,536 resolution and corresponding 264ppi pixel pitch. By contrast, the iPad mini sports a more conservative 1,024 x 768 resolution, with a far lower pixel pitch of 163ppi. Yes, that does mean that text and icons aren’t as unbelievably smooth as on the bigger iPad, but I can’t say that I find the display on the mini disappointing in any way.

If you were pinning your hopes on a Retina display equipped iPad mini, you’re probably feeling a bit cheated and nothing I say in this review will change that. But I will suggest that you spend some time with the mini before discounting it because of its screen resolution – I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

What’s more interesting is that Apple stuck with its traditional 4:3 aspect ratio on the iPad mini, despite the fact that the iPhone 5 made the jump to a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio. Of course when you think about it, that decision isn’t so odd at all. In essence, the iPad mini is a smaller iPad 2, and therefore it’s completely compatible with any apps developed for both the original iPad and iPad 2.

The display itself is an LED backlit IPS affair, which means that viewing angles are impressive enough to share a movie with a friend or two, or show a web page, document or presentation to a colleague. There is a fair amount of reflectivity in bright sunlight, but that’s pretty much unavoidable on any tablet device.

Colours are vivid and rich, while blacks are deep and dark, but not at the expense of shadow detail when watching video. In fact video, looks simply brilliant on the mini, and its light weight means that you won’t struggle to hold the device for the extent of a movie. Still images look equally impressive, and assuming you have PhotoStream enabled, any shots you take with your iPhone will appear on the mini as soon as it’s connected to the Internet. 

Under the hood

Screen resolution isn’t the only thing that the mini has in common with the iPad 2, it also sports the same dual-core A5 processor. The A5 is based on the ARM Cortex-A9 design, and is clocked at 1GHz, while the GPU is a dual-core unit from PowerVR. The A5 is supported by 512MB of RAM.

That makes the mini a considerably less powerful tablet than its big brother, which now sports a dual-core A6X chip, complete with quad-core GPU. However, it’s worth remembering that the super-high resolution Retina display on the iPad requires far more grunt to drive it than the smaller, lower resolution display in the mini.

The cellular (4G) version of the mini still isn’t available yet, so I’m reviewing the Wi-Fi only model. As such, connectivity is limited to 802.11a/b/g/n, with the latter supporting both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies. There’s also Bluetooth 4.0, which opens the door to a world of wireless peripherals and audio products.

While the iPad mini has a digital compass, it doesn’t have a built in GPS – at least the Wi-Fi version doesn’t. How much of an issue that is comes down to how you plan to use your tablet. Personally, I don’t see a lack of GPS as an issue in a device with no mobile data, but if you’re thinking of using a mini as a sat-nav, you’ll need to hold out for the cellular version.

Sound and Vision

The iPad mini makes a brilliant mobile video player, but you’ll have to find an app that can make the most of its ability. Unfortunately Apple still insists on severely limiting the codec support built into its own video player, while also insisting that you can only playback video that you’ve purchased through iTunes.

Thankfully there’s no shortage of third party apps that will let you playback all manner of file types. You’ll still have to use iTunes to get the video files onto the iPad mini, but it’s not that much of a chore once you’ve got everything setup.

I installed OPlayer, which happily played back every file type I could find, including MKV and VOB. Unfortunately, many of the third party video player apps have had to remove Dolby AC3 support, which means that any files encoded with Dolby Digital surround soundtracks will play with no sound at all. Hopefully updates will go out soon to resolve this issue, but bear it in mind before choosing your video app.

Watching video is a truly immersive experience, especially if you’ve got a decent set of headphones plugged into the mini. I watched a the digital copy of Inception, which came on the triple play Blu-ray disc, and despite it being very dark in some scenes and excessively bright in others, the iPad mini took it all in its stride.

In fact pretty much every type of video looks good, whether standard definition AVI, high definition MKV or an MPEG-2 VOB file. The only real problem is the 4:3 aspect ratio of the screen, which means that on a 2.35:1 aspect ratio movie, you’re using a relatively small screen area compared to a 16:9 or 16:10 ratio tablet.

What’s really surprising is how good the internal speakers are, especially considering how slim the iPad mini is. You’re hardly going to fill a room with a booming, cinematic soundtrack, but if you’re like me and often find yourself stuck in a car while you’re waiting for your daughter to finish her ballet/horse riding/swimming lesson, the speakers are easily good enough for catching up on your favourite TV shows.

As far as music goes, I struggle to understand why anyone would use a tablet as their portable music player, when they’ve probably got a phone that’s far better suited to the task in their pocket. If, however, you wanted to use the iPad mini as your music player, it will behave pretty much like a very big iPod touch, and as long as you’re in range of Wi-Fi, you’ll have access to your iTunes library if you’ve subscribed to Match.

Cameras

To everyone out there who insists on whipping out their iPad to take photos, let me be the first to tell you that you look ridiculous. In fact you couldn’t ask for a worse tool for the job, just from a handling perspective alone. Tablets are not cameras – there, I’ve said it.

That said, a tablet does make a pretty good video calling device, which is why I thought that Google was quite brave and pragmatic when it equipped the Nexus 7 with a front facing camera, but no rear facing one. And since Apple’s FaceTime app is so versatile, thanks to its cross compatibility between iPhone, iPad and Mac, the quality of the front facing camera is of particular interest.

Thankfully the 720p FaceTime camera is very good, and even managed to make me look relatively human. I’ve currently got my mini clipped into a Cygnett Enigma case, which allows me to stand it up in landscape, making it ideal for making FaceTime calls comfortably.

Should you wish to use the rear facing camera to take photos – you really will look ridiculous, I promise you – you’re unlikely to be blown away by the results. The image above was shot indoors where the camera struggled to meter for light coming in a side window, and the fact that the cats were in relative shadow.

Shooting outside in natural light produces better results, but they’re still not impressive by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a 5-megapixel sensor with an f2.4 lens, so the results should really be better. That said, the camera in the iPhone is so much better that it’s obviously just as clear to Apple that shooting photos with a tablet isn’t really the way to go.

Performance

It’s probably safe to say that the iPad mini performs pretty much on par with the iPad 2, given its component similarity. But there’s no getting away from the fact that the A5 chip is a couple of generations old by Apple current standards.

Running Geekbench 2 returned a result of 747, which sits unsurprisingly close to the iPad 2 at 756. What was surprising is that the office iPad 3 also only managed a score of 756, even after a completely clean reboot. The quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 chip inside the Google Nexus 7 leaves all the iPads standing though, with a score of 1,472.

When it comes to graphics, the iPad mini should struggle, but here its relatively low screen resolution helps it. Running the Egypt HD benchmark in GLBenchmark 2.5 resulted in a score of 25fps, which was considerably better than the Nexus 7, but a way behind the iPad 4 with its new A6X SoC.

Moving away from synthetic benchmarks, though, the iPad mini never feels slow or underpowered. Graphically heavy games like Infinity Blade II run smooth a silk, and HD video is decoded and played without the hint of dropped frames.

Apple quotes 10 hours of battery life, which actually seems a little conservative given my experience. Needless to say, you’re unlikely to need to charge your mini during the day, and it should keep you entertained on a transatlantic flight.

In use

Despite the fact that millions of you clearly disagree with me, I simply find the iPad too big and heavy to use comfortably, but consequently I find the iPad mini an absolute joy to use. If you’re an iPad user it’s hard to describe just how much lighter and easier to hold the mini is; you really need to try it for yourself.

For the past week I’ve used the iPad mini as my only mobile device, which has meant leaving my beloved Kindle at home. I was actually surprised at how good an eBook reader the mini is, primarily due to its reduced weight and dimensions over its bigger sibling. That said, while my Kindle relishes the sun streaming through the train window, the iPad mini, or any LCD-based tablet for that matter, becomes almost unreadable in direct sunlight.

Typing on the mini is also a far easier endeavour than on a full-size iPad, especially if you have small hands. This makes it a great email device when you don’t have a laptop to hand, or chose not to bring one with you.

It’s also great for browsing, being just big enough to comfortably read the vast majority of websites without the need to resort to a mobile version. Safari makes reading long web pages even easier thanks to its reader mode, but if you prefer Chrome, it’s a quick, free download.

You won’t be able to make use of that huge collection of Apple dock cables that you probably have, because the iPad mini, like the iPhone 5 before it, uses Apple’s new Lightning connector. This means that you’ll need to take good care of the cable that ships in the box – you also get a charger, in case you don’t want to hook your mini up to your computer.

Unfortunately, Apple has stated that it won’t be making a docking stand for the current generation of iPhones and iPads, but hopefully it won’t take long before third party docks start to appear. Not that it’s a massive chore to manually plug the cable in, but it would be handy to just leave my mini on a stand next to my iMac when I’m not using it.

Oh, and if you’re a fan of Siri, you’ll be glad to know that Apple’s voice controlled digital butler is hiding inside the iPad mini too.

Verdict

I’ve heard many complaints about the iPad mini. I’ve heard people moan about the dated processor and the low resolution, 4:3 screen. I’ve even heard a few complain about the lack of GPS in the Wi-Fi version. But despite the complaints, some of which are clearly justified, for me, the iPad mini does exactly what I wanted it to.

As tempting as the Google Nexus 7 was when it launched, deep down I didn’t want an Android tablet. Since I already had an iPhone, an iMac and a MacBook, I wanted a tablet that would fit in with my already chosen technology infrastructure. The only problem was that the iPad was too big and too heavy, but that’s not the case anymore.

As with all Apple products, there are cheaper alternatives, and the cost of storage increments are close to criminal. That said, if you can stretch to it, I would strongly suggest going for the 64GB model, or at least the 32GB, because what you see is what you get with an iPad. There’s no memory card slot, so if you don’t want to spend most of your time swapping media on and off the device because you’ve run out of space, you better bite the bullet at point of purchase.

The entry-level 16GB iPad mini will set you back £269, whereas the recently released 32GB Nexus 7 costs only £199. That does make the Nexus look even more tempting than it did back in July, but the mini still has one very important factor in its favour – apps. However you carve it up, Apple has the largest, most comprehensive app library and that doesn’t look set to change any time soon.

With the ever-growing number of iPad users – reports suggest the over three million iPads were sold the weekend that the iPad mini and iPad 4 went on sale – it’s safe to assume that app developers will continue to focus on iOS first and foremost, giving the iPad mini a definite advantage over its 7in competitors.

If you’re just looking for a 7in tablet, with no preference to OS or ecosystem, it will be hard to ignore the value proposition of the Nexus 7. But if you’ve already bought into the Apple ecosystem and want a light and slim tablet to extend that ecosystem, the iPad mini is exactly what you need.

Check out the video review from our partner Mitch265.

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