When Apple announced the iPad mini, I was floored by the resizing of a year-and-a-half old tablet. To quote a good but crazy older friend of mine, I thought, “What kind of meshugaas is this?” Yet as I continued using it, I felt more and more certain that Apple may have been wrong about the 10″ design as the best tablet size. And it may have taken three and a half years for Apple to realize it, but when that company comes out with a late product, it doesn’t mess around.

The iPad mini is the best 7″ tablet available, by a longshot. But you may want to hold off on buying one.

Hardware

Externally, the iPad mini is absolutely stunning. It looks so good you could sell pictures of it. I can’t help but feel that this is what a tablet was always meant to be. Not a bulky 10″ iPad or the rounded, rubbery Amazon Kindle Fire. This beautiful work of art, the iPad mini, is a real tablet.

It’s brazenly thin at 7.2mm, thinner than every smartphone and tablet. The only thing thinner is the latest iPod Touch at 6.1mm. Even the iPhone 5 is thicker (7.6mm). It has a large 7.9″ display, which is both longer and wider than most 7″ tablets (it’s practically an 8″ tablet). The white bezel is especially convincing that the mini is a futuristic device; the cold, hard precision of the cut metal edges combined with the crisp aluminum case and clinical white bezel combine into the best looking tablet on the planet. The iPad mini also comes in black.

The improvements in design are magnificent in every way. Even after a month’s use I am still taken aback at just how precise and how fine the details are. The volume buttons are longer and fuller, the portrait lock/mute switch is perfectly machined, the power button protrudes only enough so that light reflecting off it enough to catch the eye. Even the microphone and speaker grills look brilliant. Competing smartphones with great designs only have  one or two beautiful aesthetic features. The iPad mini has them all.

Inside the mini is a very different story. With few exceptions, most of the internal components are a year and a half old. The A5 processor (A5r2, a second revision that’s smaller and slightly faster and more power efficient), the 512MB of RAM, the 1024×768 display…these were introduced on the iPad 2 back in March 2011. Remember, the latest iPad and iPhone feature the newer A6/A6X processor, 1GB of RAM, and Retina displays. That latter point is the most relevant for current iPhone owners.

While the IPS panel is stunning, with great color and light contrast and it gets very bright, it has a low pixel density of 163PPI, half that of the iPhone 4 (a two-year old device). The iPad mini does not have a Retina display. Every major new product release — the iPhone 4, 4S, 5, iPad 3 & 4, iPod Touch 4 & 5, MacBook Pro 13 & 15 — has shipped with a Retina display, and that remarkably high-resolution screen has helped define Apple’s stance in electronics. The display is our window into the computer, and the iPad mini is blurry and pixelated compared to all of Apple’s top products. Does this make the iPad mini a low-end product to Apple? Or has, as many fear, Apple begun acting like every other business and sell purely for profits?

The latter point is extreme, but there is a hint of truth to both when considering the iPad mini. Beauty on the iPad isn’t only skin deep, but it isn’t down to the bone. As you can read below, iOS 6 performs well and overall functionality is excellent, but so is the iPad 2, which Apple still sells for just $70 more. The two tablets are nearly identical, save for size, the Wi-Fi antenna, and the camera. Current iPad owners may feel cheated after buying the iPad mini because the only change is size; everything else is the same or worse with a few exceptions.

First, Wi-Fi reception has improved, albeit slightly, over previous iPad models. Every iPad has had a fairly limited range and required holding the iPad a certain way if the Wi-Fi connection was poor; that’s no longer the case with the iPad mini. It still drops signals at times, but overall Wi-Fi performance has improved.

Speaker quality is also excellent, though Apple (like most tablet makers) continue to resist using stereo sound out of stereo speakers. The iPad mini technically supports stereo sound out of the single speaker, but that’s like playing music through a pair of headphones loudly ten feet away; you don’t get the stereo quality, just stereo sound. With this new design and lighter frame there’s no reason why the iPad mini can’t have stereo speakers.

I highly recommend using a Smart Cover for the iPad mini for two reasons: first, it adds a bit of girth to the absurdly thin tablet, and second it adds a warm grip when carrying it around or when in use. The actual folding mechanism is fairly useless. The iPad mini is small and light enough to not need to stand up on a table. The only time I ever put it down is when I’m not using it. The iPad may be too big for extended use, but the mini is not.

One thing I will note with regard to video use is that because of the non-HD 1024×768 display, which has an aspect ratio of 4:3 (not widescreen), video quality is not HD nor does it perfectly fit the screen. Like all iPads before it (and all iPhones and iPod Touchs before the latest models), videos appear letterboxed. However, video quality is still excellent, and because of the great shape and feel of the iPad mini I preferred using it over the Kindle Fire or Kindle Fire HD. The Fire HD does offer better Wi-Fi performance and video is clearer, but the iPad mini is more comfortable to use. In effect it turns into a preference of video clarity and audio quality versus comfort. In every case I’d take the iPad mini unless Wi-Fi was really poor.

Software

iOS 6 is no different on the iPad mini than it is anywhere else. There are improvements to speed and efficiency, which you’ll see below in benchmarks, and it’s still overall very impressive. However, there are some quirks, like the settings page overflowing with things to change, and some things take too many steps to do.

In general I’m impressed with the iOS 6, but because the iPad mini is essentially a smaller version of the iPad 2, there’s nothing unique about it in terms of software.

Battery Life

The iPad mini boasts 10 hours of battery life just like every iPad before it, and for the most part that claim holds true. I’ve used it for a lot of video streaming and the battery lasts. If you were concerned about battery life because the iPad is smaller, don’t. I’ve regularly had 8-9 hours of continuous use, including video and audio streaming and a lot of web browsing.

Benchmarks and Performance

Even though the hardware is, as mentioned above, essentially identical to the iPad 2, I ran all of our standard benchmarks to confirm the performance. The only changes are to iOS, which has become more efficient and thus some scores have improved slightly.

The iPad mini still outperforms most high-end competing devices in the Browsermark benchmark, but not by significant margins. The next wave of Android components or the next software update should put them on par with the iPad mini, if not ahead of it.

It isn’t surprising that the iPad mini is slightly behind the 3rd generation iPad and a step ahead of the iPad 2 running iOS 4.3 (we don’t have an iPad 2 for testing with the latest software). The 3rd gen iPad and iPad mini share the same basic CPU (A5) though the iPad has a significantly enhanced GPU for gaming performance. For web browsing, there shouldn’t be any serious difference, nor is there. The performance difference between the two is within the margin of error; however, a number of devices outperform the mini by a significant amount.

Graphics performance is perhaps the most important here. While the iPad mini makes for a great general-use tablet, it offers half the performance of the iPhone 5, and slightly less than that of the 4th generation iPad. Apple has maintained a solid lead in graphics performance over Android, but the iPad mini isn’t leading that charge anytime soon. That’s not to say it won’t provide solid gaming performance. It is to say that the iPad mini will have mediocre performance much sooner than competing Android tablets.

While performance has improved thanks to iOS 6 (freely available all iPads except the original), as I continued to use the iPad mini one problem really stuck out, a problem that cropped up after the release of the iPhone 4: the Retina display on the iPhone looked so much better and clearer than the iPad that people used their iPhones instead of the iPad for a lot of things. This strange phenomenon ended as soon as Apple released the 3rd iPad, which had a Retina display of it’s own (and a remarkably high-resolution display to boot) because that problem disappeared, at least for new iPad owners. So for the iPad mini to suddenly fall under the same scope is a serious problem for not only iPhone users, but anyone with a smartphone released this year. Nearly all smartphones have high-resolution displays.

What’s perhaps worse is that that for the first time Apple has released several similar products that once did but no longer share the same components. The iPhone 5 and latest iPod Touch are a generation apart. The same holds true with the iPhone 5 and iPad mini. This makes purchasing the mini for iPhone owners particularly hard to swallow: not only is it significantly more expensive than competing Android tablets like the Google Nexus 7 or Barnes & Noble Nook HD, the iPad mini isn’t as powerful and doesn’t offer the best multimedia experience. So why bother, indeed?

The same question can of course be made for any Android smartphone and tablet combination. However, with the iPhone 5 or 4S in one hand, does the other hand need an iPad mini?

Camera

Just like the iPad 3, the iPad mini shares the same shooter that debuted on the iPhone 4, a 5MP and very powerful camera. It’s a very powerful camera even if the picture size is limited compared to today’s 8MP smartphone standard. However, the quality of the camera on the iPad mini is worth keeping at 5MP. And thanks to the size of the tablet, it’s actually a decent device for photography.

Picture quality is very good, with accurate color representation, quick focus, and fast shutter speeds. The software is quick, unlike it’s larger iPad counterparts (which have to process more information on-screen because of the much higher resolution displays), and you can take a lot of shots quickly. Not iPhone 5 quick, but fast enough for a tablet.

Color accuracy and light contrast is very good, though the latter falters when there are extremes of either in the shot. For example, shooting outdoors in a generally bright area can lead to some very obscure dark-looking trees that are just very shady. However, pixel for pixel the quality of photos is great. You can zoom in on a shot and still see a beautiful image. It doesn’t suffer much under low-light conditions either, while most devices do.

Conclusion

I like the iPad mini, I really do. I would replace the Kindle Fire HD with it eight times out of ten. No tablet design even comes close to competing with it; the only electronic device better designed than the mini is the latest iPod Touch. It’s so thin and light that I would rather use the iPad mini for streaming video than competitors that have better picture clarity, better audio quality, and better Wi-Fi just because it’s so comfortable and is so generally excellent.

But as great as the aesthetics are, the Achilles heel of the iPad mini is on the inside. The display is a low-resolution 1024×768, which feels especially old compared to the smaller iPhone. It doesn’t need to be double the density like the standard iPad, but it does feel especially low-quality by comparison.

I can’t help but wonder why the newer A6 processor isn’t inside the iPad mini. That chip makes the case for the iPhone 5 as the best smartphone in the world. And for a starting price of $330, $130 more than most competing 7″ Android tablets, not having that chip and more RAM almost feels insulting to potential buyers. With such components, why not just wait until next year’s model comes out with those parts?

As much as I adore the iPad mini, it is very difficult to recommend. There certainly isn’t a better tablet of that size out today. You can’t go wrong with buying one. I guarantee that you’ll enjoy it, you’ll love it, and you will use it. But that use will be limited if you have an iPhone 5. You may also find yourself really jealous of people who buy next year’s model, which will undoubtedly ship with the much faster A6 processor and double the RAM, which fixes a lot of the performance problems people have complained about on the iPhone and iPad for the past year.

Then again, this is a problem that Apple die-hards know all too well. The same thing happened with the iPad and iPhone; the iPad 2 was significantly better, and the iPad 4 essentially killed off the iPad 3 because of it’s lower-end CPU. People who waited a year to buy the iPhone got the iPhone 3G (the first with a 3G data connection and GPS), then the iPhone 4 (first with the all-new design, Retina display, and significantly improved camera), and now the iPhone 5 (vastly improved CPU, widescreen display, LTE). Apple has always been an ‘every-other-year’ product company, and I have no doubt that the iPad mini will follow that same vein. The real question is whether you can hold out for that long.

Editor’s Rating:

Rating: ★★★★☆

Great

Bottom Line: It’s the best 7″ tablet you can buy. Is that a good enough reason not to buy it?

Pros:

  • Best 7″ tablet on the market
  • Excellent size, shape, and the best tablet to hold or carry
  • iOS 6 is excellent software, if somewhat crowded
  • Audio, display, and camera quality are superb

Cons:

  • No high-resolution display; it looks weak compared to every other iOS device
  • Last-gen hardware is significantly slower than current iOS devices, and it’ll be even weaker than most Android devices in the near future
  • Like all iOS devices, will the 2nd version be much better?



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.