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iPad mini Retina REVIEW: Better In Every Way

by Brandon Russell | November 21, 2013November 21, 2013 3:15 pm PDT

The iPad mini was never supposed to exist. With such a firm grip on the 10-inch tablet market,  Apple made its stance on the smaller form factor very clear: “7-inch tablets are dead on arrival,” Steve Jobs said. Jobs would go on to add that Apple performed years of testing and found its bigger iPad was the “minimum size required to create great tablet apps.” And then devices like the Kindle Fire and Nexus 7 hit the market, clearly proving that, yes, a tablet with a 7-inch display is doable, and maybe even better than some bigger options.

Not to be outdone, Apple responded with the iPad mini. But as with most first releases, it lacked in a few key areas.

When last year’s iteration hit, it wasn’t meant to sit at the highest tier. It was more of a secondary compromise for those that didn’t want the high-flying fourth generation iPad. Still, Apple’s small tab was very good, and very beautiful. The design was, and still is, the very best you’ll find. But its weaker processor and lower resolution display were terrible, painful splinters, marring what was overall one of the most complete tablet experiences around. It was like owning a Monet with a visible tear down the center. This year’s model is Apple’s remedial cure.

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iPad mini Retina Video Review

Design

Equipped with a Retina display, the new iPad mini is what the device should have been all along, addressing the previous iteration’s biggest criticisms. Even better, there’s hardware parity between the mini and the iPad Air, meaning small doesn’t automatically mean worse. With that same beautiful design, updated software, and terrific screen, the iPad mini with Retina is one of the finest tablets to ever grace the market. It’s a darn shame, then, that it costs so much—almost twice as much as the competition.

Unlike the iPad Air, which underwent a huge makeover this year, the iPad mini with Retina has largely gone unchanged. Without being told, you would never know that it’s 0.1 inches thicker, or .05 pounds heavier. In fact, picking it up, flipping it over, holding it with both hands, I can’t even tell the difference—but I know they’re different. You’ll still be able to hold it one-handed, though not as comfortably as some of the competition; it’ll still fit snuggly in your backpack, your locker, your huge cargo pant pocket, etc. Telling the two generations apart is next to impossible. And that’s fine, because the iPad mini is without question the most attractive small tablet on the market.

The wide, rounded form factor and chamfered edges look wonderful, and the aluminum body is sturdy and incomparably premium. Out of its entire product lineup, the mini is perhaps Apple’s most impressive and alluring creation, striking among a market of tablet competitors. We’re used to the big iPad looking nice, but seeing it shrunk down to a more manageable size is like gazing upon a rare, more valuable jewel. It gleans beautifully, and mesmerizes in a way other devices do not. It’s always difficult to appreciate an Apple design without actually seeing it in person. You have to hold it, use it, to really experience why Apple’s products are so highly commended. The iPad mini with Retina is the company’s most exceptional example.

There are still a few sore spots—we saw the same issues with the Air, and first mini—like the placement of the two stereo speakers, which sit on either side of the Lightning connector. They sound good enough, but using the device in landscape, it’s easy to cover them up; your natural inclination is to grip the mini with your palms firmly pressed against its curved body, thus covering the speakers up and creating a muffled sound. You can certainly avoid this by adjusting your grip, like playing palm Twister, but it’s a problem that continually pops up every time you play a game or watch a movie.

But the design isn’t even the new mini’s biggest attraction. Last year’s iteration certainly looked just as exquisite, but it was greatly undermined by its low resolution display. Apple has rectified this by bestowing the mini with a Retina screen. Bumped up from 768 by 1024, the display is now four times the pixel density, at 2048×1536. Having been spoiled by numerous high definition screens—in mobile and in tablets—seeing the mini’s jump in resolution wasn’t so enormously impactful—not like going from iPhone 3Gs to iPhone 4, or iPad 2 to iPad with Retina. But in such a beautiful design, the screen perfectly complements the entire package.

iPad mini With Retina, Speakers

iPad mini With Retina, Camera

iPad mini With Retina, Front, Back

 

The first time you see Retina is like the first time putting on glasses, or jumping from SD to HD. When you look at text—books, comics, and on the Web—the change is dramatic; everything is suddenly crisp and clear, making the entire experience much more immersive than before; it makes the device better, complete. The display isn’t noticeably better than anything you’d find on the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HDX, but it’s not noticeably worse either. Put it this way: when put side by side next to last year’s model, the old mini looks as though it’s caked in a ceaseless haze. Not anymore.

With so many more pixels being pushed into your eyeballs, you’d think the new mini would slow down and experience some sluggishness, and it does on occasion, but not often. With Apple’s A7 chip under the hood—the same packed into the iPad Air and iPhone 5s—the new iPad mini runs silky smooth, and is capable of performing much more demanding tasks. Last year, the iPad mini sometimes felt slow and underpowered. That’s absolutely not the case in the second generation—with free iWork with every new purchase, the device suddenly feels like a much more powerful machine overall, and not just a convenient slate meant for consuming content.

So Many Apps

Beyond iWork, Apple still has the strongest tablet app ecosystem on the market, no matter how much the competition catches up number-wise. Apple often gets exclusives, or timed exclusives, and the experiences, whether they be gaming or using simple productivity apps, are often better and more optimized. Developers often flock to iOS to showcase their latest ideas, and that’s unlikely to change in the immediate or distant future. Where browsing through the iOS App Store is like touring an immaculate mansion—there are 475,000 iPad-optimized apps—browsing Google Play is like walking up and down the halls of a college dorm.

Even when apps are available for Android tablets, they’re often blown up smartphone versions—other times, apps simply aren’t available. The fact that Apple included an A7 chip not only means apps will run more smoothly, but it allows users to take full advantage of every app available in the iPad ecosystem. Things like Garageband, iMovie and iPhoto, which are all free when you purchase a new iOS device, are exceptionally smooth and fun to use thanks to the more powerful processor.

Beyond that, there are games like Infinity Blade III, awesome tools such as Makr, and more—things you simply can’t experience on Android. The number of apps Apple always flaunts at events is useless marketing fodder, but when you see the section in Apple’s App Store specifically dedicated to what’s exclusive to iOS, it becomes apparent just how superior the Cupertino company’s ecosystem is. If you’re new to tablets, and want to get the most out of your hardware, you can’t do better than the iPad, plain and simple. Not every app is a winner, but apps like Clear+, Paper by FiftyThree and djay 2 further establish iOS as the premier platform.

Mini vs. Air

For a while, the size of Apple’s big iPad seemed perfect; small and convenient enough to comfortably lug around, and large enough to enjoyably watch movies, read books and play games. Then a wave of smaller tablets hit, and suddenly the smaller form factor didn’t seem like a burden—not the way Jobs originally described it. “The seven-inch tablets are tweeners,” Jobs said. “Too big to compete with a smartphone; too small to compete with an iPad.” But people soon found that email, reading and performing other simple tasks was more engaging on a smaller display. As Apple’s own Eddie Cue put it, the 7-inch size experience is more “compelling.”

Not everyone agrees, which is why two different options exist. But having used both the iPad mini with Retina and iPad Air, which sport the same design and the same specs, it’s clear that the bigger form factor is more suited to “power” tasks, maybe for medical, educational and other business uses, while the smaller form makes gaming, watching videos and reading much more immersive. Playing a first person shooter on the mini, for example, is much easier because you can comfortably grip and hold each side of the device, and you definitely don’t get as much wrist fatigue; the same can’t be said for Apple’s bigger iPad, even though it’s been slimmed down considerably.

The mini isn’t quite as small as other competing small tabs, which means the experiences are actually quite different. To that end, the 4:3 orientation is less suited for watching widescreen content, but in my experience that wasn’t really an issue. Seeing such enormous black bars while watching a two-minute trailer is a non-issue, and even over extended periods I hardly noticed. But overall, having a 7.9-inch canvas gives you more room to touch, pinch and swipe, and therefore the size and aspect ratio is suited perfectly for most tasks; it’s a more versatile size.

When we reviewed the iPad Air, I commented on how Apple needed to tailor iOS 7 to suit the more advanced tablet hardware; the faster specs and emphasis on power seemed like a good indication the iPad was capable of evolving into something more, a kind of tablet/laptop hybrid like Microsoft’s Surface lineup. By offering iWork and iLife for free, the early signs might very well be in place.

However, I don’t see that kind of experience translating over to the smaller form factor, and therefore love iOS 7 on the iPad mini exactly how it is. Still, multitasking is swift, and the vibrancy of iOS 7’s revamped look is quite beautiful. The animations are still an annoyance, and there’s the occasional stutter here and there, but overall iOS 7 on the iPad mini is a joy to use, and it looks particularly nice under a sharper screen.

iPad mini With Retina, SIM

iPad mini With Retina, Volume

iPad mini With Retina, Camera

Buy

With a sharper screen, faster guts and same beautiful design, Apple’s newest iPad mini is the best small tablet money can buy.

It’s easy to stick the iPad mini in the same category as the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX. They’re certainly close, but Apple has created its own beast entirely, one that has a superior design and unmatched app experience. With a starting price of $400, it’s much more expensive than tablets of similar size, and that’s perhaps the new iPad mini’s biggest knock—others can be purchased for $229, hovering just above that impulse buy territory. The iPad mini, on the other hand, carries with it a luxury price, though that’s no different from other Apple products.

Taken on its own, the iPad mini is a device that is perfect for most consumers, and will probably become Apple’s more important tablet over the next several months (if you can find one). Since it’s cheaper and smaller, it’s the perfect second screen for those already embedded in the Apple ecosystem. For kids, it’s easier to wield, carry around the house, it’s lighter and more fun to use. And for adults, it’s perfect for watching quick videos, browsing the Web and reading; it also has the power to handle more intensive tasks. And the battery life, even despite a more demanding screen, is excellent, and will easily last through an entire day, probably more depending on your habits.

The only thing the iPad mini will have to compete with this holiday season is other inhouse Apple devices. The company’s large iPad is as strong as it’s ever been, but the same can be said for the iPad mini. So what it comes down to is personal preference: do you want a larger display, or do you want something that’s more compact? If you’re choosing either over Android alternatives, chances are you’re already invested in Apple’s ecosystem; if you haven’t yet gone down that rabbit hole, know that Apple’s App Store offers a superior experience. Either way, with a redesigned big iPad and a more powerful, higher resolution iPad mini, it’s clear that Apple is at the top of its tablet game. It’ll just be a matter of deciding between the two this holiday season.

Jon used the iPad mini with Retina display for seven days before filming his review.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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