review It’s an iPad, but smaller. Such a revolutionary concept. Why didn’t someone think of it before? Genius. But how does this latest wunderchild to be released from Apple’s safe embrace perform in practice? Does it maintain Cupertino’s reputation for quality or allow it to sink below par? Read on to find out.
Note: Sections of this article are largely identical to our previous preview of the iPad mini. If you’ve read that article and are only interested in how the iPad mini performs in the wild, we recommend you skip the ‘Design’ and ‘Features’ sections and skip to ‘Performance’.
At a basic level (and this may sound a little obvious), what the design of the iPad mini represents is first and foremost a downsizing of the classic iPad design that we’ve come to know and love. The same large touchscreen, dominating the iPad mini’s front, is there, the same front-facing camera above it and the same home button below it. On the bottom of the iPad mini sits Apple’s new ‘Lightning’ connector which debuted in the recently released iPhone 5, alongside the tablet’s two speakers. On the top of the iPad mini sits a 3.5mm headphone jack, the usual on/off button and a small microphone, and on the right-hand side of the tablet sit two volume buttons and a toggle which can be used to set the iPad mini’s screen orientation (horizontal or vertical) or set its volume to mute.
But there are also subtleties in the iPad mini’s design which set it apart from previous iPad generations. First and most obviously, this is a tablet which is a lot smaller and lighter than any previous iPad. All of Apple’s previous iPads have had a 9.7” display, whereas the iPad mini’s display id dramatically smaller at 7.9”. This also translates into a much lighter weight, with the iPad mini weighing 308g – or about the weight of a heavy smartphone – compared with the recent iPads, which have weighed in at between 650g and 660g.
In addition, the iPad mini has also taken some cues from Apple’s recently released iPhone 5. The tablet ships in the same black and blue/grey or white and silver colours as the iPhone 5, and it features the same finely etched edges which had people raving about the iPhone 5’s build quality. In addition, the iPad mini is, like the iPhone 5, very thin, at just 7.2mm. This is actually slightly thinner than the iPhone 5’s 7.6mm, and the 9.4mm of the last two iPad generations.
All of this adds up to a product which is one of the thinnest and lightest devices which Apple sells, but also a device which incorporates Apple’s latest small design touches found in its flagship iPhone 5 model.
The design of the iPad mini puts it slightly out in front of the 7” tablet competition in terms of its basic measurements – which basically, at this stage, means Google’s Nexus 7 model and the Kindle Fire HD 7” (Amazon also makes a 8.9” Kindle Fire HD model). The Nexus 7 is a little thicker than the iPad mini, at 10.45mm, and a little heavier at 340g. And the Kindle Fire HD 7” is similarly slightly thicker at 10.3mm, as well as quite a bit heavier at 395. Note that the Kindle Fire models are not formally sold in Australia, although several companies do import them.
With the iPad mini sharing quite a few features with Apple’s existing iPad line, there are probably two main features which you should be interested in when it comes to the new smaller version.
The first is the screen. It’s a 7.9” model, which is substantially smaller than the 9.7” screen found on Apple’s traditional iPad line. As a consequence, the iPad mini also comes with a lesser screen resolution, at 1024×768. This translates into a pixels per inch rating of 163. Now, the important thing to realise here is that none of this is by chance. Apple only introduced a higher resolution screen to its iPads (its Retina display) earlier this year in its third-generation iPad. The previous iPads featured the same 1024×768 resolution as the iPad mini, meaning that the iPad’s existing app ecosystem will be well-suited to the iPad mini’s screen resolution. This is reassuring: You’re not going to get misshapen apps or ‘black bars’ on your iPad mini – you get a solid screen resolution and pixel density, coupled with strong existing app support.
Of course, with the third-generation iPad having a PPI rating of 264, and the iPhone 5 having a PPI rating of 326, the iPad mini’s screen doesn’t have the same level of pixel fidelity as the rest of Apple’s line. We’ll be interesting to see how this translates to screen quality in practice.
The second major thing you’ll be interested in when it comes to the iPad mini is what degree of processing power it has. Does Apple’s downsizing of the iPad come with a corresponding downsized processor? The easy answer to this is: No. The iPad mini ships with a dual-core Apple A5 CPU which appears to be a similar model to the one used in Apple’s second- and third-generation iPad tablets, as well as the iPhone 4S and fifth-generation iPod Touch. The A5 has since been superceded by the A6 and A6X chips, which are used in the iPhone 5 and fourth-generation iPad (this model launched with the iPad mini), but it is still likely to have more than enough power to drive the iPad mini.
Other major features of note included with the iPad mini, or at least the version to launch in Australia, include support for the 4G mobile broadband networks of Telstra and Optus (using the 1800Mhz spectrum band), dual-band Wi-Fi support, including 802.11n and the usual built-in speakers and microphones. The battery included with the iPad mini is a 16.3 watt-hour model, and its main camera is a five megapixel model supporting 1080p HD video recording. The front-facing camera, for video-conferencing, supports 720p HD video and is a 1.2 megapixel model.
The iPad mini will come in three storage sizes – 16GB, 32GB and 64GB, and in two models, one supporting 3G/4G mobile broadband and one only supporting Wi-Fi network access.
There are most likely three of four main areas you’re interested in when it comes to testing the iPad mini’s performance. The first and most important for many people will be app compatibility. Apple is promising that the smaller screen size won’t be a problem because it features the same resolution as the first few iPad models (before the higher resolution retina displays came in) — apps should simply work out of the box perfectly. But is this actually the case? And do they look and function OK on the iPad mini’s smaller screen?
Secondly, you’ll most likely be interested in battery life. And lastly, given the trepidations which Steve Jobs had about smaller iPads as a whole, does the iPad mini actually feel good in the hand? And of course, there’s the camera.
We would have liked to have tested the 3G/4G support on the iPad mini, but the version we have in the office is only the Wi-Fi version. Having said that, what we strongly expect is that the addition of mobile broadband support to the iPad mini, if you use it, will depreciate the device’s battery a bit more rapidly than it would without it. We’ll explore this in a bit more depth further down as we evaluate the iPad mini’s battery life.
Firstly, the positive.
Right from the start, it’s important to note that Apple’s pledges with regards to applications performing perfectly on the iPad mini are indeed accurate. We’ve loaded up dozens of popular apps over the past six weeks or so since we’ve been playing with the device, and we’ve yet to find one with any problems on the iPad mini. We’ve tried IPTV apps such as the ABC’s iview platform, we’ve tried Amazon’s popular Kindle app (which we have a growing library of science fiction and fantasy books on), we’ve tried the excellent Alien Blue app for Reddit, we’ve tried games with light graphics such as Kingdom Rush and those with powerhouse graphics such as Infinity Blade 2.
All have performed perfectly well; at least as well or sometimes better than they did on Apple’s larger iPads. The iPad mini’s processing power is more than solid enough to handle anything these apps have thrown at it, and while you can see pixels on the iPad mini’s screen if you look closely enough (it’s not quite as high fidelity as the iPhone 5 or the bigger iPad), the screen is more than acceptable.
Beyond this, many apps, in our estimation, perform better on the iPad mini than they do on larger iPads — especially those requiring interactivity. Your reviewer has long been on record as preferring the 7″ tablet form factor above the mainstream 10″ form factor. The iPad mini is much, much easier to hold in the hand than the original iPad; it’s lighter and much smaller, meaning it’s much easier to get your fingers across a complex game like Infinity Blade, or to hold the iPad mini in one hand and touch its screen with the other. The iPad mini’s screen feels big enough to handle any app — but its design also feels small enough that it’s never a pain to hold in one hand, unlike the original iPad, which we normally preferred resting on our knees.
We can’t emphasise this enough: The iPad mini’s smaller size makes it lovely in the hand. And by the hand, we mean one hand — which isn’t always the case with the larger iPads.
The iPad mini’s main camera — although not as high-end a model as is found on the iPhone 5 — is also much better than we anticipated, and much better than most tablet cameras out there. We have found ourselves using the iPad mini’s camera regularly to take video and photos of our recent Christmas holiday, and the sound, picture and video quality is more than admirable. We suspect that you’ll frequently pick up your iPad as the closest available device on your coffee table to film your childrens’ loungeroom exploits and upload them on the fly for distant family members to check out. The iPad mini is ideal for this purpose. And of course it also has a front-facing camera, which is also quite good quality, but you probably won’t use it for more than video calls, if you make them (which we find most people don’t).
And now for the negatives.
The most important issue with the iPad mini relative to other iPads is probably its battery life. If you read the technical specifications for the iPad and iPad mini, Apple claims that both will support up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video or listening to music. The reality, however, in our experience, is that despite its smaller screen, we found the iPad mini needed a recharge significantly more often than the larger iPads. We’ve gotten used to leaving our iPad 2 on our desk for weeks on end without needing a charge, despite using it sporadically every day. With the same behaviour on the iPad mini, we’ve found ourselves charging it about once a week.
While we haven’t tested the 4G version of the iPad mini, this trend is a little more concerning when you consider that model. Although it didn’t really show up in our initial, more limited review of the iPhone 5, extended testing of the device since that time has shown that the addition of battery-sucking 4G support to Apple’s flagship handset has indeed had something of an impact on the iPhone 5’s battery life compared with the iPhone 4S. And this is a regular story we’ve been hearing from quite a few readers and friends who have an iPhone 5 as well.
What we expect to see (although we stress, we haven’t tested the 4G version of the iPad mini) is that the addition of 4G support to this model will have a further moderate impact on the device’s battery life, given how similar it is in design and architecture to the iPhone 5. Our recommendation, as always is to use Wi-Fi whenever possible.
The good news in all of this is that the iPad mini’s battery life is still extremely solid, especially when you compare it to the competition. It’s easily in the same class battery-wise as the Nexus 7, which is its biggest rival. What we’ve written above is more or less in the vein of quibbling. The message is fairly clear: The iPad mini has solid battery life, but not quite as solid, in our experience, as Apple’s larger iPads. The cause is also pretty clear: It’s a smaller tablet, with a physically smaller battery but not that much smaller a screen. Go figure.
Another negative point we picked up regarding the iPad mini is the quality of its smart cover — the little rubberised cover which attaches magnetically to the iPad mini and can act as a stand. In practice we found the quality of this optional extra to the iPad mini to be poor compared with the larger covers used which debuted with the larger iPads.
For starters the iPad mini’s smart cover feels a lot cheaper and more flimsy than the larger editions. It doesn’t hold the tablet up on surfaces as stably as the larger model when folded up, and we often found that when we closed the cover, the iPad mini would slip in and out of active mode — whereas, with the cover closed, it should simply be asleep. We hear the ‘click’ of the iPad mini turning on its screen under the cover more than we would like, as the cover slips a little bit more over the screen than it does on the larger iPads.
Finally, we have to note that we really don’t like the reflective screen and slippery back of the iPad mini. These are ongoing issues with Apple products — you can find the same reflective screen, which often causes eye glare, especially in sunlight or near windows, that gives your writer the occasional headache — on Apple products ranging from the iPad to the iPhone to its iMacs and MacBooks. There’s a roaring trade going online in glare-reducing film for Apple devices — and there’s a very good reason why. We’d really like to see a matte screen option on the iPad and other Apple devices.
Likewise, the back of the iPad mini is very slippery in the hand. This stands in stark contrast to the velvety leathery back of the Nexus 7, which keeps it firmly held in the hand without slippage. This issue is somewhat mediated if you use an iPad mini smart cover — as the smart cover flips around the back to provide a grippy surface. But we don’t always want to have the smart cover handy, as it adds a bit of bulk and unwieldiness to the iPad mini. Again, this appears to be an area where Apple has prioritised style over user comfort — something we’re never a fan of.
Lastly, the speakers on the iPad mini — concentrated along the bottom side of the device, on either side of the Lightning connector, are honestly not that great — they’re serviceable, but a bit tinny, and if you hold the iPad with your hand on that size, the sound is all but muffled. Tablet speakers in general aren’t fantastic, but we can’t help but suspect Apple can do a better job with this if it puts its thinking cap on next time around.
The iPad mini is exactly what it says on the box — it’s a smaller, lighter but still fully functional and powerful version of Apple’s iconic iPad tablet, with obvious design inspiration taken from the iPhone 5. As with most Apple products, the iPad mini features the best build quality on the market, coupled with standout design. We have no hesitation in recommending this product. If you want a smaller iPad, buy the iPad mini. It’s awesome and we now use one every day.
However, those who may be interested in this device are also currently facing somewhat of a quandary. While the iPad mini is a stellar product, it does have a very strong competitor in the market: The Google Nexus 7 (see our review here), which launched in Australia several months ago. We’ve tested both extensively, and we’d have to say that while they are both amazing products, the Nexus 7 has an edge in our mind, due to its silky smooth ‘Project Butter’/’Jelly Bean’ Android user interface, and the physical design of its casing, which, while not as stylistic as that of the iPad mini, is nevertheless more comfortable in the hand.
Plus there’s also the fact that the Nexus 7 is a lot cheaper than the iPad mini. For a reader giveaway, we just bought a 32GB Nexus 7 from online retailer Kogan for $288 (including shipping), and when it’s in stock, you can pick the 8GB model up for as little as $248. When you consider that the cheapest iPad mini is substantially more expensive at $369 for the cheapest model, you have to ask yourself whether that extra $100-odd (at least) is worth it, to be part of the Apple ecosystem. Android has come a long way over the past year. The third-party apps are generally there, the interface is lovely, and the hardware design is very comfortable.
If you don’t want to leave the Apple ecosystem, and you want a smaller iPad, buy the iPad mini. You may even be able to trade in your original iPad, as we did, on eBay. But if you’re not invested in Apple, check out the Nexus 7. It’s a more comfortable tablet, it’s substantially cheaper and we like its user interface a lot more than Apple’s dated iOS paradigm. The iPad mini does what it needs to do very well, but we just like the Nexus 7 better for the money.
One final note: Since the iPad mini went on sale, we’ve been deluged with stories about how it’s sold out in Australia. Many of your writer’s readers, friends and family have been trying avidly to buy an iPad mini for more than a month now, with the only recourse for some to be to order it online from Apple direct and wait for it to be delivered 2-3 weeks later. We know of many Australians who have been turned away from Apple stores after trying fruitless to buy an iPad mini.
Your writer suspects that in several years’ time, the iPad mini form factor may come to be the dominant iPad form factor. The 7″ form factor has for some time seemed to resonate with many tablet buyers who never quite liked the 10″ form factor of the original iPad and its Android (and now Windows 8) imitators. Only time will tell — but we’ll know after several years what the mix will look like. Perhaps the world needed the 10″ form factor first, to get used to tablets in general and to differentiate them from smartphones, before tablets went smaller.
But whatever you think about it personally, the popularity of the iPad mini is testament to the fact that Apple supremo Steve Jobs (may he rest in peace) didn’t get everything completely right during his time leading the company. We know that Jobs considered the original iPad the one and only holy tablet size. With the iPad mini, Steve’s successors have proven their mentor wrong. The world (and your writer personally) does need 7″ tablets, and we’re extremely glad that Apple finally came to the party on this one.
Image credit: Apple