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Review: iPad mini gives you most of an iPad at half the size

At a Glance
  • Apple iPad mini with Wi-Fi

    Macworld Rating

    Don't confuse the "mini" in "iPad mini" with "lite"--with the exception of a Retina display, this slimmed down iPad gives you the full iPad experience, including access to over 275,000 iPad-optimized...

When the iPad debuted, many called it “just a big iPod touch.” Most soon realized that such claims were misguided, as the iPad turned out to be much more: more powerful, more capable, more useful, more everything. Instead of being arithmetically bigger than the iPod touch, the iPad offered exponentially more of what was good about it.

Now that the iPad mini is out, some of the same people are calling it “just a smaller iPad.” This time around, such a description is much more apt, as the iPad mini offers nearly all of the features, power, and capabilities of its full-size siblings. It even runs all the same apps. The result is a device that—far more than the Mac mini, or even the old iPod mini—gives you nearly everything of its non-mini namesake in a smaller package.

But calling it “just a smaller iPad” glosses over much of what makes the iPad mini unique.

Half the size, most of the iPad

At 7.9 inches tall and 5.3 inches wide, the iPad mini is just 60 percent of the footprint of the fourth-generation iPad. Even more impressive is that thanks to its 0.28-inch thickness (yes, it’s even thinner than the iPhone 5) and 308-gram (11-ounce) weight, the iPad mini is just 46 percent of the volume of the standard iPad and 47 percent of the weight. Yet the mini offers a 7.9-inch (diagonal) display that’s a full 66 percent of the screen area of a full-size iPad.

IDG Consumer & SMB
iPad mini (left) and iPad (right)

Put simply, the iPad mini gives you two thirds of an iPad at half the overall size and weight. This will make the iPad mini usable in situations—and occupations—where a full-size iPad wouldn’t be. You can hold it in one hand and slip it into the pocket of a jacket or scrubs. And remember the adage that the best camera is the one you have with you? The best tablet is the one you have with you, and I’ve already found myself bringing the iPad mini places I wouldn’t have taken the standard iPad.

(Why not just use an iPod touch or iPhone? While the iPad mini is just 1mm thicker than the latest iPod touch, the mini’s footprint is nearly four times larger, with a screen that’s 4.4 times as big in terms of area—though not in resolution, as I’ll cover later.)

Just as striking as the iPad mini’s smaller size and higher screen-to-body ratio is its overall design, which in some ways has more in common with the iPhone 5 and iPod touch than with the full-size iPad. The first thing you’ll notice is that the bezel framing the display is much narrower along the longer edges than on a full-size iPad, allowing Apple to squeeze as much screen area as possible into the iPad mini’s smaller package.

Flip the iPad mini around, and you’ll see that unlike the tapered, brushed-aluminum back of the full-size iPad, the iPad mini’s unibody enclosure is more squared-off at the edges, like the original and latest iPod touch models. The color of the back varies, as well: On the black iPad mini, the back and sides are matte, slate-black aluminum with matching aluminum buttons and switches; the white-bezel iPad gives you a matte, silver-aluminum back with matching controls. And like the iPhone 5, the iPad mini has polished, chamfered edges between its body and the glass front.

Putting aside for a moment the technical specs (I’ll get to those soon enough), the iPad mini feels incredibly solid. There’s absolutely no give or flex to the body, and the fit and finish are as good as with anything Apple has ever done—the design and construction are that impressive. I thought Google’s Nexus 7 tablet (which I’ve been using for the past few months) felt sturdy, but even though the iPad mini has a 24-percent-larger footprint across roughly half the thickness, it feels much more solid than the Nexus 7, which flexes and creaks when you twist it firmly.

IDG Consumer & SMB
The iPad mini is 60 percent of the footprint of the fourth-generation iPad.

Black or white? I generally prefer black iPads, because I find the black bezel to be less distracting than white. The black bezel seems to just get out of the way, letting the screen draw me in. But with the iPad mini, I also like the black better for purely aesthetic reasons. As Macworld's Jason Snell pointed out in his iPhone 5 review, this new black design, with its matte, slate-black finish, matching buttons and switches, and glossy-black Apple logo, looks stunning. It looks better than the full-size iPad in black because, well, everything is black. You don’t see a thin, silver edge around screen, and even the little squarish icon on the Home button is darker on the iPad mini than on the full-size iPad. Everything, front and back, just blends together. Don’t get me wrong, the white iPad is beautiful—especially the aluminum buttons and switches, which look much more upscale than the black-plastic versions on the standard iPad—but it doesn’t impress me quite as much. My only complaint with the black iPad mini is that the matte back really shows fingerprints, skin oil, and grease. You don’t want to eat potato chips while holding it. I also suspect (but haven’t tested) that the black model will show scratches more easily, as with the iPhone 5.

To protect the iPad mini from such scratches, there are plenty of third-party iPad mini cases on the way, but Apple offers a matching iPad mini Smart Cover, in a variety of colors, for $39. Like the original Smart Cover, the mini version attaches to the left-hand edge of the iPad mini using magnets, protecting the screen when you’re not using it, folding behind the iPad mini when you are. The Smart Cover also folds into a triangular stand for video- or photo-viewing or for onscreen typing, and magnets in the cover work with the iPad mini’s magnetic sleep/wake feature. Unlike the original Smart Cover, the iPad mini version uses a plastic-and-fabric hinge. We’ll be covering the Smart Cover separately, but my initial impression is that this hinge is more comfortable against your hand than the metal version, and it won’t scratch your iPad as easily.

IDG Consumer & SMB
The bezel around the iPad mini (left) is thinner than the one around the iPad.

Like the fourth-generation iPad, the iPad mini is available in three capacities, each in black or white. Each color/capacity combination is available with or without LTE-data connectivity, and each LTE-equipped model is available in three models in the United States: AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon. (Yes, that means that, as with the fourth-generation iPad, there are 24 U.S. variations of the iPad mini.) The Wi-Fi models are $329, $429, and $529 for 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB, respectively; adding LTE cellular data bumps each price by $130 to $459, $559, and $659, respectively.

We haven’t tested the LTE-equipped versions, which are supposed to ship later this month, but they’ll have the same features as the full-size iPad with LTE: no-contract LTE data, tethering (depending on the carrier), GPS circuitry, and turn-by-turn navigation.

Call it an iPad 2.5—or 3.5

Of the many rumors swirling around prior to the iPad mini’s announcement, the most common pegged the mini as being simply a smaller version of the iPad 2. But the mini is actually somewhere between the iPad 2 and the current full-size iPad. The mini uses the same dual-core A5 processor, at the same clock speed, as the iPad 2; includes the same 512MB of RAM; and sports a display with the same resolution, 1024 by 768 pixels. But the mini has the same 1.2-megapixel FaceTime HD (720p-capable) front camera and 5-megapixel (1080p-capable) back camera as the fourth-generation iPad. (Note that Apple says the A6x processor in the fourth-generation iPad includes image-signal-processing features that allow that model to provide better image stabilization and spacial noise reduction for photos and video than the iPad mini. We’ll publish imaging-test results later this week.)

The mini also matches the newest full-size iPad when it comes to wireless capabilities, offering Bluetooth 4.0, improved 5GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi performance thanks to channel bonding, and optional LTE wireless data. The iPad mini uses the same LTE chip found in the fourth-generation iPad, so it’s compatible with more carriers compared to the third-generation iPad. Of course, the iPad mini also uses Apple’s new Lightning connector instead of the older 30-pin connector.

Benchmarks: iPad mini

GeekBenchPage LoadSunspiderWebVizBench
iPad mini 756 6.7 1.44 3.6
iPad with Retina display (4th generation) 1764 7.1 0.84 3.7
iPad with Retina display (3rd generation) 759 10.4 1.43 2.1
iPad 2 760 11.1 1.44 1.8
iPhone 5 1623 8.2 0.92 3.6
iPhone 4S 630 10.7 1.77 1.2

GeekBench and WebVizBench results are scores (higher numbers are better). Page Load and Sunspider Smaller numbers are times in seconds (smaller numbers are better). Best result in bold. Reference devices in italics.—Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith

GLBenchmarks: iPad mini

Egypt
Offscreen
Egypt
HD
Offscreen
Egypt
Classic
Offscreen
Pro
Offscreen
iPad mini 86.7 14 49 145.3
iPad with Retina display (4th generation) 183.7 51 129 364
iPad with Retina display (3rd generation) 126 26.7 86.3 238
iPad 2 86.7 14 48.7 145.7
iPhone 5 147.3 28.7 91.7 253
iPhone 4S 72.7 11.7 39.7 120.7

GLBenchmark results are frames per second (higher numbers are better). Best result in bold. Reference devices in italics.—Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith

Thanks to its iPad 2-matching processor, graphics capabilities, and screen resolution, the iPad mini should offer performance on par with that of the iPad 2. Indeed, in our benchmarks testing, the iPad mini performed identically to the iPad 2 in every test except for our Web page-load test, where the iPad mini bested the iPad 2 by roughly 40 percent—likely because of the aforementioned 5GHz Wi-Fi enhancements in the mini.

My real-world testing echoed these findings, as the iPad mini felt much like an iPad 2 when playing games and watching videos. With one exception, I experienced no stuttering or slowdowns, even when playing graphics-heavy games, and even when mirroring the iPad’s screen to an Apple TV using AirPlay. The exception was Real Racing 2 HD, but only when hosting a multiplayer game in Party Play mode, where my iPad was mirroring to an Apple TV both my screen and the screens of other players. In this test, the on-TV images stuttered at times, though the game was still quite playable.

In fact, on a few high-end games, the iPad mini—like the iPad 2 before it—at times performed as well as the third-generation iPad in terms of maintaining smooth graphics, because the third-generation Retina model has to push four times as many pixels. (The fourth-generation iPad, with its much better processor and graphics capabilities, outperforms the iPad mini pretty much everywhere.) The iPad mini also never got uncomfortably hot during heavy use—just warm.

Thanks to its enhanced Wi-Fi capabilities, the iPad mini offers noticeably better performance than the iPad 2 when loading webpages or streaming video—at least if you’re connected to a 5GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi network. However, as with the iPad 2, the iPad mini’s 512MB of RAM means that you’ll experience more Safari-tab reloads than with a recent full-size iPad.

In terms of battery life, Apple says the iPad mini can last as long on a full charge as the standard iPad: up to 10 hours of Wi-Fi Web surfing, watching video, or listening to music; or up to 9 hours of Web surfing over a cellular-data connection. In our standard battery test, which involves looping a full-screen video at specific volume and screen-brightness levels, the iPad mini lasted 9 hours and twelve minutes, compared to 9 hours and 21 minutes for the fourth-generation iPad.

Next: Battery life and display

At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    Don't confuse the "mini" in "iPad mini" with "lite"--with the exception of a Retina display, this slimmed down iPad gives you the full iPad experience, including access to over 275,000 iPad-optimized apps, in a device that's about half the overall size and weight of the standard iPad. Retina-display purists will (justifiably) balk at the 1024-by-768-pixel screen, but I suspect that most people will be wowed enough by the iPad mini's other features, performance, design, and build quality to accept the screen for what it is--very good, but not Retina.

    Pros

    • Most of the full-size-iPad experience in a smaller, lighter package
    • All existing iPad apps run natively
    • Wireless capabilities and cameras on par with fourth-generation iPad
    • Very good performance
    • Incredibly solid construction and beautiful design

    Cons

    • No Retina display
    • Some apps and websites feel a little cramped on the smaller screen
    • Landscape keyboard is too small for easy touch-typing
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