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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...

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Battery life: iPad mini

Results are a timed duration (longer bars are better). Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith.

Speaking of charging, the iPad mini includes Apple’s 5-watt USB charger, like the iPhone 5, rather than the 10-watt or 12-watt chargers you get with full-size iPads. This initially surprised me, but it makes a little more sense when you consider that while the fourth-generation iPad has a 42.5-watt-hour battery, the iPad mini uses a 16.3-watt-hour battery, so it will actually charge, using the 5-watt charger, more quickly than the latest iPad with its 12-watt charger. On the other hand, the iPad mini’s battery capacity is three times that of the iPhone 5’s, so it will take considerably longer to charge the mini than an iPhone.

The iPad mini actually surpasses the latest full-size iPad in one specification: Along the bottom edge, bookending the Lightning-connector port, you’ll find two speakers, rather than just one. However, you shouldn’t expect a lot from these speakers. You don’t get much stereo separation, given how close together the speakers are. (It would have been interesting if Apple had put one speaker on the bottom and one on the top, providing some minor stereo separation with the iPad in landscape orientation.) The iPad mini’s audio also sounds tinnier than that of the full-size iPad, likely because either the mini’s speaker drivers are smaller or, thanks to the thinness of the mini, have smaller enclosures around them, or both. (We didn’t peek inside, and it’s tough to tell from iFixit.com’s iPad and iPad mini teardowns.) The full-size iPad plays louder, and it sounds better than the mini at the loudest levels; the tinniness of the iPad mini’s audio starts to get a little grating at higher volumes. Overall, the iPad mini’s speakers are closer in performance to that of the iPhone 5, although the iPad mini sounds a bit clearer than the iPhone.

IDG Consumer & SMB
The iPad mini's Lightning port is surrounded by two speakers.

There’s one way, however, in which the mini’s speaker layout offers an improvement over its siblings: Because there are two speakers, and they’re located near the center of the bottom edge, you’re less likely to cover them with your hand when holding the iPad mini in landscape orientation. In my testing watching video and playing games, at least one of the speakers was always unobstructed. On the standard iPad, my left hand often covers the speaker unless I rotate the iPad 180 degrees.

Finally, the mini differs from other iPad models in that it uses the same nano-SIM card as the iPhone 5 does; the standard iPads use the older micro-SIM standard.

Detached from Retina

Surely the most controversial aspect of the iPad mini is that, contrary to Apple’s recent trend towards high-resolution screens, it doesn’t have a Retina display. Instead, it offers the same screen resolution as the original iPad and the iPad 2, 1024 by 768 pixels. That’s considerably lower resolution than the 2048-by-1536-pixel display of the third-generation and fourth-generation iPads, and, in one dimension at least, it’s even lower than the 1136-by-640-pixel display of the latest iPhone and iPod touch models.

Each iOS device originally debuted without a Retina display, so the iPad mini is simply following that pattern. But at a time when all other iOS devices—and even Apple’s MacBook Pro models—have made the transition to Retina displays, the iPad mini lags behind. For those of us deeply involved in the Apple market (meaning we’ve already got Retina-display gear) the lack of a Retina display is disappointing.

Does it really matter? That depends largely on your frame of reference. The pixel density of the iPad mini is just 163 pixels per inch (ppi), compared to 264 ppi for the third- and fourth-generation iPads, 326 ppi for the latest iPhone and iPod touch models, 227 ppi for the new 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, and 220 ppi for the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro. If you’re accustomed to one of those displays, the iPad mini’s lower pixel density is immediately noticeable. This is especially the case with text, which is blockier, but everything—graphics, images, interface elements, you name it—just looks less sharp.

That’s surely disappointing to Retina veterans who’ve been pining for an iPad mini for reading. An iPad this size with a Retina-quality display would be a near-perfect reading device: all the great reading apps and services available for the iPad, in a smaller, lighter, book-sized package. Even Google’s Nexus 7, which I’ve been using for just that purpose, offers slightly clearer text, with a pixel density of 216 ppi. (It’s worth noting, however, that in other areas—brightness, color, contrast, and the like—the iPad mini’s screen seems better, and I prefer the iPad mini’s screen overall.)

IDG Consumer & SMB
The iPad mini (left) is thinner than the iPad (right).

At the same time, if you’re coming from an iPad 2 or an original iPad, the iPad mini’s screen looks considerably better. That’s because these older iPads offered 1024 by 768 pixels in a 9.7-inch (diagonal) screen, whereas the iPad mini has the same number of pixels in a 7.9-inch screen—the 163-ppi pixel density of the iPad mini is considerably higher than the 132 ppi of the older iPads, as well as that of every non-Retina Apple laptop, iMac, and display. For example, I spend my days using a 2010 27-inch iMac, and the iPad mini’s screen has a higher pixel density and makes the same text look better. In other words, if you’re coming from an older iPad or Mac, the iPad mini’s screen will be a clear (no pun intended) upgrade.

I should also point out that while the iPad mini’s screen looked noticeably non-Retina to me when I first started reading on it (after seven months of daily use of Retina iOS devices), I did acclimate. I went cold turkey with the iPad mini, using it as my only iPad for three days, and by the end of that test, I still noticed the lower pixel density, but the difference wasn’t nearly as glaring, even though I was still using an iPhone 5 alongside it. That won’t be the case for everyone, and I will of course welcome a Retina iPad mini when it comes along; I’m just saying that the non-Retina display wasn’t a deal-killer for me. I still enjoyed long sessions reading the Instapaper, Kindle, iBooks, and Reeder apps, and I liked the iPad mini’s smaller size and weight more than I disliked the fact that it didn’t have a Retina display.

A reality check: Most people in the world—and the overwhelming majority of people who don’t already own a recent iPad or iPhone—have never used a Retina-quality display, let alone used one regularly enough to find the iPad mini’s screen lacking. I showed the mini to a few people who haven’t yet joined the Retina club, and they were thoroughly impressed by the iPad mini’s screen. These are the people Apple is marketing the iPad mini to, not those of us who already have one or more recent iOS devices.

Appstravaganza

Despite the Retina controversy, giving the iPad mini a screen resolution (1024 by 768 pixels) identical to that of the iPad 2 was perhaps the savviest decision Apple made when designing the mini. It means that any iPad app compatible with the iPad 2 (which Apple still sells) works with the iPad mini with no extra effort on the part of the developer. And since even the latest iPad apps are written to work on both Retina iPads and the iPad 2, this means that the iPad mini has several hundred thousand native apps ready and waiting for it.

In fact, I think this app compatibility is a major reason Apple didn’t offer a Retina display on the first iPad mini. For the iPad mini to be immediately viable, it needed apps. Not scaled-up or -down apps, but optimized apps. (Many people who use a Google or Amazon tablet are nodding their heads right now.) For both practical and technical reasons, I don’t think Apple could have given the iPad mini a display with the full-size iPad’s 2048-by-1536 resolution yet—consider that such a resolution at the iPad mini’s smaller size would have given it the highest pixel density of any Apple product, on par with the iPhone 5 and current iPod touch (and there have been reports of supply problems for these screens). So a Retina display on the iPad mini would have been one specifically optimized for the mini’s size, and yet another resolution for developers to target. That would have meant only a handful of iPad mini-optimized apps available at launch, with other apps scaled up or down. I think a Retina iPad mini, with its own resolution, will happen someday (likely next year), but only after the iPad mini has sold in the millions and is an established part of the iPad lineup.

For now, any iPad app on the App Store will work with the mini. In fact, if you’ve already got a full-size iPad, you can restore your iPad mini from an iTunes or iCloud backup of that full-size iPad. I did that with one of the two iPad mini units I tested, and after a couple hours, the mini was a smaller-but-otherwise-identical version of my third-generation iPad, complete with several hundred apps and all their settings; the same playlists and videos; and everything configured and ready to go.

(For the record, upscaled 2x iPhone apps look just as bad on the iPad mini as they do on a standard iPad.)

You’re holding it right

When I asked on Twitter and on App.net for questions people had about the mini, the second-most-popular topic (after questions about the display) revolved around what it’s like to hold the iPad mini for extended periods.

The iPad mini’s chamfered edges aren’t just for looks; they also make the front edges more comfortable when holding the iPad mini in your hand. And though the squared-off back edges don’t feel quite as nice as the tapered edges of the standard iPad, the mini is so much lighter that it’s much more comfortable to hold for extended periods. Chances are, you won’t be holding the mini with your hand all the way around the back, like the actors in Apple’s TV ads do, but it’s light enough to hold in portrait orientation by placing your hand behind the back and your thumb either on the bottom bezel or along the longer side.

If you’re used to reading on a Kindle, the iPad mini can’t match the light weight of the standard Kindle (six ounces) or the Paperwhite (7.5 ounces), but 11 ounces is still light enough for long reading sessions. Over the past few days, I used the iPad mini for several two-hour stretches of reading, and I had no complaints about the weight or size. It was a welcome change from reading on the standard iPad, which for me usually entails resting the iPad on my lap rather than holding it in one hand at a comfortable level. After using the iPad mini for a few days, my iPad 3 felt bulky and heavy.

Speaking of holding while reading, one concern I had about the iPad mini was that its thinner long-edge bezels would result in unintended touchscreen actions. Apple says iOS 6 on the iPad mini can differentiate between touching and holding, and I found this to be true. For example, the Instapaper app lets you go to the previous or next page of an article by tapping the left or right edge of the screen, respectively. If you hold an iPhone by placing your thumb along the edge of the screen, you’ll either select text or, when you remove your thumb, flip the page. But holding the iPad mini by the edge of the screen does nothing—except let you hold the tablet comfortably. In my testing, touching the edge of the screen for a little less than a second and a half is interpreted as a tap; longer touches are ignored.

And while I’m on the topic of reading, a number of Macworld readers have asked about the iPad mini’s maximum and minimum brightness levels. Compared to my third-generation iPad, the iPad mini’s screen doesn’t get quite as dark at the dimmest screen-brightness level, and it’s not quite as bright at the brightest level. But these are very minor differences that you probably wouldn’t notice unless, like me, you had the two devices side by side. The could also simply be unit-by-unit variations.

Next: Accessories and buying advice

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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