Last year's iPad mini was very nearly perfect in every way, except the one you needed it to be. Its display was porridge next to the bright retina cornucopia of its bigger iPad brother and its tiny tablet competitors. This year? We feast.
What Is It?
It's tempting—and not entirely inaccurate—to lump the iPad mini in with the other small tablets of the world, the Kindle Fires and the Nexus 7s. You shouldn't, any more than you would lump a small bear in with a small pufferfish. They are different animals, with different arsenals.
Besides, the most useful context in which to place the iPad mini is against itself. Or rather, against last year's model, a beautiful piece of hardware undone by a fatally underpowered display. It was a luxury car with a jello steering wheel, a Rolex with Altoids where gears should be.
So: This year's iPad mini is, more than anything, a corrective. With the overdue addition of a retina display and powerful guts, it removes all of the almosts from one of the finest devices Apple has ever built. It is, with a few qualifiers, the tablet you should buy.
Why Does It Matter?
Set aside for a moment the arms race taking place among Google, Apple, and Amazon to win tablet hearts and minds. It's true that there's a lot at stake for each of these companies; our computing future belongs to tablets and, more specifically, the platforms they bind us to. But that's their problem.
The retina iPad mini matters because last year's effort was the first time in a long time that Apple simply wasn't competitive in a category it—and you—cared very much about. If you bought one, you overpaid for something that wasn't as good as a number of things you could have bought instead. That's no longer the case.
This year's iPad mini looks the exact same as last year's. Easy! It is entirely unchanged on the outside save for an extra .05 pounds of heft and .01 inches of thickness, to accommodate that retina display and the guts needed to power it. You will not notice, and if you do notice, you will not care, and if you do care, I would hate to be there the next time Starbucks gets your order wrong.
If you're not familiar with last year's mini—or this year's iPad Air, which is the iPad mini post-Super Mario power-up—the short version is that it is still the most attractive tablet.
To be fair, that still only gets you so far; every medium has its constraints. The retina iPad mini is a wide, thin-bezeled, lovingly chamfered platter. You could easily mistake it for an inductive charger, or serve yourself tea on it, depending on where you prefer your comparisons on the nerdy-classy spectrum. Or one to cover all bases: It's a stretched-out Space Odyssey monolith for ants.
Beyond what you can gather just as easily by looking at a picture, the iPad mini feels firm and balanced in a way that it shouldn't, as though it's getting away with something. The thinness of the bezel is still a little thrill, the anodized back is just grippy enough that you can walk around with it one handed and not worry about slippage.
The one design note that remains a disappointment is the placement of the speakers. They're still scrunched up at the bottom of the device, buttressing the lightning connector, their already tinny sound ready to be covered by your palm the instant you switch to landscape. Your choice, when watching movies or playing games without headphones, is either muffled sound or engaging in awkward palm-yoga to avoid it.
The only other aesthetic change from last year's model is that the iPad mini now comes in either silver or space grey instead of black. I prefer space grey, both because it's less showy and because it's more fun to say.
The first day I ever had to wear eyeglasses was traumatic for social reasons, but revelatory in that I could finally see individual leaves on trees up and down the block. That's how dramatic the jump from last year's mini to this year's feels.
Text that was a blurry mess on last year's mini is now crisp and clear (though still smallish by default). Video that was blurred and softened becomes immersive. Comic books, previously both unreadable and unenjoyable, still suffer some clutter, but are otherwise perfectly reasonable.
It's a terrific display. It's also the display the iPad mini should have had last year, and one that's not appreciably better—though it is bigger!—than its Kindle Fire HDX and Nexus 7 rivals. So while this is certainly praise, it's also for what Apple should have done all along.
There's also one caveat that might keep the retina's iPad mini from riding its unicorn off into a gumdrop sunset, and that's outdoor use. It is, like last year's model, very, very reflective. Even sitting on a shaded front porch, with brightness cranked all the way up, I could see more of my dumb face than the article I had Instapapered. That's not as much of an issue as it would be on an iPad Air, but the iPad mini is inherently portable; throw it in your jacket pocket, take it to the park or demolition derby. But once you're there, pray for clouds, or at least a very shady tree.
That many more pixels to push also requires plenty more horsepower, but the retina iPad mini's A7 chip is up to the task. Which is to say, it doesn't go much beyond the task; the mini zips along, but not noticeably faster than last year's model despite the upgraded guts. (There's a motion-sensing M7 in there too, but it won't come into play unless you take your mini for a jog.) And while it's perfectly adequate for every day use, if you're a heavy multitasker you'll notice some churn. I was able to play Dead Trigger 2 just fine, but still hit the very occasional hiccup.
The good news is, the iPad mini is a much more natural size for gaming; your thumbs don't have to stretch as far or feel so disconnected from each other as they do on the iPad Air. The graphics, portability, and ease of use playing Infinity Blade III makes the iPad mini feel more like a handheld gaming console than a tablet.
This seems like as good a time as any to talk about app selection. If we're strictly talking tablets—and in this case, we are for obvious reasons—Apple has more, and better, apps and content. You might want to argue this point. You will be wrong. Android's tablet app selection is still a wasteland, and many of the selections that are present are just blown-up phone apps. Shopping the App Store is like visiting a mall with infinite glittering levels. Shopping Google Play is like walking through a street fair 20 minutes before it closes.
I'll save the camera for last, because it's the last thing you should be doing with this device. It's… fine? It's fine. It's not as good as the iPhone 5S camera—below, full size crops side by side of the two—and it's certainly more awkward to use, but in a pinch it'll take pictures that look fine on the web.
Last year's iPad mini was a near-perfect device save for one flaw—that muddy display—that made it nearly unusable. This year's has not only fixed that, it's paired the result with iOS 7, an operating system that is, regardless of whatever else you might think, a bright and shiny retina wonderland.
And the little things that made the iPad mini so good last year remain. That 4:3 ratio—the same as an 8.5 x 11-inch sheet of paper—makes it ideal for reading and casual internetting; the Kindle Fire HDX and Nexus 7 feel cramped in comparison. The battery life is still inexplicably better than advertised, lasting over 11 hours with continuous, heavy use.
Weirdly, I also like that there's no TouchID here. It would've driven the price up even more on a device that doesn't need it.
Most of all, it's a perfect little second screen.
I haven't mentioned the price yet because things should stand on their own merit, everyone's got different budgets, etc. etc. Allow me to mention it now. I do not like the price. I find the price unnerving. The price is very much more than a price I would be comfortable paying. The price is $400.
To put that into context, it's $70 more than last year's iPad mini, and precariously close to twice as much as the $230 Kindle Fire HDX and Nexus 7. It's not an entirely fair comparison; the iPad mini is bigger than those two, and you can do more with it. Whether you can do $170 more is between you and your checking account.
My other grievances are either minor or purely self-preference. The speakers still aren't great, and their placement is still dumb. The mini stutters under very heavy loads, but not enough to be grumpy at. The display is too reflective to be a picnic buddy. That aspect ratio is great for reading but makes for silly, distractingly giant letterboxing.
That's really it, though. A bunch of molehills that don't add up to anything resembling a mountain.
Should You Buy It?
The only reasons not to buy an iPad mini—assuming you'd like to buy a tablet in the first place—are matters of personal preference and bankroll. Can you afford to spend $500 (let's be honest, 16GB isn't gonna cut it these days, and the 32GB model is a $100 step up) on a second screen? Do you think that a smaller tablet is inherently better than a larger one because it's more portable? Are you already invested in the iOS ecosystem? If it's yes across the board, you'd be crazy not to buy the iPad mini.
I don't think I will, though. I use my iPad mostly for watching movies when I travel, reading magazines, and checking email when I'm too lazy to walk down to my computer. I like having more room to maneuver, a bigger display to play with. And if I did want the option of a smaller tablet, I'd almost certainly go with the Kindle HDX, since I'm nearly as invested—though in a different way—in Amazon's playground as I am Apple's. Also, I am
What's most exciting about the iPad mini, though, is that it's finally a viable option. Want a smaller iPad? Here you go. Want a bigger one? There's the iPad Air. Sworn off Apple products for some highly dubious reason? Nexus 7. Kindle Fire HDX. Windows? Uhhhh sure, Surface. The point is that there's now a tablet to fit everyone's needs. The iPad mini was the final piece to that puzzle; it fills it in with brightness, clarity, purpose, and poise.
Retina iPad mini Specs
• OS: iOS 7
• CPU: A7 processor
• Screen: 7.9-inch 2048 x 1536 IPS
• RAM: 1GB
• Storage: 16 GB, 32GB, 64GB, 128GB
• Camera: 5MP, 1080p Rear; 720p, 1.2MP Front
• Battery: 6471 mAh
• Price: $400