Talking tech since 2003

When Apple released the original iPad mini back in 2012, it didn’t come as much of a surprise. That year was a particularly leaky one for Apple, and plenty of iPad mini photos — both of parts and of the device itself — made their way online in the months leading up to the unveil. The underpowered nature of the device and its lack of a Retina display also didn’t surprise many; Apple needed to price the smaller tablet competitively, and squeezing a Retina-level display into the tablet just wasn’t an option.

Fast forward to 2013, where Apple took a decidedly different approach with the latest iPad mini. Introduced alongside the iPad Air, the iPad mini with Retina is nearly every bit as powerful as its larger sibling while costing $100 less. Its smaller size makes it much more portable, and the smaller display also means it boasts a higher pixel density count — 324 ppi (pixels per inch), which comes pretty close to matching the 326 ppi of the iPhone 5s.

When you factor all of that in with the mini’s lighter weight — 0.75 pounds compared to the iPad Air’s 1 pound — it almost feels like the iPad mini with Retina should be the more expensive iPad. Fortunately, it’s not, which means you can get what I believe to be the best iPad at a lower price than ever before: $399.

Now, on to the review.

Hardware

Apple has a history of creating good-looking products, and the iPad mini with Retina doesn’t buck that trend at all. I’m reviewing the Space Gray model, which has a black front border and a gray aluminum back with a black Apple logo. The cellular model also adds some black plastic to the back of the iPad mini with Retina (so that radio waves can get into and out of the device).

ipad-mini-backIn terms of button placement, things haven’t changed from the original iPad mini. Apple has kept the number of buttons on the tablet to a minimum; just the iconic home button on the front, the power/sleep button at the top and two volume buttons on the right side. There’s also a mute switch above the volume buttons.

This latest edition of the iPad mini is actually a tiny bit thicker and heavier than the previous model, though the increase in both areas is tough to notice. This year’s mini adds about 0.3 millimeters of thickness. Weight-wise, it adds 29 grams — a difference of approximately 12 pennies in your hand. Unless you compare technical specifications ahead of time, you might not even notice the difference.

That is, unless you have iPad mini accessories you’re hoping to use with the Retina-enhanced mini. Bad news: the extra thickness means that your iPad mini with Retina might not fit into iPad mini accessories like cases and keyboard stands. I experienced this issue with Zagg’s Cover product, a keyboard case designed for the original mini. If you pick up this latest model, you may need to hold off for accessories that are more compatible with it.

When compared to last year’s model, the updated mini is just as comfortable to use. This member of the iPad family is one you can definitely hold with one hand, thanks to the smaller size and weight. And I find it easier to type on than the larger flavors of the iPad. Does it do one handed use better than say, a Nexus 7 or a Kindle Fire HDX? Not quite, but then again, those devices drop almost a full inch of display size when compared to the latest iPad mini. They also sport thinner aspect ratios, which allow them to go skinnier in the portrait orientation. For being a nearly 8-inch tablet, though, the iPad mini still feels quite small. It’s as close as you’ll get to a 7-inch tablet that can run iOS apps.

So we’ve established thus far that the iPad mini with Retina is an attractive device that adds just a little bit of depth and weight when compared to the previous year’s version. It also fits well in the hand. The most impressive parts of the iPad mini, though, are on the outside — its Retina display — as well as the inside — the 64-bit A7 chip.

By far the most painful part of using the original iPad mini was having to look at its display. In a world where a larger, Retina-level iPad existed, and one where I stared every day at an iPhone with an insanely high pixel density, the original mini’s display stood out in the worst way possible. The display really held that tablet back, as its smaller size made it a better pick for content consumption. Unfortunately, the resolution made consuming that content less pleasurable.

The internals of that mini were nothing to write home about, either. Apple basically took an iPad 2, squeezed it into a smaller case and called it the iPad mini. While Apple was encouraging developers to push the envelope with gorgeous, high resolution games, it put out a small tablet that couldn’t handle those experiences.

ipad-thin

The 2013 iPad mini with Retina steps up big in both areas. The display resolution has doubled to match that of the iPad Air, and because of its smaller display size, the mini’s pixel density comes darn close to matching the latest iPhones. You can finally read a magazine on the mini without having to zoom in, and games now look just as gorgeous on the iPad mini with Retina as they do on the larger iPad Air.

Apple had to bump up the specs of this year’s mini to push all those pixels, and did it ever. I’m not sure a Retina display was a total surprise when Apple unveiled the iPad mini with Retina, but what did shock a lot of people was that Apple made the mini just as powerful as the larger, more expensive iPad Air. Save for a little bit of clock speed — likely trimmed to bring down power consumption — the iPad mini’s specs are just about identical to those of the iPad Air. It’s an impressive leap from one year to the next, and one that finally puts the mini where it needs to be.

Software

The greatest hardware specs in the world mean nothing if the software can’t deliver on their promise. Fortunately, the iPad mini with Retina runs what some may argue is a best-in-class mobile operating system in iOS.

But it’s sort of a weird year for iOS; Apple designer Jony Ive took over the operating system after the firing of Scott Forstall in 2012, and Ive’s vision for Apple’s mobile OS has taken it in an interesting new direction. Gone is the “skeuomorphism” so many abhorred; instead, the latest version, iOS 7, has taken on a more simple design language while still managing to add a few new bells and whistles.

I don’t mean for this to be a review of iOS 7, as we’ve covered the OS pretty extensively. But to answer the question, “Does iOS 7 deliver on the promise of the iPad mini with Retina hardware?” the answer is, for the most part, yes. The Apple Way, controlling both the hardware as well as the software that runs on it, benefits the iPad mini in a big way.

That’s not to say there aren’t glitches here and there; apps crash in iOS 7 more than any other version I’ve used, and there is a bit of UI jitter at times — this in spite of the fact that the iPad mini with Retina packs a much-improved 64 bit A7 processor. But Apple promises that updates to iOS 7 will fix many glitches and bugs, so these issues may not be around for long.

ipad-kindleWhen you get down to it, the most important bullet point on the software side of things is the app library. Apple is able to boast hundreds of thousands of apps for the iPad alone — 475,000 at last count — so it’s tough to give the ecosystem crown to anyone else at this point. The iPad mini with Retina, of course, has access to these apps through the App Store, and since it’s just as powerful as the flagship iPad Air, the mini can run the latest and greatest apps and games just as well.

And while we’re talking about software, by the way, it’d be remiss of me not to mention that Apple is giving away its iWork apps for free if you buy a new iPad. So if you pick up the iPad mini with Retina, you can open the App Store and download apps like Pages, Numbers, iMovie and more at no charge.

Conclusion

The iPad mini with Retina is the best iPad available right now — in my opinion, at least. This wasn’t the case last year, when the fourth-generation iPad with Retina clearly took the prize over the first-generation mini, but now that the iPad mini and larger iPad Air are on equal footing spec-wise, it’s tough not to declare the smaller tablet the winner.

Don’t get me wrong — Apple went to great lengths to trim unnecessary bulk away from the iPad Air, and the company somehow dropped nearly half a pound of weight. That’s impressive. But the iPad mini with Retina is even lighter than the Air, offers the same performance and does so at a price that is $100 cheaper.

Yes, the display is smaller. But at 7.9 inches, it’s not small enough to make a major difference. And thanks to the increase in resolution that bumps the display into Retina territory, content is just as easy to view on the iPad mini with Retina as it is on the iPad Air. Unless you have extremely bad eyesight or a very specific need for a larger display, you’re really not missing out on much if you save the $100 and go with the smaller tablet over its larger alternative.

Is the mini the best tablet on the market right now? I think it may be. While competing products like the Nexus 7s and Kindle Fires of the world are great pieces of kit, they’re not quite pulling everything together as well as Apple is. The iPad mini may be more expensive than these rival devices, but the combined hardware/software experience, as well as Apple’s ever-growing library of iPad apps, makes that premium worth paying.

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