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Blasting off into the next generation of small tablets, Apple launched its vastly-improved iPad mini with retina display (MSRP $399.99), boasting enhanced hardware and an incredibly pixel-dense screen. Tapping into a vestige of space-age nostalgia, Apple offers the tiny tablet in both white and "space gray" variants. With the recent release of the iPad Air, the bar is certainly high for Apple's pint-size tablet.
When the specs were announced, many felt the new mini would be a better bargain than the Air—it has the same specs, but in a smaller package with a lower price—but there are definitely a few foibles that prospective buyers should be aware of. Most notably, though its user experience is top-notch, the mini's screen performance is hit or miss. Still, if you're heavily invested in Apple's app ecosystem and you want a smaller tablet, this is a great option.
If there's an advantage held by the mini over all competing tablets, it's build quality. An aluminum casing protects the guts of the tablet with something a bit more robust than plastic, the connector is a no-hassle, break-free lightning port, and the bezel is well-machined and slim. On top of that, Apple crammed in a Bluetooth 4.0 radio, wireless card, lightning dock, 5-megapixel f/2.4 camera, and storage ranging from 16GB to 128GB.
Because of its diminutive physical size, the mini is very easy to tote. Though the aspect ratio of the screen is the same as every other iPad, it isn't perfectly-suited for video content. Stil, the screen is acceptably big for most uses—it's especially good for reading and web browsing. If you tend to read a lot of comics, documents, or academic papers, this is the small tablet to get.
On paper, the latest iPad mini is somewhat of an iterative upgrade, but it's made better by its more power-efficient Apple A7 processor. Despite its somewhat trim specs, it has most of the same hardware as its bigger, badder, brother—the iPad Air. In fact, the mini is extremely capable—a super pixel-dense screen (2048 x 1536, 324 pixels per inch) and anti-reflective coating make the screen far more crisp.
The guts of the mini may seem pedestrian, but with a smaller average workload they're more effective; the new processor allows it to handle tasks more efficiently (while sucking down less juice), and the 1GB of RAM means less power is lost to continuous access of system resources. Of course, the tradeoff is that resource-hog apps suffer ever so slightly, but even so, the unit seems to handle most tasks flawlessly—even 64 bit apps.
I feel like a broken record for saying "like the iPad Air" again, but the mini ships with iOS 7—just like the iPad Air. All the same controls apply if you're familiar with them, but if not, I have a handy video for you:
That covers the basics, but there are more gestures to learn as you go—like using pinched fingers to zoom in and out, swiping your finger to turn pages of eBooks, and so on. However, one of the biggest draws to iOS-powered tablets is the huge range of content you have access to. Currently, Google and Amazon don't play nicely, but both companies' content and services are available to Apple users. That means that iPads are currently the only tablets with access to all the most popular sources of media, including Amazon Prime Instant Video.
Additionally, the App Store currently has the largest library of apps in the mobile world—though Google's Play Store is hot on its heels. Owners of the iPad mini will seldom know what it's like to wait for an must-have app; it'll most often be available in the App Store first.
I will point out that if productivity is a major concern for you, a Microsoft Surface or a plain old laptop may be a better bet for you. Though the range of productivity services on the iPad is notable, a physical keyboard isn't something that this tablet will accommodate well. You're better off with a machine that was built to be used with one. Though both iPads released this year are solid machines, they're more geared towards mobile apps and media consumption than they are for editing spreadsheets at superhuman speeds.
While the iPad mini impresses across the board, it does have one major flaw: color reproduction. We had hoped the mini would inherit all the strengths of its big brother iPad Air, including its ability to produce an impeccable color gamut. Unfortunately, the mini is simply incapable of the same efficacy. Wildly undersaturated reds and absurdly skewed blues promise to make an alien experience of your favorite photos and movies.
However, that lone black eye rests atop a rather impressive corpus of performance data; aside from color, this is a very solid display. Pixel density, contrast, even reflectivity—the mini claims a top spot in each of those categories with results that are far above the mean. The pixel density in particular is so high that a person with 20/20 vision will not be able to see block-like pixels with the naked eye, even from 12 inches away.
If the slim spec sheet wasn't a problem for the iPad Air, it's less so for the mini—with a bigger (relative) battery, higher pixel density, and less power needed for the backlight, you can expect marginally better performance over the iPad Air in some regards.
A teardown revealed that the mini's battery is a whopping 6471mAh—much larger (by about 1.6x) than that of the Nexus 7. However, battery life was a bit on the uninspiring side. Disabling the wirless and cranking the backlight, we were able to coax the mini to last about 6 hours 43 minutes reading an eBook, and 7 hours, 14 minutes playing terrible B movies on repeat. While that's certainly enough for a short flight, you may want to futz with the brightness settings if you need more battery life. Good news, though—the mini charges fairly quickly, by virtue of the fact that the battery is smaller in relation to those of larger tablets.
You'd be hard-pressed to determine that this tablet is anything other than great after looking over our lab results. While the mini lags behind competition substantially in terms of color reproduction, that's the only real performance flaw we could find. It's an impressive result, overall. From the couch to the commuter rail, users hunting for a media consumption platform will love this thing, and considering its lion's share of access to the market's available content, you'll probably find yourself wanting to buy it flowers and chocolates.
iOS devices aren't for everyone, and some might decide that Android or another operating system is more their speed—that's definitely okay. However, the iPad mini with retina display is a much-needed upgrade to Apple's tablet line, and absolutely worth a look if you're in the market for a smaller tablet. It's on the expensive side, starting at around $400, but that money gets you notably superior build quality and generally excellent performance.
Avid readers, web explorers, and students will probably gravitate to the iPad mini due to its host of content, but the machine itself is quite a looker too. It's not perfect, but the iPad mini with retina display is a huge upgrade over the older iPad mini, and worthy of serious consideration for most tablet shoppers.
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