- Review Date: 11/09/2012
- Bottom line: The iPad mini lets you run the best library of apps in the biz on a tablet you'll actually want to carry, but it's not the best small-screen tablet you can buy.
- Pros: Beautifully designed.Very good cameras. Largest library of tablet apps.
- Cons: Expensive. Wide. Slippery.
How much are apps worth to you? How about $120? If you want those iPad-exclusive apps and price is no object, then no other small-screen tablet will do. Beautifully made, slim, and light, the iPad mini ($329/16GB, $429/32GB, $529/64GB direct) packs precisely the power of an iPad 2 into a tablet you'll actually want to carry around.
Aside from the apps, though, the iPad mini isn't the best small tablet. Compared with the current $200 tablet crop that includes the Google Nexus 7, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD, and the Barnes & Noble Nook HD, it's a little too wide, its screen isn't the best you'll find, and it's quite a bit too expensive. Nowadays, Android apps are good enough to keep the excellent Nexus 7 our Editors' Choice for small tablets.
Design and Physical Features
At 7.87 by 5.30 by .28 inches (HWD), the mini is the slimmest tablet I've ever tested, and at 10.9 ounces, it's an ounce lighter than the Nexus 7. The front is a glass screen surrounded by a very narrow black or white bezel, with Apple's signature Home button below it. As always, Apple's Volume controls, Home button, and Mute/Screen Lock Rotation switch are perfectly placed and easy to find. The headphone jack lives in the left corner of the top panel, with Apple's new, compact Lightning port on the center of the bottom edge.
The back is wraparound black (or silver for the white model) aluminum, with the 5-megapixel camera up in the corner. The fit and finish make every other tablet look amateurish, and the body is beautifully rigid and flex-free. The metal back sure is beautiful, but it's an ergonomic mistake: It's too slippery. With a tablet you're supposed to be using with a single hand, you want a slightly grippy material on the back panel so you have something to grab. While the iPad mini is comfortable to hold because it's so light, its width puts its center of gravity further from your palm than with narrower tablets, and I kept feeling like it was almost about to slip out of my hand.
For me, the problem was made worse by the grip I had to hold it in, because the mini is just too wide for me to wrap my hand around. Everyone's hands are different, but I found the mini's 5.3-inch width is a real thumb-stretcher. It compared poorly with the Nexus 7, whose 4.7-inch width is easily grippable, especially when combined with the smaller tablet's textured back. Unlike the Nexus, I couldn't fit the mini into my back pocket, and it's a snug fit in a jacket pocket. I know others have called this a one-handed tablet, but I'm not finding it so.
Apple dodged another potential ergonomic bullet, though. The narrow bezel made me worry about accidental touches, but I didn't run into that problem; Apple has "thumb-detection" technology which, in my tests, successfully ignored my thumb on the edge of the screen.
The iPad mini's 7.9-inch, 1,024-by-768 IPS LCD screen doesn't look low-res on its own, although you can definitely see the difference next to a 4th-generation iPad with Retina Display, a Kindle Fire HD, or a Nook HD. But the display here is sharper than the iPad 2's screen since it's smaller. Colors are richer and the screen is brighter than on the Nexus 7, although neither the color depth nor brightness measures up to the Kindle Fire HD and Nook HD displays. Another thing to consider: If you've gotten used to reading text on a Retina Display, text will look horribly low-res here.
The display is also quite reflective, and I found that very noticeable. Dr. Raymond Soneira of DisplayMate Technologies found it noticeable, too, noting in his Display Technology Shoot-Out that the mini "reflects 53 percent more ambient light than the Nexus 7 and 41 percent more than the Kindle Fire HD."
Since the screen is larger than competing 7-inch tablets, keys on the on-screen keyboard are a little larger, too. But Apple's claim of having greater real estate than competitors is belied by the tablet's lower resolution. You see a little bit less of a Web page at a time on the mini than on the Nexus 7, and noticeably less than on the Kindle Fire. On the PCMag.com home page, for instance, the Nexus 7 displays about 75 percent of the total height, while the iPad mini's display ends about three lines of text above; the Kindle, with its even sharper screen, shows two more lines of text below the Nexus 7's range. The Nexus 7 fits more icons on a home screen: 42 versus 24 on the mini. Small type looks sharper on the other two tablets, as well.
The larger screen also doesn't confer much advantage when watching wide-screen movies; you just get huge black bars above and below them. I rented "The Hunger Games" in HD from Apple, Amazon, and Google Play. Apple's encoding was the sharpest. But the video looked about the same size on the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire; much of Apple's increased screen area was wasted by larger letterboxing bars, thanks to the boxy 4:3 screen aspect ratio. The Nexus 7's 16:10 screen displayed the movie better.
Performance and Battery Life
The iPad mini shares the iPad 2's 1GHz dual-core Apple A5 processor and screen resolution, and delivers roughly the same performance. (We test iOS devices with the Browsermark, Sunspider, Guimark, GLBenchmark, and Geekbench benchmarks.) The iPad 2, the third-generation iPad, and iPad mini all offer similar performance, a little faster than the iPhone 4S and the new iPod touch, but noticeably slower than the new fourth-generation iPad and the iPhone 5.
Since iOS is a hugely popular platform, though, apps are generally written to work well on the A5 and you don't see a lot of slowdowns. Need for Speed: Most Wanted, for instance, played just fine on the mini. The only hiccup I could see was in zooming the Barefoot World Atlas app, which was a bit jerky on the mini but smoother on the fourth-gen iPad. Accelerometer-based games work especially well here because the mini is such a small, light tablet. It's much easier to tilt and control the mini than with a larger iPad.
Web browsing performance beats competing seven-inch tablets. Part of that is thanks to the mini's faster 5GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi with channel bonding, which will probably max out your home connection. On a fast corporate link using the Ookla Speedtest.net app, I got an average of 36Mbps down, as compared with about 7Mbps on a Kindle Fire HD, and 7.6Mbps on a Nexus 7. (The low result from the KFHD really surprised me, as it's supposed to have the same faster Wi-Fi as the iPad mini.) That translates into much faster app downloads, updates, and less buffering for streaming video. The mini was also the fastest Web browser, although not by much. My basket of Web sites loaded in an average of 5 seconds each on the mini, as compared with 7.1 seconds on the Nexus 7, and 10.3 on the Kindle Fire HD.
While the model we tested was Wi-Fi-only, the mini is also available in cellular versions for AT&T's, Sprint's, and Verizon's LTE networks at a $130 premium, working on those carriers' existing iPad service plans. The LTE models integrate GPS, making the mini an excellent in-car navigation system with a third-party app like Navigon. None of the new models will run on T-Mobile's HSPA+ network.
Battery life was quite good at 7 hours, 37 minutes of video playback time with the screen at full brightness and 12 hours, 47 at half brightness. That's better than the Kindle Fire HD's 7 hours at full brightness, but doesn't measure up to the 10.5 hours we got with the Nexus 7 at full brightness.
Considering its awkward size and mediocre screen, the iPad mini's towering advantage is its 275,000 tablet-specific apps. Let's note that those apps weren't exactly designed for the iPad mini. iPad app developers, up until now, could count on an inch being 132 (or 264) pixels. That's how they'd size interface elements and buttons. But now an inch is 163 pixels, so all the elements in apps shrink down a bit. Text and buttons are all smaller, although not unmanageably so.
The list of iPad exclusives is long. Want to play the immersive game Lili, step through the Barefoot World Atlas or trip through the table of Elements? I hope you have an iPad, because those developers and many others simply aren't writing for Android or Windows at all. For more comparisons, read One Android User's iOS App Envy.
But unless you've already sunk money into Apple's app store, Android's app options are perfectly fine at 7 inches. Yes, Android tablets like the Nexus 7, Nook HD, and Kindle Fire generally run "scaled-up phone apps," as Apple likes to say. But as I've noted before, unlike on 10-inch tablets, where scaled-up phone UIs look awful and waste screen space, on 7-inch tablets, that's manageable.
Yes, the iPad's app quality and selection are best, but on seven-inch (not ten-inch!) Android tablets, it's good enough. If the iPad mini were the same price as competing Android tablets the apps would win the day, but I'm not convinced they're worth charging a $120 premium for.
Multimedia and Camera
The single biggest surprise I found on the iPad mini was how loud the speakers are. Playing games, movies, or music, the iPad mini can crank the volume much higher than I expected, and the sound isn't painfully tinny, either. The two speakers are on the bottom of the tablet, not the back, so if the mini is on a table in front of you, they're pointing straight at you. The tablet also supports wired and Bluetooth headphones, and the headphone amp is also pretty powerful, able to blare music with an acceptable level of bass through any decent set of earphones.
Apple has the best media ecosystem out there; if you want any kind of music or video, it's probably available from iTunes, but remember, there's no memory card slot here. The tablet is available in 16, 32, and 64GB models, and you can remove items you're not using and re-download them from the iTunes app as necessary.
I was very pleasantly surprised by the iPad mini's 5-megapixel camera, which takes sharp, well-balanced shots in decent light. In low light things get soft, but they're still certainly viewable and the blur isn't too awful. Recording video, it keeps 1080p HD videos smooth with 24 frame-per-second recording in low light, but you pay the price in a ton of color noise. Outdoors, 1080p videos look great at 30 fps. Remember, there's no option to take lower-quality videos, so this footage will fill up a 16GB iPad quickly.
The 1-megapixel front camera is an excellent example of the genre, taking clear shots even in low light. With video, it does its best to keep 720p HD frame rates high at the expense of lots of color noise in darker rooms; in my low-light test, I saw a respectable 24fps with a ton of noise. (With plenty of light, it records a razor-sharp 30fps without breaking a sweat.) If you intend to use this tablet for FaceTime video calling, it'll do a great job.
The 9.7-inch iPad, as far as we've seen, is the best tablet of its kind. It's a no-compromise device: competitively priced, leading-edge in power, with an unmatched supply of gorgeous apps. If you're only going to buy one tablet, go with the big one. The 7.9-inch iPad mini is still very good, but it's expensive, it's a little ergonomically awkward, and while its apps are still better than competitors, the gap isn't nearly as large.
iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV owners shopping for a smaller device should buy this tablet, no other. If you've downloaded and you love iOS apps, you'll just be frustrated at not finding the apps you love elsewhere. If you've bought movies from Apple, no other small tablet can play them.
If you aren't already in hock to Apple, though, there are better choices for your money. Compare the iPad mini's price with the Nexus 7 or the Kindle Fire HD, and there's a $120 difference for the 16GB model and $180 for the 32GB. The old "Mac tax" is back.
As someone who's used the Nexus 7, I can tell you that the apps for that tablet are good. They aren't as good, but they're good enough to save you some money, and the lower price, sharper screen, longer battery life, and more comfortable one-handed form factor make the Nexus a better tablet overall. While we recommend the iPad mini, the Nexus 7 remains our Editors' Choice for small tablets.
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.