iPad mini: Apple’s got it just right, again [Full Review]

The iPad mini is always going to be one of those products that divides people. Some love it, some don’t see the point in it, and others would rather spend less and buy a Kindle Fire HD or Nexus 7. But, that’s always been the case with Apple products. Back when the first iPad was announced, the reception was a mixture of “that’s totally cool” and “it’s a giant iPod touch”. But over the past two years, people have warmed to – and been wowed by – the iPad’s simplicity and user experience. It is still the tablet to beat 2 and a half years after its introduction, thanks to the recent release of the Retina equipped models. The only way other companies will come close to selling as many is by selling them at a loss, which is exactly what Google and Amazon have done.

So, where does the iPad mini fit in the lineup? Is it a good device? Is it just a smaller “big iPod touch”, is it a waste of space? I’ve spent the whole weekend using it as my primary tablet, and I have to say I’m very impressed.

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Design

Looks-wise, the iPad mini appears to be the result of an affair between the iPhone 5 and the iPad 2. It has the same color scheme and materials as the iPhone, but the larger screen of the iPad. The display – despite not being Retina sharp – dominates the front of the mini thanks to some stylish, thin bezels. At first I was worried that the thin bezel would make my device prone to “accidental touch syndrome”, but thanks to some clever software/firmware the 7.9″ touchscreen ignores them. The slimmer frame means that the iPad no longer looks like a digital picture frame, instead, it’s just you and your content. I love the aesthetics.

The back takes on the same color aluminum of the 6th generation iPhone. The black iPad mini gets a slate aluminum like its smaller sibling, the white model gets a silvery finish. Although the corners and edges look quite square, the sides are nicely rounded which – added to the soft-touch texture and thinness – makes it a very comfortable device to grip in one or two hands. Typing with two thumbs is easy in portrait or landscape mode, something which could never be said of the 9.7″ versions.

One of the most pleasing parts to look at is the bottom edge. The identically machined grilles covering the stereo speakers look fantastic, flanking the tiny Lightning connector. It looks so well thought-through, and purposeful, it’s hard not to admire the perfectionistic nature of the finish. Brushed, smooth, slate alumium looks fantastic, contrasted with the shiny, black obsidian-like glass on the front.

There are a couple of negatives on the design-side. Firstly, I wasn’t at all convinced by the quality of any of the switches or buttons. The mute switch is so small, and is almost flush to the surface, making it very difficult to easily flick on or off unless you use a nail. The home button doesn’t give as nice a response as the iPhone 5 or the larger iPad. I’m not sure if the mechanism is different, or if it’s just a case of quality control standards at the manufacturing plant not being as high for the mini. If you’re looking for a device that’s not going to attract any finger prints, this isn’t it. The oleophobic glass does its job as well as any other, but the stained aluminum on the back attracts fingerprints like flies to you-know-what, or at least, it shows them up more than a silver aluminum back would.

All in all, I love the way it looks and feels. The issues I have with it are so small and nit-picky, that they won’t have much influence in my every day experience. I’m a little OCD about keeping my devices clean, so fingerprints never stick around for long on anything I own. Simply put, I think it’s one of the best looking iDevices out there. I’d put it second after the iPhone 5 on looks, fit and finish.

Performance

As I mentioned in my initial impressions article on Saturday, I was a little worried about the lack of an “X” processor. Having just a straight A5 chip meant I was going back to the same chip found in the iPod touch. That couldn’t be a good thing, surely. I shouldn’t have doubted. The lack of a Retina display meant that Cupertino’s designers didn’t need to cram in a powerful A5X/A6X chip. As we all know, Apple doesn’t beef up the specs if it doesn’t have to.

Display is obviously not Retina-quality

In day to day use, I’ve not found myself despairing at its sluggishness, or wanting to complain that games don’t work. I would by lying if I said it wowed me with its graphics rendering, or zippy app switching. It performs well, and handles everything it needs to. Comparing its speed against a 4th gen iPad would be like comparing a Mac mini with an iMac. Despite sharing the same moniker, they are two different animals. One is designed to be a smooth, portable tablet. The other is designed to be the top-of-the-line, fast and powerful beast. For what it costs, and what it’s designed to be, the mini does as expected.

I’ve found that it loads up web pages very quickly with no checker-boarding whatsoever. The screen is very responsive too, responding to touch just as well as any other iOS device. In no way does it feel like the cast-off. It’s as Apple say, it’s not a reduction, it’s a concentration. It’s a smaller iPad 2 in its simplest form.

Battery life is great too. I frequently manage over 10 hours of usage after full charge, exceeding the promised performance almost every time. The great thing about it is, I can pick it up off charge at the start of the day, and use it without having to even think about charging until the next morning. Considering this comes from the “thinnest” battery Apple’s ever created, that’s an impressive feat. One thing I’ve come to hate about the larger, iPad 3 – slow charge times. They do not exist on the iPad mini. It charges much quicker than the 9.7″ slate, making it a truly portable device, in the sense that you don’t have to plan 3 hours in advance if you want to take a fully charged tablet out with you.

Display

The screen is the only real disappointment with the iPad mini. It’s the same resolution as the first two iPads, but condensed down, giving it a higher pixel density and sharpness. Although you don’t really notice it much at arm’s length, once you start playing games, it’s clear that the 1024 x 768 pixel panel is no match for the iPad with Retina’s display. And it’s not just the pixel count either. Colors appear a little faded and the contrast levels aren’t among the highest I’ve seen. Not by any stretch of my imagination. Now, it’s very likely that I’m noticing all this because I’m coming from months of time with the 3rd generation iPad, and Retina displays on the iPhone 4,4S and 5. Place the two next to each other and there’s no comparison, but, for someone without Retina experience, it may not be as evident.

The bottom line regarding its display, is that it really, really needs a Retina panel. With everything being condensed down, font and icons that would be larger on any of the older iPads, are now much smaller, and hard to make out on a less sharp screen. I noticed it particularly within the Settings app, and in the text below each app on the Home Screen and status bar.

Camera/Video

The 5MP iSight camera is great. It really is. It may not be as point-and-shoot rivalling as the 4S’ camera or the iPhone 5, but, it’s certainly more than adequate for a tablet. I can’t imagine anyone purchasing an iPad with the primary request being that it have a world-beating snapper. I took the camera out to take 1080p video sample yesterday, and although the screen didn’t make it look all that brilliant, once it was imported on to my computer, it looks as good as any other phone/tablet’s video capture. Still images very pretty sharp in bright light, but, once light levels dropped, it tends to look quite noisy. So, I wouldn’t recommend taking it out to grab images of firework displays over the holiday season.

For me though, and for most people I hope, the camera isn’t a feature of the tablet which makes it good or bad. The FaceTime camera on the front is 1.3MP and 720p video, which is great. The rear camera is more than good enough. But, if there was no camera at all, it wouldn’t affect my overall impressions of the device. Apple didn’t have to care at all about the lenses and sensors, but they did.

Overall

It’s hard to sum up exactly what I think about the iPad mini in a short paragraph. I love the smaller form factor, I love how it looks and feels, and I love the battery life and performance. The only thing that makes it less than perfect is its display, and if I’m honest, that hasn’t stopped me from switching away from my iPad 3 to make the mini my main tablet.

For book reading, casual game play, web browsing, emailing, Facebook, messaging (the list goes on), the smaller 8″ tablet is so much better than the larger and heavier iPad. The only thing I prefer using my third gen tablet for is playing graphics-intense games like Real Racing 2, Infinity Blade or Sky Gamblers. And for that, it has to be commended.

You can’t mention an Apple product without talking price. Starting at $329/£269 it’s a lot more expensive than the other tablets in the same market. That’s always been the case with Apple though, all through every market it’s involved in and it shouldn’t be counted as a negative. Compared to other iDevices and the component costs of the mini itself, it’s easily the best value iOS-powered gadget out there. As far as I can see, I’m getting a much more portable and usable iPad 2 for a lot less money. That is good value, not a rip-off.

It’s my favorite iOS device so far, and I can’t wait for a Retina display to grace the front of it. Because then in my mind, it would be the perfect tablet.

The Good:

- Light, portable, easy to use
- Great battery life and charge times
- Highly polished and well-thought out design
- Much larger display that its competition

The Bad:

- The display is noticeably poorer than the iPhone 5 or iPad 3/4
- Lowlight camera performance
- Finger print attractive back

End score – 9/10

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  • nkathrein

    I agree with this video review I saw on youtube.  Id rather pay a lot less and have a tablet that works 1 handed in this smaller size. Ipad mini is 2 handed tablet. http://youtu.be/Ct6m-nqY-VI