iPad mini with Retina display review

The one you really wanted

630

Every inch an iPad.

Last year, the overwhelming message of the iPad mini was simple: the iPad mini was smaller, but it was still an iPad. Tim Cook, Phil Schiller, and Jony Ive all reminded us over and over that Apple had to make hard choices to make the iPad mini — it had a lower-resolution screen and a weaker processor — but said that the iPads’ commonalities trumped their differences.

In many ways, that was true: Apple’s experience has always mattered more than its specs, and the iPad mini converted buyers and fans alike despite the compromises. But even for those who bought Apple’s tablet, there was one feature noticeably missing: a bright, beautiful, high-resolution Retina display. Without one, the Apple experience feels obfuscated in ways both literal and figurative.

This year, the iPad mini with Retina display really is every inch an iPad. It’s no longer out of date, or worse in any way. It comes with the same A7 processor as the new iPad Air, the same storage and connectivity options, the same battery life, and — most importantly — a Retina display with the same resolution. For $399 with 16GB of storage, it’s everything the iPad Air can be — only smaller and $100 cheaper.

Last year, Apple needed to convince us that specs didn’t make the iPad. This year, equality isn’t just about offering the same look and the same apps – it’s about offering the exact same experience. Now, like the MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air and like every TV you’ve ever purchased, there isn’t a better option and a cheaper option. There are just two options: iPad Air and iPad mini.

Also available on YouTube


Hardware

Miniaturized

The iPad mini with Retina display looks like the iPad Air, which looks like last year’s iPad mini — Apple overhauled the larger model to look like the smaller, and left the mini mostly untouched. The new mini is actually slightly thicker and heavier than last year’s model — the same thing happened when the iPad 3 first adopted the Retina display — but even though you do notice the slight extra heft as you hold them both in your hands, it makes little practical difference. This is still a light (0.73 pounds), thin (7.5mm) tablet that feels comfortable in my hands and looks great on my desk.

Img_4917Img_4905

It’s wider than most tablets its size, and I found it hard to hold and use in one hand; grabbing the iPad mini in either orientation by both its bottom corners and using my thumbs on the screen has always been my go-to way of holding it. That’s why I miss TouchID here more than on the Air — I pick up the mini the same way I pick up my phone, and laying my finger on the home button now feels so natural.

Two stereo speakers sit on either side of the Lightning connector on the bottom — they sound pretty good, but they’re all too easy to cover when you hold the mini sideways. There’s a 5-megapixel camera on the back — I still shake my head judgmentally at anyone taking a picture with their tablet, but at least the mini’s not quite as ridiculous as the larger Air, and pictures don’t look so bad either. The FaceTime HD camera on the front, along with the noise-canceling dual-mic setup, makes for a potent tablet Snapchat combination.

The mini comes in Apple’s two favorite colors, silver and space gray, neither of which I like as much as the dark, dangerous black of last year’s model. Both models are beautifully made and virtually seamless save for the radio module on the LTE model, though they’re the sort of cold machinery that sits in stark contrast to the warm, soft, inviting feel of the Nexus 7. There’s no question that the mini is more impressive and more beautiful, but actual comfort lies in the eye of the beholder.

Save for the colors, you’d likely never notice the difference between last year’s iPad mini and the new model. But as soon as you press the tablet’s single circular button and turn the screen on, you can’t help but see it.

Img_4933-1024

Display

Retina dreams

The biggest difference between the two iPad models, for me, was never about consumption versus creation. It was time. The iPad mini was perfect for short bursts of attention: small enough to hold in one hand or use in a crowded subway, portable enough to go everywhere with me all the time. But the larger iPad was where I found myself lost for hours, spending an entire afternoon reading a book or binge-watching an entire season of Scandal. It was bigger, brighter, higher-res, and ultimately just more immersive.

The mini's screen is smaller, but it's every bit as good

Img_4986

That may still be true — there’s just something more inviting about a big screen — but the gap has narrowed considerably. The iPad mini with Retina display now has a 7.9-inch display with the same 2048 x 1536 resolution as the iPad Air, and thanks to its smaller size has even higher pixel density.

It’s gorgeous. Text looks like it’s printed on paper, details in photos come through crisp and clean, and everything about the mini just looks better. Side by side with this year’s model, the old mini appears to be covered in a thin layer of grit; it feels horrifically blurry next to the crystal clarity of the Retina display. I never really had a problem with last year’s model, honestly, but after an hour of looking at the new display it’s all but impossible to go back.

Suddenly I found myself wrapped up in Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, reading for hours on the iPad mini. I found myself, if not able to work comfortably, at least able to get things done in a pinch thanks to the new, free iWork apps on the device. I started editing photos and video on the device, something I’ve only ever done on the larger iPad, because it works just as well here. Last year’s model was incredibly convenient, so I used it a lot; this one I use because it offers everything I’ve ever appreciated and expected from any iPad. That, and because it’s still incredibly convenient.

Great screens aren't hard to come by anymore

Here again, however, the Nexus 7 puts up a remarkable fight. Its 7-inch, 1920 x 1200 display is almost exactly as pixel-dense as the iPad mini (323ppi for Google’s tablet, 324ppi for Apple’s), and I actually prefer its narrower form-factor for reading. But the iPad’s 4:3 aspect ratio is much more amenable to being used in both orientations — the 16:10 Nexus 7 is perfect for watching movies in landscape mode, but much too short for browsing the web or using most apps — and as a result the iPad’s a more versatile tablet.

That versatility isn’t just about the hardware, either. It’s about the software.

Img_4902-1024

Software

475,000

Four hundred seventy five thousand. That’s how many tablet-optimized apps are in the iOS App Store, a number Tim Cook said loudly and proudly as he announced the new iPads a few weeks ago. The message at that event was clear: tablets are as tablets do. And Apple’s tablets do more.

Android and iOS each offer hundreds of thousands of apps for smartphones, and with fewer and fewer exceptions, nearly any app anyone would want is available on both platforms. On tablets, it’s another story entirely; Apple likes to talk about how much more its tablets are used than anything running Android, because it illustrates the simple fact that there’s no equivalent tablet experience to the iPad’s. Paper, Star Walk HD, Ridiculous Fishing, and Byword are all apps I use often that simply don’t exist on Android tablets. There are dozens of other examples. Many apps that are available on Android — even Facebook and Twitter – come only in clunkier, blown-up-phone-app form.

Android is catching up to iOS in smartphones, but tablets are another story

Magazines look far better on the iPad’s Newsstand than on any Android tablet (though Google’s catching up in that regard), and AirPlay compatibility plus apps like Amazon Instant Video turn the iPad mini into a media machine the Nexus 7 can’t equal. The basics do exist on both platforms: if all you need is Netflix and Hulu and Kindle and Flipboard, keep your $170 and buy the $229 Nexus 7. But you won’t be getting the full tablet experience, the gamut from DJ tools to recipe app that only the iPad can offer.

All 475,000 apps work on both iPads, at the same Retina resolution. Because both tablets come with Apple’s new A7 processor, they even run the apps the same way. That’s almost always a good thing — the A7 is capable of running everything from a 1080p video to a hair-raising game of Infinity Blade III without signs of cracking. The new model scored more than five times higher than the old in GeekBench (2516 vs. 497), and scored basically identically to the iPhone 5S and iPad Air. Simply put: it’s really fast.

Img_0113-300Img_0116-300Img_0114-300

Img_4974-1024

Performance

Pixels versus processors

Doing everything on such a high-res screen does take its toll — the mini dropped frames and stuttered while I played Asphalt 8: Airborne, and even occasionally hiccuped while playing a high-res video. It’s never a problem, but it’s there. The A7 also powers the iPhone 5S , which it does much more easily; it’s clear that more pixels simply mean more strain. The tablet also has a propensity for warming up during gameplay or heavy multitasking, too. It never gets worryingly hot, but my fingertips would occasionally start to sweat as I held the iPad in them.

The A7 is fast, but high-res screens are demanding

In everyday use, the iPad mini feels fast, smooth, and solid. Except when iOS 7 gets in the way, as it has a tendency to do in a variety of small but annoying ways. When you pinch with five fingers to close an app, the icons jitter and jerk into place. When you tap on the 123 to switch from letters to numbers in the keyboard, it can take a second. Swiping down on the screen to search your device brings out similar stutters, and even multitasking can be imprecise. My review unit also had a tendency to simply reboot about once every 48 hours, an oddity without rhyme or reason that I’ve noticed in the iPhone 5S as well.

I’m getting used to the core tenets of iOS 7. I still don’t like the slow animations or the often-needless representations of layers and transparency, but I’ve come to understand the OS for what it is. As we discovered with the iPad Air, though, iOS 7 isn’t finished or polished on the iPad, not by a long shot. And in places it just feels wrong: the huge, overgrown Siri interface, or the sharing menus that pop up in odd, hard-to-reach corners. On the iPad mini with Retina display, where there are few real problems to divert your attention, the little things start to stand out.

More powerful processors and higher-density displays aren’t typically good news for battery life, but on the iPad mini at least they’re not a problem. The mini with Retina display easily gets the 10 hours of battery life Apple advertises, and that’s with heavy, constant use; in most cases the battery should easily last three or four days. There is one notable exception: with brightness all the way up, longevity plummets to only about four hours. But maximum brightness was too bright for me anyway, and at about 50 or 60 percent it’s a seriously long-lasting tablet.

Img_4988-1024

Wrap-up

Apple iPad mini with Retina display (Wi-Fi)

Good Stuff
  • Gorgeous display
  • Great battery life
  • Hugely improved performance
  • Unbeatable ecosystem
Bad Stuff
  • iOS 7 has problems
  • Expensive for a small tablet
  • I miss the black color
Part middle-ground, part no-compromise

The iPad mini with Retina display is a fantastic tablet, but one that defies categorization. On one hand, it’s most competitive with the Nexus 7 and Amazon Kindle Fire HDX, other high-resolution small tablets. But those are $229, fully $170 less than the $399 iPad mini, and they’re much smaller as well. (The difference between a 7-inch, 16:9 or 16:10 screen and a 7.9-inch, 4:3 screen is much more significant than it sounds — there are more than 33 percent more pixels on the iPad mini than the Nexus 7.) For some users, saving money might be the right idea, too: the Nexus 7 is a fantastic device for reading and watching movies, and as long as Google’s Play Store has the apps you need it’s absolutely worth considering.

If you’re buying a tablet to keep, though, one to explore and grow into, the App Store becomes an absolute trump card. You’re paying $170 for access to 475,000 apps, including virtually all of the best options designed for a larger screen. Android can’t touch the iOS ecosystem on tablets. When you’re deciding whether to buy a Nexus 7 or iPad mini, you have to decide how deep down the rabbit hole you want to go — because the basics are covered beautifully in both cases, but there’s much more depth in Apple’s world.

On the other hand, what if you want to buy an iPad? Which one do you buy? Tim Cook might say both, but the real answer is it doesn’t matter. In talking to people about the new iPads, I’ve found everyone has an instinctive reaction — some people like the portability and smaller package of the mini, others appreciate the large screen of the Air. Some are price-conscious, others weight-conscious, others space-conscious, but everyone seems to lean one way or the other.

To those people, I say: go for it. You can’t lose. I’d buy a mini for myself, because I love having something that doesn’t take up much space in my bag and that I can wield even on a crowded subway. But the mini is now so beautiful and so immersive that you’ll never want to look away from the screen, and the Air now so portable and usable that you’ll rarely need to put it down. The mini used to be the lesser one, the reductive one, the one you bought if you couldn’t fit or afford the iPad. Now it’s just the smaller one.

Photography by Michael Shane

The Breakdown

More times than not, the Verge score is based on the average of the subscores below. However, since this is a non-weighted average, we reserve the right to tweak the overall score if we feel it doesn't reflect our overall assessment and price of the product. Read more about how we test and rate products.

  • Design 9
  • Display 10
  • Camera(s) 8
  • Speakers 8
  • Performance 10
  • Software 8
  • Battery life 10
  • Ecosystem 10

Apple iPad mini with Retina display (Wi-Fi + LTE)

Good Stuff
  • Gorgeous display
  • Great battery life
  • Hugely improved performance
  • Unbeatable ecosystem
Bad Stuff
  • iOS 7 has problems
  • Expensive for a small tablet
  • I miss the black color
Part middle-ground, part no-compromise

The iPad mini with Retina display is a fantastic tablet, but one that defies categorization. On one hand, it’s most competitive with the Nexus 7 and Amazon Kindle Fire HDX, other high-resolution small tablets. But those are $229, fully $170 less than the $399 iPad mini, and they’re much smaller as well. (The difference between a 7-inch, 16:9 or 16:10 screen and a 7.9-inch, 4:3 screen is much more significant than it sounds — there are more than 33 percent more pixels on the iPad mini than the Nexus 7.) For some users, saving money might be the right idea, too: the Nexus 7 is a fantastic device for reading and watching movies, and as long as Google’s Play Store has the apps you need it’s absolutely worth considering.

If you’re buying a tablet to keep, though, one to explore and grow into, the App Store becomes an absolute trump card. You’re paying $170 for access to 475,000 apps, including virtually all of the best options designed for a larger screen. Android can’t touch the iOS ecosystem on tablets. When you’re deciding whether to buy a Nexus 7 or iPad mini, you have to decide how deep down the rabbit hole you want to go — because the basics are covered beautifully in both cases, but there’s much more depth in Apple’s world.

On the other hand, what if you want to buy an iPad? Which one do you buy? Tim Cook might say both, but the real answer is it doesn’t matter. In talking to people about the new iPads, I’ve found everyone has an instinctive reaction — some people like the portability and smaller package of the mini, others appreciate the large screen of the Air. Some are price-conscious, others weight-conscious, others space-conscious, but everyone seems to lean one way or the other.

To those people, I say: go for it. You can’t lose. I’d buy a mini for myself, because I love having something that doesn’t take up much space in my bag and that I can wield even on a crowded subway. But the mini is now so beautiful and so immersive that you’ll never want to look away from the screen, and the Air now so portable and usable that you’ll rarely need to put it down. The mini used to be the lesser one, the reductive one, the one you bought if you couldn’t fit or afford the iPad. Now it’s just the smaller one.

Photography by Michael Shane

The Breakdown

More times than not, the Verge score is based on the average of the subscores below. However, since this is a non-weighted average, we reserve the right to tweak the overall score if we feel it doesn't reflect our overall assessment and price of the product. Read more about how we test and rate products.

  • Design 9
  • Display 10
  • Camera(s) 8
  • Speakers 8
  • Performance 10
  • Software 8
  • Battery life 10
  • Ecosystem 10

More from The Verge

Back to top ^
X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Please choose a new Verge username and password

As part of the new Verge launch, prior users will need to choose a permanent username, along with a new password.

Your username will be used to login to Verge going forward.

I already have a Vox Media account!

Verify Vox Media account

Please login to your Vox Media account. This account will be linked to your previously existing Eater account.

Please choose a new Verge username and password

As part of the new Verge launch, prior MT authors will need to choose a new username and password.

Your username will be used to login to Verge going forward.

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.
Spinner.vc97ec6e

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.

tracking_pixel_5345_tracker