When Apple debuted the iPad mini last year, the tablet was immediately behind the curve. Sure, it had a slim body and a great build, but the tablet's display — the part of the device that you interact with nonstop — had a fairly low resolution at a time when affordable tablets like the Nexus 7 had something much better. Fast forward a year, and that difference has increased dramatically, at least until today. The iPad mini now includes one of Apple's high-resolution Retina displays, removing its most glaring shortcoming. Is that enough of a change to make the iPad mini the definitive choice for best small tablet?
The iPad mini is no longer the obvious champion of size and weight
One of the iPad mini's biggest strengths has been just how thin and compact it is, despite having a nearly 8-inch display. That's changed just a bit, as the tablet gained a small amount of heft and thickness in the step up to a Retina display, but the change isn't a huge one. Even at its imperceptible thicker size, the iPad mini still stays right on par with the others in its size class, namely Google's Nexus 7, Samsung's Note 8.0, and Amazon's 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX. While it's by no longer the obvious winner in size and weight, the iPad mini still does manage to build an 8-inch display into a size that its competitors use for a 7-inch display.
The iPad mini is also getting a nice speed boost. Though the original model launched with Apple's A5 chip, Apple is skipping over a generation and up to the new A7, which is inside the iPhone 5S. That could make a big difference: while the original iPad mini could occasionally stumble, the new processor has proven itself in the iPhone 5S as being just fine for the tasks at hand — including iOS 7's new visuals flairs.
Not much else has changed on the iPad mini, but that may be a good thing. While the Note 8.0 includes stylus support and the Kindle Fire HDX has built-in customer support over video chat, the iPad should stand strong with its tried formula: being a snappy, well-rounded performer with a ton of great apps. And that's even more true this year with Apple making iWork and iLife free on all new iPads, adding in a powerful suite of productivity tools that should make the tablet even more useful.
The iPad mini's new price will be a huge hurdle
But that's not to say that the new iPad mini is by any means a home run. While Amazon and Samsung's small tablets are good but not great, Google's latest Nexus 7 is a formidable opponent in more ways than one. And Google's strongest weapon is one thing most tablet buyers will listen to: price. The Nexus 7 is just $229 — a full $170 less than the iPad mini — and stands up to it in just about every manner. If you're fine with taking a smaller tablet, and fine with making the jump over to Android apps, Google is happy to help you keep money in your pocket and give you a great tablet regardless.
Apple isn't entirely ignoring the Nexus 7's low price, though it isn't exactly doing a great job of addressing it either. The original iPad mini is now being sold for $299, making it a low-cost entry into Apple's excellent ecosystem of apps. But with how old the original iPad's processor now is, that's hardly worth the still fairly high price of entry.
This year, Apple made sure that the iPad mini will easily stand out as one of the best tablet options for those willing to spend $399. It may even be the best small tablet out there — though it's certainly still too soon to say — but with such incredible Android tablets being offered at much lower prices, the decision is getting harder to make. Do you want to spend $170 more to get a great tablet with great apps, or do you just want to get a great tablet?