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iPad Mini 2021 review: a little different

The middle child of the iOS lineup

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The complete redesign of the $499 2021 iPad Mini has a lot of people taking a second look at it — myself included. The allure of a smaller iPad appeals to more than just the pilots and doctors Apple cites as popular users. It appeals to me. The iPad Mini occupies a middle space between the phone and full-size iPads, which turns out to be exactly what I’m looking for.

It’s tempting to think of the iPad Mini as just a smaller iPad, or as just a bigger iPhone. It is both of those things and yet neither. It’s the middle child of Apple’s iOS lineup.

The new iPad Mini works with the second-generation Apple Pencil, which charges by sticking to the side of the iPad.

The iPad Mini has been redesigned to match the look and feel of the iPad Pros and iPad Air. That means it has flat sides and more squared-off edges, but more importantly it means that the screen is larger, going closer to the edge and filling out the device at 8.3-inches.

Apple also updated the processor to the top-of-the-line A15 Bionic — though I suspect the main reason for that is so that it won’t need to give it a spec bump for a few years. 5G also comes along for the ride, but not the ultra-fast mmWave flavor (no big loss there, given how rare mmWave really is).

But the star of the show is the bigger screen. It’s surrounded by smaller, even bezels all around the front of the device. I do wish they were a little smaller, but I think doing that would significantly add to the cost of the device.

Given that the base model is already 500 bucks for a mere 64GB of storage, I prefer the tradeoff Apple made. The only other storage option is 256GB, which runs $649 (5G versions cost more still).

The screen also isn’t quite up to the quality you’ll get on the iPad Pro models. It’s high-enough resolution, but when scrolling in portrait mode I can see just a little bit of a jelly effect, where one side moves ever-so-slightly faster than the other.

It’s a common thing on a lot of screens, you can test it on your own screen at this website. It’s usually not noticeable because it often happens vertically instead of horizontally. When I use the iPad Mini in landscape, I can’t see it. I don’t think it’s a big problem, but it’s there. I’ve asked Apple for comment and will update if there’s a reply.

If I had an actual gripe about the screen, it would be that it doesn’t get bright enough to comfortably use outdoors in bright sunlight. But the truth is I don’t have any real complaints — I love having the slightly bigger screen than prior Minis and it looks nice.

The iPad Mini has a single rear camera, like the iPad Air.

The rest of the redesign is what you’d expect. It supports the second-generation Apple Pencil, which can attach and charge magnetically to the side of the Mini. Apple had to move the volume buttons over to a different spot to accommodate that. It also improved the cameras — the front facing one now supports the Center Stage feature which tracks you and keeps your face centered during video calls.

Battery life is okay but not amazing. Unless I’m using a big iPad as my all-day work computer, it seems like it can last a week between charging. The Mini isn’t quite that good. It’s pushing it to get a full day of constant use, but lighter use does get me through a couple of days.

Apple ditched the home button this generation, so the Touch ID sensor is located in the power button.
The squared off sides bring the Mini in line with the iPad Pro and iPad Air’s designs.

You unlock the iPad mini by resting your finger on the Touch ID sensor on the power button, just like the iPad Air. The speakers are nice and loud. It uses USB-C like a modern device should and therefore is compatible with a wider array of accessories than iOS devices that use the Lightning port.

It also lacks a headphone jack, which is unsurprising but I think worth bringing up here because it could keep some people from buying this device to hand off to a kid.

Speaking of things that everybody just seems to have accepted but is actually a genuine problem that deserves continued pressure: support for multiple users. Apple continues to refuse to allow iPads to support multiple user accounts (outside of specific education settings, anyway).

I still find it punitive — not every family can afford (or wants) to buy an iPad for every person in the household and sharing a device can be a real hassle. Tablets that run Android, Amazon Fire OS, Windows, and even Chrome OS support multiple user profiles. The fact that the otherwise best line of tablets out there does not is flat out ridiculous.

The other iPadOS concern with the iPad Mini is that Apple doesn’t seem to have fully thought through what it means for it to be running on a smaller display. There are places where some buttons or text are cut off. In landscape mode, the keyboard is almost comically large and hides too much of what you’re trying to look at. And all too often buttons and icons end up being so tiny that — as Steve Jobs once joked — you sometimes feel like you need to sand your fingers down to tap them.

The iPad Mini can be comfortably held for a long time — like when you’re reading a book.

That was a lot of complaints. But despite all of them I dearly love the iPad Mini and have gone so far as to replace my iPad Pro with one. If anybody asked me if they should do the same I would be loathe to say yes.

Instead, I would respond with another question: do you know exactly why you want to have a smaller iPad instead of a big phone or a full-size iPad? Because the iPad Mini is not very good at the things those are good at, and it’s only really better than those things in a few specific ways. I just happen to care a lot about one of them.

There are specific niche use cases for an iPad Mini. If you do computing work in the field and need something more portable, the iPad Mini makes a ton of sense — maybe more so now that it works with USB-C accessories. Apple’s marketing around pilots using it isn’t fluff, either — it’s a genuinely useful and much used device in small aircraft.

But the iPad Mini is worse than larger iPads for a lot of the things people want to use iPads for. The screen is smaller for videos and too cramped for multitasking when you’re doing a lot of work. It’s more expensive than the base $329 iPad (also recently refreshed with better specs).

It doesn’t have a smart connector for keyboards, which means you’re on your own to find a Bluetooth keyboard that you like. (As an aside: why are all portable Bluetooth keyboards so terrible? Somebody please make something better than this. Or this. Ugh).

For me, what the iPad Mini is best at is as an evening device, the thing I putter around the house with instead of my phone. I don’t just mean that it’s a “content consumption” device, either — though of course that’s a big part of it. I can do some work on this thing, but it’s constraining enough that I do less of it.

The new Apple iPad Mini

I like the iPad Mini because it can do all the multitasking tricks a big iPad can do, but most of the time I end up using it like a giant phone. I like it better than a giant phone because the screen is even bigger still than that device. (Though why Apple doesn’t add some sort of split-screen to the iPhone Pro Max phones is beyond me.)

Most of all, I like the iPad Mini because its physical size changes my relationship with the content I’m engaging with on the screen and — most importantly — with what’s happening around me. I physically can hold it further away from my eyes, which as a human body in the real world opens me up more than a phone does. I’m not hunched over in a one-on-one with a screen nor am I fully immersed in something bigger.

It’s in between, and as such it means I’m simply more approachable to the people around me to talk, to look up, to stand up and wander over to the kitchen. Like the Galaxy Z Fold, it’s a device that requires more intentionality to use than a phone.

The iPad Mini is not just a small iPad. Even though the change in screen size doesn’t change how the software works (to its detriment), it does change how you use the software. That’s why it’s great for me — and it’s why my advice to anybody considering one is to think about whether or not it would truly be great for them.

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