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Apple’s latest and cheapest iPad offering is out: the iPad mini (2012) has been introduced to address two issues that users care about: a smaller form-factor and a new price segment now just above $300. After initially dismissing smaller tablets under the direction of Steve Jobs, Apple’s new CEO Tim Cook decided to venture in new waters to counter a growing threat from Google and Amazon who have introduced tablets far below the $499 price of the iPad. At $329, the iPad mini cannot match the pricing advantage of its rivals, but instead, Apple has wowed to add enough value to justify the $129 price difference (64% above the $199 Nexus 7) to prospect iPad mini buyers. In this review, we will go over the pro and cons of the iPad mini to see if that would work for you.

Technical highlights

iPad mini iPad 2 iPad 4 Nexus 10 Nexus 7
Display size 7.9 9.7 9.7 10.05 7
Display resolution 1024×768 1024×768 2048×1536 2560×1600 1280×800
Display type IPS LCD IPS LCD IPS LCD Super PLS LCD IPS LCD
Processor Apple A5 Apple A5 Apple A6X Exynos 5250 NVIDIA Tegra 3
Storage GB 16, 32, 64 16 16,32,64 16, 32 16
Battery capacity 16.5Wh 25 43Wh 9000mAh 4325mAh
Camera back MP 5 0.6 5 5 N/A
Camera front MP 1.2 0.3 1.2 1.9 1.2
Weight (lbs) 0.68 1.33 1.43 1.32 0.75
Dimensions (inches) 7.87×5.3×0.28 9.5×7.31×0.34 9.5×7.31×0.37 10.38×6.99×0.35 7.81×4.72×0.41
Price 329 399 499 399 199

Context

We all use tablets differently, so it’s important that I tell you what I do with mine: I typically check email often with the built-in email app (via Microsoft Exchange), and reply moderately because typing on the virtual keyboard is tedious (although better than on a smartphone!). I browse the web several times a day to check on news sites, and watch movies or use it as a remote control when possible.

On the “apps” side, I have a couple of social networks (FB, G+), a receipts manager and random apps (<20), but I rarely play games or do something super-intensive like video editing. This usage pattern will affect battery life and the perception of what features are useful. Now you know where we’re coming from…

Industrial design

The goal of the iPad mini was to introduce a smaller, more portable iPad which addresses both the size and the absolute price of the device. To date, this is the cheapest iPad, although not remotely the cheapest tablet at all. The industrial design of the iPad mini has achieved the goal of producing a smaller, yet functioning iPad. However, there are legitimate questions that users may have and we’ll try to address them here.

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From left to right: Kindle HD, iPad mini, Nexus 7

First, the build quality: no photo can tell a proper story, so here’s our take on it: although the overall quality is very high for this segment of the market, I find it to be lower than the iPad 2 or the iPad 3. We’ve worked on this review with the black iPad mini, and I found that the softer touch of the back does not feel as “high-end” as the aluminum from the regular iPad. The black also tends to attract fingerprints at a higher rate than I would have thought, which is not so hot. One important design point: the iPad min is significantly thinner than the Nexus 7 or the Kindle HD.

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The iPad mini is thinner than the Nexus 7. No question here.

Secondly, a lot of people are asking if the thin bezels on the left/right can induce accidental touch actions. The answer is ”mostly not”. Apple did a good job of detecting that you are not intentionally pressing the touch display when you hold the device and when your thumb accidentally touches the screen. However, in some cases, apps like Netflix would think that you’re trying to zoom in, and would scale a video. I would not be surprised to see this happen in other apps too. It’s a minor issue for now.

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The Apple website shows the iPad mini as a one-handed device in portrait mode, and that’s not how I think of it. The iPad mini is not comfortable at all to hold in portrait mode with one hand as shown by the picture above (I wear “M” men’s gloves, just to give you an idea). I think (or hope) that the idea was just to show you how small the iPad mini is.

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Apple does a good job preventing accidental touchscreen action in the software

In practice, it’s also not obvious to hold it with one hand from the side because you want to avoid touching the screen with the thumb, even if there are no accidental touch action. I found myself using it with two hands most of the time. To its credit, the new width makes it very easy to thumb-type – we’ll talk about that later.

Other than that, it pretty much has the overall feel of an iPad: the buttons are in the same place, and the camera is too. The speaker is located at the bottom instead of the back, and of course, the iPad mini comes with the new lighting port for which it’s hard to find cheap cables. Just a matter of time, but the prices are ridiculous.

Display (low density, outdated, works “OK”)

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Left: the Nexus 7, and right: iPad mini

iPad mini critics have been quick to point out that the iPad mini uses the same resolution than the iPad 2: 1024×768. By today’s standards, it is low-definition (4X less than the iPad 3 and iPad 4). However, many of the same folks were just fine when it was used on the iPad 2. Of course, I can understand that from a specs standpoint, it is lame, especially when $199 tablets like the Nexus 7 have 1280×800 displays.

So why did Apple do this? Simply because iOS and iOS maps don’t handle 1280×800. One of the issues is that apps don’t scale and because iOS uses bitmaps everywhere that won’t scale properly. Apple had to choose between 1024×768 or 2048×1536. The latter was a non-option given the cost and battery requirements, so 1024×768 it is…

The more important question is: “how is it visually”? Well, let’s put it this way: first, it remains the larger of all low-end tablet displays. Secondly, if you thought that the iPad 2 was OK, then this is a bit sharper than iPad 2. it’s not HD, and it’s certainly not high-DPI, but it gets the job done. I hope that I have set your expectations properly.

Killer apps

Note that most of the apps are identical to what you can find on iPad 2. For those who are not familiar with iPad apps, I’ll get into some details here, but if you’ve had an iPad before, you can probably skip this paragraph.

Windows 8 is NOT supported by iTunes today: this may be important if you plan on using your device with a Windows 8 computer, or if you plan on upgrading to Windows 8. While it is possible to install iTunes, the iPad mini will not show up. I’m not sure what’s going on, but no iOS device will show up in iTunes when connected over USB. It seems like one of those idiotic things that Apple has seen coming, and did nothing about. You’ve been warned. Apple support link: http://tinyurl.com/bk248ze

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Virtual keyboard: Ironically, despite having hundreds of thousands of apps at their disposal, most users still refer to text-based communication as being the “critical” application for them. That’s why you must not underestimate the importance of a virtual keyboard. The more productive you want to be, and the more likely this element may get in the way.

The virtual keyboard is identical to what you may have seen on iPad or iPhone before – no news here. However, the shorter width of the tablet makes it very decent thumb keyboard in portrait mode. In that respect, I prefer typing emails on the iPad mini, even if it comes nowhere close to the Surface RT in terms of overall productivity. In landscape mode, the keyboard is very decent too, but it gets closer to a regular iPad experience.

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Email: This is the classic email application from iOS, and I’ve set it up with a Microsoft Exchange server. It works well enough for a secondary machine and I don’t have any particular complaints about it. If you’re going to use it for the first time, you should know that attaching photo/video files can be done by a press and hold gesture, which makes an “insert photo/video” menu option appear. This is really non-intuitive, but once you know it, it’s not so bad.

There’s also a VIP category for your contacts, and I typically use it to get notifications for emails coming from certain contacts. This is handy, although I should really try to sync these over iCloud because right now, I need to rebuild the list for all my devices.

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Calendar : The calendar is pretty neat, and except for the brown leathery texture on the edges (which will hopefully go away soon), I find it to be practical and quite efficient. It provides views for day/week/month, but also a simple list of upcoming events. The screen is large enough to have a side by side view of the data. All in all, I’d say that it’s a very good calendar app.

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The Facebook app is updated quite often, but it is still lagging the iPhone version. You have access to the basic smartphone functionality of Facebook, but the app doesn’t really take advantage of the larger display. That’s a missed opportunity, but for simple updates and for glancing at the feed updates, it’s OK. I still want to go to my PC for anything else at this point.

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As you know, the Apple Maps have made quite a lot of people unhappy as of late. While the company has promised to improve it, it will most likely take a long time (years) before it can catch up to Google Maps, which is still nowhere in sight on iOS, and some even suspect it of being blocked. Drama aside, what can you expect from Apple Maps today? Well, it depends on your expectations and on where you live.

In most big USA cities, the streets are mostly OK, with occasional absurdities. Outside of maps inaccuracies, what I dislike the most about Apple Maps is that it has a near-zero tolerance to typos. Type “San Fracisco” and you will be sent to Austin, Texas where there is a San Francisco Bakery and Cafe. Once in the San Francisco map, type “Bush st and sutter st” and Apple Maps will send you to Sumter St and Bush St in Georgetown, South Carolina (see screenshot below). It’s a mess — and if you travel abroad, it’s even worse. I tried in Tokyo, Japan and it was not fun at all.

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Not exactly the Map search results that I was expecting… sigh

Obviously, you have the option to use web-based maps like maps.google.com or bing maps. However, the GPS integration mostly sucks. I do not see web maps a real replacement. It’s a backup plan at best.

Skype: Skype works very well, and I have to say that it is surprising that Skype (which is owned by Microsoft) works better on the iPad mini (and all other iPad, obviously) than it does on the Surface RT, and Android devices. Calls reach the recipient faster, the user interface is less “laggy” and the video quality is the relative best. I suspect that this will change in favor of Windows over time, but we’re not there yet.

Entertainment (very good)

In virtually every aspect of entertainment, the iPad mini is an iPad 2. The obvious downside is that it is smaller, and keep in mind that the 4:3 aspect ratio of the screen induces big bands on 16:9 movies. That’s a pity because most of the extra surface is wasted when watching anything “cinematic”.

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When watching 16:9 movies, a lot of the display surface is wasted with black bands (right: Nexus 7)

Video playback works really well, and it’s not a surprise. With only 0.7M pixels to handle, the video decode is fast and smooth. The iPad mini’s A5 processor can do that easily. As usual, it’s easiest to buy/rent videos from the store, but if you want, it is possible to copy your own movies to the tablet via iTunes, if you can get a format that makes iTunes happy (.mp4 usually works for us).

If you have never used an iPad before, you should know that downloading movies (1GB or SD and about 4GB for HD) can be VERY slow with iTunes. Your luck may vary but I think that it is fair to say that if you plan on downloading 3 or 4 movies before going on a trip, you will need to “prepare” that ahead of time. I Typically download that overnight.

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Gaming: Again given that the iPad mini has iPad 2 specs, so all the games that one found great on iPad 2 will work just as well – that’s quite a lot of them. Not the latest technology, but games will routinely work at 30FPS and casual games should not be a problem at all. Now, I would not recommend playing high-end titles like Infinity Blade 2 if you want a decent framerate.

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Speaker-quality: the speaker is surprisingly powerful for a device this size, and this is one the area where Apple has done better and better, even it most reviewers think of it as low-key. I believe that audio is 50% of the multimedia experience, so this is a big deal. On the downside, it is pretty clear that the more powerful the speaker gets, and the more it is obvious that the sound is coming from only one side of the device.

Apple has put on some decent spatialization efforts in, but at the end of the day, the sound is coming from the bottom. Newer tablets like the Galaxy Note 10.1 or the Nexus 10 have chosen to place the speakers in the front, which is the best possible spot. However, with a small design, this probably proved too difficult.

Digital Imaging

ipad mini photo sample

A photo shot with the iPad mini on a cloudy day

Having digital imaging capabilities really sets the iPad mini apart from the 7″ Android tablets, which have front web chat cameras, but no rear HD camera. With its 5 Megapixel rear camera, the iPad mini can capture 2592 x 1936 still photos or 1080p 30FPS (17Mbps bitrate) mpeg4 videos.

The photos tend to be a bit noisy and slightly over-exposed, but overall, I think that the quality is very decent in absolute terms and I would call it very good for this particular category of tablets. In low-light situations, don’t expect miracles, but again, having an “OK” solution trumps having none at all.

The video pretty much reflects the same observations. The quality is very good in reasonably lit environments, and OK for darker settings.

Performance (weak)

GLBenchmark Egypt, offscreen 1080p: this test has been designed to “stress” the graphics processor (GPU) by running a game-like demo which features a fight between various characters in many different environments (indoors, outdoors…).

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While you can clearly see where the iPad mini stands in comparison to higher-end iPad hardware, it is fair to say that it still have very decent graphics performance in relation to tablets like the Galaxy Note 10.1 and the Sony XPERIA S. Because the iPad mini has relatively few pixels, it should be able to handle most graphic application without real troubles. You will not get a solid 60FPS in many demanding games, but I suspect that gamers would spend more to get a faster tablet like the iPad 4 or the Nexus 10.

Geekbench is a benchmark that tends to measure processor performance for scientific computations, which in tablet terms are most likely to be used in games for geometry, physics calculations and possibly photo processing. It remains a synthetic tests, so while it provides some indications about the raw processing power, real-world apps will bump into other bottlenecks.

ipad mini geekbench

The iPad mini is similar to the iPad 3 in terms of math performance. However, in the grand scheme of things, it is also the slowest at this particular benchmark when compared to other tablets that we have seen around the office. If you’re obsessed with specs, this is not great at all. In practice, it’s tolerable, but let me tell you that the uber-fast performance of the Nexus 10 is definitely perceptible by the average user.

ipad mini geekbench dol

The Google products get a lot more “bang” for each dollar spent

And because we are talking about “value products”, it is worth taking a look at what performance you are getting for each dollar spent. The graph above shows that each dollar spent on a Google Nexus 7 or Nexus 10 brings two to three times more processor number-crunching performance than the iPad mini. This is a huge difference.

“Perceived performance”: Synthetic benchmarks can only carry us so far. What they don’t show for example is the user experience is smooth and responsive (responsiveness is not always solved with brute-force processor power). In the end, what good is raw performance if you can’t perceive it?

Just like other iPads, the overall perceived performance is fluid and similar to the iPad 2. In fact, it should be exactly the same as the iPad 2, according to the specs, and this is pretty much what I’m seeing here in the field.

Battery life

I’m still running some overnight battery depletion tests, but overall, the iPad mini’s battery life reminds me of the iPad 2 battery life, which was excellent. The final numbers have yet to be in, but by the looks of it, users will be pretty happy with it.

Keep in mind that battery life varies a lot depending on the apps that run in the background, your network reception, your local network density and the amount of time that the: display is ON. You can always refer to the Android battery report to see what is consuming the power. Finally, keep in mind that network transactions generated by apps can appear as “Android” as it is ultimately the OS that handles those transactions.

Conclusion: not a slam dunk

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The iPad mini is not an obvious choice to make

Although Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs once said “10-inch screen size is the minimum size required to create great tablet apps”, Apple has recently seen the light and identified the sub-10” tablet market as viable, compelling and worth fighting for. To that end, the iPad mini was introduced, and at the end of the day, it is simply a small iPad 2 with a better camera.

With a very potent competition priced at $199, the iPad mini ($329) is most definitely not an obvious choice, and how well it will work for you really depends on what you intend to do with it. I’ll cover what I think are the most common cases:

Easy choice: If you don’t care about the budget and like this product, go for it. If you have already used an iPad and you want the same functionality (including front and rear cameras) in a smaller, more portable form-factor: this is a perfect match, just do it. Also, If you are looking for the cheapest iPad, this is it as well, but it’s far from being the best iPad too. That said, I think that you should really look at the 4G LTE version of the iPad mini if you are going to use it as a mobility device.

Intermediate choice: you are familiar with iOS because you own an iPhone, but not an iPad. Should you go for the smaller form factor or the regular 9.7” one? Most people use their tablets at home, so take a minute to think about what you are going to do with it. If it is for home or in-flight entertainment use, the 9.7” version is more expensive but *so much* better in terms of user experience and performance.

Impossible choice: you don’t own a tablet or an iPhone, but want a great tablet for home use or for travel entertainment. If watching movies, listening to music, basic email and web browsing are your main interests, you could get a much better deal with the Google Nexus 10 tablet ($399+) which obliterates the iPad mini for $70 more, or the Google Nexus 7 ($199) which is comparable to the iPad mini for $120 less. For a mere $20 more than the iPad mini, you can get a larger Asus Transformer TF300 tablet. Finally, you can also check Amazon’s Kindle HD devices, if your life revolves around consuming Amazon services.

As always, I hope that this review of the iPad mini gave you a good sense for how it is to use it in the real-world. If you have questions, or if I did not cover a topic that you want to know about, drop a comment below, and I will do my best to answer while I still have the tablet. Thanks for stopping by, and share this page if you liked it!

Overall product rating: 8/10

Filed in Apple >Reviews >Tablets. Read more about Apple Review, iPad mini and Tablet Reviews.

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