Apple's new iPad Mini: With a Retina Display, it's a Mini in name only

The latest version of Apple's smaller tablet is just as powerful as the iPad Air

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As has been the case with all iPads, big and small, the iPad Mini's screen is a fingerprint magnet, even though it has Apple's oleophobic coating. And the screen still reflects light like nobody's business -- it's bright enough to be legible in daylight, but reflections can be annoying. This is especially true if you're planning to use the iPad outside.

Otherwise, the Retina display is a welcome addition to the Mini line. Once you grow accustomed to the level of detail it delivers, it becomes impossible to ignore the pixels you can see on non-Retina displays.

Under the hood

The other major change is significantly improved performance. Though the new A7 chip clocks slightly lower than the iPad Air, the 64-bit architecture provides a notable advantage to all of the built-in apps and to iOS 7 -- and third-party developers are already working to update their apps to take advantage of the hardware. When I reviewed the iPhone 5S, I found that apps written to take advantage of 64-bit processing were twice as fast as before, which is in line with performance figures Apple touts on its website.

To compare the new iPad Mini's performance with other iPads, I used the Action Movie FX app by Bad Robot torecord a 10-second video clip and add an effect to the end, timing how long it took each device to output the new video. The iPad 2 completed the rendering job in 21.58 seconds, the iPad Mini needed 21.33 seconds, the iPhone 5S finished it in 9.10 seconds and the iPad Mini with Retina display took 9.09 seconds. And finally, the iPad Air was the fastest, completing the job in 7.53 seconds.

My conclusion? Although Action Movie FX has not yet been updated to take advantage of the 64-bit A7 chip, the overall architecture improvements still delivered a speed boost. And while the iPad Air is clearly the speed champ, it's good to see that the new Mini isn't far behind. Unless you're absolutely obsessed with having the fastest iPad, you're not really compromising much by getting the smaller iPad.

The iPad Mini also features the M7 coprocessor, which automatically tracks and records your movement without taxing the main processor. This data can be utilized by health and fitness apps, but I doubt you'll see joggers attaching the Mini to their arms any time soon. Instead, the M7 is best utilized by Maps, which knows how fast you're traveling, and automatically switches to driving or walking directions based on that information. I'm eager to see how developers utilize this functionality down the road.

All iPad Minis models feature 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi with dual channel and MIMO support for faster data transfers. There's also Bluetooth 4.0, the Lightning connector for charging and data transfer, a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack, built-in stereo speakers, dual microphones for noise canceling purposes, a digital compass, an ambient light sensor and support for Apple's digital assistant, Siri.

Despite the much-improved performance and the pixel-dense Retina display, the iPad Mini still gets about 10 hours of continuous battery life. I found that my iPad Mini's battery life matched Apple's claims and even exceeded it in some cases.

For example, I combined all three extended 1080p versions of the Lord of the Rings films into one long 54GB movie lasting 12 hours and six minutes. With the screen brightness set to 70%, Do Not Disturb turned off, and with Wi-Fi on, the entire 12-hour movie played -- and the Mini still had 3% battery life left at the end.

Final thoughts

Are the new iPads worth the cost? Yes. In concert with Apple's phenomenal App Store and iTunes digital ecosystem (including the brilliant iTunes U), the iPad lineup produces a user experience that is unmatched. My only real complaint is the lack of the TouchID fingerprint sensor found in Apple's iPhone 5S. TouchID is one of those features that is difficult to let go of once you grow accustomed to using it.

Last year, the iPad Mini represented a compromise between portability and power/screen quality. In many ways, it and the larger iPad looked and felt like very different tablets. This year's iPad Minis no longer force you to make that compromise; the 2013 models offer virtually the same power/performance and battery life as the larger iPads, but in a smaller, lighter enclosure. That makes it easier for buyers: All you have to do is decide which size iPad you want and how much storage space you need -- and buy accordingly.

The name may say Mini, but the capabilities are not.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter (@mdeagonia).


Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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