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

It took Apple two and a half years after the debut of the first iPad to rollout the smaller, more mobile-friendly iPad Mini. Soon after it was unveiled in October 2012, it quickly became Apple's most popular iPad -- its portability and light weight trumped the faster performance and sharper Retina display on the larger, heavier models. With the debut last month of the 2013 iPad Mini with Retina display, virtually all of the compromises inherent in the smaller models are gone.

The iPad Mini now has a high-resolution Retina display like the iPad Air. (Image: Apple)

The new iPad Mini -- which Apple quietly put on sale Nov. 12 with little hubbub -- is essentially a smaller iPad Air. It now has the high-pixel density Retina display, the 64-bit A7 processor, the M7 co-processor and the updated camera system. As a result, if you're trying to decide between the iPad Air and the iPad Mini with Retina, you only have to figure out whether you want the Air's larger 9.7-in. display or the Mini's smaller 7.9-in. display.

For this review, I originally purchased a 32GB Space Gray iPad Mini (it also comes in Silver), but because I quickly realized it contained nowhere near the storage I needed, I soon swapped it out for a 64GB model.

What's new

What's new? Well, first of all, the iPad Mini with Retina is more expensive than last year's model. While the previous iPad Mini started at $329 for 16GB of storage and is still being sold (for $299), the new model starts at $399 for the 16GB model. Just as with last year's models, storage capacity doubles in $100 increments. The 32GB model is $499, the 64GB is $599 and the 128GB model is $699. If you're looking to buy an LTE version, add $129 for each model.

Other than the look of the device -- it's essentially unchanged from the first generation -- nearly everything has been updated. The Mini is still 7.87 x 5.30 x .29 in., making it about two-thirds the size of the iPad Air. But the new internals have added a little more weight, with the Wi-Fi-only model weighing just under 12 oz. and the LTE models coming in right at 12 oz. Holding the 2012 and 2013 Minis in your hands, I could feel the slight weight difference, but the extra weight shouldn't be an issue for Mini buyers.

As I mentioned, the iPad Mini still comes in two colors: Silver and Space Gray. The Silver model features white borders around the display with a shiny silver diamond-cut chamfered edges and a gray aluminum back; the Space Gray model features a similar design, except with a black border around the display and darker aluminum accents.

A stunning screen with a couple of concerns

The most visible update is the stunning Retina display. As a reminder, "Retina" is the marketing name given by Apple to a display so densely packed with pixels that your eyes can't ascertain the individual pixels that make up the screen. The 2012 iPad Mini came with a 1024-x-768-pixel resolution; this year's model features a four-fold increase to 2048 x 1536 pixels, or 326 pixels per inch. That's about a million more pixels than a 1080p HDTV.

At that density, you can put the Mini as close to your eyes as you can focus and still not see the individual dots of light comprising the screen. At a normal distance, text is super sharp, lines are crisp and iOS 7 looks better than ever.

Although the screen looks fantastic to me, there have been reports that the color range on the iPad Mini's display isn't as wide as on the iPad Air. I'm doubtful any casual user would ever notice, but if you do color-sensitive work on your iPad, you might want to visit an Apple store to confirm the colors on screen are good enough for you.

More importantly, some users have reported that their Minis exhibit image retention on the screen. This issue was apparently first noted by Marco Arment, who came up with an easy way to test whether your Mini has this issue. Thus far, it's unclear how many tablets may have the problem, but it is an issue. If you find you have a Mini that's affected, call Apple or take it to your local Apple store. Some Mini owners have reported that Apple will replace units with this defect, even though there hasn't been anything official announced.

Note: I checked my own iPad Mini and it does not have the image retention issue.

The Retina display on the new iPad Mini (left) is sharper than the screen on the first-generation iPad Mini (right). (Image: Michael deAgonia)

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).

Read more about tablets in Computerworld's Tablets Topic Center.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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