Finally, an iPad mini that isn't a second class citizen in terms of CPU and display resolution: the iPad mini with Retina display. The first gen iPad mini was my favorite iPad in years because of the thin and light design and easier portability, but I wanted the same CPU as its big brother (at the time the iPad 4, aka iPad with Retina display) and that same super high res display. Apple answered with the new Retina mini, whose price sits between the first gen iPad mini that continues on as Apple's "budget" offering, and the new iPad Air.
At $399, this isn't a wildly affordable alternative to the iPad Air, rather it's for those who want a top spec Apple tablet but in a more portable size than the 9.7" Air. Since Apple slimmed down the Air and dropped weight significantly to just a pound, the divide between mini and Air isn't huge, but the mini with Retina display is still easier to fit in a bag or large pocket. Given the relatively small $100 price gap (20%), I suggest you choose between the mini with Retina display and iPad Air based on your size preference rather than price tag.
The iPad mini with Retina display has the same resolution as the iPad Air: 2048 x 1536, and like the Air it has a high quality IPS panel with wide color gamut, high contrast and good brightness (440 nits). It runs on the same Apple A7 CPU with M7 motion co-processor as the iPad Air and iPhone 5s. The CPU is clocked at 1.3GHz like the iPhone 5s rather than 1.4GHz like the iPad Air. In practice, it performs close to the iPad Air in benchmarks and can handle demanding games like Asphalt 8 and editing HD video in iMovie. Speaking of iMovie, Apple includes their iLfe and iWork suites as free downloads from the App Store. That nets you Apple's MS Office compatible Pages, Numbers and Keynote as well as iMovie, iPhoto and Garage Band for iOS. Those help turn the iPad into a content creation tool, rather than a passive content consumption tool.
The iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina Display.
As with previous iPads, the Retina mini is available as a WiFi only tablet or with WiFi + 4G LTE on all major US carriers. The 16 gig WiFi model starts at $399, and 4G LTE adds $130. The tablet is available with 16, 32, 64 and 128 gigs of storage, and each increment raises the price a $100, which is darned steep. We'd love to see Apple charge $50 for each storage jump as other manufacturers have been doing. As ever, there's no microSD card slot, and your best alternative for storage expansion are cloud services like iCloud and DropBox.
The Retina iPad mini has dual band 802.11n WiFi with MIMO (including LTE models), Blueototh 4.0 and LTE models have a GPS. The 4G LTE models also support 3G, and Apple has included a host of LTE bands (no need for many different models) as well as both GSM and CDMA radios.
New Colors Same Design
The Retina mini looks the same as last year's non-Retina model in terms of design and casing. The only thing that's changed is color: the Retina mini is available in space gray with a black front and white with a silver back to match the iPhone 5s and iPad Air. The controls, dimensions and thickness are the same as the older model, so cases are interchangeable. As ever, the iPad is s thing of beauty and the mini inspired the iPad Air's redesign with thinner bezels, stereo speakers at the bottom and a thin and light design. The aluminum back and chamfered metal sides are perfectly wrought and the controls are tactile and pleasing. The tablet has volume controls, a power button and a slider switch that can either toggle silent mode or lock screen rotation. There's a Lightning port at the bottom, and that's the tablet's only port. The Retina mini is a hair heavier than the non-Retina model because Apple increased battery capacity.
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iPad mini with Retina Display Video Review
Yes, Retina Looks Better
Does the 12 ounce Retina mini's display look better than the non-Retina model? Undeniably yes: 326 PPI is much sharper than 163 PPI. Not that the first mini had a poor display but its text isn't nearly as smooth and sharp as on the Retina model. If you do a lot of reading (a perfect use for an 8" tablet that can run iBooks, Nook and Kindle), you'll appreciate the display and will suffer less eye fatigue. Full HD video will play at native resolution with no scaling and you'll see sharper details in photos. The Retina model now competes well with the 2013 Google Nexus 7 Android tablet and the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX in terms of display quality. In a price competition, the $229 7" Kindle Fire HDX and Nexus 7 are obviously much more affordable but the iPad is priced within $20 of the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 and the same as the $399 Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0.
The iPad mini with Retina Display vs. the Competition
Is the iPad mini with Retina display worth the price premium over less expensive Android competitors? That answer first depends on your OS preference and whether you have a significant investment in iOS apps and iTunes media with DRM (like movies and TV shows) that can't be played on Android. Beyond that, the iPad app ecosystem is huge with nearly a half million tablet optimized apps. You'll find the staples on both platforms, but the quality of iOS tablet apps overall tends to be better. And there's quite a cottage industry revolving around iOS with music production accessories (you can plug in your guitar or electronic keyboard and use the iPad as a portable recording and mixing studio), point of sale systems, keyboard cases, AirPlay wireless speakers and more. As ever, the drawback with the iPad and iOS in general is lack of an accessible file system, so you won't be able to simply drag files to the tablet as if it were removable storage. Instead you'll use iTunes on the desktop to copy compatible files to the iPad mini, or use cloud services. Why did Apple do this? My guess it to make the product idiot-proof: you can only put files on the iPad that the tablet can actually make use of, you can't delete important system files and for those who still find Explorer on a PC confusing--well you get the idea. It's great for everyday users but frustrating for power users, who tend to gravitate to the openness and customizability of Android.
Apple tablets generally have very good battery life, and our WiFi model easily lasted Apple's 10 hours of mixed use claim with auto-brightness turned on and the slider set to 50%. Apple increased battery capacity to 28.3 Wh to offset the more power hungry display and faster CPU, and battery life is similar to the non-Retina mini. The iPad mini with Retina display ships with a 10 watt charger and a USB to Lightning cable.
As with the iPhone 5s and iPad Air, the front 720p FaceTime HD camera's sensor has been upgraded with larger pixels for brighter and noticeably sharper video chats over FaceTime and Skype. It has face detection, a backside illuminated sensor and geotagging. The rear 5MP iSight camera is largely the same as the outgoing model. It features a 5 element lens, BSI, HDR for photos and it can shoot 1080p video. As ever, settings are minimal but the tablet manages to take clear and colorful photos and video that might not be as good as the 8MP iPhone 5s, but they're very good by tablet standards. Somehow, Apple manages to get the most out of a camera thanks to excellent software and image processing. For those who want to edit their photos, iPhoto for iOS is a free download from the App Store. Likewise if you want to get creative with 1080p footage you've captured, iMovie for iOS is also a free download.
If you're an iPerson and you want a high quality tablet that can actually fit in a purse or large pocket, get the iPad mini with Retina display. I doubt you'll be disappointed: as always build quality and materials are superb, the A7 CPU is extremely fast and the display is wonderful. If you're not a fan of iOS or are equally happy to consider Android and Windows 8 tablets, the Retina mini won't be your cheapest option but it does bring speed, quality and now both the iWork and iLife suites to the table.
Price: starting at $399 for 16 gig WiFi-only model. 4G LTE adds $130, each storage increment adds $100
Display: 7.9” LED blacklit glossy IPS with multi-touch. 2048 x 1536 resolution (326 ppi). Fingerprint resistant coating. Has an accelerometer, ambient light sensor and 3-axis gyroscopic sensor.
Processor: 1.3GHz Apple A7 dual core CPU with M7 motion co-processor. 1 gig RAM.
Network: Wi-Fi model: Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n with MIMO; AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon models add 3G and 4G LTE for data. All models have Bluetooth 4.0 and use Apple's new Lightning 8 pin connector for USB.
GPS: Cellular models have GPS with GLONASS as well as digital compass. WiFi models use WiFi-based location triangulation.
Cameras: Front and rear cameras. Back 5MP camera can record up to 1080p 30fps video and front 1.2MP camera can record 720p video. Both cameras have a BSI and face detection. Rear camera has HDR for photos.
Storage: 16GB, 32GB, 64GB or 128 gigs internal flash storage.
Audio: Built-in mic and stereo speakers, 3.5mm stereo headphone jack. Audio formats supported: HE-AAC (V1), AAC (16 to 320 Kbps), Protected AAC (from iTunes Store), MP3 (16 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 2, 3, and 4), Apple Lossless, AIFF, and WAV.
Size: 7.87 x 5.3 x 0.29 inches. Weight: 0.73 pounds (12 ounces).
Battery: Rechargeable 28.3-watt-hour rechargeable lithium-polymer battery. Not user replaceable. Claimed usage time: Up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video, or listening to music; Up to 9 hours of surfing the web using 3G/4G data network. Ships with 10 watt charger.