Who'd think that Apple's latest iPad tablet would stir so much controversy? Some folks adore the more portable size and absolutely stunning design; while others say without a Retina display, it's junk. Since Apple has sold out online and in store at launch, we're guessing that most folks are willing to give the slim and capable 8" iOS 6 tablet a fair chance. The iPad mini starts at $329 for the 16 gig WiFi model and it's also available in 32 and 64 gig capacities (each capacity jump adds $100 to the price). In mid-November, the 3G/4G LTE + WiFi model goes on sale for $130 more in your choice of AT&T, Sprint and Verizon flavors in the US.
Is this "just" a smaller iPad? Assuredly it is, but it doesn't feel as cramped as other 7" tablets yet it is more portable in every respect than the 9.7" iPad. To be exact, this is a 7.9" tablet not 8", but it's much closer to 8" and it does feel larger than many competing 7" Android tablets on the market. The Amazon Kindle Fire HD has nearly the same footprint, while the Nexus 7 is noticeably narrower. As big an impression as the iPad mini makes when it comes to display size, it's absurdly thin at 0.28", and it truly looks like a product from the future. The paper-thin aluminum casing (available in white and black with an anodized finish just like the iPhone 5) and narrow bezels make for a stunning package. Yet it's rigid and feels sturdy. Is the black version prone to scratching like the iPhone 5? So far ours hasn't after 10 days of use without a case, though we have handled it with care.
The tablet is a bit wide to hold with one hand, though I can do it (I have large hands with long fingers and feel the stretch). There's nearly no bezel on the sides when held in portrait mode, which is the exact opposite of the Kindle Fire HD design philosophy of providing huge bezels to facilitate a book-like grip on the device. Apple says the display's multi-touch sensors will ignore a static finger placed near the edge. This was true in our tests, but it also made us notice how often we shifted our fingers when holding the tablet, which did sometimes trigger an unwanted screen interaction.
The 1024 x 768 display obviously lacks the hyper-packed pixels of the New iPad, aka iPad 3 and iPad 4/ iPad with Retina Display, but the iPad mini's 163 ppi pixel density is significantly higher than the iPad 2's, and contrast is improved. It's a very sharp, colorful and lovely IPS display. I honestly can't imagine how anyone could describe it as a terrible display unless the only thing they've used recently are the Retina iPad and MacBook Pro. Compared to other tablets on the market, this is a very good display with neutral whites, good brightness and sharp text. It really helps that Apple pays so much attention to typography, so fonts look finely rendered even on a standard resolution display. But yes, if you've been using the Retina iPad for some time, fonts will no doubt look a little fuzzy on the iPad mini. If the Retina isn't currently a part of your tech arsenal, then you'll probably think the iPad mini's display is excellent.
This is the first Apple iOS device to sport stereo speakers, and they sound very good: they offer plenty of volume and more fullness than you'd expect from a 7" tablet. The only 7" tablet with better speakers is the Dolby Mobile empowered Kindle Fire HD. The tablet has Bluetooth 4.0 for those of you who prefer wireless speakers and headphones and there's the usual 3.5mm audio jack.
Horsepower and Performance
In terms of brains, the iPad mini is the equivalent of the iPad 2. It runs on Apple's 1GHz dual core A5 CPU with a capable graphics chip. It has 512 megs of RAM. The tablet scored 752 on Geekbench 2, which is the same as the iPad 2 and the iPad 3 that didn't score higher despite a faster CPU and GPU because it had to drive so many more pixels. The mini put up a strong showing on the cross-platform GLBenchmark 2.1 test with 60fps for the Egypt test and 90 fps for the Egypt off-screen test. In practice, the iPad mini feels as responsive as any iOS product (fast!) and it had no trouble playing challenging games like Dead Trigger and Modern Combat 3.
The iPad mini has a 1.2MP front camera that can shoot 720p video and handle FaceTime and Skype video calls. The camera has a backside illuminated sensor (a rarity on front cameras) and face detection. It's the same camera found in the latest generation iPad with Retina display and a marked improvement over the VGA camera in older iPads. The result is noticeably brighter and sharper video calls.
The rear 5MP camera is pretty much a dead ringer for the iPhone 4 and third generation iPad camera. Image quality is similar, with some noise and low light shots that are just passable. The rear camera has a BSI, face detection and a fast f/2.4 five element lens. It can shoot 1080p video at 30 fps. It's a serious improvement over the iPad 2's frankly terrible rear camera and it's good enough to capture shots that are worth sharing. Since the iPad mini is smaller and lighter, it's more ergonomically suited to handheld photography than the 9.7" iPad.
The iPad mini, like the iPhone 5 and 4th generation Retina iPad has the new 8 pin Lightning connector rather than the old 30 pin dock connector. You can still use old chargers and analog audio accessories if you purchase Apple's Lightning to 30 pin adapter. The mini ships with an iPhone style small 1 amp charger, though we've used our 2.1 amp big iPad charger with it and had no problems. The iPad mini has a 16.3 watt-hour Lithium polymer battery that's sealed inside. Apple claims 10 hours of use on WiFi and 9 hours on 3G/4G when using the data connection. In our tests of the WiFi model, that's been spot on and we've even managed longer runtimes when primarily using the tablet for less intensive tasks like eBook reading, playing music and checking emails. That's 45 minutes more than I typically get with my Nexus 7 and about the same as the Kindle Fire HD.
From the moment I put my hands on the iPad mini, I confess I loved it. It's that perfect tweener size: it doesn't feel as cramped and compromised when watching video or viewing web pages as 7" tablets and the 4:3 aspect ratio works so well for portrait use when reading eBooks, Word documents and web pages. It's supremely thin and quite light, and I found that just like my Nexus 7 (previously my 7" tablet of choice) I carry it everywhere. That's something I can't say about my 10" tablets. The mini is fast, the display is bright, sharp and colorful (though granted not Retina quality) and the selection of apps and media is as ever huge. Siri is icing on the cake, and though some make fun of iOS's voice assistant I find it remarkably useful for getting info quickly and doing voice dictation.
Price: Starting at $329 for 16 gig WiFi-only model
Display: 7.9” LED blacklit glossy IPS widescreen with multi-touch. 1024 x 768 resolution (163 ppi). Fingerprint resistant coating. Supports accelerometer and has ambient light sensor and 3-axis gyroscopic sensor.
Processor: 1GHz Apple A5 dual core CPU with PowerVR SGX 543MP2 GPU.
Network: Wi-Fi model: Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n; AT&T, Sprint and Verizon models have 3G and 4G LTE for data. All models have Bluetooth 4.0 and use Apple's new Lightning 8 pin connector for USB (same connector as the iPhone 5).
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.
Storage: 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB 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.
Video: AirPlay Mirroring to Apple TV (2nd and 3rd generation) at 720p. AirPlay video streaming to Apple TV (3rd generation) at up to 1080p and Apple TV (2nd generation) at up to 720p. Video mirroring and video out support: Up to 720p through Lightning Digital AV Adapter and Lightning to VGA Adapter; video playback up to 1080p (sold separately). Video formats supported: H.264 video up to 1080p, 30 frames per second, Main Profile level 3.1 with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats; MPEG-4 video, up to 2.5 Mbps, 640 by 480 pixels, 30 frames per second, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps per channel, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats; Motion JPEG (M-JPEG) up to 35 Mbps, 1280 by 720 pixels, 30 frames per second, audio in ulaw, PCM stereo audio in .avi file format.
Size: 7.87 x 5.3 x 0.28 inches. Weight: 0.68 pounds.
Battery: Rechargeable 16.3-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 iPhone style charger not the larger/higher amp iPad charger.