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iPad mini Review: This is the future of the iPad

The iPad mini gets the full iCreate review treatment and we give our full verdict after extensive testing

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Price: 16GB £269/$329, 32GB £349/$429, 64GB £429/$529

Rumours of a smaller iPad have existed for almost as long as the iPad itself. Those who wanted a tablet that was smaller, more comfortable to hold in one hand, and above all cheaper than the full-sized alternative were desperate for an option that offered Apple’s design and App Store in a neat package. Now, at long last, the iPad mini is here.

As with the iPhone 5 review a few months ago, however, we must start by pointing out how different the tablet market is in late 2012 compared to when the first iPad launched in 2010. There are still very few true competitors to the iPad’s big-screen touch experience, but a new breed of tablet arrived earlier this year in the form of the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD. These seven-inch tablets have offered a small alternative to the full-sized iPad, with the Android OS at their core and an incredibly low price point. Apple isn’t taking it lying down though, and the iPad mini was released into the wild just in time for Christmas. And you know what? We think that this form factor is the future of the iPad.

From a design standpoint, Apple really has raised the bar once again. Rather than a shrunken full-sized iPad, the mini feels much more like an enlarged 5th generation iPod touch; the design of the curved rear casing is almost identical, right down to the chamfered, diamond-polished edges that sweep up to the solid piece of glass on the front of the device. Everything from the button design to the reflective Apple logo has been redesigned in the image of the small iOS device, then enlarged, and the results are truly brilliant, as you’re about to see. Let’s get one thing straight right away – the iPad mini is incredible to hold. It’s thin, light and beautifully weighted to ensure that grasping it in one hand is not only possible, it’s the most comfortable way to use it. Picking it up can be done with fingertips, and whether you grip it on both sides with fingers and thumb, or simply rest it in your palm, it’s easy to hold for several hours without needing a second hand to come to the rescue.

The mini is more comfortable to hold than any other tablet we've held

The thinner bezel at the side of the screen looks strange at first, but it serves two purposes – less metal and glass reduces the weight, and ensures that you can touch and swipe the screen with a thumb when holding the mini in just one hand. It’s just one more reason why the iPad mini feels like a larger iPod touch.

The tiny tablet features a pair of stereo speakers that sit astride a Lightning connector at the bottom of the device, and these are even more impressive. The sound they pump out fills small rooms easily, and at times it is easy to forget the music is coming from such a small device. They aren’t perfect by any means, with a naturally underwhelmed tinny sound for some tracks, but for such small speakers they are more than satisfactory.

Build quality is as high as you would expect from Apple, but we did hear that a small number of users have reported scuffing problems on their black models. While light, the mini doesn’t ever feel insignificant, but we did find ourselves treating the mini differently, physically, to larger iPads – but more on this later.

The screen has been a major point of contention since Apple’s announcement in October. Unlike every other iOS product that the company has announced in the last 18 months, the screen doesn’t reach the Retina display standard. Put simply, view this screen at any normal distance and you will be able to make out individual pixels within the display. When we’ve been spoilt by the stunning quality of the ground-breaking Retina display for so long, it’s something of a shame to see it missing here.

One-handed reading is easy and comfortable

However, the result isn’t terrible by any means. We did find our eyes straining slightly when using iBooks for prolonged periods, or after browsing the web for a few hours, but it’s still much better than many screens, and provides good detail and colour representation, as we have come to expect from Apple. The lack of Retina is clearly a conscious choice from Apple, almost certainly so Tim Cook can introduce the iPad mini with Retina display next year, and this is disappointing. However, the lack of Retina doesn’t make the iPad any less useable, and at 1,024 x 768, with 163 pixels per inch, the pixels are legible, but not jarring.

We tested the iPad for several weeks, as both our main iOS device and alongside other products such as iPhones and iPods, to get a full spectrum of use out of the new product. Trying everything from office work to graphics-heavy gaming, we have strictly put the mini through its paces in every aspect of use to get a real idea of how it handles.

Let’s start with physically holding the device. The mini is small and light, but you still don’t really appreciate how light it is until you’re holding it for a long period of time. Reading a book on this is not only comfortable, it’s actually easier than on any other device we’ve used. It’s slightly larger than a Kindle, but still fits nicely in one hand for prolonged periods, and while the bezel is thinner, Apple has used some intelligence in the design of iOS on the mini. If you’re holding the mini with your thumb along one side, iOS will ignore accidental touches on the side of the screen, as it simply assumes you’re using a thumb to hold the tablet. Tap the screen with the same thumb, however, and the screen will act normally.

Browsing the web is slightly less comfortable, simply because of the size of the screen. Turn the mini on its side and the screen is around 1cm wider than a ‘normal-sized’ iPad in portrait orientation. For some sites, it makes reading in portrait difficult. However, we found that we used Safari’s excellent Reader function a lot more. Its scalable text was the perfect remedy when reading stories, even if it couldn’t always help us navigate around the screen as we tried to hit small links on the page.

There's no Retina display, which is a shame, but it's not the end of the world for users

The screen offers less of a ‘canvas’ for using apps like Sketchbook Ink, but this is more than made up for by the fact that you can now comfortably hold the mini and paint at the same time. The larger iPad is simply too heavy to hold in one hand while painting with the other for a prolonged period, but the mini remedies that entirely. The iLife apps – iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand – all translate well aside from a few buttons that are shrunken on the smaller display, and we have to say that we really enjoyed passing the mini around when sharing photos. Gaming is also more comfortable, and feels more natural for games like Modern Combat, while music performs well thanks to the powerful speakers we mentioned earlier. Typing on the smaller screen will take a little practice, but it’s still extremely useable for creating content using Pages, Numbers and Keynote.

While some see the mini as simply a smaller iPad, in reality it’s much more. We said earlier that we handled the mini differently to a larger iPad, but there’s more to it than that – the mini is a completely different kind of device. It’s small enough to fit into a pocket, but large enough that you can still comfortably read a magazine. We felt normal handling it outside in the street, and taking photos with it (something we wouldn’t do with an iPad normally). The mini soon became our go-to device for quickly checking Twitter, or looking something up online. For any device to replace the iPad for those tasks is no small feat.

Camera Tests

The iPad mini features the same camera as the third and fourth generation iPads, at five megapixels. It doesn’t match the eight-megapixel sensor in the iPhone 5, but the photos produced are still extremely impressive.

With a five-element lens and f/24 aperture,  the camera captures light efficiently, and the result is bright photos with plenty of crisp details. The software helps, too – Apple has been developing its photography software over the last few years, and it now works perfectly alongside the hardware Apple creates.

More importantly, the iPad mini doesn’t feel oversized when you hold it up to take a snapshot. It’s easy to feel a little foolish using a full-sized iPad to take photos, but the mini is just small enough that it feels normal, and the screen is perfect for large previews.

Click for a larger view of our comparison shots


So, apps for the most part handle nicely on the smaller screen, but how do they perform? The processor inside the mini is the dual-core A5, the same one you’ll find in an iPad 2, a device that is now approaching its second birthday. In technology terms, this is really rather old, but the iPad 2 still manages to run apps comfortably. That said, we would have liked to see the same A6 chip that Apple squeezed into the iPhone 5 make its way into the mini; if Apple can fit it into such a tiny phone casing, couldn’t it get it into the mini? It will still do everything you need it to, and it looks great while it’s doing it, but there are times when we just want the mini to perform actions a little bit faster.

The battery, however, is anything but a disappointment. While the iPad mini is as thin as a pencil, Apple has still managed to somehow squeeze the same ten-hour lifespan out of this tablet. To put it in real terms, we took the iPad mini home for a weekend and played Fieldrunners 2 for a couple of hours, held a half-hour FaceTime call, took some photos, did a little reading and used the tablet for general browsing of the internet, Twitter and more. By Monday morning it was hovering around 20 per cent battery – we hadn’t charged it since the Friday.

The other sticking point for customers will be the price of the mini. During the lead up to the announcement, many focused on the price that Apple needed to hit in order to be competitive. In typical Apple style, it didn’t even try to match the price points of the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD, instead putting a higher price on a product that offers the full iPad experience in a smaller package, but one that is still beautiful, functional and a hell of a lot of fun.
The price sits right between the new iPod touch and the 18-month-old iPad 2, but for us the mini is by far the better choice than the larger model.

For some, the mini will be seen as a reactionary product from Apple, but there is simply no way that they could have made an iPad so well-defined in the last year. Ultimately, this is the first in a new product line from Apple. Just like the iPod mini, announced in 2004 with a higher price point than its competitors and with seemingly inferior specifications, the mini could yet redefine the market. To us, it represents the future of the iPad, with a smaller form factor, well-sized screen and a selection of apps that the competition can only dream of. The lack of Retina display, and the dated A5 chip will put many off until the second generation, and rightly so. But there’s something about the iPad mini that makes it more than just another Apple product.

The experience of using the mini is fantastic. Thanks to the trademark stunning design, the excellent camera and speakers, and the behemoth that is iOS, it is the best small tablet on the market. And within a couple of years we expect to be removing the word ‘small’ from that sentence.