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Saturday, November 16, 2013

iPad Mini with Retina Display review: Pricey, mighty Retina Mini is best small tablet yet Part I

The good: The iPad Mini with Retina Display adds an excellent high-resolution display that rivals the iPad Air's, a far faster A7 processor, and tops it off with improved Wi-Fi and LTE connectivity, with battery life that's as good or better than in last year's Mini.
The bad: A starting price of $399 places it well above the small-tablet competition, and adding more storage or LTE makes it even more expensive. It lacks the innovative Touch ID fingerprint sensor that the iPhone 5S sports.
The bottom line: The new iPad Mini somehow shrinks down the iPad Air into an even more compact package, sacrificing nearly nothing. It's more expensive than before, but it's also the perfect smaller tablet.
It’s amazing to think that, just a year ago, the iPad Mini was positioned as a smaller “budget” iPad without as much power as the 9.7-inch version. Now it’s a powerhouse and a top-end tablet. I said, a year ago, I didn’t know who the iPad Mini was for. But over the last year, the Mini ended up cementing itself as my personal iPad of choice. I accepted its limitations in exchange for its form.
Now, there are no limitations. The new iPad Mini has a 2,048x1,526-pixel Retina Display that's exactly the same resolution as the larger iPad, and a far faster 64-bit A7 CPU that parallels what's in the iPhone 5S and iPad Air, plus that M7 co-processor. In fact, you could easily call the iPad Mini with Retina Display a shrunken-down clone of the new iPad Air: it has exactly the same specs as its larger sibling. Now the only question is, do you want to pay up for it?
Indeed, that's the only catch with the Mini Retina. These 2013 upgrades come at a price: $399 for the base 16GB configuration. That's $70 more than when the Mini debuted last year (that 2012 model remains on sale, with a price cut to $299). And it's significantly more than rival tablets from Google and Amazon that also offer smallish high-resolution. On the other hand, it's also $100 less than the base iPad Air model.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
That raises the question: with two iPads so similar, which do you choose? Do you want to pay $400 for a midsize tablet -- or $500 for its big brother? The new Mini is less expensive, but the Air has the larger screen. Or are you more comfortable with Android and Amazon models that are considerably more affordable?
With the screen and spec caveats of last year's Mini, it presented a real compromise compared with the big iPad of the time. This year? There aren't really any technology drawbacks at all compared with what you get in the full-size iPad. It's literally down to a size preference, and value proposition. And, whether you need to pay up for a tablet this powerful. I would.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Design: A tiny bit heavier and thicker...but you'd never notice
If you pick up the new Mini, it feels a lot like the old Mini. The differences become clear if you look closely, but you'd never know from a distance.
The Mini comes in two colors: white-and-silver looks the same as last year, but the black-and-slate model has been subtly adjusted to "space gray," using the same lighter-metal back as theiPhone 5S and iPad Air.
Mini and Retina Mini. Can you tell the difference?
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Other than that, nothing's really changed in the iPad Mini's form. It has the same basic compact design as last year, which the iPad Air now also adopts: thin side bezels, a flat back, and a generally wafer-thin, metal-and-glass look. While it's technically a bit heavier than the older model -- 0.3mm in thickness, and a 23-gram difference for the Wi-Fi version or a 29-gram difference for the LTE model, putting it at 0.73 or 0.75 pound, respectively -- but you'd never know from holding it. Side by side with last year's Mini, it's nearly indistinguishable.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
And, it's still that same compact-but-not-quite-pocket-size form (unless you have very large, deep pockets). But, it's that extra size that gives it a huge edge over smaller tablets for running larger iPad apps in semi-miniature.
The Mini was a perfect 10 for its form: why change it? The new Mini, wisely, barely alters the equation.
Retina Display: Worth the wait
Yes. Without a doubt, if you're a big reader, the massive jump in screen resolution is the most welcome change on this Mini. But what's most impressive, and hard to truly appreciate at times, is that there's no drop-off in pixels in the smaller screen size compared with on the Air. And, the Retina Display already looked good on the Air's 9.7-inch display.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
It's a big improvement, indeed. Other 7-inch tablets routinely hit 1080p or better resolution, such as the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX, with 1,920x1,200-pixel resolutions and 323 pixels per inch. The Mini's 2,048x1,536 resolution amounts to 326 pixels per inch, offering even better pixel density over a larger amount of screen real estate. And the Mini's screen is 7.9 inches with a closer-to-square 4x3 aspect ratio -- not the 7-inch wide-screen form factor of the aforementioned Google and Amazon tablets.
DeviceScreen sizeAspect ratioResolution
Apple iPad Mini (2012)7.9 inches4:31,024x768 (168ppi)
Apple iPad Mini with Retina Display7.9 inches4:32,048x1,536 (326ppi)
Google Nexus 7 (2013)7 inches16:101,920x1,200 (323ppi)
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 77 inches16:101,920x1,200 (323ppi)
But, it's a surprisingly subtle upgrade from a distance. Put the non-Retina and Retina models side by side, and it's hard to tell them apart. Get closer, and you'll see the difference right away: finer resolution, and even color quality, are improved.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
When looking at photos or reading books or text-heavy documents, you'll see the difference. Like the iPhone's leap to Retina, or the iPad's, it's a level of detail you'll miss after you get used to it, rather than one you'll notice right away.
Text: Retina vs. non-Retina, magnified.
(Credit: Screenshot by Dan Ackerman/CNET)
It's more like a focal adjustment, when reading text.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Videos look great, too, but the smaller screen size and extra letterboxing mean wide-screen movies are still pretty small. I tried out "Cloud Atlas," and the movie at least looked extra-sharp, but the viewing space on a Mini can get cramped.
What else is new?
As I mentioned, the Retina Mini has a 64-bit A7 processor, just like the iPhone 5S and iPad Air. It also has an M7 co-processor, which helps track motion and could be used for motion-aware apps and to reduce strain on battery life. It has a better front-facing camera than the last Mini, an improved MIMO Wi-Fi antenna (but no 802.11ac wireless), and improved LTE connectivity internationally for LTE models, plus an extra microphone on the back that auto adjusts and emphasizes environmental audio based on whether you're using the rear- or front-facing camera (for clearer FaceTime calls, for instance).
In a lot of ways, the Retina Mini is much like the iPhone 5S, except it lacks a fingerprint-sensing Touch ID home button; this year's iPad home button still has a square on it, and won't do anything with your fingerprint except collect a slight smudge. Not having Touch ID is a bit of a letdown, but it would have been an utter luxury on a small tablet like this.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Performance: Similar to Air, and a huge leap over last year's Mini
If you're a gamer or a serious user of apps like video-editing or media-rich programs, you'll notice gigantic speed boost on the Mini, thanks to its leap from an A5 last year to an A7 this year. Applications that hiccuped before now run smoothly; multitasking and high-end, demanding tasks like graphics rendering, video editing, and the like are effortless.
Actually, it turns out, the A7 processor on the Retina Mini according to Geekbench 3 tests isn't exactly the same as the iPad Air's: it's 1.29GHz, the same as the iPhone 5S processor, while the 1.39GHz A7 on the iPad Air is a little faster. The new iPad Mini has twice the RAM of the last Mini: 1GB to 512MB, but the same as the Air.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
So, maybe it's not too surprising to see the Mini's specs in such a small form, since the even smaller iPhone 5S managed a similar feat. But the Retina Mini is an impressively fast little tablet by any measure. In all our benchmark tests, the new iPad Mini performed a little bit slower than the Air, but close enough to put it in nearly the same territory. It's miles beyond last year's iPad Mini, performing up to 4 to 5x faster or even more depending on the benchmark. And, compared with the Google Nexus 7 released earlier this year, it's a significant leap forward.
As a result, apps run nearly identically on the iPad Air and the new Mini, again because they're running almost exactly the same hardware. The difference is basically screen size and pixel density: some apps like games can look even more finely detailed, while others might seem a tiny bit small compared with on the larger iPad. But, in general, almost all apps I've seen make the transition to the smaller screen size excellently.
Does it warrant an upgrade from last year's Mini? If you're power-using your iPad, yes. For everyday use, especially video viewing and reading, you'll be fine sticking with the non-Retina version. But, be aware that app developers are going to go full-force with new types of experiences that maximize use of the A7 across iPhone and iPad. As a way of future-proofing your iPad for an extra $100, new prospective buyers should seriously consider going Retina for the processor alone.
Moving up to a Retina Mini over the previous Mini, however, you will have to suffer increased download sizes: apps, and movies, and digital magazines all take up more space in their Retina-optimized forms. "Cloud Atlas," while long, was a 6.2GB download. You might want to consider a bump up to at least 32GB when getting a Retina Mini.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Wireless: A big step up for Wi-Fi and global LTE
I’ve never found the pay-up for a cellular-enabled LTE iPad to be worth it, personally, especially with so many Wi-Fi hot spots around, but Apple’s newest iPads certainly make it tempting. Despite being offered for multiple carriers on Apple’s site, all the LTE iPads are actually identical and unlocked: you can SIM-swap across carriers and overseas to your heart’s content. Affording pay-as-you-go LTE or folding it into a family device plan isn’t as affordable as it should be, and the $129 fee to step up to an LTE-enabled iPad Mini isn’t cheap, but for a frequent traveler or someone without a data-heavy smartphone contract, it could be ideal.
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