iPad mini Retina review

Watch our video review of the new iPad mini with Retina display above

iPad mini 2: dimensions and weight

When the iPad mini launched in 2012 the choice was simple. On one hand you had the full size iPad with it’s Retina display and faster processor, and on the other hand was the thinner, and crucially, lighter iPad mini. As long as you didn’t mind the smaller screen and the fact that the processor was inferior to the normal iPad, the mini was the clear choice for anyone put off by the extra bulk of the iPad Air.

All that changed with the launch of the iPad Air and the Retina iPad mini in 2013. If you want smaller and lighter you might think that the new iPad mini is the obvious choice, but now there is a much less noticeable difference between the weight of the two models. The iPad Air weighs 469g to the Retina iPad mini’s 331g (478g and 341g for the Cellular models) that 138g difference compares to a 184g difference between 2102’s iPad 4 (653g) and the original iPad mini (which at 308g was actually 23g lighter than this year’s model).

It’s not just the weight difference, the iPad Air has slimmed down too. It’s now 7.5mm rather than last year’s 9.4mm. The iPad mini with Retina display is also 7.5mm thick (fatter than last year’s 7.2mm). So, there’s still a weight difference between the two devices, but it’s less pronounced than it was. The real distinction is now the size of the screen. 9.7-inch verses 7.9-inch.

The question of which size of iPad is best is best is a tough one to answer because it is really a personal choice based on what is important to you. The decider may be that you may require less precision to tap a control on the screen of the iPad Air than you do on the iPad mini, purely because the are you are trying to tap is bigger. If this isn’t a problem you experience with the iPhone then it certainly won’t be an issue for you on the iPad mini. If you have particularly fat fingers then maybe the mini isn’t for you.

If you want a lightweight device we don’t think that the iPad mini with Retina display will disappoint. But the best way to judge the extra weight is to throw a Retina iPad mini into your usual bag and see if it feels heavier (we doubt that Apple will let you do this in store so perhaps borrow a friend’s). If you are used to lugging around a laptop it might not make a significant difference to the weight of your bag. If you normally carry a book around with you, you may well find that the iPad mini weighs less. It’s completely subjective.

iPad mini 2: design

At first glance the iPad mini of 2012 and the iPad mini of 2013 look very similar, despite the fact that the colours of the 2012 model are described as black and white by Apple, while the 2013 models are Space Grey and Silver. Apple must have been looking at the back of the device rather than on the front when they named the device this time round.

Left: iPad mini 2012; Right: iPad mini with Retina display 2013

The difference this year is the fact that while the design of the mini is unchanged, the design of the full-sized iPad has changed, and as a result the iPad Air has a thinner bezel like the iPad mini’s. This doesn’t mean that the screen is any bigger than the older iPad; the device itself is thinner. However, if last year you would have chosen the full-sized iPad over the mini because you thought that the bigger bezel would aid grip-ability, this is no longer a reason to opt for the bigger iPad. Not that there is a problem gripping any iPad from the side, the iPad is intelligent enough to ignore your thumb pressing against the side of the screen.

iPad mini 2: the Retina display  

With the design, colour, weight and dimensions of the new iPad mini 2 being almost the same as last year’s iPad mini model, the only really visible difference is the new Retina display.

The new iPad mini offers double the resolution of the original iPad mini at 2,048×1,536 pixels. This is the same number of pixels as the iPad Air, but because the screen is smaller, there are more pixels per inch (324 ppi, compared to 264 pip on the Air).

If you had superhero eyes you might find the screen clearer - except that the whole idea of a Retina display is that the pixel density is so high that your eye isn't capable of seeing the pixels. So beyond that resolution there’s not a lot of point in more pixels.

The 2012 iPad mini offered 163 pixels per inch (ppi) so the difference is clear when you look at the two devices together. You wouldn’t necessarily miss the Retina display if you didn’t have one, the display of the original iPad mini is not bad at all. But it’s really a case of what you don’t know won’t hurt you, because once you start using a Retina display it’s hard to go back.

Just how much clearer is the Retina display? The pages of a book in iBooks were significantly clearer on the newer device, with the text crisper and more defined. We took a screen shot of the same page, with the same size text, and zoomed in on the words. The iPad mini with Retina suffered very little blurring around the characters, while characters on the older iPad mini were very blurry.

Left: iPad mini 1; Right: iPad mini 2: iBook

Left: iPad mini 1; Right: iPad mini 2: zoomed in on iBook, in this example you can really see the difference

It’s not just the clarity of the Retina display image though. We also noticed that the screen of the new iPad mini with Retina display emits more light. The Retina display looks brighter and the white background of our page looked whiter. We’d say that there is a slightly blue tint to the older iPad mini.

We ran tests using a Datacolor Spyder4Elite and found that the new iPad mini with Retina display was indeed brighter than the old model. The iPad mini 1 measured 293 lumens, while the iPad mini with Retina display managed 315 lumens.

There have been reports of differences in the colour gamut of the two devices, as well, we are currently running tests of this. However, this will not be an issue for you if you aren’t performing colour sensitive work on your device, and it may be Apple’s strategy to maintain its claimed 10 hour battery life on the iPad mini 2.

There have also been reports of image retention, or image burn, on some iPad mini’s with Retina displays. We are aware that Apple has exchanged some devices that experienced this problem.

The Retina display certainly adds a lot to the new iPad mini so we would say that paying the extra £70 for the Retina display is a good move. However, note that the Retina display of the iPad mini is not entirely the same as the Retina display of the iPad Air.

This does suggest that if you want the best Retina display, the iPad Air is a better device, but none of these issues would stop us from purchasing the iPad mini with Retina display.

iPad mini with Retina display: Camera

The rear-facing camera inside the iPad mini 2 offers 5-megapixels and 1080p video. The front-facing camera is 1.2-megapixel or 720p. This is exactly the same as the camera in the 2012 iPad mini, although the front-facing camera has had a bit of an upgrade for low-light so, along with the new dual microphones, you should find FaceTime video calling quality improved.

Despite the fact that the rear-facing camera is the same as that in the iPad mini 1, the photos we took with the iPad mini 2 appeared significantly better on the screen of the iPad mini with Retina display. This lead us to the conclusion initially that the camera was better, but when we looked at the images on a computer screen we could see that they were pretty much the same, however, the iPad mini 2 does seem to take better low light pictures and cope with over exposure better.

Left: iPad mini 1; Right: iPad mini 2: low ligh, notice the shelving is brighter in the iPad mini 2 picture

Left: iPad mini 1; Right: iPad mini 2: day time, notice the sky is a little less blown out in the iPad mini 2 picture

Left: iPad mini 1; Right: iPad mini 2: detail, notice how the iPad mini 2 caught the patchwork detail in the screen

In the case of video footage we did find that video shot on the new iPad mini appeared to be sharper (when viewed on our iMac screen) than those taken on our first generation iPad mini.

iPad mini with Retina display: Battery life

Apple claims that the new iPad mini offers 10 hours battery life, which is the same as every other iPad. Apple tests battery life in terms of how much web surfing over Wi-Fi, video watching and music playing can be managed. Surfing the web over a mobile connection will reduce the battery life to 9 hours, according to Apple.

Our tests are a little more challenging and involve looping high-definition videos at specific volume and screen-brightness levels until the iPad turns itself off. We found that the iPad mini with Retina lasted an impressive 10 hours, 42 minutes. That’s actually longer than the iPad Air lasted in the same test (the Air shut down a couple of minutes shy of 10 hours). In comparison, in the same tests last year the iPad mini lasted 9 hours and twelve minutes, compared to 9 hours and 21 minutes for the fourth-generation iPad.

This extra battery list is thanks to the bigger battery inside the Retina iPad mini.

iPad mini with Retina display: Speed and processor power

2012’s iPads had significant differences in terms of processor. Where the iPad 4 featured a A6X processor the iPad mini made do with the A5 chip also found in the iPad 2. The 2013 iPads both feature the same A7 chip, along with its 64-bit architecture, and the accompanying M7 motion coprocessor. This breaks from Apple’s tradition of featuring a superior chip in the full-sized iPad, and removes one of the obvious differentiators between the two devices.

It’s curious that Apple didn’t choose to feature the lower spec A6 chip in the Retina iPad mini (or a variant of that chip). This would have made a clear distinction between the two devices and helped Apple sell more iPad Airs (on which the company will make bigger margins due to its higher cost). As it is, the new iPad mini appears to offer exactly the same specifications as its more expensive, and larger sibling, for £80 less. Why pay more?

It turns out that the processor in the iPad mini with Retina display is clocked at a lower speed than the iPad Air, which is clocked at 1.39GHz, according to Geekbench 3. Incidentally, the A7 chip in the iPhone 5s is clocked at 1.30GHz.

However, the new iPad mini 2 is still a lot faster than the iPad mini of 2012. In Geekbench 2, the iPad mini with Retina display managed an average score of 2222ms, compared to the first iPad mini’s 752ms.

The new mini’s Geekbench 3 score was 1395 for a single core and 2521 points in multi-core mode. The iPad Air returned a score of 1480 points for a single core and 2683 points in multi-core mode.

[Read our iPad Air Review here]

Both the iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina display feature 1GB RAM. The original iPad mini featured 512MB RAM. The extra RAM will make application switching much quicker, and in our experience you will experience fewer app crashes due to low memory. The extra RAM is another great reason to pay the extra for the new iPad mini 2.

When it comes to graphics the new iPad mini is also superior. In our graphics tests (the Egypt HD test - a game test featuring a complex scene) the iPad mini with Retina display managed 48fps, twice as fast as the original iPad mini. In the Egypt HD graphics test the iPad Air also played at an average framerate of 48 fps. We can't imagine anyone being disappointed by these gaming capabilities.

In SunSpider 1.0.2 (a browser speed test) the new iPad mini completed the test in 397ms, compared to the 1300ms taken by the original iPad mini, which is a very impressive result.

iPad operating system, iOS 7

If you already own an iPad mini the fact that the new iPad mini with Retina display runs iOS 7 will be no matter, as your existing iPad mini is quite capable of running iOS 7. However, if you own an original first generation iPad your experience of iOS 7 may be limited. For example, original iPads from 2010 cannot run iOS 7, and the iPad 2 is feature limited when it comes to iOS 7, for example, AirDrop and Siri are not available. There is no additional iOS 7 functionality offered by the iPad Air.

If you have never owned an iPad, but own an iPhone that is capable of running iOS 7 you will be able to enjoy many of the features that you are used to on your Apple device and all the music, movies and apps you’ve purchased from Apple will be available to download for free. Already owning an iPhone is a very good reason to buy an iPad.

It’s not only iOS 7 that helps sell the iPad. There is also free software available to download directly from Apple as soon as you register your device. Apple now offers Pages, Numbers and Keynote, as well as iMovie, iPhoto and Garageband, as free downloads to owners of new devices. You’ll also find a wealth of software on the App Store as well as iTunes music to download, movies to watch, and electric versions of books to read.

If you have yet to own an iPhone or any smartphone in fact, the iPad is a much cheaper way to get the iOS experience. With an iPad mini with Retina display starting at £319 (or £249 in the case of the original iPad mini) that’s £150 less than the iPhone 5c at £469. iPhone pricing is complicated though, with various discounts available depending on the network you sign up to, and the length of your contract, of course you also have to account for the monthly fee for your contract. If you choose the Wi-Fi only iPad mini these extra costs will never come into play.

Should I get a Wi-Fi or Cellular iPad mini?

In the case of every iPad there is an option, at point of purchase, to pay £100 more and get an iPad which can take a SIM card so that you can access the web via 3G or 4G networks. The ability to connect to the web while on the move is again something that will be a matter of personal choice.

In our experience a Wi-Fi model is adequate. You will discover that you can join a number of Wi-Fi networks. In fact BT has recently announced that anyone running iOS will be able to automatically connect to its UK public WiFi hotspots, as long as they have a BT Broadband account. There is a free BT Wi-fi iOS app that can be downloaded here (free to existing broadband subscribers).

You can also share your connection from your iPhone if you have one and if your contract allows it, although in our experience sharing a connection (via General > Cellular > Personal Hotspot) can make your iPhone get hot very quickly.

There is also the option of purchasing a separate mobile broadband dongle like the MiFi from Three. You can share a mobile connection from that device.

You can read more about sharing a mobile connection to your iPad here.

How much storage space do I need for my iPad mini?

Aside from the choice of colour (Silver or Space Grey) and the Wi-Fi or Cellular options, there is a choice of four storage capacities for the Retina iPad mini. The choices include 16GB, 32GB, 64GB and 128GB. The iPad Air has exactly the same storage options, while the original iPad mini and the iPad 2 are only available with 16GB of storage.

For many people 16GB will be enough. Thanks to iCloud many of the files that could be cluttering up your device are actually stored on Apple’s servers. Apple will store the following in iCloud: Pages, Keynote and Numbers documents, and the last 30 days of your photos. You can also download any apps, music, or movies you have purchased from the App Store on any of your devices. Should you delete anything to save space, you will be able to re-download it for free at a later date.

However, we would still recommend getting more storage if you can as you are likely to quickly fill up your device with photos, videos, music and movies. After a year’s use our 64GB iPad mini has 23.9GB left. Despite having a capacity of 64GB, the device reports a capacity of 57.3GB (due to operating system requirements), so we are using just over 33GB of space which suggests that a 32GB iPad would have been sufficient for our needs. A 128GB device on the other hand would have been over kill.

Your usage will vary but there is no need to panic buy a device with a larger capacity, a bit of spring cleaning once in a while did nobody any harm so just delete things when you start to run out of capacity. The move from 16GB to 32GB costs an extra £80, as does the move from 32GB to 64GB and the move from 64GB to 128GB. If we were prepared to up our budget we’d probably opt for the extra storage over the cellular option.

The Lightning cable

People are still complaining about the new Lightning cable that Apple introduced with the iPhone 5 last year. This bi-directional and therefore easy to plug in cable replaced the older 30-pin connector on older iOS devices. The iPad 2 still features this connection. The other iPads feature the Lightning connector.

We prefer the Lightning connection which offers faster charging and faster file transfers, but some people own older accessories that don’t work with the new dock connector. We think it might be time they bit the bullet and updated their accessories, or invest in a Lightning to 30-pin adapter for £25.

Many new stereos forgo the dock connection, opting instead to use Apple’s AirPlay to stream music.

The Lightning to 30-pin adaptor

[Read more iPad reviews here]

OUR VERDICT

If it’s a smaller, lighter iPad you are after you can’t go wrong with the new iPad mini with Retina display. It’s better than last year’s model in all the ways that really matter, especially in terms of the screen and the speed. While the iPad mini costs slightly more this year than the original iPad mini did at launch, we think the increased cost isa small price to pay for the updated technology. While it would be nice if the iPad mini 2 had slimmed down, it’s hardly fat, and the iPad Air is practically the same thickness.

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