iPad Mini with Retina display review: Perfect balance of size and specs

iPad Mini with Retina display review: Perfect balance of size and specs

Summary: There are plenty of options in the tablet market, but for me the new iPad Mini with Retina display is the one I have been looking for and I could not be happier.

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TOPICS: Mobility, Apple, iOS, iPad, Tablets
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  • iPad Mini with Retina display and iPhone 5s

    Apple set the bar for tablets with the first iPad and established that there was indeed a market for such tablets. With the new iPad Mini with Retina display Apple again sets the bar in the smaller form factor tablet market and it is clearly the best tablet for me.

    Last month I evaluated and then purchased the Nokia Lumia 2520 instead of a new iPad because of the cost savings and experiences that I thought were equivalent. I grew tired of the missing apps and services, terrible fingerprint magnet of the display, and poorly designed (rather unfinished really) Verizon LTE management software so last week I returned the Lumia 2520 and bought my own iPad Mini with Retina display.

    Hardware

    I have always loved the high quality construction and design of the Apple iPads and the latest generation is appealing with beveled edges, light weight, minimal side bezels, metal backs, well-defined buttons, and gorgeous displays.

    There was some testing of select tablets that revealed the iPad Mini with Retina display is not technically as good as others. I honestly don't care what testing reveals and base my purchase decisions on my personal experiences and I find the display perfectly usable and functional for my needs.

    One of the main ways in which the iPad Mini with Retina display stands out from the previous generation iPad Mini is with the improved display resolution. It's simply stunning to me and I cannot imagine it getting any better.

    The front facing camera is centered above the display, the home button is centered below it, and there is very little bezel framing the display on the sides.

    The power button and headphone jack are found on the top with the stereo speakers and Lightning port on the bottom. The speakers sound great and even though I use headphones most of the time when watching movies or listening to music, I do use the tablet speakers for showing others video content and for working at my desk when I am tired of wearing headphones.

    The nanoSIM card slot, volume buttons, and lock/orientation switch are on the right side with the magnets for attaching cases along the left side.

    A 5 megapixel iSight camera is found on the upper left back with the black plastic area for the LTE and GPS radios centered along the top of the back.

    I love holding and carrying the iPad Mini and as an engineer who designs things I am still impressed by what is offered in this package every time I turn it on.

    Software

    The iPad Mini with Retina display runs the latest version of iOS 7. No other tablet operating system is yet as optimized as the iPad models and for me the iPad Mini offers the perfect balance of size and functionality.

    As a person who travels quite a bit, I do not like carrying lots of books or magazines and am enjoying reading these on the iPad Mini. I have used my phones to read before, but it is not an optimal experience. I enjoy using my Kindle Paperwhite, but don't like having to carry multiple devices unless I am going to read for hours on end. Magazines work well on the Mini and I have subscribed to a couple more since purchasing my new Mini.

    The iPad Mini has performed flawlessly so far, likely due to a mix of the OS and the advanced Apple processor inside. I am a fan of the webOS-like task switcher and am even now using Siri on the Mini.

    Applications on the iPad are awesome and this became even more apparent with apps like ESPN Fantasy Football last week. I am in the championship game this weekend in my work league and love the way I can easily follow all the action on the iPad Mini. My favorite apps on the Mini so far include Evernote, Flipboard, YouVersion Bible, Tweetbot, Newsstand, TripIt, and Words with Friends.

    Usage and experiences

    Like many people who have chosen to purchase a new generation iPad, the choice between the iPad Air and iPad Mini with Retina display was difficult to make. Apple made the choice a bit easier by matching the specifications between the two in all aspects except for the size. Then again, the iPad Air was given nearly a half pound reduction from the previous large model iPad so there is not much difference ( grams to be exact) in weight between these two tablets.

    I personally chose the iPad Mini with Retina display because the size really does make it more useful for my tablet needs. While James is able to get lots of writing done on the iPad Air, I cannot use any iPad for all my engineering work (I am a professional engineer by day). Thus, I use my iPad for basic blog writing, media consumption, entertainment (Fantasy Football, Final Four basketball), social networking, note taking, web browsing, and communications (FaceTime, iMessage, and email).

    Typical of iPads, battery life has been absolutely fantastic, both as a tablet and WiFi hotspot. The size is perfect and really a reason I find the iPad Mini so compelling. It's a joy to get a full tablet experience in an iPad that is so compact and portable.

    I had my first iPad Mini with Retina display for only two days when a thief broke into my parked car and stole it from me. I understand that the new iOS 7 security Activation Lock requires my Apple ID password even when hard reset, so hopefully this feature turns into common knowledge that leads to less theft of these pricey devices we purchase with our own hard earned money. At this time, criminals are still too stupid to know about it though so we have to continue to deal with theft.

    Pros and Cons

    To summarize my experiences with the Apple iPad Mini with Retina Display, here are my pros and cons.

    Pros

    • Gorgeous display
    • Fast performance
    • High quality construction and sleek design
    • Superior LTE frequency band support
    • Amazing battery life
    • Best application and service support

    Cons

    • Expensive compared to the competition
    • No 802.11 ac WiFi
    • No Touch ID home button

    Pricing and availability

    Like all Apple products, the iPad Mini with Retina display is priced at a premium. It is $100 less than the same Air models and I used this difference to pay for the two year Apple Care+ service.

    Pricing for the iPad Mini with Retina display starts at $399 for the 16GB WiFi-only model and goes up as high as $829 for the 128GB cellular model. I picked up the 64GB Verizon LTE model because I will likely use it daily for the next two years and didn't want to worry about running out of space for media and games.

    It is a shame that Apple keeps charging $100 fee for doubling the memory of each iPad, but that has been their pricing scheme for years and there is no way around it.

    The competition

    Samsung was the first to launch a smaller tablet with the Tab line and they have now expanded to also offer 8 inch models (both Tab and Note devices). Google has the Nexus 7, LG has their G Pad 8.3, HP has their Slates, Amazon has the Kindle Fire line, and there are many other 7 and 8 inch models available.

    Most of these tablets are less expensive than the iPad Mini with Retina display, but Apple has never been known to undercut others in price and it is a premium product. I thoroughly enjoyed the LG G Pad 8.3 and think it is the closest competitor to the iPad Mini with Retina display.

    The iPad Air may be one of the biggest competitors to the iPad Mini with Retina display as they are nearly the same in every regard, except for size. I have only used the larger iPad models in the past, but am smitten by the smaller size in this iPad Mini and believe I will use it even more often.

    Specifications

    • Apple iOS 7
    • Apple A7 chip with 64-bit architecture and M7 motion coprocessor
    • 7.9 inch 2048x1536 resolution LED display at 326 ppi
    • 1GB RAM and 64GB flash storage
    • 5 megapixel rear camera with f/2.4 aperture
    • 1.2 megapixel front facing camera
    • 23.8 Wh battery with up to 10 hours use on WiFi and 9 house via cellular
    • Dual microphones and dual stereo speakers
    • LTE radio with multiple band frequency support
    • 802.11 a/b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0
    • GPS, compass, and multiple sensors
    • Dimensions of 200 x 134.7 x 7.5 mm and 341 grams

    Conclusion

    You have likely heard the saying that the best camera is the one you have with you which is one reason I like to buy smartphones with good cameras. After using the iPad Mini with Retina display for over a week, I am starting to believe the best tablet may be the one that is always with you as well.

    I enjoyed using my full size iPad models in the past, but even with the improved design and lighter weight, I did try out the iPad Air for a few days, the full size model primarily stayed at home or went with me only when I carried my backpack. Due to the iPad Mini size, I find it goes out with me on a daily basis and is a great companion to the smaller iPhone 5s.

    Many of my friends recommended the iPad Mini last year, but I was satisfied with my 3rd generation iPad. I am happy I waited for the Mini with a Retina display and couldn't be happier with my purchase. As a heavy data user, it is offers the perfect balance of size and specifications.

    Apple's iPads definitely come at a premium price, but you should also consider they are worth much more when you are ready to move up to the newer model. I have used tablets running other operating systems, but keep coming back to an iPad because I still find the app selection, quality, functionality, and service offerings to be superior.

    I would likely give the iPad Mini with Retina display a perfect 10 if it had launched with Touch ID and all WiFi bands. The device really is nearly perfect and it will be in my collection for quite some time to come.

    Contributor's rating: 9.5 out of 10

    Further reading

  • Green smart cover

Topics: Mobility, Apple, iOS, iPad, Tablets

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54 comments
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  • Honestly...

    I had a Mini Retina and Fire HDX side by side and not only was the Fire HDX more responsive, the display was significantly better.

    The mini went back to Apple in a hurry when all my family put them through the paces and felt for Movies, Reading, music, and Games the HDX was simply better.

    I owned the original Mini and felt the fonts were horribly skewed... I was happy to see that wasn't going to be an issue with the Retina display but, Apple made so many compromises with the Mini Retina Display that It simply wasn't worth the money.

    If you're willing to shell out the money for the Mini Retina, spend the extra cash and get the Air instead as that display had no compromises and even though the N7 2013 and Fire HDX 8.9 were rated higher still, it wasn't enough of a difference to say the Air was out classed.

    The Mini Retina on the other hand cannot even handle Full RGB and the contrast compared to the others is found to be wanting at best.
    slickjim
    • Unfortunately for Kindle owners

      You get a horrible UI and a crippled app market and ads pushed to you. You'd be much better off pretty much any other android tablet than the Kindle Fire.
      new gawker
      • I miss the Nook Tablet...

        It's a shame that B&N never made a 2013 update of it.
        ForeverCookie
      • You would be wrong about that...

        The ads can be removed for $14 but, those ads are often Kindle only deals... One such deal was a Kuerig Brewer and 40 K-Cups for $20 with free shipping.

        Also, the UI has improved enough that the only issue I have with it is the Carousel still exists... Either way, the Fire HDX with Fire OS 3.0 is much faster than either iOS 7 and the more recent versions of Android

        As for the Apps, that is the downside to the tablet but, if Amazon ever fixes that, then the whole market will have a considerable force to reckon with.
        slickjim
      • "Adds pushed to you......."

        Let's do some research eh! Currently Kindle Fire HDX 7" $244.00 without ads for the 4g LTE 16gb model. You have choices.

        Seriously, all of the premium tablets these days are of very high quality. So much is just personal preference. Some will choose to pay the Apple premium price. Many will not. Both can be quite happy with their choice.
        tietchen
      • Works Well For Some

        "You get a horrible UI and a crippled app market and ads pushed to you."

        Agree with the app market, but the UI is perfect for technically challenged individuals. I know because those in my circle of friends who own a Kindle never call me for support (aside from having a little hands on with it). It is truly simple, and works for dummies.
        louishelps
    • I agree

      I had a Mini Retina and Fire HDX side by side and not only was the Fire HDX more responsive, the display was significantly better.

      The iPad can't compare.
      NoAxToGrind
      • It's crazy...

        I expected Apple to get beat by somebody but, I never expected Amazon to be the company that was beating them!

        Don't get me wrong the Nexus 7 2013 Screen also measured better than Apple's Mini Retina and only was at least competitive to the Fire HDX.
        slickjim
        • I will give my "considerable" two cents worth of input on this topic.

          Since the iPad Mini Retina went on sale to now, I have been fortunate enough to have purchased and used three "mini" tablets: the iPad Mini Retina, the Dell Venue 8 Pro and the Kindle Fire HDX 7" model.

          All three tablets exhibit superior UI responsiveness. To indicate that one is "faster" than another, IMO, simply indicates bias towards one a particular platform. In this regard, I would differ with slickjim's observations. Again, all UI gestures (scrolling, selecting menu items, multi-touch actions and any other UI related actions are all accomplised in superb fluid movements on all three platforms.

          Regarding all display color attributes that a user would perceive or notice, I would rank the Kindle Fire HDX as having the best color display. That is to say, the "blacks are blacker" and the "whites are purer" (and all colors in-between ) on the Kindle.

          However, to suggest that the iPad Mini Retina display, by being less than the equal of the Kindle display, is a "poor second cousin" to the Kindle or supply any user, over time, with an experience that is less than pleasurable, would be unfairly biased or incorrect, IMO.

          Specifically, the clarity in exceptionally fine image detail still belongs to the iPad Mini Retina's display. IMO, it is simply better for reading text. And, conversely, just because the Kindle, again IMO, has a display less than equal to the iPad's for text reading should in no way suggest that the Kindle is a poor ebook reader. It is an excellent ebook reader, in fact. But to my eyes, the iPad is simply better.

          In this category, the Dell suffers but it's display is leaps and bounds better than the original iPad Mini's display. Still, the Dell's display is noticeable inferior to the other two tablets but still a definite improvement over the Surface RT display that I also have had extended experience with and to give a comparison to.
          kenosha77a
          • You would be wrong.

            The Fire HDX simply shows a much swifter manipulation of the User Interface...

            Web Browsing was even smoother on the HDX. The signature smooth browsing under iOS 6 is gone under iOS 7 and I am not imagining it, my wife still has her iPad and it is on hers as well.

            There is no Bias towards the product, I wanted the Mini Retina to be the better product because the iLife and iWork suite of free apps is a pretty good deal.

            With that said, it is noticeably inferior in display technology as even my Apple Loving Daughter wasted no time in proclaiming the HDX display as superior when comparing the two side by side. I have since given her an HDX for Christmas but, I cannot pry her iPhone from her hands.
            slickjim
          • I agree the display is better on the Kindle. I stated that.

            But your experiences with UI elements differ from mine.

            However, I will say this. It takes the latest Apple A7 ARM chipset to run iOS 7 at a satisfactory "snappiness" level. I have installed iOS 7 on my iPad 3 (retina) and there is a slight, very slight lag in responsiveness that was not apparent under iOS 6. That is not to say that the display scrolling is any less smooth, IMO, under iOS 7 on my iPad 3. But this is an initial response lag that is noticeable on "older" iPads.

            However, on my iPad mini retina, I think Safari web browsing is superior to the Kindle's Silk browser. After I post this comment, I will do a side by side comparison between the two web browsers. I will see which device loads web pages faster and if the Kindle's silk browser is snappier and loads web pages faster, I will post a reply to this comment.

            Anyway, not to start an "observational" war but all I'm saying is my iPad Mini retina experiences differ from your family's.

            Now, having said that, and to be completely truthful, I have not been a great fan of the iOS 7 "white" virtual keyboard performance. It seems under iOS 7, that a speed penalty is being enacted when the SoC is being tasked to suggest word completions or spelling suggestions.
            kenosha77a
          • Well, I performed my browser test and the results are conclusive

            The A7 ARM/iOS 7/Safari synergy consistently out performs the 7" Kindle Fire HDX/Fire OS 3.0/Silk browser combo.

            Web pages load noticeable faster. But in reality, what is a second or so wait? The Kindle is just fine browsing the web.

            But you could do me a favor, slickjim, if you could perform this one web search on your Kindle Fire HDX.

            Please go to www.freep.com (the Detroit Freepress newspaper online site) and then scroll down the page tell you get near the bottom.

            There will be a Sports section. In that section is a linked article called, "See Lions to win Sunday? Not our beat writers (video)"

            Yeah, I'm a vey long suffering Lions fan.

            However, the video in that article does not play on my stock Kindle Fire HDX. It does play on my iPad.

            See if you can replicate that behavior.

            I believe that the video is a QuickTime encoded video. If that is so, is there anyway to add a QuickTime browser plugin for the Silk browser? Or is there ANY browser in the Amazon App Store that can play QuickTime video content?

            Sort of the similar to the iOS and Flash situation, IMO. Grin.
            kenosha77a
          • That's not the issue...

            The Kindle browser doesn't attempt to load the HTML5 version of the page and you only have an Android or Desktop mode for the Silk Browser. The desktop mode shows the video in Flash and that's not supported by the Fire at all...

            There might be a browser that will play it but, if you side load Dolphin Web Browser, you can change the default load to iPad and then it will look just like the Apple web page and it will play the video content as well.

            As for the Lions, they have an awesome team but, they need a real head coach.

            As for me, I'm a long suffering Pats Fan who found redemption in the early 2000s! Bigger Grin!
            slickjim
          • Thank you, slickjim. I will try Dolphin.

            BTW, if truth be known, most Michigan football fans have long ago adopted the Pats as "their" home team - or at least share their loyalties between the Lions and the Pats.

            Obviously, the "Tom Brady - University of Michigan" connection plays a strong role in that sport's dynamic.
            kenosha77a
          • Do this

            Shut off the cloud surfing, that's junk.

            I'm not talking about loading speeds the iPad loaded them faster... I'm talking about scrolling up and down the page after they're loaded. My Mini Retina was herky jerky and my wife's Mini is as well. The Silk Browser didn't exhibit this issue.
            slickjim
          • I will try your suggestion.

            Once again, slickjim, Thank you for your suggestions and comments. It's been a good discussion.

            But it does leave some frustration which will never be resolved to my satisfaction. Specifically, I wish I could just lend you my mini retina and allow you to show me this scrolling jerkiness that you described on your tablet. I truly don't experience that on my iPad mini - even when I attempt to scroll the web page "top to bottom" before that web page has a chance to completely finish loading.

            I understand what web scrolling jerkiness is. When the Samsung Galaxy first generation tablet was introduced, I tried scrolling some web pages on it at a local Best Buy. Yup, I know what you are talking about but I have yet to see that behavior manifested in my iPad mini.

            The best I can do is state that I have never seen any jerkiness exhibited on the Kindle Fire HDX.
            kenosha77a
          • Hold on there Slick!

            What I want to know is how does the biggest Apple hater amount ZDNet commenters (now that toddbottom3 has been shamed off of here following the epic RT failure) come to own an Apple product?

            In regards to todd, I'm sure he is lurking around here somewhere, plotting his comeback.
            CowLauncher
          • Comparing the DVP8 to the Mini

            The Dell Venue Pro 8 is $100 cheaper than the Mini, has microSD, and is a full Windows OS tablet. Heck, it even has full Office and that is a $100 per year value. Not only that but its an OS that is completely unlocked and open to install whatever you want. You can connect this to a monitor/keyboard/mouse and use it as a full PC.

            Just saying that at $100 cheaper, who cares if the Mini has a better screen with everything else you get with a DVP8?
            Rann Xeroxx
          • Oh boy. You pose important questions which I will try to answer.

            Hopefully, those were not rhetorical questions. Grin. However, it might take awhile.

            Before I begin, let me state that when I have posted comments on ZDNet during the last six years, those comments were generated either from first hand experience, trusted informational sources or just plain opinions based upon my overall life experiences. What I don’t do is just repeat “the company line”.

            For this post, Rann, I will rely mostly on first hand observations of the Dell and the Apple tablets.

            As everyone knows, different hardware/software ecosystems have advantages and disadvantages. Since Matt listed all the pluses for the iPad, I will try to give the advantages of the Dell Venue 8 Pro first and then my answers to your questions.

            The two tablets differ in physical dimensions. An obvious observation but an important one. The Dell has a 16:9 ratio form factor while the iPad uses the 4:3 ratio form.

            Normally a 16:9 slate is used almost exclusively in the landscape mode. (I always use my Surface Pro in that orientation) However, since the Dell is only an 8” tablet, can be held in one hand fairly easily and system-weight is not a problem, portrait mode operation is quite acceptable. And, unlike the first generation Microsoft tablets, the fonts used in portrait mode on the Dell do not suffer from noticeable pixilations. And, of course, some content is best viewed in a 16:9 ratio format. These attributes make this an important plus characteristic for the Dell.

            Of all the external cursor control devices you mentioned in your comment that the Dell can take advantage of, you overlooked an active digitizer pen. I have that Dell accessory. It works but to be perfectly honest, except for traditional free style drawing or exercises in handwritten transcription, a small blue tooth mouse (I have and like the MS wedge mouse) works better at cursor control. (You wouldn’t think that, but it does. That opinion is based upon how the Dell pen actually interacts with this tablet.) Still, having an active pen digitizer is another Dell plus.

            You mentioned lower system cost as an advantage and I agree that this is an important consideration. My Venue 8 Pro is a 64 GB model equipped with a 64 GB microSD card. My system cost was not based upon pure MSRP figures but was aided by “Black Friday” cost savings. My tablet accessories (optional yet almost mandatory) included microUSB to USB adapters and a Miricast enabled device (the Netgear Push2TV PTV3000) allowing wireless screen cloning to an external HDTV set. Total cost for this system was: Tablet ($234), microSD card ($35), Pen ($89), microUSB adapters ($14), the Netgear Push2TV “gadget” ($56) and an HDMI cable ($75 - Best Buy - no wait, just kidding. Grin. Amazon $10)

            My total Dell Venue 8 Pro system cost: $438 US dollars. The price of my 32 GB WiFi only iPad Mini (retina) with smart cover: $538 (Throw in an Apple TV and HDMI cable and the total system cost for the iPad Mini retina is $647

            That is roughly a $200 dollar difference. That is a significant advantage for the Dell tablet. (BTW, the Netgear Push2TV and the Apple TV allow both devices to clone their displays to an HDTV screen. The Apple TV is a much more versatile device but, non-the-less, it is still needed to project content from the iPad wirelessly to an HDTV screen.

            Windows 8.1 and the Dell Venue 8 Pro provide a very enjoyable experience, IMO. I like the Windows touch gestures, the “Charms”, and all that multitasking, split screen goodness. MS and Dell have combined to make an extremely powerful productive hardware/software synergy.

            So, in addition to all your noted additional software/hardware advantages for the Dell, the question to ask is, “Does a significantly cheaper tablet system with additional hardware and software capabilities over another competing tablet equate to a superior experience for the user?” And really, that is your essential question when comparing the Dell to the Apple tablet. And, if the answer to that question is yes, than why consider the iPad Mini retina at all?

            Most sane persons would simply say yes to that question. Unfortunately, it’s more complicated and, paradoxically, it revolves around the concept of simplicity. Sometimes “simple and efficient” trumps “great power, price advantages and versatility”. To explain that, I would have to channel Sir Jonathan Ive. He said it best when describing the original iPad. Sometimes having a product incorporating a laser sharp product design focus tailored to provide maximum user satisfaction trumps everything else.

            It’s funny but recall the original iPad Air commercial that shows that tablet hidden by a pencil.

            When I pick up and use my iPad, it is as natural to me (and as efficient) as using that pencil. Like the pencil, the Apple tablet “just works”: An old cliche, to be sure, but it doesn’t give me any hassles. I don’t think about it. And I do complicated things with my iPad. For example, wireless file transfers, content streaming, dual screen laptop uses, ex cetera.) Everything I do on my iPad is done easily and efficiently and it does this in it’s normal “stand alone” state or by working in unison with my other computer products. (That, of course, is where the the quality and usefulness of apps make an impact and the Apple ecosystem is blessed with an overabundance of quality apps to choose from.)

            That level of powerful simplicity of operation (with the key on the word “powerful”) is worth the extra $200 dollars to me. And, apparently, that added cost is worth paying by quite a few other persons around the world. To put it another way, the current abilities of the iPad ecosystem can benefit far more users than the Dell Venue 8 Pro currently can. I wouldn’t draw any justifications for platform superiority from that statement, however.
            kenosha77a
          • Wow...

            No offense but you really need to learn to bullet or something.
            Rann Xeroxx