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

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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Topic: Mobility
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1 of 17 Matthew Miller/ZDNet

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 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 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 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 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

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Green smart cover

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iPad Mini with Smart Cover in place

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The iPad Mini with Retina display is easy to carry and use

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Back of the Space Gray iPad Mini

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Right side buttons

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Upper left of the back

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Beveled edges and curved design

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Bottom stereo speakers and Lightning port

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Browsing on the iPad Mini with Retina display

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My current home screen

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It's easy to thumb type with the split keyboard

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Loving the Fantasty Football experience

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Gmail app is solid

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Tweetbot is my favorite Twitter client on the Mini

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View of the settings

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I enjoy reading magazines on the iPad Mini

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