The iPad Mini is neither a 7" nor an 8" tablet, straddling the divide and setting itself apart from other small-format tablets with a 7.9" 4:3 display. Set into a screen bezel whose vertical edges have been whittled right down to the minimum, the Apple iPad Mini has been fitted with an IPS screen panel with 1024 x 768 pixels. It runs on a 1 GHz dual-core Apple A5 processor, the Power VR SGX543MP2 graphics chip and 512 MB of RAM. It's available with 16, 32 or 64 GB of memory. There's a 5-Megapixel photo and video (1080p) camera on the back of the tablet, as well as a 2-Megapixel front-facing webcam. Connectivity is catered for with Wi-Fi a/b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0.
This being Apple, the only main connector—apart from the 3.5 mm audio jack—is a proprietary port. This is the same Lightning connector as seen in the iPhone 5 and the iPad 4, and is smaller than the 30-pin connector used in the firm's older-generation products.
The Apple iPad Mini starts at £269 for the 16 GB Wi-Fi-only model.
DESIGN & HANDLING
The finish, design and general handling are no doubt the strongest features of this new iDevice. Compared with its direct competitors, Apple has shot to kill when it comes to quality. While we were already largely satisfied with the physical design of the Google Nexus 7 by Asus, and blown away by that of the Amazon Kindle Fire HD, the iPad Mini takes things to another level.
Left to right: Amazon Kindle Fire HD, Apple iPad Mini, Google Nexus 7 by Asus
In terms of design, the Mini is a mix between an iPad and an iPhone 5, and it looks just great. As usual, the materials Apple uses are a cut above those of its competitors (anyone can do plain old aluminium these days). The tablet is 7.2 mm thick and weighs 312 grammes, which almost makes you forget that it's actually slightly bigger than its main rivals.
Left to right: Amazon Kindle Fire HD, Apple iPad Mini, Google Nexus 7by Asus
The physical buttons are seamlessly integrated into the casing and the Lightning proprietary connector (grrr!) blends perfectly into the tablet's lower edge. Not everyone will find tablet's thickness ideal for gripping with one hand—especially users with daintier hands. That remains a strong point of the Nexus 7.
The iPad Mini sits much better in the palm of a big strong hand, and it doesn't have the same easy pick-up-and-grip qualities of the Nexus 7. However, Apple's Mini tablet is also less wide and less thick than the Kindle Fire HD, and is therefore generally easier to handle.
But if there's one thing that genuinely improves handling in the iPad Mini compared with its rivals, it's the eleventh pressure point in the supposedly ten-point multitouch screen. It may seem like a minor detail, and it also features in full-sized iPad tablets, but here it makes all the more difference.
When you pick up the tablet with one hand with your thumb resting on the screen (see above), the icons are purposely positioned away from the edges so that your thumb can rest on the right or left of the screen. Here, thanks to the the improved multitouch capabilities, the iPad Mini effectively "knows" when you're resting your thumb on the edge of the screen and when you're interacting with the screen, so you can keep on doing whatever you're doing without accidentally pressing icons with your thumb. You don't get that with Android!
The iPad Mini has an IPS display, which should make for good contrast levels and wide viewing angles. We measured a respectable average contrast ratio of 783:1 for Apple's iPad Mini, which is on par with the first iPad and with Amazon's Kindle Fire HD. The Nexus 7, however, pushes up over 900:1. This, twinned with a maximum brightness of 330 cd/m2, keeps the onscreen image easy to read in most conditions, both indoors and outdoors.
The iPad Mini therefore isn't the best option for photographers or graphic designers looking for a tablet on which to view back pictures with accurate results. The third-gen iPad was a much better choice for that. However, the white here is very pure. In fact, whites in the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire HD end up looking slightly yellow-tinged next to the iPad Mini. Thanks to IPS technology, the horizontal and vertical viewing angles are excellent.
So what's this 7.9" IPS display like to read? To be honest, we found general screen readability inferior to the Nexus 7 or the Kindle Fire HD. Then again, the latter two tablets have pixel densities of 198 dpi and 216 dpi respectively, while the iPad Mini makes do with 163 dpi. The edges of individual letters therefore look less crisp on the iPad Mini display, making overall sharpness levels seem lower.
The operating system (iOS 6) is still clear and easy to read onscreen, but we do think it lacks a little crispness—probably because we've got so used to seeing ultra-sharp screens lately. That said, there's still a pretty big gulf between a Retina display and this standard IPS screen. Plus, general readability doesn't seem as sharp or precise as with the iPad Mini's two main competitors.
Ultimately, we can't help thinking that Apple has unfinished business here. The firm usually moves things forward from one product generation to the next, and the iPad is generally no exception. The fact that there's no Retina display in the iPad Mini is therefore like a step backwards for the firm in terms of screen technology—especially when competitor tablets offer more effective alternatives in cheaper products.
INTERFACE & NAVIGATION
The iPad Mini ships with iOS 6. You can find out more about iOS 6 here.
One major change is the arrival of Siri, Apple's intelligent voice assistant previously reserved for iPhones. Plus, Facebook is now directly integrated into the OS, and Google Maps has been ditched for Apple's own Maps app, which is still—ahem—finding its feet. The Photo Stream service can also now be used to create Shared Photo Streams.
In terms of pure performance, the iPad Mini comes in just slightly ahead of the iPad 2, but only by a whisker. This is no doubt thanks to various tweaks that have optimised the system. The A5 processor has also been trimmed down from 45 mm in the iPad 2 to 32 nm in the iPad Mini (for improved power efficiency). Seeing as the iPad 2 is still one of the most powerful products on the market, the iPad Mini can hold its head up high in the world of 8" (or under) tablets.
In practice, that makes for flawless performances with iOS 6. The OS is smooth, and the device is fast and responsive in all fields. In fact, you basically get the same user experience as with an iPad 3 but with a few milliseconds shaved off the response times. Note that the iPad Mini can display the 3D maps in Apple's Maps app, although processing is still a little chaotic here.
For web browsing, the iPad Mini benefits from the latest improvements brought to Safari but with the same levels of processing power as the iPad 2. This tradeoff makes the Mini a fast device for surfing on the move, but it's clearly not the fastest tablet out there. Note that you can always download Chrome as an alternative browser, which is just as effective as in any Android tablet. The zoom function is fast and accurate but it sometimes judders and glitches a bit as it progresses.
In terms of readability, as we said above (see the "Screen" part of the review), while the iPad Mini is still pleasant enough to read both in portrait and landscape modes, this tablet doesn't give the sharpest results on the market when reading web pages or e-books.
By default, multimedia is obviously managed by iTunes, the nerve centre of audio/video content in the iPad Mini as in all other Apple devices. As you may already know, iTunes is quite restrictive, and is only compatible with a limited range of file formats: MP3 for audio, mp4/MPEG-4 for video, and obviously any content bought directly from iTunes. However, like with Android devices, you can always download and install a third-party media player that's compatible with more formats. The best of the bunch has got to be OPlayerHD (free or £2.99 with no ads). With that you can bypass the sacred iTunes sync process and load your iPad Mini directly with content via the app (via USB or via streaming). Note that video playback is a little less "cinema-style" than with a 16:10-format device.
For games, it goes without saying that the App Store is packed with all kinds of things to keep you entertained. All the apps developed for Apple's full-sized iPad run well on the iPad Mini but, again, you'll have to do without the super-sharp graphic experience of a Retina display.
E-books and comics are getting easier to read over time as their size and formats get whittled down. The iBooks app therefore runs pretty smoothly here. However, we still prefer reading e-books on a proper e-reader device, because they aren't as harsh on the eyes as this kind of screen.
The 5-Megapixel camera isn't as bad as all that. On the whole, it's about on par with the camera in the New iPad (iPad 3), taking shots with some noise but which are generally reasonably sharp. Shots have a slight red overtone in low-light conditions but smoothing is never really too heavy. The video mode is smooth but, here too, the image is prone to some noise. The front-facing camera for face-to-face chat is one of the most precise and smooth on the market.
Apple has loaded the iPad Mini with a 4490 mAh battery. As for all of its iPad tablets, the firm is promising a 10-hour battery life. And, as usual, this latest iDevice gets very close to Apple's estimates. Whether for video playback or for mixed use (e-mail, games, web browsing, apps, media playback), the iPad Mini holds out for between 9 hours and 9 hrs 45 mins. But for intensive gaming sessions with power-hungry games, that can drop to nearer 6 hrs 40 mins. All in all, those are good results which, once again, take full advantage of the product's relatively power-efficient screen.
Charging a fully flat battery takes around 2 hrs 50 mins, which really isn't bad considering the battery life you get in return.