Apple has gone where we never thought it would, with the iPad mini bringing the Apple tablet experience to a brave new budget world.
The tablet comes in at a wallet-friendly £279 for the basic version, with 16GB of storage on offer for the Wi-Fi version. You can supplement the mini-slate with up to 64GB of space to chuck movies and music, as well as 4G LTE connectivity, but that will set you back an eye-watering £529 for the top model.
The two competitors have been getting many column inches so far thanks to the super cheap prices and the impressive specs on board – although with both only offering a 7-inch screen compared to Apple’s 7.9-inch offering, the Cupertino board is confident its device will win the day when it comes to capturing consumers’ hearts.
However, the more frugal shopper, and especially one buying for a loved on, may not agree with this idea, as the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD costs 30% less and when faced with a choice between the three might opt for the familiar Amazon brand or the sheer power of the Nexus 7, with its mightily impressive spec list and legions of Google apps.
That said, Apple fans need not worry too much when it comes to whether the iPad mini is a worthy addition to the iBrand, as it comes with enough power and reams of Ive-inspired design to make it a worthwhile addition to the range – this isn’t a shrunken down iPad, it’s a whole new product again.
Be it the larger screen size, the impressively low weight or the alternative design compared to the competition there’s a lot to chew over with the iPad mini – but is it worth spending your hard-earned when more cash will get you a fully-fledged version of Apple’s tablet?
Features and design
The iPad mini is one of those devices that exists because the market started to dictate its presence…but that doesn’t mean Apple doesn’t want to put its own spin on things.
To that end, the screen is larger at 7.9 inches, the design is completely different to the likes of the new iPad or the Google Nexus 7, and the whole ethos has been created from the ground up partly under the stewardship of Sir Jony Ive, according to Apple.
None of that matters though – what is important is the fact it’s a superbly-designed device that at least gives a measure of why it costs so much more than the likes of the Kindle Fire HD.
The aluminium chassis shares the same colouring as the iPhone 5, with the darker black slate and white silver options both bringing a touch of class to proceedings.
At 308g it’s twice the weight and then some of the iPhone 5, but compared to other tablets on the market (and combined with the aluminium chassis) it gives a very lightweight feeling the hand.
The screen is something of a worry though – with the 1024 x 768 resolution in the expansive display we’re only getting a sharpness akin to the iPhone 3GS. While the display is better than that, thanks to improved IPS LCD technology, its still light years behind the Retina display on the bigger brother new iPad.
If you own a modern iPad, you’ll notice the difference straight away. But then again, if you have one of these, then you won’t want to buy the iPad mini.
Where the tablet will struggle to impress is when users who own an iPhone are checking it out, as it doesn’t have the wow factor of other devices.
In a side by side test of the same movie running on the iPad mini, the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire HD, the iPad looked the least impressive (although the contrast ratio was certainly more than decent in our eyes).
Then there’s the issue of holding the actual tablet. As Apple says, it’s as light as pad of legal paper, and there’s definitely no notion of this causing undue wrist strain. However, there is an issue with actually holding it, as the iPad mini doesn’t really lend itself that well to any manner of grip.
The most comfortable and safe-feeling way to hold a tablet is to grip right around the back – something Apple thinks you can do easily according to its promotional materials.
Well, you’re wrong there, Cupertino-gadget-people. It’s just too far to stretch around comfortably for those with average-sized hands, so you’re forced to hold it in the corner, covering part of the screen. It’s good that Apple has chucked some technology in there so this doesn’t register as a touch, but it’s not the most comfortable way to browse.
In landscape with two hands, the iPad mini is a much nicer device to hold, with the aluminium covering giving it a really lovely back. However, the covering in aluminium in the same way as the iPhone 5 has led to another design problem: scratching.
The handsets have been getting criticism for exposing the silver metal below with minimal scratching, and this has begun to happen within a day on the iPad mini – which is all the more confusing seeing as it doesn’t live in the pocket with keys and coins.
It’s something we hope Apple would have changed in the manufacturing process already, and means you’ll need to keep a real eye on how you look after the tablet.
The top and the bottom of the bezel are also wide enough here to rest your hands comfortably, and the likes of landscape web browsing and accelerometer-based gaming is excellent.
The rest of the design is predictably ergonomic when it comes to tapping the minimal level of buttons. The volume rocker keys are close to, but not too near, the mute switch on the top right-hand side.
This is near the power button, which is intuitively placed to always be easy to hit when you want to reactivate the iPad mini… although many will just hit the home button to achieve the same thing.
That traditional Apple home key is predictably here again, and it’s shrunken somewhat to fit into the smaller chassis. However, during our testing we found it just as easy as ever to hit, despite the dinkier dimensions.
It’s interesting that Apple has popped the headphone jack at the top of the iPad mini, given it’s put so much effort in chucking it down at the bottom of the iPhone 5… but we do love it staying above the screen.
The speakers are at the bottom of the iPad mini, flanking the Lightning connector, which offers faster speeds of data transfer and can be connected either way round that you fancy, which is handy when charging before bed and can’t be bothered to put the light on.
The speakers provide decent enough sound, but in landscape mode really create a distorted sense of audio, thanks to it firing quite mono-directionally.
The processor being last generation, in the shape of the Apple A5 effort, may worry some but it’s likely to be enough for most actions, coupled with 512MB of RAM. It’s miles away from the raw grunt of the Google Nexus 7 or the new iPad with its A6X processor, but Apple reckons it helps it hit a sweet spot in terms of price.
Interface and performance
When it comes to the interface on the iPad mini, it’s not going to be a shock to any long-time Apple users, with the same iOS 6 method of displaying icons still as prevalent as ever.
This means the transition to the smaller size of device will be easy for most, as although the iPad layout, with more space between the icons on the home screen, is prevalent once more, it shrinks down nicely.
Holding the iPad mini in portrait mode is easy enough thanks to the weight, and prodding the icons on screen isn’t too difficult nor does it feel like you’re going to push the tablet out of your hands and onto the floor, waiting for that heart-stopping moment when you see a crack slide across the display like demon fingers reaching into your wallet.
The iOS interface is simplicity itself, so any users not familiar with Apple’s mobile operating system will pick it up in no time at all. The icons are laid out in a 4 by 3 layout, and unlike on the iPhone they will rotate when you move the tablet into landscape format.
The ability to place icons in the bottom dock means you can have the apps you want pervading around the home screen, while dragging and dropping said apps on top of one another will allow you to create folders with ease, which you can rename anything you want.
As we expected with a device running iOS 6 there are no widgets to speak of, which means the only app you can really control from the home screen is the music player, which can be accessed by double tapping the home button (which activates the list of recently-used apps) and swiping left for access to the music controls.
What is also nice here is you can alter the brightness of the iPad mini from the same screen, as well as change the speaker output if you’re using AirPlay… little things but the direction Apple needs to take to make iOS a little more modern. It’s nothing new, but it works very well on the smaller tablet.
The lock screen is a slightly different matter; for those au fait with iOS on the iPad, this will be old news, but for the newcomers: if you double tap the home button here you’ll be presented with access to your music controls again, along with album art displaying when you’re listening to music.
And there’s also the option to have the lock screen as a slide show of all your favourite pictures, which is started up by pressing the photo icon at the bottom – it’s these little tweaks that have brought joy to so many Apple users over the years, and we’re still impressed by them today.
However, this is still iOS 6 running, and that’s becoming something of a problem in our eyes. Not so much at the moment, as there’s enough simplicity and function on offer to not make us too worried, but it’s a system that is starting to show its age.
For instance, one of our main bugbears is through controlling settings – this is still only really possible through the main ‘Settings’ app, which means if you want to tweak mail settings, music or apps themselves you’ll need to jump out of whatever you’re doing and head into another menu from the home screen just to make a small alteration.
However, Apple is still catering for the iPad owners with some handy gestures to make things easier to move around. Instead of double tapping the home button to switch apps, touching the screen with all five fingers and swiping left and right will move you through the most recently-used apps, and pinching all digits together will return you to the home screen.
This is really helpful when using the tablet on the move, as it means you don’t need to shuffle the palm around to hit the home button – and it’s really cool too. It’s an even more intuitive system on the iPad mini than the iPad ‘proper’, as it somehow fits the screen size better.
We still like the Facebook and Twitter integration – being able to post thoughts directly from the notification centre (available anywhere by dragging from the top of the screen)
Apple might be criticised for bringing older technology to the iPad mini, as the A5 chip with 512MB of RAM doesn’t sound like a lot when you can buy the quad core Google Nexus 4 smartphone with 2GB of RAM for the same price as the mini, and with the same amount of storage too.
However, in practice it’s really rather hard to fault Apple’s interface performance when using the device in day to day use. It’s definitely not got the grunt of the larger new iPad 4, as when we were setting up the device and downloading all manner of music and settings the whole thing melted down and wouldn’t let us move around menus or see what was going on with other apps.
But that was a rare situation, as only apps getting snarled up and shutting themselves down caused us any consternation in day to day use. This isn’t a regular occurrence, and to be fair happens a lot less on iOS than it does on Android, as Apple’s quality control is a tad higher when allowing apps into its marketplace.
The only real gripe, and it’s one you’ll hear time and again from us throughout this iPad mini review, is the fact that the screen is too low-res. It simply saddens us to see menus we’re used to on both iPads and iPhones not having the same sharpness as before… and we’re certainly not used to seeing Apple take a step back in quality.
If you’ve never used a top end smartphone or tablet, this won’t be an issue as the display is fine, and technically still HD in terms of pixel count. But it’s definitely the trick Apple is holding up its sleeve for the next iteration of the device – that Tim Cook is a sneaky one, isn’t he?
Messages and contacts
The way the iPad mini handles messages is two fold: through the impressive email client and now with iMessage on board. When it comes to emailing, there aren’t many better clients on the market, with an expansive view and the ability to see your messages differently in both portrait and landscape mode.
You can have multiple accounts set up on the device, be it through Exchange or a web-based service like GMail, and then you’re able to see these individually or together in a unified inbox. Either offers an excellent view of your message, with it being easy to delete emails as a batch or as single missives.
But it’s the little tweaks that make this option a decent choice for a work-based tablet, if you’re one of those types that move around a lot when doing business things.
It’s not going to change the world, but there’s a lot we like here: the power draw of the email client is relatively minimal compared to older Apple products, you can easily manage folders and see specific emails through the search function and it just makes everything easier than competing products on Android.
The keyboard on the iPad mini was an area we were interested to drill into, as given the smaller proportions of the device we wondered if it was going to be any easier to type on than the larger iPad.
Well, in normal portrait and landscape modes it’s a little bit odd. With its bigger brother (and most large screen tablets) you can place them on your lap in landscape mode and rattle out messages at a fairly rapid rate thanks to the bigger display.
That’s not possible on the iPad mini really, and holding the device in portrait means you can’t type one handed either. However, if you use Apple’s clever split dock keyboard, the whole system is much better. This feature is available on the bigger ‘Pad, but with the larger size the weight made it hard to hold and type with.
For the iPad mini, typing on the move is an excellent experience once you spend some time practicing – entering text on tablets has always been hard, but this is as easy to use as the impressive SwiftKey on Android, bar the clever auto prediction of text.
It’s obvious Apple would include iMessage on this device, allowing you to send messages between other Apple devices for free (in most cases, depending on how lenient your network is) in the same manner as RIM’s BBM.
It’s a simple system, and without the extra confusion of a phone number to worry about it doesn’t get in way of actual SMS messages, which was a problem on the iPhone 5. If you’re someone who has others in the family set up on an Apple device, you’ll find yourself using this feature out and about a fair amount, especially if you’ve picked up the LTE iPad mini.
One of the ‘magical’ features for the iPad mini is the ability to call people using FaceTime, which won’t come as a shock to many of you, given Apple is certain people need to see their cats before saying goodnight when away on business trips.
The service is much unchanged on this model of iPad, although the HD front-facing camera is an excellent choice for chatting with people using your head rather than just your mouth.
The service was slick (with a strong enough Wi-Fi connection) and although we wish the contacts menu made it clearer who was rocking an Apple device and would thus be ready for FaceTime, the overall experience was smooth and the on-screen power impressive.
When it comes to contacts management, Apple has never been the most impressive, and that continues on the iPad mini. While the service is perfectly acceptable in terms of storing names and numbers, the rest of it isn’t too intuitive.
For instance, with the involvement of Facebook on iOS 6 you can now see your buddies with phone numbers in your Contacts list, as well as those from iCloud and other services you’ve connected in, like Exchange.
However, while on other devices (mostly Android) there are clever suggestions to help you link them together, and automatic options in many cases, there’s no such thing on the Apple front.
You have to dig into the contact, edit the listing, then tap a tiny ‘+’ icon to call up another list of people to join together. It’s not a huge problem, and if you can’t be bothered with it you’ll just end up with a messy list of associates, but it’s irksome when it’s so much better implemented on rival platforms.
The app itself isn’t the most attractive out there either, simply because in portrait mode Apple hasn’t stretched it out to take up the full amount of the screen. It seems curious that the company that prides itself on such elements of design would take this approach, rather focusing on the landscape version of the app, but at least the UI is attractive.
A special mention should be made for the list of letters on the left-hand side, allowing you to skip to the people you want to get hold of easily. This part is really sensitive but also manages to register the letter you’re after time and again. It’s the little things that please us, and make Apple products so attractive to so many people.
Apple led the way when it came to mobile browsers back in 2007, and five years later the same structure is still giving a decent mobile experiences on a multitude of screen sizes.
The iPad mini Safari browser is an excellent implementation, despite its age; while it lacks some of the impressive bells and whistles of its competitors, the simplicity of being able to scoot between web pages with ease is enough of a trade-off for many.
The browser is fast enough too, although the A5 processor isn’t able to match the speed of its bigger new iPad 4 brother over the same Wi-Fi connection, which can render pages a few seconds faster in our tests.
It’s no slouch, but in the pantheon of top-end devices (including the Google Nexus 7) can all chuck the text and pictures we want to see together in a much more impressive time.
The display resolution isn’t too bad for the browsing experience thankfully; with the low-res effort we were worried zoomed-out text would look illegible until we double-tapped or pinched to get closer, but it’s good enough for those without eyesight problems to be able to see effectively.
As we mentioned, the iPad mini browser is fairly feature-light, but what it does have is useful. For instance, sharing a web page, printing it out (as long as you have an AirPlay printer connected) and sending the link via mail or Facebook is a simple as tapping the icon, and the integrated nature of the tablet means there’s no confusion over what it’s doing.
Similarly, we loved the offline reading function – while, again, this isn’t a new feature on a mobile device or an Apple product, the portability of the iPad mini puts it in a lovely spot between the iPhone (which can be too small for reading longer articles) and the larger iPad (which can be a hassle to get out on the train compared to the pocket-size of the iPad mini… well, large pockets, that is) for reading the things you don’t have time to.
The list is easy to view when trying to find the article you want to read, and the icon to save for offline reading is again easy to hit (in the sharing section).
The other feature, and one that’s been around for a while is the Reader option, where tagging the feature in the URL bar will give you a cut-down version of the article you’re reading without all the unnecessary features that mobile advertising brings.
Again, the iPad mini is the best device for reading the articles you really care about on the go, and beats its budget tablet competition hands down in this area.
Apple should be commended here as well for sticking to its guns in the mobile video arena and eschewing Flash – while its reasoning for not including it previously as a standard in its web browser was suspect, the upshot is we now have a cleaner video format for mobile devices that isn’t as convoluted to use.
On the iPad mini, while the video experience isn’t as good as it could be thanks to the screen resolution, for web video and clips its excellent, and the speed of loading is more than acceptable. It means sites like the BBC offer nearly all its online content with ease, rather than the frustrating ‘Flash is not supported on your device’ message we all sadly had to get used to.
There are a few things that irk us when it comes to the web browser on the iPad mini – and not just the slower speeds, which aren’t necessary when you consider that the £150-cheaper competition is able to provide a much speedier experience.
But when you’re running on 4G LTE, this doesn’t niggle quite so much. Speeds sometimes actually run faster than over Wi-Fi (just by a few split seconds, mind) and for the most part pages load nice and fluidly, without much of the awkward shuffling of page furniture that often happens when browsing on tablets at slower speeds.
Not being able to perform functions like finding text on a page or reflowing text to fill the screen as you zoom in are elements we wish Apple would offer, despite knowing that it never will. It would add to the experience immensely, and give a good reason to consider the competition.
But overall the iPad mini web experience, while rather last-gen, is still one of the best around. It brings ease of use and acceptable speeds while providing an excellent wide screen size to actually see and read the things you want to, either on the sofa or on the go.
Movies, music and books
When it comes to the iPad mini, it’s clear Apple is doing what it has always done and made it into a multimedia hub for the ‘modern user on the go’… which in today’s terms is the same as every tablet out there.
However, very few can cope with the raw power and breadth of offering available in the iTunes library, which brings a smorgasbord of music, video and books to the device – and that’s before you even get into the subject of using third party apps to extend the experience.
TV and Movies
The iPad mini suffers from the same thing that all the other iPads do: namely that the 16GB version, which is the poster child of the new cut-size range, is too small to really pack with the movies and apps that you want.
With the release of the Retina-imbued new iPad, the size of apps like iMovie has soared, so combine that with a whole series of HD video or your favourite movies and you can see why it makes sense to pay a fair bit more to get more storage on your tablet.
It’s a pretty big issue that plagued the first ‘new’ iPad, and although the lower-res display of the mini doesn’t need as many pixels, the sizes for download are still the same.
Comparing a TV download through the iTunes app in SD and HD quality wouldn’t be that different – or so you’d think. In reality, the HD quality videos are much more impressive on the iPad mini, meaning you’ll always be tempted to fork out a little more to get the extra sharpness.
And there’s another problem: the cost of downloading things through the iPad mini. An HD TV series can be purchased for around £35, but in ‘real life’ (as in, on the shop shelves) it can be over half that for a Blu-ray version of the same episodes.
It’s not just Apple that charges these high prices, but in reality it’s a real issue – you want to power up your new tablet with loads of video, and unless you want to find a way to get access to files without heading through the iTunes store, which many won’t, we can see many new iPad users being frustrated by this limiting access.
There’s the other issue here: the lack of file compatibility. The iPad mini will play .mp4 files fairly easily, but if you fancy chucking on a DivX or AVI option then that’s out of the question. There are third party applications you can use, but these can be extremely buggy and cost extra to put on your tablet.
But that’s the griping out of the way – as a video player, the iPad mini is excellent. It’s just the right size and weight to hold two-handed in landscape mode, and if you’re OK with it not feeling as secure in one hand, a decent heft to hold with a single set of digits.
The headphone jack is also well-placed – holding it with the Home Button to the right will keep the any wires away from your hands, and if you choose the other direction you’ll find it’s just clear enough to not get in the way all the time.
We will admit that not being able to hold it in one hand securely will be an issue for some, and Apple shouldn’t be pretending that it will be a comfortable experience for many, but the wider screen is so much better than on the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD that we can’t really be annoyed too much.
The ability to fine tune how you slide through the video to get to the section you want, the ease with which you can jump in and out of episodes or movies or the simple one-touch option to fire the movie out to a bigger screen through AirPlay is all intuitive and impressive. There might be an issue getting what you want on the iPad mini, but once it’s there it’s one of our favourite devices to use for video.
Music is also well-placed on the iPad mini, with a simple to use interface and a much better price range for new songs should you want to keep up to date with the latest and greatest of the hit parade.
Before the first iPad made its debut we wondered how Apple would increase the size of the interface to make use of all the space on the screen, and while it’s a little expansive on the larger version, the iPad mini revels in the larger amount of room to show albums and tracks but also makes it much easier to hit the buttons on the screen.
Like with the video option, the AirPlay function is easily accessible, but only when available, which makes it a much easier system to use if you want to pump your tunes around the house.
The sound quality through headphones is, as ever, excellent, although when playing it through the speakers the fact they’re chucked down one end of the device does mean the sound quality isn’t as good, especially if it’s placed with the connector facing downwards (obviously).
The sound is rich enough to get away with should your DJ be taken ill an hour before the party, but it’s not going to win any audio quality contests.
Overall though, and especially with wireless headphones, the iPad mini is great for tunes, in terms of being able to choose new songs through the store from the Music app to high-res album art playing on the lock screen – as well as the aforementioned widget controls it gets from the multitasking menu.
With the smaller screen size, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this may be an e-reader above all else – well, no, as the iPad mini is no better for e-books than its larger brother.
It’s superior in terms of portability and ease of holding, but the main advantage dedicated e-readers like the Kindle PaperWhite have is the fact the display is passive, and therefore doesn’t cause as much eye strain.
The iBooks app is decent enough, with a fun bookshelf layout and an easy to use interface that means you can swipe or tap to head through the tomes. However, given many people now have Kindle accounts, the dedicated app from Amazon is superior in our view.
It seems odd that iBooks isn’t actually pre-installed on the iPad mini, as it seems to be a core feature of the device at the screen size, but you’ll be prompted to download it when you head into the App Store for the first time.
The reading experience is fine, but as with many LCD screen-based e-readers longer sessions aren’t as pleasurable as they are on the e-ink devices, simply because the screen quality causes more strain on the eyes.
The lower resolution means that words aren’t displayed as sharply on the screen, which is a shame, but it’s not the end of the world… just another area where the cost savings have been met.
The gaming prowess of the iPad mini has been called into question slightly, as the onboard chip certainly isn’t the most powerful Apple has ever cranked out.
That worry was confirmed when firing up some higher-power games, such as Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy, which looks phenomenal on both the iPad 3 and new iPad 4.
Graphics were much blockier, although the gameplay was smooth enough and the three-axis gyro made playing shooting games a little more fun – this coupled with the smaller dimensions of the device but with a larger screen made some games a heap more playable than before.
Apple has crafted the iPad mini to attract the casual gamer; while others will work fine on the device, don’t expect to be wowed by the gaming prowess.
Apps, maps and gallery
There are now over 700,000 apps on the Apple App Store, with nearly 200,000 available as dedicated for the iPad itself.
In terms of the dedicated Apps Apple is touting for the iPad, check out our new iPad 4 review for the more in-depth look at what can be achieved on the iPad mini.
However, it’s worth taking note of the fact that the likes of iMovie aren’t as impressive on the iPad mini, as the lower processor and the less-sharp screen mean that rendering movies takes a bit longer than we’re used to nowadays.
Of course, if you’ve never really used a more powerful device then you won’t feel the difference, but then again you probably won’t be that bothered about iMovie or the speed of it and its app-brethren anyway.
You’ve probably heard about the Apple Maps fiasco with iOS 6, and it’s the same situation with the iPad mini, with no general upgrades for the new tablet.
It’s a similar system as seen on the likes of the iPhone 5 – Flyover is an option for many cities, and the rest of the things you’d expect, like traffic info, are also present and correct.
It’s not the end of the world missing out the functionality, but it’s a big selling point of Apple’s Maps, and it’s a shame to not see it there.
We’re not going to get into the accuracy of the app, as while it’s still a long way off in terms of getting things in the right place (Luton still defaults to the small village in the south-west of England) things are improving day by day as faults are reported and updated.
There’s no doubting that Google Maps (and Nokia Maps) are by far the superior options, Apple Maps at least looks impressive and will be getting better and better.
The navigation option is also good on the iPad mini, with the larger screen making it a very easy tool to use in the car. It’s also impressive that it still works without a connection, as long as you’ve set the information before you leave, so you can even get away with doing things without the LTE version.
However, given there’s no GPS chip on offer in the Wi-Fi only version you’ll have to be really happy with having some pretty sketchy directions read out to you on the way, although they do work on the lock screen as well, with the iPad mini coming out of sleep mode when you approach your next turning.
But on LTE, the mini becomes a truly trusty navigator for when you’re lost around the city. Offering more clarity than your phone thanks to the bigger screen, it’s still compact enough to slip into a coat pocket and whip out when you need to check you haven’t strayed too far from your path.
Something that the iPad ‘large’ doesn’t quite do so well.
Overall, Apple has a long way to go in terms of putting the confidence back into its mapping function, but the app is far from horrendous aside from that.
The gallery app on the iPad mini is as good as it’s always been, with the smaller screen size making it very easy to manipulate images, such as being able to crop and enhance what’s on offer.
We found the speed of doing this to be more than acceptable despite the lower-spec processor, with the smaller screen making cropping photos even easier than on the iPhone.
There are a number of other features, such as being able to geo-locate photos and see them on a map within the app being a really nice addition in terms of bringing your snaps to life. And as before the Twitter and Facebook integration is right there, so sharing photos is simple in the same way as on the internet.
Oh, hello Siri – what are you doing here? Surely given the iPad 2‘s processor, which is the same as in the iPad mini, can’t handle Siri (according to Apple) then it shouldn’t be on the new device, should it?
But, there it is, and nicely incorporated too, as the little pop-up window that gives access to the voice recognition is nicely unobtrusive. The accuracy is also much improved over the first iteration of the software, and the range of functionality also enhanced.
With the ability to tell you if your football team is winning or losing, the weather in Paris or open an app on command, the iPad mini has the same implementation as the iPhone when it comes to Siri…and therefore as much use.
There’s no way you’ll ask it to book an appointment for you, because a) it doesn’t always work, and you’ll wish you had just typed it in and b) you’re likely to be with someone, and the risk of failure and looking stupid in front of them is too high to try it.
The Google Now cards on Android Jelly Bean is much better when it comes to information, as being told what’s going on with your team is much easier than having to ask for it. Both are different systems, but Siri is never going to gain mass appeal until it finally becomes almost unerringly accurate at recognising what you’re saying.
We still like the little pop-up window, though.
Camera and video
The camera on the iPad mini is a fairly standard affair, coming in with a 5MP camera sensor on the rear of the device.
It’s not the strongest camera on a tablet by a long way, but does come with some features to help bolster its performance, such as backside illumination to improve the light sensitivity of the sensor and the same five-piece lens that helps filter the light more efficiently.
But in practice, well, you’ve guessed it: it’s an average camera on a tablet, and people shouldn’t really be using such a device for photography unless it’s an absolute emergency. Simple as that.
There’s also no HDR mode here, which is usually necessary to help enhance the quality of your snaps on the go – we’re upset that Apple has shorn the iPad mini of the functionality, but it’s nowhere to be found.
There’s no flash here, so while the low light sensitivity is improved, it’s a long way from usable in the real world. The same autofocus elements are in place though, so face detection and focus/exposure locks are available (the latter by long pressing the portion of the picture you want in focus and brightest).
The front facing camera is actually a little more usable, as the 1.2MP sensor helps take some above-average profile pictures, if that’s what you’re into. It’s obviously better for FaceTime games, but it’s a surprisingly high-spec sensor in a budget Apple tablet.
Check out our samples to see what we’re talking about – but if you really don’t want to use a phone or dedicated camera for snapping, this isn’t the tablet you should be turning to.
The video capabilities of the iPad mini are alongside the camera in impressiveness. While it can take 1080p video and stabilise video as you go, the lack of video light makes it a little hard to use in many situations.
You can at least focus the scene during the video shooting, which helps improve snaps in a constantly moving scene… but that’s about the most impressive thing we can say about it, other than it’s a decent alternative when you’ve got nothing else to shoot with and you can rest it securely on a surface to minimise judder.
Battery and connectivity
Apple devices have historically had issues with battery life, but in recent years the iRange has been stepped up in terms of power performance, and the iPad mini is following in that trend.
The battery life was a hot topic at launch, as many suspected that the lack of a high resolution screen was to help manage the power consumption as much as give Apple the specs for the iPad mini 2 next year. In practice this seems to have worked, as the battery life is pretty darn low.
We tested two usage scenarios: one with full brightness, high power apps running constantly and movies being played over and over, with downloads running in the background. In this case the iPad mini managed to last nearly six hours, which was more than acceptable in our eyes.
In low power mode it was a whole different case. Powering the display right down to the minimum brightness, keeping it turned off and locked and jumping onto Airplane mode from time to time led to an astonishingly low battery consumption, with the unit lasting well over two days with 50% still remaining (on the Wi-Fi only version).
Given that the device will mostly be in the bag or pocket (at a stretch) we can see you’ll only need to keep the charger handy every two or three days to keep things juiced – barring a marathon gaming session or email reply storm.
The story is much the same with the LTE option, which is just a fraction more draining than the Wi-Fi-only. That said, with the temptation of instant streaming that comes with 4G, it’s likely that you’ll find yourself drinking through the power juice a fair bit faster – especially with services like Netflix at your fingertips wherever you are. But all in all, the battery life won’t ever give you any nasty surprises.
The iPad mini has three specifications – 3G, 4G LTE and Wi-Fi only. The latter is pretty sparse, with only dual-channel Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 on board.
We say ‘only’, but in truth that’s quite a decent option for the things you’ll want to do with it.
3G has everything under the sun: most LTE bands, DC-HSPA for sub 4G speeds that still impress, GPS and GLONASS for on the go mapping (providing you get the courage to do use such a function with Apple Maps).
But the mini reaches its true potential with 4G LTE, allowing the tablet to show us what it’s really made for. Opting for the cellular option certainly makes more sense on the mini than with its older sibling, and we found that it made a whole world of difference when using the tablet in day-to-day life.
The 4G option makes the mini perfect for those journeys where you want to knock out a couple of episodes of your new favourite series. It’s even small enough that – with 4G on board – you might find it usurping your iPhone as the chosen device for checking emails and suchlike.
4G LTE speeds on the mini, when tested in London, were impressive though varying, with the device hitting downloads of around 10-15 Mbps a lot of the time. Songs streamed over Spotify instantly, and Netflix took only seconds to buffer with a decent connection. Of course, the mini can also be used as a Wi-Fi hotspot, with up to five devices able to connect and share the love at the same time.
The Bluetooth 4.0 integration is also one that’s impressed us over time, as it means low power sensors (such as those in healthcare or fitness) can be used with the more portable tablet, which will be great news for doctors who can’t convince their patients to buy an iPhone or lug around a larger tablet.
There are other devices that have the same functionality, of course, but Apple always likes to put in the minimum amount of technology when designing devices, so this shows it really believes in the technology.
The GeekBench score is what we usually use to tell if any new Apple product is up to much, and you’ll be glad to know that it’s… exactly as powerful as the iPad 2 and the iPad 3.
The latter isn’t really a fair test as it’s got a much improved GPU running the show to help power all those pixels, but it shows that in terms of CPU grunt there’s not a lot to worry about here.
However, it is under half as powerful as the new iPad 4, which is able to ripple through web pages and apps in a much shorter time… Apple always gives you something to update to, right?
Hands on gallery
We often struggle to sum up an Apple product. We can ask the same question of the iPad mini that we’ve asked nearly every mobile device that Apple has made: How much more should consumers pay for a well thought out OS and more impressive design over the competition?
Usually, the answer is ‘not as much as is being charged’… but in that case that’s not as true as normal. Yes, the iPad mini is once again too expensive – why is it 30% more for a device with lower specs than the competition when Apple has other devices with more grunt, and when Apple is making at least 43% profit on each device, according to iSuppli?
And it’s especially irksome that Apple has pointed out it’s making a lower profit margin on this device – rather than make us say ‘well done’ for taking the hit to enter a new market, it just makes us think that the company could charge less for other devices and stop its cash mountain threatening to topple over and kill Apple employees.
It is worth noting here that the likes of Google and Amazon, while both haven’t explicitly said so, are making no money or even using the likes of the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD as loss leaders to claw back money on apps and content, a strategy Apple has no intention of deploying, but may give consumers pause on the high street.
But forget all that for a second, and focus on this: the iPad mini is the best iPad Apple has created to date. We fell in love with its design, the way the screen seems so much more expansive than the Google or Amazon competition or just the way the smooth aluminium feels in the hand.
We liked a lot. A whole lot on the new iPad mini, and although the price is a little high (and you should REALLY think about the 32GB option for safety if you’re thinking of getting one) Apple has just about justified it with the way the device sits in the hand.
The larger screen might not fit fully in a single palm, but from the smooth back to the Smart Covers designed specifically for the model, we’re fans – pure and simple.
The speed of the processor is adequate for all tasks, the UI is actually better-engineered for this 7.9-inch screen compared to its bigger brother and we’re chirpy indeed about the battery prowess through harder use.
Add 4G LTE ontop of that and you might have just found your new favourite travel companion. Indeed, superfast streaming on the go helps the mini to break free from Wi-Fi hotspot constraints and flourish as a portable tablet that won’t be confined to just home and office use.
The lack of a Retina display is so, so frustrating as that’s the killer feature (along with, perhaps, a slightly faster processor) that would have meant we gave the iPad mini our first five star tablet review. It’s that good. But the screen is too fuzzy at times compared to the likes of the new iPad or iPhone 5 to consider it a dazzling display, and that’s a real shame.
The low-power GPU is also sadly lacking, even for the price point, and while we’ve long given up on looking for expandable storage or a removable battery on these devices, 16GB of storage isn’t enough for the plethora of large apps and HD content we’re interested in downloading onto this device.
Can we see someone owning an iPhone 5, iPad mini and new iPad 4? Actually, yes…and not just the pointlessly rich. The iPhone is the perfect device for hopping in and out of content, giving you the internet all the time and generally allowing you to play more simple games.
The iPad mini is perfect for a train ride: it’s just the right size for a few TV episodes when packed nose to nose with fellow commuters before slipping it back into a bag or pocket when leaping for your platform.
And the new iPad 4 is great for longer sessions and more involved gaming – air travel is so much more improved by its presence and no matter what game we were playing or which content-rich website we wanted to view, it was always the larger device we reached for.
We’ve said it already, but we’ll say it again: the iPad mini is the best iPad Apple has ever created. It offers better value for money, sits more pleasantly in the hand and can handle all the tasks you want at least adequately and many times better than you’d expect.
If you’re thinking about which tablet to buy a loved one and money isn’t an issue, we’d recommend the iPad mini every time for it’s more impressive design compared to the swathes of plastic offered by its competitors.
It’s still overpriced compared to what you get from the competition, the CPU and display aren’t as strong as they could be, but we can safely say this is the gift we’d like to unwrap any day of the year.
Big thanks to EE for sending us a 4G tablet to test the superfast speeds on!
By Gareth Beavis, TechRadar