Sure, the iPad mini ostensibly competes head-to-head with 7-inch bargain Android tablets, but this isn't some cheapo iPad Lite. You can access all of Apple's 275,000-plus apps -- from Flipboard and Facebook to "Real Racing 2" -- on a premium aluminum device that fits in one hand. The $329 iPad mini also delivers dual cameras and a bigger screen than those budget slates. Then again, a $130 premium is nothing to sneeze at, and the mini costs just $70 less than an iPad 2. Is the mini worth its maxi price tag?
There are two very striking things about the iPad mini's design. One is that the device packs a larger 7.9-inch display than the 7-inch competition inside a sleeker design. The mini measures 0.3 inches thin, and weighs only 0.7 pounds. The Kindle Fire (0.4 inches and 0.9 pounds) and the Nexus 7 (0.4 inches and 0.8 pounds) are both chunkier and heftier.
The second thing that really stands out is just how much screen there is in such a compact frame; it practically goes from edge to edge. Even though the bezel is very narrow, Apple figured out a way to make sure your thumbs don't unintentionally open apps or click links when you're just holding the device. We tested this by resting our thumb on the right side of the Laptopmag.com home page. Sure enough, the software was smart enough to know our digit was at rest.
As it should for the price, the mini looks and feels more like a premium product than the rest of the 7-inch tablet field. Its unibody, aluminum design and diamond-cut edges signal that you're holding a device that's been crafted with precision and care. The back is smooth without feeling slippery--it's almost like a soft-touch aluminum, if that's even possible. This treatment also resisted fingerprints. Even with our smaller hands, we had no problem holding the mini for extended periods of time.
We tested the black version of the iPad mini with a slate back, but it's also available in white-and-silver. To us, the former color combo has a more professional vibe. Our only quibble is that tapping on the display with a fingernail resulted in a somewhat hollow sound, but the glass certainly felt rigid enough in everyday use.
The right edge of the tablet houses two discrete volume buttons that are easy to press, along with a mute switch. A raised power button sits on the top right of the iPad mini, and the headphone jack is on the top left. The new Lightning connector, which helped Apple make this tablet so thin, sits on the bottom. It's taken a while, but Belkin and other companies are finally stepping up to the plate with accessories.
Apple didn't select a 7.9-inch display for the iPad mini just to be different. The panel's 1024 x 768 resolution allows the hundreds of thousands of existing iPad apps to run seamlessly. More good news: We measured a brightness of 432 lux, which is brighter than the Nexus 7 (314 lux) and on a par with the Kindle Fire HD (436 lux).
Apple touts that the mini's screen is 35 percent larger than the Nexus 7's, resulting in 49 percent larger content. That's true, but both the Nexus 7 and Kindle HD have higher-res, 1280 x 800-pixel displays. Those slates have 30 percent more pixels, and you can watch high-def content. With the mini, you're stuck with standard-def fare. The Nook HD has an even sharper 1440 x 900-pixel screen. On websites such as NYTimes.com, the Nexus 7 had a dimmer image but sharper text.
In a side-by-side comparison with the Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HD and Nook Tablet HD, we viewed a 1600 x 1200-pixel of a yellow flower. The Kindle Fire delivered the most vibrant image, even if the colors were oversaturated. We could make out more detail in the petal on the Nook Tablet HD because of its higher resolution. The flower on the Nexus 7 looked slightly washed-out compared with the iPad mini, which had better contrast, but somewhat fuzzier edges on the petals.
We enjoyed watching "The Avengers" on the iPad mini. We could easily make out intricate cracks in Iron Man's suit after a free fall from space. Skin tones also looked natural in the characters' faces.
When watching the trailer for "Iron Man 3," dialogue and music got plenty loud through the dual speakers on the bottom of the iPad mini. We also played the "Will Ferrell Will Do Anything to Get You to Vote" clip on YouTube. The iPad mini was louder and richer than the Nexus 7, but it was overpowered by the booming stereo speakers on the Kindle Fire. The Nook HD was positively quiet by comparison.
To test the mini's music performance, we fired up MGMT's "Electric Eel" on Spotify. Although the audio sounded a bit harsh on max volume, the track easily filled a small office with sound. You just have to be careful not to muffle the speakers with your hand when holding the device; they're on the right side in landscape mode.
Interface and iOS 6
No surprises here. The iPad mini runs the same iOS 6 software and has the same interface as the regular iPad. You'll find the familiar home screens with app icon shortcuts, along with a launcher bar down below that accommodates up to five of your favorites. The UI is as intuitive as ever, but it's also getting a little boring compared with the Live Tiles on Windows 8 and Windows RT and widget options on the Nexus 7. We also wish we could more easily access settings like Wi-Fi, which continues to be buried.
Unlike the iPhone, the iPad mini shows you more information in certain apps via a dual-pane interface in landscape mode. For example, in the Notes app, you can see all of your notes on the left side of the screen and the contents of the note you have open on the right. Similarly, the Email app shows your incoming messages on the left and their contents on the right.
As with other iOS devices, you swipe down to reveal the Notification Center, where you can see alerts for incoming emails, social mentions and other updates. You can also quickly post to Facebook or Twitter from this menu. Notification Center takes up about a third of the screen, so it doesn't obscure as much of your content as the iPhone 5.
Because it's running iOS 6, the iPad mini has most of the software features we enjoyed on the iPhone 5. An improved Siri can field questions about sports scores and movies, as well as help you make restaurant reservations. (Just keep in mind that you need an Internet connection.) Other perks include Facebook integration for easily sharing photos and Web links.
What's missing? We were a bit surprised to find that Passbook isn't on board, which aggregrates coupons, loyalty cards, boarding passes and tickets in one app. Granted, if you own an iPhone, this omission won't be a big deal, but we still think people will miss it.
More importantly, Apple has fallen behind the competition when it comes to parental controls. The Kindle Fire HD and Barnes & Noble HD tablets have dedicated modes for children that let you create profiles. Amazon even lets you restrict screen time. The iPad mini limits you to enabling restrictions for apps and content based on ratings.
Although we had to stretch our thumbs slightly, typing on the iPad mini's keyboard in portrait mode was fast and accurate. We typed email replies and URLs with ease. Some may lament the lack of tactile feedback, which you'll find on some Android tablets, but we didn't miss it.
If you tap the microphone icon, you can dictate instead of type on the mini. The device successfully recognized our phrase "This is the iPad mini, and I'm typing as fast as I can." Unlike Google Voice Search, however, you need to be online to voice type on the iPad. And because it works offline, the Nexus 7 lets you dictate faster.
Apps and Content
What makes the iPad more compelling than other 7-inch tablets -- and the main reason why Apple is betting it's product is worth more -- is the App Store's vast array of apps made for tablets. The Google Play store is improving, but many choices are just supersized phone apps, including eBay, Pandora and Facebook. The same thing goes for Amazon's store. Barnes & Noble's app store has a lot of great choices for kids, but the game selection is weak. Apple has 275,000 apps that were designed explicitly for the iPad.
Spotify, for example, uses the left edge of the screen to let you quickly toggle between What's New, Radio, Playlists and other options, and the center of the display shows your stations and recommended stations. The bottom of the app has the playback controls, but you can maximize this view to see full-size album art and the thumbs-up and thumbs-down icons.
Flipboard presents the latest news stories in a beautiful magazinelike format, displaying many more cover stories and headlines on one screen without sacrificing legibility. Facebook shows all of your updates down the middle of the screen and displays your contacts who are online on the right for easy messaging. There are tons of other apps like this that are tailor-made for the iPad.
The game selection for the iPad mini is also unparalleled. The graphically intense "Infinity Blade II" played smoothly on this tablet (despite some fuzzy text), as did "Real Racing 2 HD." We appreciated the high level of detail, from the folds in banners above the streets to the reflection of buildings in our shiny Volvo.
The iPad also taps into Apple's large array of premium content, from music and movies to TV shows and magazines. If you've previously purchased something through iTunes, it's easy to download it to this device via the cloud.
The A5 dual-core processor that powers the iPad mini is the same chip inside the iPad 2, so you should expect fluid (but not blazing) performance. The Kindle Fire HD and Barnes & Noble Nook HD have dual-core CPUs, too, but the Nexus 7 features a quad-core chip with Nvidia graphics.
On Geekbench 2, which gauges processor and memory performance, the iPad mini scored 753. That's less than half the 1,679 score turned in by the fourth-generation iPad, which has a new A6X chip. The Nexus 7 also beat the iPad mini by a wide margin, scoring 1,405.
On the multithreaded version of the Linpack, the iPad mini narrowly beat the Nexus 7 (134 versus 127). We also ran Passmark, which measures CPU, graphics, disk and memory performance. The iPad mini scored 2,040, edging out the Nexus 7's 2,004.
In everyday use, the iPad mini opened apps quickly and never kept us waiting as we swiped between home screens or opened Notification Center. The mini was faster to rotate its screen than the Nexus 7 when we changed orientations, as well as when zooming in and out on Web pages. We also enjoyed smooth frame rates in both "Infinity Blade II" and "Rayman Run." The mini instantly responded to tweaks we made to pictures in the iPhoto app, from applying the Early Chrome effect to upping the saturation.
Wi-Fi and Web Browsing
The iPad mini features dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi, promising twice the speed of previous-generation iPads. In our testing, this tablet routinely beat competing tablets when loading the same sites. For instance, the mini loaded NYTimes.com in 10.1 seconds, compared with 14.9 seconds for the Kindle Fire HD and 17.9 seconds for the Nexus 7. The mini also loaded Laptopmag.com faster, taking 6.6 seconds compared with 11.8 for the Fire and 10.6 for the Nexus.
The mini syncs all of your bookmarks and tabs via the cloud with your Mac and other iOS devices, and you can easily add new tabs underneath the address bar. You can also easily share sites via email, Facebook or Twitter.
Camera and Camcorder
Unlike its lower-cost, 7-inch competitors, the iPad mini sports a 5-MP camera on the back. Plus, the mini captures 1080p video. The front of this tablet features an HD camera for FaceTime calls.
A shot of a gray Vespa we took outside looked clear on our desktop, including the folds in the broken-in leather seat. We could also make out our reflection in the shiny rear of the bike. An indoor shot of a bunch of figurines was fairly bright but grainy. Unfortunately, Apple couldn't find room for a flash on this design.
We do wish the camera on the iPad mini supported the same Panorama mode as the iPhone 5 and latest iPod touch. You also don't get an HDR mode.
The 1080p footage we captured of New York City traffic looked crisp and evenly lit, even as we panned to the skyline and back down to passing taxis. The blue Chase signs across the street looked particularly vibrant, and we could easily make out the Sabrett logo on hot dog carts across Fifth Avenue. Because the mini's A5 chip has image stabilization built in, our footage didn't look shaky at all.
The front-facing FaceTime HD camera did a good (too good) a job capturing our face during video calls. All of our wrinkles were clearly visible. Impressively, we could even make out our mug on a bus ride home at night with only the overhead lights on.
Apple rates the iPad mini for 10 hours of battery life using its single-cell battery. In our testing, which involved playing part of "The Avengers," streaming Spotify, capturing photos and videos and playing games, we used up 40 percent of the battery's capacity between 7 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.. So you should expect at least a full day of use.
In the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi on 40 percent brightness, the iPad mini trounced the competition. Apple's tablet lasted a whopping 10 hours and 33 minutes, which is two hours longer than the next best 7-inch tablet, the Barnes & Noble Nook HD (8:30). The Amazon Kindle Fire HD (7:30) and Nexus 7 (7:26) were both three hours behind.
Smart Cover and Accessories
For a reasonable $39, you can outfit your iPad mini in one of six Smart Cover options that magnetically attach to the left side of the tablet. With this accessory, you can prop up the device to watch video or make FaceTime calls or for a slightly elevated typing experience.
Apple also sells a number of Lightning adapters, including a USB Camera adapter and SD Card Camera Reader (both $29), as well as a VGA and Digital AV Adapter (both $49). Several third-party accessories are already on the market -- mostly cases -- but we expect many more options soon.
The $329 iPad mini ships with 16GB of storage, but you can step up to 32GB ($429) or 64GB ($529). A Wi-Fi + Cellular model that adds LTE connectivity costs $130 more. If you plan to use the mini on the go often, you'll appreciate the speed of convenience 4G brings, whether you opt for AT&T, Verizon or Sprint. Plus, you can turn the service on or off from month to month without having to worry about a contract.
The iPad mini is such a satisfying tablet that the mini part of the moniker actually does the device a disservice. Whether taking the mini to meetings to take notes, laying in bed to read or playing games on the subway, we felt like we were cheating the system. In fact, we actually felt a little sorry for people we saw around town trying to use the larger 9.7-inch iPad while standing. This feels like the tablet of the future because you won't think twice about taking it with you.
If you're on a tighter budget, there are compelling $199 alternatives to the iPad mini. The Nexus 7 has a sharper (but duller) screen and innovative features like Google Now for anticipating your searches. The $199 Kindle Fire HD is a good choice for movie and music lovers because of its richer display and booming speakers; it's especially sweet for existing Amazon Prime members. However, Amazon's interface is somewhat confusing. Though Barnes & Noble is behind in the app race, the Nook HD is tailor-made for younger children because of its parental controls.
Despite having a lower resolution than other 7-inch tablets, the iPad mini justifies its premium price with a superior design, a back camera you would want to use, longer battery life and especially its higher-quality apps. There's simply much more you can do with this tablet than other smaller slates, which counts for a lot.