If there's one tablet that's tailor made for built-in 4G, it's the iPad mini. This tablet is lighter and thinner than most 7-inch budget slates, yet packs a larger 7.9-inch screen for enjoying all of your apps, not to mention a full web experience, on the go. If you're willing to sign a two-year contract, the iPad mini starts as low as $359 on AT&T, which is just $30 more than the Wi-Fi only version. But that doesn't include the cost of monthly data. Those looking for month-to-month flexibility will pay $459 for the tablet. Read on to find out just how much tablet you get for your money.
Editor's Note: Portions of this review are taken from ouriPad mini Wi-Fi review.
With the exception of a black band running across the top back of the iPad mini (to accommodate a 4G antenna), this tablet looks identical to the Wi-Fi-only version. And that's a very good thing, because this device still packs a larger, 7.9-inch display than the cheaper, 7-inch competition, all inside a sleeker design.
The Wi-Fi + Cellular iPad mini measures the same 0.28 inches thin as the Wi-Fi-only model. By comparison, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD (0.4 inches), Google Nexus 7 (0.4 inches) and Barnes & Noble Nook HD (0.43 inches) are all chunkier. The 11.1-ounce 4G mini is only slightly heavier than the Wi-Fi model's 10.8 ounces, yet it's still lighter than the Kindle Fire HD (13.9 ounces) and Nexus 7 (12 ounces). The Nook HD weighs the same 11.1 ounces.
What really stands out is the amount of screen available in such a compact frame; the 7.9-inch panel 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 version of the iPad mini with LTE in slate back, but it's also available in white-and-silver. To us, the former color scheme 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 during 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. Several companies are 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 457 lux, which is higher than the Nexus 7 (314 lux) and just a tad higher than 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 HD, we viewed a 1600 x 1200-pixel picture 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 his free fall from space. Skin tones also looked natural in the characters' faces.
When watching the trailer for "Iron Man 3," dialogue and music came through plenty loud from 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 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, as the speakers are 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 Nexus 7's Live Tiles on Windows 8 and Windows RT and widget options. We also wish we could more easily access settings like Wi-Fi, which remains buried.
[More: Apple iOS 6: Full Review]
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 does 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, which works great when on-the-go, thanks to the LTE connection. Other perks include Facebook integration for easily sharing photos and Web links.
What's missing? We were a bit surprised not to find that Passbook, an app that aggregates coupons, loyalty cards, boarding passes and tickets. Granted, if you own an iPhone, this omission won't make a big difference, 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 modes dedicated for children in which you can create profiles. Amazon even lets you restrict screen time. The iPad mini only offers parents the option of 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. You can also switch to a split keyboard with a swipe. 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 the Nexus 7's program works offline, you dictate faster on that machine.
Apps and Content
What makes the iPad more compelling than other 7-inch tablets, and the main reason 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, on the other hand, has 275,000 apps designed explicitly for the iPad.
On Spotify, for example, you can use the left edge of the screen to quickly toggle among What's New, Radio, Playlists and other options, while the center of the display shows your stations and recommended stations. The bottom of the app has 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 magazine-like format, displaying a great many cover stories and headlines on one screen without sacrificing legibility. Facebook shows all of your updates down the middle of the screen and displays those of your contacts who are online on the right, for easy messaging. There are tons of other apps like this tailor-made for the iPad.
The iPad mini also offers unparalleled game selection. 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 iPad mini uses the same A5 dual-core processor that powers the the iPad 2, so you should expect fluid (but not blazing) performance. The Kindle Fire HD and Barnes & Noble Nook HD also have dual-core CPUs, 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 761. 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 (133 versus 127). We also ran Passmark, which measures CPU, graphics, disk and memory performance. The iPad mini scored 2,000, about on par with the Nexus 7's score of 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 could rotate its screen faster than the Nexus 7 when we changed orientations, and also moved faster 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.
LTE and Web Browsing
AT&T's 4G LTE speeds more than delivered. We managed a whopping 26.52 MBps download and 7.59 MBps upload rates while driving through the streets of Arizona. Speeds certainly vary by location, however. Just a few blocks outside of AT&T's LTE coverage, speeds quickly dropped to 3G levels.
The iPad mini with LTE was able to load the desktop version of NYTimes.com in only 5.6 seconds, ESPN.com in 4.5 seconds and Laptopmag.com in 5.5 seconds.
Back in New York and New Jersey, the iPad mini's speeds weren't quite as impressive, but still well within AT&T's advertised range. Downloads averaged 10.5 Mbps, and uploads were an even faster 11.9 Mbps.
Downloads speeds over LTE can often be faster than with Wi-Fi. However, iTunes downloads over LTE are restricted to 50MB or less. This means that you'll have to wait until you get home or find another hot spot before you download that TV show, movie or large game. You could get around this restriction by pairing a Wi-Fi-only iPad mini with a mobile hotspot like the MiFi Liberate, but you would need to make sure that you didn't go over the data cap for that device's data plan.
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 quickly share sites via email, Facebook or Twitter.
The iPad mini with LTE can also be used as a Wi-Fi hotspot, allowing up to five devices to simultaneously take advantage of the mini's fast Internet connection. In our tests, download speeds ranged from 6.5 Mbps all the way up to 22 Mbps, while uploads were between 6.5 and 9.4 Mbps.
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 don't get an HDR mode, either.
The 1080p footage we captured of New York City traffic looked crisp and evenly lit, remaining so 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 built-in image stabilization, 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.
FaceTime video chatting, once reserved only for Wi-Fi connections, is finally available through a cellular connection. Unfortunately, this feature is still restricted by individual carriers, and we got an alert telling us to contact AT&T to specifically enable FaceTime over cellular on our account. Neither Sprint nor Verizon have such restrictions in place, so if you want unrestricted access to FaceTime, it may be best to go with one of those two carriers.
Apple claims the iPad mini can get up to 9 hours of Web surfingover LTE, Our device lasted 8 hours and 16 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery test, which involves surfing some of the most popular websites every 60 seconds over LTE, with 40 percent screen brightness. Even though we didn't get the full 9 hours Apple claimed, this is still fantastic endurance. The Amazon Kindle Fire HD, which doesn't have LTE, lasted only 7 hours and 30 minutes, and the Nexus 7, also Wi-Fi only, lasted 7 hours and 26 minutes. Expect about 2 hours of additional runtime over Wi-Fi; the mini lasted 10 hours and 33 minutes on a single charge.
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 an SD Card Camera Reader (both $29), as well as a VGA and Digital AV Adapter (both $49). Several third-party accessories, mostly cases, are already on the market, but we expect many more options to arrive soon.
Configurations and Data Plans
The iPad mini Wi-Fi + Celluar is available from three U.S. carriers: AT&T, Verizon and Sprint. If you're looking for LTE speeds, it will be important to check the coverage where you work and travel. Unless you opt for a contract on AT&T, you can purchase data plans month by month.
AT&T offers a $100 discount on the iPad mini when purchased with a two-year contract, bringing the price from $459 down to $359. The iPad mini is eligible for the Mobile Share plan, which offers a set amount of data to be shared among multiple devices. You need an AT&T smartphone for this plan. Customers pay a base fee for a set amount of data, and then additional charges for each device used to access that data. The base charge for 1GB of data is $40 per month, with a $10 monthly fee for the iPad mini.
Those who plan to use more data per month can opt for a more robust Mobile Share plan that includes anywhere from 4GB ($70 per month, plus $10 for the tablet) to a whopping 20GB ($200 monthly, plus $10 for the tablet).
Alternately, AT&T's month-to-month plans cost $14.99 per month for 250MB of data, $30 per month for 3GB of data or $50 per month (the same as a shared data plan) for 5GB of data. Saving $100 off the cost of the device is tempting, but some may prefer the flexibility of not having to pay for 4G data during a given month.
Verizon doesn't offer two-year contracts or subsidized pricing for the iPad mini, instead sticking to a traditional monthly data plan. With the Verizon Share Everything plan, 4GB costs $30 per month, 6GB costs $40, 8GB is $50 and 10GB is $60.
Sprint also offers a month-to-month model. A plan with 300MB costs $14.99 per month, 1GB costs $15, 3GB is $34.99, 6GB costs $49.99 and 12GB runs $79.99. Sprint, however, has the least-developed LTE network, so many people will experience speeds slower than those possible with the AT&T and Verizon models.
The iPad mini Wi-Fi + Cellular was a pleasure to use. Despite the mini size, this tablet delivers the full iPad experience. Whether using the mini to take notes in meetings or play games on the subway, we felt like we were using a full-sized iPad, except we could hold it comfortably in one hand. After using the iPad mini, the 4th generation iPad felt almost heavy and cumbersome, although we missed not having a Retina display.
For the constant traveler, the iPad mini with LTE is a smart investment. We could check our email or hop online wherever we were, and the LTE hotspot feature meant that all of our devices had the same luxury. We were impressed not only by the mini's fast 4G speeds on AT&T network, but also it's 8-plus hours of battery life. While some will prefer to use their smartphone's hotspot feature or a dedicated hotspot device to get the iPad mini online, it's hard to beat the convenience of having 4G built into a device that's designed to go everywhere.