If there's any one product that embodies Apple's entire product philosophy, it's the iPad mini with Retina Display. This is not a tablet that's designed to go head to head with cheaper slates like the Nexus 7 and Amazon Kindle Fire HDX. With its crazy sharp 2048 x 1536-pixel screen and speedy 64-bit A7 chip, the mini is actually every bit the premium tablet that the new iPad Air is -- just in a more portable size. Still, it's very rare for Apple to increase the price on any device from one generation to the next. The new mini costs $399 (for 16GB), up from $329, or a good $170 more than the most popular 7-inch Android tablets. Is this beefy-on-the-inside, small-on-the-outside iPad truly in a class of its own?
The iPad mini with Retina Display still sports the same sturdy and elegant unibody aluminum design as its predecessor, complete with polished chamfered edges. This looks and feels like a high-end tablet. Take your pick from Space Gray with a black front (similar to the new iPhone 5s) or Silver with a white front. We tested the 128GB Space Gray version with LTE, which has a more sophisticated and businesslike aesthetic. The power button (top) and lock switch and volume buttons (right) are just as easy to access as before. We just wish the Home button had a Touch ID fingerprint sensor like the iPhone 5s, which would make it much simpler to make iTunes purchases.
The new iPad mini is actually slightly thicker and heavier than the first-gen model, likely owing to the larger battery on the inside this time around. The difference isn't huge -- 11.7 versus 10.9 ounces -- but it's noticeable when you hold the older mini and newer mini in either hand. Still, at 7.9 x 5.3 x 0.29 inches, the new iPad mini is easy to hold in one hand, and it's thinner than all of the most popular small tablets.
The Galaxy Note 8 (8.3 x 5.35 x 0.31 inches and 12 ounces) is taller, wider and heavier than the new mini, though not by much. Understandably, 7-inch tablets like the Kindle Fire HDX (7.3 x 5 x 0.35 inches, 10.7 ounces) and Nexus 7 (7.9 x 4.5 x 0.34 inches, 10.34 ounces) are lighter because of their smaller screens.
Around back, you'll find the 5-MP iSight camera near the left edge and a new second mic toward the middle top edge, which is designed to minimize background noise when you're having FaceTime calls. The Lightning port and dual speakers sit on the bottom edge.
The Retina display on the iPad mini is so deliciously crisp it feels like Apple's engineers cheated physics. At 2048 x 1536 pixels, this screen delivers more pixels per inch than any other tablet (326 ppi) -- including the iPad air (264 ppi). We're talking 1 million more pixels than an HDTV in your hand. The highest resolution you'll find on other small tablets right now is 1920 x 1200 pixels.
Text on websites like NYTimes.com looked amazingly sharp, as did a 4K photo of a lime green lizard. We could make out every single bump on its skin. However, the same shot of that lizard had more saturated colors and looked more vibrant on the iPad Air, which also benefits from deeper blacks. The new mini and Air offered similarly great image quality when we viewed the HD trailer for "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire." Jennifer Lawrence's skin looked similarly silky on both screens, but her light pink lipstick was a bit more lustrous on the Air. The red in the background was also slightly more saturated.
The new iPad's screen is quite bright, but it's not the brightest panel out there. The mini's Retina Display registered 390 lux on our light meter, which is higher than the category average (355 lux), but behind the Galaxy Note 8 (489 lux). The Nexus 7 (531) and Kindle Fire HDX (480 lux) are also brighter.
The iPad mini continues to pleasantly surprise with its audio oomph. The dual speakers on the bottom of the tablet pumped out loud and accurate sound when we streamed Moby's "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?" The piercing piano combined with the gravelly and soulful vocal made the track sound well-balanced. We also could easily hear that "Hunger Games" trailer from across a medium-size conference room, which means the kids should have no problem watching movies in the backseat (if you don't mind).
On the LAPTOP Audio Test, where we measure the loudness of a standard tone from about 13 inches away, the new iPad mini registered 80 decibels. That's on a par with the 80 dB tablet average and the Galaxy Note 8, but higher than the Nexus 7 (73 dB) and Kindle Fire HDX (77 dB).
If you've used iOS 7 on the iPhone, then you should feel right at home on the iPad mini with Retina Display. The software delivers all of the same enhancements, but there's a dual pane design to most apps that makes it easier to view more content on the screen at once.
The most welcome feature is the new Control Center for tweaking settings such as brightness and toggling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. However, unlike the iPhone, where all the options are stacked vertically, Apple makes better use of the available real estate by orienting things horizontally. The media controls and volume slider are on the left; the toggle buttons for wireless and AirDrop are in the middle; and shortcuts for the timer and camera on the right with the slider for the brightness beneath that.
You won't find the calculator or flashlight shortcut, though, which are on the iPhone. We've said it before, but we also wish you could long-press to drill down into related settings for various options, such as Wi-Fi. On Samsung tablets, you can press and hold the Wi-Fi button to immediately start sniffing for networks; on the mini, you need to use the separate settings app.
Fortunately, the iPad mini doesn't just re-create the phone experience on a large display as many tablets do. In the settings menu, for example, you'll see a two-panel layout with Settings categories on the left and specific options on the right. This saves time. You'll find a similar treatment on other apps, such as Mail, Notes and Calendar.
Multitasking on the iPad mini is also easier now with iOS 7 -- but it could be better. Just double-press the Home button to see all of your open apps presented as cards. It's great that you can easily switch between apps now and close them just by swiping up on a thumbnail, but you can only see a max of three apps at once. With such a large 7.9-inch screen, a different arrangement of smaller thumbnails -- and more of them -- would work better (similar to the Sense software on the HTC One).
The new Notification Center looks pretty much the same, but there's more room for everything, including upcoming appointments and alerts. We're still not fans of having separate tabs for All and Missed, but it works.
Another key feature of iOS 7 is AirDrop, which allows iPad mini users to easily share files with other iOS devices over a local Wi-Fi network. We transferred a 26-second full HD video from an iPhone 5s to the mini in less than 60 seconds. An 8-MP photo transferred within 2 seconds.
Overall, we appreciate a lot of the features that iOS 7 brings to the table, and the fact that Apple rightly treats tablets as a different animal than phones. However, some Android tablets offer more robust features, such as the ability to run two apps on the screen at once (Samsung Galaxy Note 8, LG G Pad). And the Nexus 7, and especially the Kindle Fire HDX, have more robust parental controls. Apple needs to catch up there.
No haptic feedback, no next-word suggestions and no trace typing. The iPad mini with Retina Display's keyboard is as bare-bones as it gets, but at least it works well. We typed URLs, email replies and more quickly and accurately. And, unlike the iPad Air, it's much easier to thumb type when using the mini in portrait mode, especially if you're standing up or walking. You can also voice type using the microphone icon, but you'll need to have a reliable Internet connection.
The A7 chip inside the iPad mini with Retina Display uses the same 64-bit architecture as the CPU in the iPhone 5s and iPad Air. The result is a very swift performer -- and enough headroom for serious content creation chops. In fact, in an app such as Vjay, you can mix three 1080p videos at once and preview your edits in real time. That's borderline scary powerful. We also noticed that the mini was slightly quicker than the iPhone 5s to return to the home screen from apps and fill in all the icons; there's less lag here. The camera was ready to shoot in less than 2 seconds.
The iPad mini kept on impressing as we timed how long it took to start the "NOVA 3" game, taking just 5 seconds. That's even faster than the Air (6 seconds) and more than three times faster than the Galaxy Note 10.1 (18 seconds). The average tablet, mostly Android, takes 16 seconds.
To test the mini's video editing muscle, we opened a 2-minute and 32-second 1080p video in iMovie, added the Neon theme and theme music, and exported it as a 720p movie. It took the mini 41 seconds to complete this task, the same as the Air, and 20 seconds faster than the 4th generation iPad. That kind of delta means you could save a boatload of time when editing longer movies.
The iPad mini with Retina Display fared just as well on various benchmark tests. On Geekbench 3, which measures overall performance, the tablet notched 2,519, which is slightly behind the iPad Air (2,694), but way ahead of the Nexus 7 (1,849) and category average (1,634). Last year's iPad mini scored just 498. However, the Kindle Fire HDX's blazing Snapdragon 800 CPU notched an even higher 2,766.
On Ice Storm Unlimited, which gauges graphics prowess, the Retina iPad mini scored a sky-high 14,128. This blows away the category average (6,944), the Nexus 7 (10,624) and especially the Galaxy Note 8 (2,988) and last year's mini (2,679). Again, though, the Kindle Fire HDX came out on top with a score of 16,201. Just keep in mind that the Kindle doesn't have the same roster of high-quality games and overall app selection the mini has to take full advantage of this horsepower.
Like the iPhone 5s, the iPad mini also has a M7 motion co-processor built in, but it's not as if you're going to use this tablet with fitness apps. However, there are some journaling apps that track what you're doing as you write updates, and not having to turn on the full A7 chip in those instances can save power.
Wi-Fi and LTE Performance
It might seem minor on the surface, but the new advanced dual-antenna Wi-Fi with MIMO technology makes a huge difference in terms of overall throughput and everyday tasks like loading websites. You'll get the best results if you own a newer 802.11n router.
When running the Speedtest.net app on the older iPad mini and the new mini, we saw a big performance jump. The newer Retina mini averaged 38.9 Mbps downloads and 61.6 Mbps uploads on our office Wi-Fi network, versus 22.1 and 21.2 Mbps down and up on the 2012 mini.
We also experienced generally faster load times across popular sites such as NYTimes, Yahoo and ESPN. The new mini averaged just 2.9 seconds (that's fast), compared with 3.6 seconds for its predecessor.
If you spring for LTE, chances are you'll enjoy fast throughput on the go, as we did with our AT&T model. In central New Jersey, the mini delivered average downloads and uploads of 14.3 Mbps and 5.7 Mbps, respectively. At one point, we saw a high of 28.4 Mbps down.
iPad mini doesn't match the image quality of the iPhone 5s, but if you like the idea of having a big viewfinder and want to capture a quick shot, this tablet will get the job done.
Outdoor shots with a fair amount of ambient light looked crisp and colorful, such as an image of a New York City street and a blue sky in the background. Similarly, a 1080p video shot outdoors of traffic looked clear and smooth, with accurate yellows and reds on passing cars and taxis. However, an indoor photo of a bunch of toys (including Grover) exhibited some grain. You also don't get a flash.
Fortunately, the front FaceTime HD camera is brighter than before. Even with a window behind us, it was fairly easy to make out our face and striped tie. Turning toward the window resulted in a much clearer image, but the bottom line is that you'll be able to video chat in dimmer conditions without a problem.
With more than 475,000 apps available for the iPad -- a large portion of which is optimized for Retina Displays -- this continues to be the area where Apple trumps the tablet competition. And it's not just the number; it's the quality.
Just look at an app like TripAdvisor or Spotify. On the former, you'll see a gorgeous landscape of a destination like Rio de Janeiro on the mini with a tabbed interface up top that's tailor-made for larger screens. The Android tablet version looks like a stretched-out phone app, with a plain list of options running down the left side of the page. It's just like a mobile website -- from five years ago. Spotify on iPad lists all of your radio stations in a grid, and the Android version just has a lot of wasted space.
The iPad's mini game selection is also rich, and we're not just talking "Infinity Blade III." We had a blast landing devastating combos on criminals in "Batman: Arkham Originals," with its consolelike graphics powered by the Unreal III engine. You won't find this title on Google Play.
MORE: 25 Best iPad Apps
Apple is helping iPad users be more creative by throwing its iLife and iWork suites in for free. In iMovie, for example, we easily created a mini movie from an iPhone clip of a 6-year-old chasing a golden retriever, complete with fancy transitions and theme music. You can also slow down any portion of the movie and even add in a second video for a picture-in-picture effect.
Siri is also on board for answering all sorts of questions, setting reminders, controlling iTunes radio, searching Bing and Wikipedia and also checking what people are saying on Twitter about certain topics. It's easy to forget Siri is there, but this personal assistant comes in handy.
The iPad mini outlasts most of the small tablet competition by a mile with its 23.8 watt-hour battery, up from 16.3 watt-hours on the last model. Having this extra capacity is important because this tablet has a lot more pixels to push this time around. And yet the new mini still surpassed Apple's claim of 10 hours of runtime.
On the LAPTOP Battery test, which involves continuous Web surfing on 40 percent brightness, the iPad mini with Retina Display lasted 11 hours and 6 minutes over Wi-Fi. That's about 2.5 hours longer than the Kindle Fire HDX (8:39) and Nexus 7 (8:26) and nearly 3 hours longer than the Galaxy Note 8 (7:12).
The iPad mini with Wi-Fi only starts at $399 for 16GB, but we recommend you spring for at least the $499 32GB version to have enough room for downloading apps and games, as well as having enough storage for capturing and editing photos and videos. Stepping up to 64GB or 128GB will cost you $599 and $699, respectively.
Add $130 to all the above prices if you want LTE connectivity. AT&T's 16GB model starts at $529 without a contract and month-to-month data, but you can knock off $100 if you opt for a contract.
Data plan pricing varies based on the carrier, but in the case of AT&T, 3GB costs $30 per month and 5GB costs $50 per month. You can also opt for 250MB for $15, but most users would blow through this amount quickly. If you're on a Mobile Share plan, the monthly fee is $10 per month for the tablet, plus at least $20 per month for 300MB of shared data between your phone and the iPad mini. Other options include 2GB for $50, 3GB for $70 and 6GB for $90.
Covers and Accessories
Apple has finally gotten around to covering the back and the front of its tablets with the new Smart Case ($69). The dyed leather case for the iPad mini with Retina Display has a luxurious feel and folds just like the Smart Cover ($39) for typing or watching those cooking videos in the kitchen. It's available in six colors.
Lightning to SD Card and Camera Adapter cables cost $29 each, and there's also a wide range of third-party accessories. You'll find everything from speaker docks and keyboard cases to stands and capacitive pens.
The iPad mini with Retina Display is simultaneously a splurge compared with 7-inch Android tablets and one heck of a value in the context of Apple's own tablet lineup. For $100 less than the full-size iPad Air, you get the same sharp screen resolution and blazing A7 chip in a more compact design. We prefer the color saturation and black levels on the Air's screen -- and some will like having the extra real estate on the Air's display for content creation -- but the mini delivers a lot for the money.
On the other hand, for the $399 starting price of the new iPad mini, you could pick up a very fast new Amazon Kindle HDX ($229) and a Kindle Fire HD ($139) and still have money left over for some apps, games and movies. The reason why we think the mini is worth the premium is Apple's superior tablet apps selection, its larger and sharper display, better design and much longer battery life. Overall, the iPad mini is the best midsize tablet on the market.