It's all about the gold. Apple's iPad mini 3 (starting at $399) is the latest of the company's devices to get the fever-inducing color option. It also comes with Touch ID, which makes your fingerprint into a password. Otherwise, the newest iPad is pretty much the same as the iPad mini 2, which means it's an elegant and useful tablet that's good for the whole family.
Editors' note: Apple has announced the iPad mini 4, which is a slimmer version of the iPad mini 3, featuring a faster A8 processor and a new rose-gold color option. It starts at $399 for 16GB of storage (Wi-Fi only) and is out now.
Except for the gold color option, the iPad mini 3 is nearly identical to the iPad mini 2 (previously known as iPad mini with Retina display). I'm still a fan of the classy and sleek unibody aluminum construction and the polished chamfered edges. Our 128GB review unit with AT&T LTE came in gold, which just oozes elegance and sophistication, but the mini 3 is also available in gray and silver.
The gold and circular outline of the home button, indicating Touch ID, is the only noticeable design difference that Apple added to the iPad mini 3. The power button still sits on the top edge, while the volume and lock switches are along the top right; all are as easy to access as ever. A 1.2-MP FaceTime camera adorns the front, and a 5-MP camera still graces the back. Two speakers and a Lightning port sit on the bottom edge.
At 7.87 x 5.3 x 0.29 inches, the mini 3 is slimmer than the Nvidia Shield Tablet (8.8 x 5 x 0.36 inches) and the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 (8.37 x 4.94 x 0.26 inches). Apple's 12-ounce tablet is also lighter than the 13.7-ounce Shield, but it's heavier than the Galaxy Tab S 8.4's 10.37 ounces.
Touch ID and Apple Pay
Click to EnlargeUsing a single finger to unlock your device is pretty simple, and it's easy to see why so many iPhone users have been clamoring for the Touch ID feature to be added to the iPad mini 3. The feature can be used to approve iTunes purchases. Third-party app makers are getting in on the Touch ID game, which means you can also use your fingerprint as a password for Evernote and Mint, among other apps.
It took just seconds and a few finger taps to get the feature set up. The device takes your fingerprints twice, so I twisted my finger for landscape mode the second time. That made it easy to use in landscape mode as well as portrait mode.
Click to EnlargeWith iOS 8, Apple introduced Apple Pay, which opens Touch ID for use with a variety of third-party apps. Apple Pay is the company's mobile wallet solution, which saves your credit card information as a code on the phone. Then, you simply press to buy. Options available now include Uber, Lyft and Panera. More app makers, such as Starbucks and Ticketmaster, are in the wings for Apple Pay.
Unlike with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, you cannot use Apple Pay through an iPad at a retail outlet, as the tablets lack an NFC chip.
Click to EnlargeThe Retina display on the iPad mini 3 is just as bright and crisp as it was in last year's iPad mini 2. At 2048 x 1536 pixels, it tops the Nvidia Shield tablet's 1920 x 1200-pixel resolution, but the mini 3 isn't as pixel dense as the 2560 x 1600p Galaxy Tab S 8.4.
I zoomed in multiple times on a 5K image of a mountain landscape and was still able to make out most snow-covered crag. And when I watched a 1080p trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy, the green of Zoe Saldana's green skin aptly reminded me of an actual lizard.
Unfortunately, the mini 3 can only produce 67.3 percent of the sRGB gamut. That's a far cry from the 90.4 percent tablet average. The Tab S 8.4, in comparison, scored 160.5 percent. Yet the iPad mini 3 had better color accuracy, as its score of 2.4 on the Delta-E test beat the 5.25 average (the closer to 0, the better). The Nvidia Shield Tablet (3.4) and the Tab S 8.4 (4.5) were less accurate.
In terms of brightness, we recorded 383 nits on the iPad mini 3. That's a tad brighter than the Nvidia Shield Tablet's 334 nits, the Galaxy Tab S 8.4's 321 nits or the 328-nit tablet average.
The iPad mini 3 isn't very loud, hitting just 68 decibels on our sound meter. That's far below the whopping 85 dB scored by the Nvidia Shield Tablet and the 78 dB recorded on the Tab S 8.4. It doesn't come close to the 79-dB tablet average.
The sound from the two speakers on the bottom edge (when held in portrait mode) also lacked bass. "Oxford Comma," by Vampire Weekend, lacked depth, with the brassy top hat dominating the song. "Turn Down for What," by DJ Snake, sounded positively gutted, lacking all the driving beats I was listening for.
Click to EnlargeApple's new operating system, iOS 8, launched with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. The release of the iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3 was also timed with a slight refresh to the operating system, known as iOS 8.1. With the refresh came not only bug fixes, but also Apple Pay and Continuity.
The Continuity feature means you can start writing an email on the mini 3 and then finish it on your iPhone or MacBook Air running OS X Yosemite. You can also use your iPad to answer calls or SMS messages sent to your iPhone.
MORE: iOS 8 Reviewed
To get this to work, both devices need to have Bluetooth turned on and be connected to the same Wi-Fi network. When I tested the feature, it worked well, but there was a significant audio delay from what was said and when I could hear it through the device.
Family Sharing and iCloud Drive allow you to share a range of content -- including photos, apps and purchased media -- on up to six iOS devices.
Click to EnlargeWith iOS 8 comes a new keyboard for the iPad mini 3, which looks similar to previous versions but now includes predictive typing. The keyboard learns as you type, based on the person to whom you're typing and what topics you discuss.
It even knows if you're being asked a question and suggests possible answers in context, just above the keyboard. For instance, when I was asked if I wanted to have dinner or go out for drinks, the iPad mini 3 suggested dinner, drinks and both as options above the keyboard.
Apple has also opened iOS to allow third-party keyboards, such as Swype and SwiftKey.
The iPad mini 3 doesn't get the new A8X chip that Apple bundled in the Air 2, but I still found the A7 chip responsive in real-world use. It took only a second to return to the home screen from apps, and the camera was ready to shoot in 2 seconds. The mini 3 also quickly opened huge apps, taking just 5 seconds to prepare to play N.O.V.A. 3 and 11 seconds to open Despicable Me: Minion Rush.
On synthetic benchmarks, the outdated processor didn't shine, particularly when compared with the competition. On Geekbench 3, which measures overall performance, we recorded a score of 2,481. That's below the Nvidia Shield Tablet (2.2-GHz, quad-core Tegra K1 CPU with 2GB of RAM) and the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 (1.9-GHz Samsung Exynos 5 Octa CPU), which scored 3,437 and 2,768, respectively.
When we ran 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited -- which tests graphics and gaming performance -- the iPad mini 3 scored 10,699. That is higher than the 9,972 tablet average, but far behind the Shield Tablet (29,938) and Galaxy Tab S 8.4 (13,518).
Click to EnlargeApple loads the iPad mini 3 with the same cameras found on the iPad mini 2. The front 1.2-MP FaceTime camera offered clear images when I chatted with a colleague via FaceTime. The dual microphones, located on the top rear of the device, enabled his voice to come through clear and crisp.
My indoor selfies were adequate, capturing single strands of my flyaway hair and my overly pink complexion.
On the back is a 5-MP iSight camera. It offers some interesting features, including Panorama and time-lapse for video or stills. The time-lapse mode can compress up to 30 hours into a few minutes. Sadly, there's no flash.
We could make out individual raindrops on the petals of marigolds, and the deep brown came through clearly. However, in bright light, a winter cabbage looked flat and hazy.
A 1080p video shot of a New York City street appeared pixelated. People walking and cars driving came in and out of focus.
Apple offers more than 675,000 iPad-specific apps, most of which are optimized for Retina displays. Some developers still go iOS-first with app releases. That means you still won't find Camera+ or Dark Sky on Android, but you will on iOS.
Click to EnlargeThe Google Play store has been playing catch-up with Apple for tablet apps, but it still has a way to go. For instance, Spotify on Android tablets remains a stretched-out version of the phone app. But on the iPad mini 3, you get a multifaceted app specifically built with the bigger screen in mind.
Apple throws in its iLife and iWork suites for free with the purchase of an iPad, making this a creative and productivity-driven tablet. Siri is also preloaded, and can help answer questions, set reminders, and search Bing and Wikipedia, among other things.
The iPad mini 3 has a 23.8-watt-hour lithium polymer battery that Apple claims should offer up to 10 hours of surfing the Web over Wi-Fi, watching video or listening to music. We will update our review when we run our Laptop Mag Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi.
The iPad mini 2 has the same battery, and that tablet lasted 11 hours and 6 minutes. In comparison, the Nvidia Shield Tablet lasted 8:34, and the Galaxy Tab S 8.4 lasted 7:56.
Our review unit came with 128GB of storage and AT&T LTE built in, which brought the total cost to $729, but you can pick up the mini 3 for less. The Wi-Fi-only configurations start at $399 for 16GB, and go up to $499 for 64GB and $599 for 128GB. The iPad mini 2 is also being sold for $299 for 16GB or $349 for 32GB, Wi-Fi only.
When you add a cellular connection, the starting price for the 16GB model jumps to $529. A 64GB model can be had for $629. You can't get the iPad mini 3 in 32GB, but you can pick up the iPad mini 2 with cellular connection for just $479. The 16GB model is just $429.
Data-plan pricing varies based on the carrier. In AT&T's case, 3GB costs $30 per month, and 5GB costs $50 per month. You can also opt for 250MB for $15, but that's unlikely to be enough data. 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 3.
Click to EnlargeLong battery life, a crisp display and an excellent app selection are the heart of any good tablet. The iPad mini 3 offers all of these wrapped in a cool gold color, and tops the sundae with Apple's Touch ID feature. But if you can do without the gold and fingerprint reader, you can get all the same specs in the iPad mini 2 for $100 less.
For those who are dying to use Apple Pay for online purchases and don't want to bother with passwords, the iPad mini 3 is a solid pick, but the iPad Air 2's faster A8X chip, richer anti-reflective display and better 8-MP camera make that the best tablet in Apple's lineup.