Review – iPad Mini with Retina Display

Introduction

The original iPad Mini was fraught with compromises.  A low cost product from a company that doesn’t like to make low cost anything, it was clearly built to fill a burgeoning niche being addressed by cheap Android tablets that Apple really didn’t want to exist in the first place.

The specs were underwhelming.  It used iPad 2 hardware on the inside – and the iPad 2 was already suffering from page reload-itis and general slowness due to the 512MB of RAM and a two generation old processor.  For a company that had heralded the era of “retina displays” in its products … first with the iPhone, and then with the iPad 3 and Retina Macbook Pro … it seemed like an unusually inconsistent step back to have a mere 1024 x 768 pixels in the 7.9″ display.

But in other respects … the new lightning connector, the remarkably thin new design, the camera, and more … it was bringing more to the table than even the full size iPad.  So much so that Apple felt it had to refresh the iPad 3, released only 7 months before, just to keep up.  So the iPad 4 was introduced alongside the iPad Mini.

And yet, the demand for original iPad Mini, in spite of the fact that its $329 starting price seemed to not even be competing with similar tablets at $199 to $249, could be described in just three words.  Sold like hotcakes.  Price mattered, and the product was good enough.

A Personal View

For myself, the iPad Mini was a reluctant “upgrade”.  As someone who actually carried the iPad around on a semi regular basis, the iPad Mini was looking like the thing to have. The full size iPad was a little too heavy and slippery to just carry around all the time without a bit of a death grip, and it was too big to put in a simple pocket.  If I was in a situation where I didn’t need portability, I would probably have a laptop anyway.

The Mini fixed those portability problems.  It was usable as a tablet, but still slipped into my jacket pocket or could be carried in my hand all day without the “death grip”.  The size was less obtrusive in public, and it was a much simpler matter to hand it to a companion than the full iPad.  It could easily be held in one hand like a paperback book and poked with the other.  It truly felt like I was toting around something akin to the Star Trek “Pad” of the future.  I even skipped the cover often because it added 25% percent to the remarkably light weight of the tablet.

And yet, I was reminded of the Mini’s failings every time I had to rotate into landscape or zoom in to see some text more clearly.  Or a web page reloaded unnecessarily.  Or a full screen magazine page in my Zinio app looked like a pixelated mess.  iOS 7, perhaps not unexpectedly, made the RAM issues even more prominent.  The iPad 3’s Retina Display  was simply still remarkable to look at and use.

So yes … I’ve been waiting for the new iPad Mini for a long time.  Like a student moving into a dorm for a bit, there was never any plan to get attached to the original Mini.  While its benefits were substantial, its flaws were also readily apparent.  I had always planned to trade out as soon as possible.

The details

Dimensions: The iPad Mini with Retina Display (heretofore referred to as the Mini 2) is almost immeasurably thicker (0.3mm) and 10% heavier than the original Mini.  The Mini 2 feels not so much heavier in the hand as more dense.  The dimensions, meanwhile, are so similar that almost all original covers and cases still fit the Mini 2.  Essentially imperceptible.

Speed: Leagues faster.  Mostly 4-5x in terms of CPU, all due to the use of the current generation A7 processor as opposed to a last generation A6.  This was an unexpected surprise for anyone expecting the trend of the Mini getting last generation hardware … although it was rather smart from a supply chain perspective.

Per the above, it turns out the “X” series of graphically enhanced processors required to drive the 2048×1536 Retina Display are no longer required with this generation of hardware.

Not to be ignored in the speed issue is the amount of RAM.  Web pages frequently reloaded on the original Mini and any reasonably intensive game would crash frequently.  With a full 1GB of RAM, the Mini 2 has run everything I have thrown at it with aplomb.

Screen: The new retina screen, with a remarkable 326 PPI, is a wonderful thing to finally have on the iPad Mini 2.  Magazines and other images truly look at home on the new display, if a bit small.  While it is much easier to browse full size web pages on the Mini 2 now, it isn’t always completely comfortable.  As I’ve adapted to the new Retina Display on the Mini 2 , there is a temptation to try and read many of these web pages unzoomed on since even the small text is so clear.  It finally takes some learning to realize that even the clearest of small text can still be uncomfortable to read, and that one should still zoom in or switch to landscape on occasion.  I can’t blame this on Apple … it’s just the form factor.

Much has been made of the color gamut of the iPad Mini … weighing in at just 62% (similar to the original Mini) and not at the 100% coverage afforded by the iPad 3 and subsequent full size iPad’s.  In a word, the “issue” will only affect those of an anal retentive nature.  Deep reds appear a bit orangey (if that’s even a word) and purples start to look bluish.  However, there is no functional reason this should affect how 99% of the world uses the tablet.

Apple may have had supply chain issues or gambled incorrectly on display technology for the Mini 2 … we may never know.  I look forward to a Mini with a better display, but I cannot think of how the current display is going to measurably displease me for the next year.

Like the original Mini, I don’t necessarily recommend the Mini for older users, or generally those who have vision problems.  The larger screen of the iPad Air will be a much better option for many.  The lightness of the Mini is no longer quite as unique due to the new iPad Air’s diet, and for those who don’t wander out much, the weight and size hardly matter anyway.

Price and Upgrades: At $399, the new Mini 2 is considerably more expensive than the original Mini. The current generation specs rather soundly justify the increase, although the lack of new product at the 300 dollar price point must be ruining some bean counter’s day at Apple.  Personally, I think Apple should always have bumped the retina display model’s pricing slightly on launch … or perhaps left out the 16GB version of it altogether.

What is more disappointing is the continued existence of the “100 dollars per storage tier” upgrade model.  We all know flash memory gets cheaper over time, so the persistence of this pricing structure over a number of years is starting to look like price gouging in the eyes of consumers.

Now, as it turns out, 16GB is probably one of those nice sizes where someone can still web browse and use a few apps, but any additional music or movies is going to require more space.  So I’m not sure Apple should upgrade the base storage to 32GB.  I suggest they remove the 32GB tier and shift the 64GB and 128GB down into place.

Another disappointing choice was the decision to keep selling the original iPad Mini at the $299 price point.  If you haven’t gotten the idea by now, the Mini 1 is definitely under spec, and on the brink of being obsolete.  At the very least, it should get an A6 processor in there with 1GB of RAM so that it has some life left in it.  As it stands now, you’d have to be completely ignorant to purchase the iPad Mini 1 over the Mini 2.

To end on a more pleasant note … the Mini 2 has an option for 128GB of storage, and all cellular models in the US are actually the same hardware.  So the Mini 2 is truly on par with the iPad Air in many ways, and the resale of the cellular Mini 2’s (or even just switching carriers) will be easier, as the models are largely interchangeable.

Conclusion

The new iPad Mini with Retina display is a remarkable tablet.  It does not compete on price with the new generation Nexus 7 or Kindle.  In my mind, it doesn’t have to.  If I was to buy a tablet for a gift, I might consider a Nexus.  If I buy a tablet for myself, it’s iPad all the way.

It’s a curiously pleasant, but unfamiliar, feeling to carry around a tablet that is virtually the equal of the iPad Air in everything but size, and still do it in such a portable way.  The Mini 2 addressed all of my complaints about the original Mini, and then actually went above and beyond by including current spec hardware.  I think the emotion might be best described as “blessed” … wherein you aren’t quite sure how you are carrying this amazingly good interface to the sum of human knowledge in the palm of your hand, but you are, and it is freaking awesome.

Unlike the original Mini, I won’t be looking towards the next upgrade so eagerly.  And that’s quite a compliment.

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