iPad mini with Retina display review

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At first glance, the upgraded iPad mini with Retina display, launched earlier this month, doesn’t seem like a major improvement over the original model. Priced $100 higher, some may be asking if the added cost is justified. Our full review follows. Read on to find out if the higher resolution screen really makes a difference.

Display

We start our look at the iPad mini with Retina display by examining its biggest asset: the namesake Retina display. The LED-backlit display crams 2048 x 1536 pictures in a screen measuring 7.9-inches diagonally. In other words, that’s the same resolution as the Retina display of the full-size iPad (9.7-inch display) within the confines of a smaller package. The result? A pixel density of some 326 pixels per inch.

There have been two major complaints about the Retina display found in the iPad mini: image retention and muted colors. During regular use, we did not experience any severe instances of “ghosting” or screen burn-in. It could be that the issues with retention are isolated, but for us, at least, it was a non-issue.

As for muted colors, we’ll agree that the Retina display of the iPad mini does not produce a one-for-one reproduction of the Retina display of the iPad Air or other models, but to say this is a knock on the tablet would be nitpicking. HD video still looked great, apps and games appeared crisp and clear, and the overall experience was a definite upgrade over the original iPad mini.

Design

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Without powering the device on, you would be hard pressed to notice any difference between the iPad mini with Retina display and its non-Retina counterpart. In terms of design, the two devices are identical. We’re OK with that. The iPad mini features a compact, beautiful design that we are happy to live with for another generation.

The Retina iPad mini measures 5.3-inches wide by 7.87-inches tall. It registers at a mere 0.29-inches thick and weighs in at 0.73 lbs. The thickness and weight has increased marginally from the original iPad mini, but the difference is not noticeable during daily use.

The tablet’s size is a great mix of portability and usability. The smaller screen doesn’t take away from the iPad’s capabilities as a great productivity tool, but the compact build makes it easy to slip into a bag or purse and take on the go.

Perhaps the most striking overall design change from the first generation of iPad mini devices is the availability of the device in Space Gray in addition to silver/white (though Apple now manufacturers the original iPad mini in the same two color schemes). The new option was first made available with the iPhone 5S and comes as a nice alternative to the traditional black design.

Hardware & Processor

The iPad mini with Retina display updates the hardware of the first iPad mini in several significant ways, but the most notable will be the introduction of 64-bit architecture with Apple’s A7 chip and MIMO WiFi. The two boost the speed and performance of the iPad mini each in their own way.

The A7 chip found in the Retina iPad mini has more in common with the CPU of the iPhone 5S than it does the iPad Air. For this reason, you could think of the Retina mini as a combination of the Air and 5S, and you wouldn’t be that far off. The processor is clocked at an identical clip to its smartphone counterpart (1.3GHz compared to the Air’s 1.4GHz), and benchmark results more or less mirror the 5S’ performance.

As we have stated previously, the true benefits of 64-bit (Apple refers to this as “desktop”) architecture — first introduced with Apple’s most recent mobile products — likely won’t be realized immediately. While the chip does provide quite the speed and performance boost, it will take some time for developers to bring their apps up to speed. With 32-bit devices still accounting for a large portion of the market, many may choose to hold off updating their software until their efforts would reach a larger audience.

As for MIMO WiFi, the mini utilizes a dual-antenna setup to provide for better reception and faster data transfer speeds. We reviewed the WiFi-only model, but the cellular version also supports a wider array of LTE bands than previous iPad models.

Though the remaining technical specifications remain largely the same as last year’s model, the upgrades that did take place provide noticeable benefits. If one opportunity was missed, it was the inclusion of Touch ID. Apple introduced the fingerprint scanner with the iPhone 5S but failed to implement the functionality into either of their new iPad models.

iOS 7

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In conjunction with the A7 processor introduced in the iPad mini with Retina display users will find a build of iOS 7 — Apple’s latest update to their mobile platform — tailored to the 64-bit architecture. The result is a smooth experience with no noticeable lag or hiccups. Transitions, animations, and scrolling are seamless and the tablet is instantly responsive.

As for iOS 7 itself, opinions continue to be mixed now months after the update’s introduction. While the operating system underwent the biggest design overhaul since its inception, some feel that the core has remained too stagnant and that the latest release showcases a lack of innovation. We don’t quite agree. We find the familiarity of iOS 7 (once you get past the change in appearance) to be welcome, and the tweaks and additions Apple did make are all beneficial.

These include our favorite new feature Control Center — a slide-out panel featuring quick access to toggles and shortcuts from any screen — as well as easy file sharing via AirDrop. iOS’ multitasking and notification experiences have been further refined and provide a more robust experience in comparison to the platform’s simplistic roots. Other enhancements include improvements to Siri that allow for a wider range of input and interaction (and the new option for a male voice), a revamped photo gallery, and improved experiences in Apple’s core apps like Safari.

Camera

While taking photos with an iPad has become increasingly popular (and a little less embarrassing thanks to the portability and size of the iPad mini), it is still far from the best option. Aside from the unwieldiness of a tablet, the 5MP camera found in the iPad mini with Retina display just isn’t that great.

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Photos are typically grainy and washed out (click the above examples to see bigger versions), and a lack of flash means there is little to no hope in lowlight situations. Video doesn’t fare much better. The iPad mini will work in a pinch to capture a photo on the fly, but if you plan on doing any serious shooting it’s best to stick with the iPhone, a point-and-shoot, or your DSLR.

That being said, both the rear and front-facing cameras of the iPad mini with Retina display are great for placing video calls to family and friends, and the Retina display makes the experience all the better. The size of the mini makes it perfect for these situations.

Battery

As seems to be the case with Apple’s 2013 lineup of iDevices, battery life sees marginal gains while remaining mostly on par with that of the previous generation. As we have said countless times, this is not a bad thing.

The WiFi iPad mini with Retina display can get some longevity out of its battery, especially in standby. With use times of only a couple hours a day for web browsing and reading, it easily sees a week of battery life. Throw in streaming video and the times will decrease, but  surprisingly not by much.

Apple promises about 10 hours of battery life across the board, but in most cases users will easily see more than that. This makes the Retina iPad mini another perfect companion for long car rides and flights.

Conclusion

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This considering the iPad mini with Retina display are likely doing so for a number of reasons, two of which include price and portability. In both areas, the Mini has its advantages over the iPad Air while maintaining largely the same key features, not the least of which is the gorgeous Retina display. With no clear distinction, the decision will likely hinge on the size of that Retina display the user prefers.

At $399, the Retina version of the iPad mini comes in at $100 more than the original, but it is $100 well spent. The A7 processor and higher resolution screen make a world of difference. If you’re set on the 7.9-inch size, opting for anything other than the iPad mini with Retina display is a mistake.