Review: Apple iPad mini

Apple aims the iPad mini at the 7-inch Android tablet segment. (November 4th, 2012)

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: From $329

The Good


  • - Extremely well made and designed
    - Thin and light
    - Larger, more useful display area than the 7-inch Android competition
    - Great for content consumption and gaming on the go
    - Unbeatable tablet app selection

The Bad


  • - Lower resolution than the Android competition
    - Non-resolution independent UI results in more zooming in on text
    - Less practical as an all-purpose device against the larger iPad

It's hard to believe that Apple released the original iPad in January of 2010 with many at the time mocking it for its name as well as wondering whether anyone would find a use for it. Approaching two years later, we are already on to the fourth generation iPad with over 100 million iPads sold, while the iPad has created an entire multibillion dollar market segment at the expense of netbooks in particular, as well as PCs.

During this time, Apple has had the lion's share of tablet sales, but in the past twelve months, a host of competitors have found a weak spot in Apple's iPad armor. The iPad remains the tablet of choice in the 10-inch space, however, tablet makers including Samsung with its Galaxy Tab range, Amazon with its Kindle Fire and Google with its Nexus 7 have slowly but surely eroded Apple's market tablet market share. Enter the new Apple iPad mini, which has been designed to take the fight to tablet makers at the lower end of the tablet segment.


How does the iPad mini stack up?








Build quality and design:

The build quality and design of the iPad mini is first class, even though it has been designed to play at the lower end of the tablet market. Where nearly all of its competition uses cheaper plastic, Apple has spared no expense in the design and construction of its latest mobile device. It is made every bit as well as any product in Apple's lineup, be it the larger iPad, the iPhone 5 or any of Apple's high-end notebooks. It is also just 7.2mm thin (23 percent thinner than the iPad) and 0.68lb (53 percent lighter than the iPad).

The iPad mini is noticeably thinner and lighter than Google's Nexus 7



Its fit and finish is completely seamless, with the new diamoned-cut chamfered edge (first seen on the iPhone 5) looking just as good, while also providing a more comfortable fit in the hand. The rear of the device is made from machined alumimum and coated in a slate black anodized finish that feels robust enough that it justifies Apple's decision to release a Smart Cover for the device that only adds additional protection to the Gorilla Glass screen to stop it from picking up scratches.

If there were any question marks over the price that Apple is charging for the iPad mini, pick it up and then pick up a Nexus 7 and compare the two. As much as we like the Nexus 7, it is clearly built to a cost. It is a nice device, but it is also thicker and heavier, while its bezel can bend slightly when it is held. The iPad mini, on the other hand, is rock solid and feels like it will survive the everyday rough and tumble without the need for a protective case. It also feels great in the hand, however, you choose to hold it.



Given its overall size and dimensions, and even internal layout as some teardowns have revealed, the iPad mini is in many ways also like a larger iPod touch. In fact, from a design standpoint, that is really the best description for it. However, Apple have given it the full iPad UI as opposed to the smartphone UI seen on the iPhone and the iPod touch lineup, meaning that it works just like the larger iPad even if it gives the impression of being a larger iPod touch. It also runs iPad apps, where an iPod touch doesn't fully justify its existence as a smaller iPad.




Display and sound:

If there is one particular weakness in the iPad mini, it is the display that Apple has employed. While it is a long way from being the worst display we've ever seen on a tablet (the Dell Streak 7 takes that crown), it is also a long way from being the best display we have seen on a tablet (the third/fourth generation iPad). It has the same resolution as the iPad 2 at 1024x768, but has a higher DPI of 163 ppi against the 132 ppi of the iPad 2. But this is still well short of the Google Nexus 7, which employs a 7-inch 1280x800 pixel display that packs in 216 ppi.

iPad mini display versus the Google Nexus 7



In practice, the display iPad mini is noticeably better than the iPad 2, but is also noticeably short of the Nexus 7 display for definition when reading text on webpages or in e-books. Both of these are also well short of the iPad with Retina display and also the new Nexus 10. However, the iPad mini at least employs IPS technolgy for more accurate color and wide viewing angles, while video and apps still manage to look great. We would like to have seen Apple employ a degree of resolution independence on the UI so that text was not shown at its native resolution as it has with the iPad with Retina display.



Does the comparatively weak display make it a deal killer? In most uses, we don't think so, but we are getting used to seeing displays with higher resolution and wider color gamuts from Apple. An iPad mini with a Retina display would be sensational to behold and we look forward to the day when Apple is able to bring one to the iPad mini. The upshot of using the display that it has is that Apple has made life incredibly easy for developers, who do not need to change a thing to make their tablet optimized iPad apps work out of the box on the iPad mini. It also allows for a thinner a lighter design, as an LCD-based Retina display would have required a larger battery to deliver the same battery life, which would have also made it heavier and likely more expensive to boot.



The new stereo speakers on the iPad mini are excellent, and are among the best we have heard from a tablet. While it would have been more effective in terms of delivering a stereo signal to have them placed at opposite ends of the tablet, they still work very well. Music and movies sound clear, have excellent fidelity and good volume, while showing no signs of distortion. Despite their placement at the bottom end of the iPad mini, the speakers actually deliver a more satisfying sound in some ways than what the larger, mono-speakered iPad produces. This is partly to do with the way the speaker is placed on the larger iPad, projecting the sound more to the back than the front - turn a larger iPad around to the back while it is playing audio, and you will hear what we are talking about.




Performance

Apple has adopted the slightly older A5 processor for the iPad mini, which utilizes a dual-core Cortex-A9 processor matched with a dual-core PowerVR SGX435MP2 GPU. In August, Samsung switched to a 32nm process for the A5 used in the current version of the iPad 2 and the new iPad mini, making it more efficient and boosting its performance slightly at the same clock speed over the original 45nm iteration. In practice, this is a perfectly appropriate choice for this class of device. In fact, in some tests, it edges out the graphics performance of the quad-core GPU integrated into the A5X GPU found in the third-generation iPad for onscreen performance as our GL Benchmarks attest to:

iPad mini GL Benchmark 2.5.1 Onscreen



iPad mini GL Benchmark 2.5.1 Offscreen



Third-gen iPad GL Benchmark 2.5.1 Onscreen



Third-gen iPad GL Benchmark 2.5.1 Offscreen



How so? If you look at the offscreen performance of the GPU's it becomes very clear that pushing all of the extra pixels in the third-generation iPad with Retina display takes a lot of graphics power. Only the newer A6 and A6X processors outperform it, meaning that Apple did not need to use the A6 processor in the iPad mini to get the same level of graphics performance found in the third-gen iPad with the A5X processor. While the decision to use the A5 may well have also been driven by economies of scale, there is absolutely nothing underwhelming about the performance of the A5 chip in the iPad mini.



Web pages load in good time, while navigating the UI is a silky smooth experience with absolutely no evidence of the lag or stuttering that you can still find on Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. Further, applications launch quickly while graphics intensive applications like Infinity Blade II, Dead Trigger and Shadowgun all run a solid frame rates and render beautifully. If you were holding out on the iPad mini because it uses the A5 processor instead of the A6, you would be making the wrong decision. The A6 as used in the iPhone 5 would have been nice, but its inclusion is something we can look forward to in the future. As it stands, the iPad mini is delivers an awesome mobile gaming experience -- Sony and Nintendo will be more than a little nervous even if the iPad mini does not have physical gaming controls.




Wi-Fi, connectivity and battery life:

Apple has incorporated dual-band Wi-Fi antenna in the iPad mini, meaning that it can connect to 802.11a/b/g/n networks on either 2.4GHz or 5GHz. This is particularly useful if you have a dual-band router at home as the it helps to reduce local congestion, while also lets the device connect on what it determines is the optimal frequency helping to maximize the speed of the connection. The version fitted to the iPad mini is a newer MIMO-type connection as also seen on the Amazon Kindle Fire HD and the fourth-generation iPad. This gives these devices the potential to connect to MIMO-capable routers (dual-band, dual-antenna) for even faster data transfer through the inclusion of dual antennas with channel bonding.

Additionally, Apple has fitted the newer Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity to the iPad mini. It is a lower power connection, that when connected to similarly Bluetooth 4.0-equipped periperals, will help to ensure that you get months of battery life out of connected devices. Battery drain on your iPad mini will also be minimized. As with all of Apple's new iOS devices, the iPad mini also features the controversial new Lightning connector. We still favor Lightning over micro-USB for its reversability, but it will take some time for docks and other peripherals to reach the market. The hoilday season should start to see them flood the market.



Apple will have a 4G LTE-capable version of the iPad mini on the market within the next couple of weeks using a nano-SIM. Based on our experience with the 4G LTE-capable iPhone 5, the iPad mini with Wi-Fi + Cellular you can expect that it will be blazing fast wherever 4G network connections are available. It will, however, default to HSPA+ on 3G networks helping to maintain a relatively speedy connection on older 3G networks. While it is great to have the direct connection to cellular networks with any tablet device, it carries with it the penalty of having to pay for an additional data plan. For most users who also carry a smartphone, connecting over a wireless hotspot will save you a considerable amount of money over an above the $130 premium for the addition of the cellular modem.

Using a cellular connection will, however, also drain your battery life more quickly when active. However, the good news on that front is that although the iPad mini is incredibly thin, it still retains the 10 hours plus battery life that we have come to expect from Apple's iPad range on the Wi-Fi model. Watching movies or surfing the Internet between charges is significantly less disconcerting that doing the same things on your smartphone, particularly if you don't have access to charging source. The Kindle Fire HD only lasts half as long when watching movies as the iPad mini by comparison.


Cameras

While much has been made of the relatively low-resolution display in the iPad mini when viewed against the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire HD, neither of those devices has a rear-camera. By comparison, not only has Apple incorporated a rear camera into the iPad mini, it is also excellent. The rear camera in the iPad mini is a hybrid of the cameras found on the iPhone 4S and the iPhone 4. It uses the 5-megapixel sensor from the iPhone 4, but combines it with the five-element lens, hybrid IR filter and f/2.4 aperture of the iPhone 4S.



However, unlike the iPhone 4S, it does not offer the great new panorama feature found on that model with its upgrade to iOS6 - at least at this time. In fact the camera on the iPad mini matches, spec for spec, the camera found in the back of the fourth-generation iPad. As the photos below testify to, the iPad mini is capable of taking high-quality casual photos, while it can also shoot video in 1080p at 30fps, both of which are distinct advantages over the Android competition, which cannot do either.

Photos taken with the 5-megapixel rear camera on the iPad mini









The front-facing camera on the iPad mini is also lifted from the new iPad. It can take 1.2-megapixel still photos and is capable of taking video footage in 720p. It can also allow you to conduct FaceTime video calls over Wi-Fi or cellular in 720p as well. It is a high-quality unit that is at least as good as the competition, which when combined with FaceTime, make for a better overall experience when using the iPad mini as a communication device on the go.

Photo taken with the 1.2-megapixel front camera on the iPad mini




The app advantage:

As sleek and well-made as the iPad mini is, the one area where the iPad mini clearly shines over the Android competition from a functional perspective is the over 275,000 tablet optimized apps ready to go from the day you buy it. As Apple highlighted so effectivetly during its iPad mini event recently, iPad apps run just as well on the iPad mini as they do on the iPad. This is one area that really helps to differentiate the Apple's tablets from the Android competition, over and above the quality of its hardware and the quality of its operating system.



Most apps for Android are smartphone apps that do not do anything to better utilize the extra screen size of tablets. We are in no doubt that Google is aiming to change this situation with the launch of its Nexus 10, due to go on sale in the next couple of weeks. As the Nexus 7 has a display that is only marginally bigger than those found on large smartphones like the Galaxy S III and the Galaxy Note II, there appears to be no urgency on the part of developers to start making tablet apps for Android tablets. Instead, most apps that run on Android tablets are designed only for smartphones. A larger 10-inch Android tablet with widespread commercial appeal could help to stimulate a new wave of tablet optimized apps that could change this equation.



After having used 7-inch Android tablets including the original Galaxy Tab, the Galaxy Tab 7.7 and the Nexus 7, it really is a revelation to see genuinely optimized tablet apps running on the smaller iPad mini. While many decried the iPad as 'just a large iPhone' they soon ate their words when desktop-like apps were made in their thousands for the iPad. Tablet optimized apps are one of the reasons the iPad has been so successful where its Android competition hasn't. iPad optimized apps have truly differentiated the iPad from smartphones and notebooks as a new category of device, which is why over 100 million people have found a use for it when some did not know what purpose it could possibly serve.

iPad mini in Skinny case by STMBags



Instead, Android tablets remain relegated to carrying the label 'just a larger smartphone.' If you want stretched smartphone apps for your tablet, Android has hundreds of thousands to choose from. They will get the job done in most instances, but they don't make for a great tablet experience, which is what Steve Jobs was talking about when he derided 7-inch tablets. Great tablet apps are much more like desktop apps than smartphone apps and don't really work that well on anything smaller than the iPad mini - at least not without a 4:3 aspect ratio for the display.

"It's because we think the screen is too small to express the software," argued Jobs at the time. "As a software driven company, we think about the software strategies first." The iPad mini, with 67 percent more screen area than the Nexus 7, is quite a different animal to the average 7-inch Android tablet. Besides, Jobs was never going to argue that 7-inch tablets were fantastic when Apple did not have a device in that category. Would we still be keen on Apple delivering a 7-inch tablet with a 16:9 aspect ratio? Not after using the iPad mini with its 7.9-inch 4:3 aspect ratio. It should also be remembered that the 7-inch Android tablet segment was born out of the fact that Android did not get optimized for tablets until the release of Android 3.0 'Honeycomb,' and that the 7-inch form factor was considered about as far as what was a smartphone-only OS could be stretched.


Final thoughts:

It is true that Apple has managed to condense much of the larger iPad experience into the iPad mini, making it better than every other 7-inch or 8-inch tablet on the market by a long way. This is not the result of having a better display, or the most powerful processor; rather, it is the simple fact that it has a wealth of properly optimized tablet apps making the whole iOS tablet experience something that no other tablet maker can touch at this point in time.

However, if you had to choose between an iPad and the new iPad mini, we would recommend the iPad with Retina display -- although Apple has made it a tough choice. The larger fourth-generation iPad with its outstanding Retina display and much more powerful processor make it the single best tablet experience you can have. It delivers both content, creative and productivity capabilities that a smaller tablet can't deliver quite as effectively - the extra screen real-estate really makes all the difference, which is no doubt why Apple decided that it would test the demand for a tablet with that model first. The iPad mini has the edge for tablet gaming (it really is a lot of fun in this regard), but we would much rather use the larger tablet for word processing, for example.

If you are choosing between the iPad mini and its smaller tablet competition in the tablets from Samsung, Amazon and Google, the iPad mini has those devices beaten in most of the areas that count. Its screen resolution is not as high, but it is a noticeable improvement over the iPad 2. The Nexus 7 also has a more powerful processor, but its small 16:9 7-inch display and lack of properly optimized tablet apps leave it well short of the iPad mini as a really useful device. The Nexus 7 is also thicker (10.45mm) and heavier (340 grams) despite sporting a smaller screen and overall footprint. The only thing it really has going for it is its price and higher resolution display. Similar criticisms can be levelled at the Amazon Kindle Fire HD, which is 10.3 mm thick and weighs in at a heafty 395 grams.

The iPad mini is an excellent device that has many key advantages over the competition. What hurts it most, more than the lack of a Retina display, is its starting price. In our view, it is clearly justified. Apple has made the Mercedes Benz of smaller tablets and should not have to price it as cheaply as a Hyundai. In our view, its shortcomings aside, the iPad mini offers the best overall combination of quality and performance, all wrapped in a very seductive package. It incorporates high-quality front and rear cameras as well, when coupled with its outstanding app and content ecosystem making it more well-rounded as a complete tablet experience than the competition. It is undoubtedly the new class leader.

by Sanjiv Sathiah


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