Review: iPad mini with Retina display

High resolution display, 64-bit power distinguish the Retina iPad mini (November 26th, 2013)

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: From $399

The Good


  • - Superb build quality and design
    - Cutting-edge processor and graphics performance
    - iOS 7 a beautiful and powerful complement to hardware
    - Outstanding built-in and free iWork, iLife apps
    - Retina display most pixel dense iPad display yet

The Bad


  • - Relatively high up-front price
    - Slightly thicker and heavier than non-Retina model
    - Retina display outclassed by iPad Air Retina display
    - No Wi-Fi 802.11ac support

Apple's long-awaited iPad mini with Retina display has finally landed, although it is possible that stunning iPad Air may have stolen some of its thunder. There is often a lot of hype when it comes to Apple's latest product launch and more often than not, Apple manages to deliver on the promise. Although many users loved the portability of the original iPad mini and bought one even though it used a relatively low resolution display, some people were prepared to hold out for the inevitable launch of a Retina display-equipped model. So was the wait worth it?

Design and construction

The Retina iPad mini continues with the same basic design language as the original iPad mini, which has now also been translated into the design of the larger iPad Air. It's a beautiful refinement of the original aluminum and glass iPad design that trims off all unnecessary materials so that is seems almost as though it was naturally hewn. The Retina iPad mini remains highly compact and portable, which is why the original model proved to be so popular with Apple's customers over the past year. It continues with the almost jewel-like diamond cut chamfered edges that then cascade into a lovely rounded curve that feels exceptionally comfortable in the hand. It conveys a strong sense of quality and class that is a trademark of Apple's products, which is why Apple's products are able to command a premium price.



Compared to the fourth-generation iPad, many customers were prepared to make the trade-off in the display quality of the original iPad mini simply because it was easier to hold one-handed and carry around. This equation changed considerably in October, when the iPad Air went on sale, weighing in at a svelte 1 pound and feeling much lighter than its overall dimensions suggest it should. To accommodate its Retina display and a larger battery to power it, the iPad mini has increased slightly in thickness and weight. While still very thin and light, its weight does not feel quite as well distributed in the hand as the original, or the iPad Air in particular. However, for many, the fact that it is still much more compact than the iPad Air will work very much in its favor.




Display

The Retina iPad mini display has been at the center of considerable speculation since the debut of the original iPad mini. After using a Retina display on the larger iPad, the original iPad mini display did not compare particularly well by comparison even if it was passable. Reports emerged throughout the year indicating that we would see a Retina display on the iPad mini this year, although that supplies of that model would be constrained early on, which has proved to be accurate. The good news is that the display on the Retina iPad mini has a very high resolution; in fact it is the highest resolution display that Apple has ever featured on a tablet, featuring the same 326ppi pixel density as the Retina display on the iPhone. Text in magazines and books, as well as webpages look extremely crisp and sharp, while video and games look similarly impressive.



However, while Apple has delivered us the long-awaited Retina iPad mini, not everything is as it might seem. Apparently, there are Retina displays, and then there's the Retina display on the iPad mini. Proving that pixel density isn't everything, the iPad mini has been demonstrated in testing to be inferior to the Retina display in the iPad Air in terms of the way that it displays color. The Retina display on the iPad Air has been shown to reproduce the 100 percent of the sRGB spectrum, whereas the iPad mini reproduces only around 60 percent of the same spectrum.



Thus, although the display in the iPad mini has a high resolution, the display in the iPad Air is noticeably superior. A side-by-side comparison will convince you of this when you see the two together. In isolation the Retina display in the iPad mini looks great, but when compared to the Retina display in the iPad Air, the discerning user will reach for the iPad Air every time. Likewise, people who want to go any kind of image editing or artwork on their iPad will also opt for the iPad Air purely for its color accuracy. For most users though, the Retina display in the iPad mini is going to be pretty close to perfect. However, if you want perfection in your display, the iPad Air is the only choice.




Performance

Apple surprised many when it revealed that the Retina iPad mini was packing the same outstanding 64-bit Apple A7 dual-core processor as both the iPad Air. Until it was recently revealed that the Retina display in the iPad mini had a relatively narrow color gamut, it seemed that all users had to pick between was a choice between sizes as performance looked as though they are on par. As it turns out, performance is, technically, almost on par. The A7 chip in the in iPad mini is clocked at the same 1.3GHz clock speed as the A7 chip in the iPhone 5s, whereas the A7 chip in the iPad Air is clocked slightly higher. This performance difference, while small, is slightly in favor of the iPad Air. However, compared to most small tablets on the market with a high-resolution display, the iPad mini is by far the most powerful compact tablet on the market that also blasts past full size Android tablets as well.



The cross-platform GeekBench 3 test is our favored test for judging mobile processor performance. The reason for this is that it assesses both single-core and multi-core performance, with the single-core measure currently the key metric. Most mobile apps utilize only one core, so the chip that produces the best single-core score will translate into the device that offers the best real-world performance. The GeekBench 3 test also reveals that clock speed isn't everything either when it comes to assessing processor performance. On paper, the 32-bit Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chipset in the Google Nexus 5 looks as though it should easily beat out the Apple A7 chip as it is clocked at 2.26GHz versus 1.3GHz. The reality is considerably different.



The iPad mini significantly outperforms the processing performance of the Snapdragon 800, producing a single-core score of 1395 versus just 900. This is due to the combination of the advanced 'Cyclone' architecture of the A7 chip (based on ARM's Cortex A53/A57 architecture) and its new ARM v8 instruction. The combination means that it is capable of processing more instructions per clock cycle than the Snapdragon 800, which runs Qualcomm's custom 'Krait' architecture based on the older Cortex-A15 that also runs the now superseded ARM v7 instruction set. If you think that this is does not necessarily translate into a real-world performance difference just take a moment to digest the fact that the 1.3GHz dual-core A7 chip in the Retina iPad mini takes just 35 seconds to run the full suite of Geekbench 3 tests while the 2.28GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon chip takes 55 seconds to complete the same suite of tests. Apple's custom-designed silicon smokes the best chip currently available to Android vendors, and with two fewer cores. In this instance, it is clearly a case that four cores is good, but two cores is better...



From a graphics perspective, the Qualcomm Adreno 330 is a much better match for the quad-cluster PowerVR G6430 with both being the first to support the previously desktop-only Open GL ES 3.0 graphics standard. As we have seen with our benchmarking of both the iPhone 5s and the iPad Air, the Retina iPad mini also edges out the Adreno 330 devices for graphics performance too. In the cross-platform GFXBench 2.7.2, the iPad mini hit 27fps in the T-Rex HD Offscreen test and 63fps in the Egypt HD Offscreen test. The best we have seen from the Adreno 330 is 23fps in the T-Rex HD Offscreen test and 60fps in the Egypt HD Offscreen test. In this case, though, both GPUs are cutting edge technology and will provide an outstanding mobile gaming experience.




Software

We've previously examined iOS 7 at length in our closer looks Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. It is the first 64-bit mobile operating system on the market and has been designed with maximizing the potential of the A7 chip, which despite sporting only 1GB of system RAM, benefits from a fully 64-bit architecture for computationally complex tasks. In the Android world, this equates to getting next year's technology in a device that is shipping now, which helps to add a new value equation to Apple's hardware that hasn't really been widely acknowledged. Like the iPad Air, the iPad mini has a further advantage over its Android tablet competition in that its user interface has been fully optimized for its larger display. Although Google has integrated better support for tablet interfaces in more recent versions of Android, the platform still suffers from a dearth of tablet-optimized apps compared to the 450,000 that iPad users have access to.



Instead of stretched smartphone apps, Retina iPad mini users will enjoy applications that are much more like their desktop counterparts, which is what helps to make the iPad experience substantively different to using a smartphone. Although 7-inch Android tablets are proliferating, using an Android tablet is still not much more than using a larger smartphone - given that many Android smartphones are already around 5-inches, it does not make a whole of sense to own a 5-inch and 7-inch device that function almost identically. Even if Apple moves the iPhone to a larger display size in the future, the 4:3 aspect ratio of the 7.9-inch iPad mini display will ensure that the user experience is still significantly differentiated. Rounding out what is already an impressive user experience, Apple now throws in iWork productivity apps including Pages, Numbers and Keynote, along with iLife apps including iPhoto, iMovie and the incredible GarageBand for free.

Android tablets may still offer a good experience, but 'good' is just not the Apple way. The iPad experience, whether on the iPad Air or the Retina iPad mini, is all about making for a great user experience; when you marry a tablet optimized OS, with cutting-edge hardware and design, as well as tablet optimized applications that is exactly what you get.




Camera

The iSight camera found on the rear of the Retina iPad mini is exactly the same as that found in the iPad Air. This means that the rear shooter has a 5-megapixel BSI sensor with, hybrid IR filter, five-element lens, F 2.4 aperture with auto focus, face detection and can take HDR photos. This means that you can rely on the Retina iPad mini when it comes to taking good quality casual photos if you need to capture a photo or video on the go. Given the compact size of the Retina iPad mini, it is fairly likely that plenty of users will find themselves using it to take some pics and footage from time to time making it handy that Apple has fitted it with quality optics. The same is true for the front-facing FaceTime camera, which allows you to take 1.2-megapixel selfies, or allows you to make HD FaceTime video calls over both Wi-Fi and cellular connections (if so equipped). As you can see from the photos below, the rear camera on the Retina iPad mini performs well in good light situations, producing relatively detailed images with minimal noise.



Unedited Retina iPad mini photos









Connectivity and battery life

The Retina iPad mini also includes exactly the same wireless connectivity options as the iPad Air. This includes Wi-Fi 802.11n support delivered through a dual channel (2.4GHz/5GHz) and dual antenna (MIMO) arrangement good for supporting simultaneous speeds of up to 150Mbps on the down and upstreams, which should be more than sufficient for most people. Although Apple upgraded its Time Capsule, Airport routers, and Macs to support the new Wi-Fi 802.11ac standard, it looks like it will be 2014 at the earliest before we see it adopt the faster wireless standard in its mobile devices.



Apple continues to drive the development of more Bluetooth 4.0 peripherals with the inclusion of the most recent low-power, high-bandwidth Bluetooth 4.0 specification in the Retina iPad mini. Apple's implementation of the new standard is most apparent in the new AirDrop secure file sharing technology in iOS 7 for sharing files directly between iOS devices using Bluetooth 4.0 for authentication and Wi-Fi Direct for the actual file transfers. The iPad mini, like similarly equipped iDevices, is also a Bluetooth Smart hub, meaning that it support multiple Bluetooth connections simultaneously, which comes in handy for people pairing their devices with Bluetooth headphones, fitness trackers and other peripherals including keyboards.



The Retina iPad mini is also available in a Wi-Fi + Cellular model that will connect with both 3G and 4G LTE networks around the globe. Of all the cell-enabled devices on the market, Apple's current mobile range is by far the most compatible with the most number of networks across the globe on the market. Apple's iPhone 5s, iPad Air and Retina iPad mini are capable of supporting up to 12 different 4G LTE cellular bands, helping to ensure that users always have a chance of connecting at the fastest cellular speeds possible when travelling both domestically and internationally.



Apple has increased the battery size of the Retina iPad mini from one with a 16.3Whr capacity to one with a 24.3Whr capacity. It had to do this to retain Apple's renowned 10 hour battery life, a move forced by the inclusion of the 326ppi Retina display. The Retina iPad mini necessitated a large increase in the number of LED backlights over the non-Retina display model as its 4x greater pixel density requires a greater amount of backlighting. Apple was able to take the opposite route with the Retina display in the iPad Air, which has been refined now to the point where it can deliver the same performance with a smaller battery. This was achieved by reducing the number of LED backlights in the iPad Air display from 84 in the previous generation to just 36 in the new model. It is quite likely that as the display technology in the Retina iPad mini matures too, it will also see a reduction in battery capacity and thus its overall girth, while still retaining a claimed battery life of at least 10 hours.



As for Apple's battery claims for the Retina iPad mini, it has routinely provided accurate and often conservative claims for the battery life of its mobile devices. Under typical use, we found that the Retina iPad mini will easily achieve 10 hours of use before a recharge is required. Even under heavy use, you can still expect at least 10 hours out of it before you need to plug it in again. But it is not only the larger battery that helps the Retina iPad mini power through a full day on a single charge. Apple's M7 Motion Coprocessor also plays a significant role in minimizing battery consumption by offloading data from the device's sensors from the A7 CPU for processing. As in the iPhone 5s, the M7 chip can also sense when your iPad has been idle and is not in use, reducing the number of times that it pings for data, further helping to minimize power consumption.




Final thoughts

The iPad mini with Retina display is yet another sure fire hit from Apple. In terms of its overall power and performance, buyers will be treated to the most powerful tablet experience on the market on par with the iPad Air. Its blend of 64-bit A7 chip technology combined with the style and sophistication of Apple's new 64-bit tablet optimized version of iOS 7 is potent. Added to this is the eagerly awaited Retina display, which delivers a substantial improvement over the display in the original iPad mini without too many compromises. Apple has added to its value equation by building in a wide range of revamped standard apps, while also making its completely revised iWork and iLife suite of apps available as free downloads.

For discerning Apple users and professional photographers, the dramatically light iPad Air is going to be the iPad of choice for the color accuracy of its Retina display. It offers the ultimate iPad experience with its larger 9.7-inch display proving to be both highly immersive and simply a joy to behold, though it costs $100 more than each equivalent Retina iPad mini model. The Retina iPad mini is $100 cheaper, is more compact and offers an undiluted iPad experience making it a similarly enticing proposition. In the end, users will make their choice based on what they value more. As far as the small tablet competition goes, the iPad mini with Retina display stands in a class of its own, backed by an unbeatable app and entertainment ecosystem and the synchronisation power of iCloud.

by Sanjiv Sathiah


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