For the past few years, Apple has set the pace in the tablet market. With Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Google’s Nexus 7 gaining a firm foothold in compact tablets, however, Apple has found itself falling behind. Now it’s hitting back with its own compact slate: the 7.9in iPad mini.
It might have taken its time, but Apple has tackled the problem with gusto. The iPad mini is unequivocally the most physically accomplished tablet on the market. At a mere 7.2mm thin, it’s considerably slimmer than the Fire HD and Nexus 7, and at 308g it’s lighter too.
The iPad mini is lovely to hold, with a flat, matte aluminium panel at the rear that’s gently rounded at the corners and along the edges. As with other iPads, ports, switches and buttons are kept to a minimum. The single home key sits below the screen, and there’s a volume rocker and mute switch on the top right-hand edge. The power button is just around the corner from that, and the Lighting connector is located on the bottom between a pair of speaker grilles.
It isn’t only the physical design of the iPad mini that’s appealing, though. At 7.9in, the screen is almost an inch larger than its rivals and, critically, this doesn’t have too much of an impact on the overall size of the tablet. Unusually narrow bezels to the left and right of the screen ensure it isn’t too wide; at 135mm, it’s only 15mm broader than the Nexus 7 and, in fact, it’s narrower than the Kindle Fire HD.
The quality of the mini’s IPS panel is up to Apple’s usual standards. A maximum brightness of 389cd/m2 sets it ahead of the Nexus 7, and a contrast ratio of 720:1 means images and video look punchy and solid.
If you were expecting a Retina display similar to the one on the full-sized iPad, however, you’ll be disappointed. The mini’s resolution is 1024 x 768; when stretched over its 4:3 ratio display, it gives a pixel density of only 163ppi – almost half that of the latest iPad with its Retina screen. It’s also behind both the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD in this respect, which offer 1280 x 800 across 7in and a pixel density of 216ppi.
In use, the lower resolution is clearly noticeable, and icons, text and graphics have a visibly grainy quality that isn’t apparent on its cheaper rivals. It looks precisely as you’d expect a shrunken iPad 2 to look, in fact. We’re surprised Apple didn’t see fit to endow the iPad mini with a Retina display, especially given its premium price. However, the quality of the display is such that in everyday use we soon forgot about the lack of pixels.
What also isn’t that big a deal is the smaller screen size. It’s true that the buttons and general UI furniture don’t resize on the mini, so they’re smaller and slightly more fiddly to press. The narrow screen bezel means that if you hold the screen a certain way, your thumb can creep onto the touchscreen and inadvertently turn pages in the Kindle app, for instance.
These are by no means big problems, however, and using the keyboard is a surprisingly pleasant experience. Although you won’t be touch-typing on it, it’s easy to get up a reasonable head of speed.
Speed, battery life and cameras
Like the screen, the dual-core 1GHz A5 processor, dual-core PowerVR SGX543MP2 graphics, and 512MB of RAM all hark back to the iPad 2. This initially set alarm bells ringing – this hardware is now more than a year old, which would suggest that in the long term, it might start to show its age sooner than the A6X chip and quad-core graphics powering the latest full sized iPad.
In our tests, however, it held up well. In general use – browsing the web, navigating the OS, sending emails and so on – the mini feels smooth and responsive, just as you’d expect from an iOS device. The most demanding games we threw at it played acceptably smoothly, from Real Racing HD 2 to 3D space shooter Galaxy on Fire 2 HD. We did notice the occasional frame drop here and there, but this wasn’t sufficient to spoil our enjoyment.
Admittedly, it’s much slower in benchmarks than the latest iPad. It scored 1535ms in SunSpider, which is half the speed of that tablet. In Geekbench, it was a similar story, scoring 753 – and again, when it came to 3D performance the iPad mini’s score of 25fps in GLBench is a long way behind the fourth-generation iPad’s stunning 43fps.
However, there is one major payback for this comparative lack of grunt. Despite its slim chassis, the iPad mini has far superior battery life. In our looping video test it lasted 11hrs 26mins – nearly two hours longer than the fourth-generation iPad, and a clear 1hr 38mins longer than the Nexus 7 under the same conditions.
The cameras are another high point: there’s a 720p webcam on the front and a 5-megapixel shooter on the rear, with the latter producing crisp, sharp and colourful stills, plus excellent 1080p video. There’s no flash and it lacks the panorama feature of the iPhone 5, but this camera is better than anything we’ve seen on an Android tablet. Neither the Nexus 7 nor the Kindle Fire HD has a rear-facing camera at all.
Give the Nexus 7, the Kindle Fire HD and iPad mini to most consumers to play with, and most people would immediately veer towards the iPad for its wider screen and slimmer profile. Tell them it’s $120 more expensive than the 16GB Nexus 7, and they may well begin to swerve back the other way.
For this reason, we don’t think the iPad mini will achieve what Apple wants it to: it won’t dominate the 7in tablet space, and we suspect both Amazon and Google will continue to sell boat-loads of their budget tablets.
No matter what your fiscal sensitivities, though, you have to admire Apple for what it’s done with the iPad mini. It may not have a high-density display, or the latest silicon, and it might be expensive. However, its beautiful design, light weight, broad screen, great cameras and fantastic battery life place it in front of the compact tablet pack.