When I bought a Retina iPad mini in November, I published my first impressions of the device and promised that, like I did with the iPhone 5, I would revisit my article for a proper review. I work from my iPad every day, and I believe there is value in condensing thoughts on a product after continued and regular experience. Three months later, I think I've used the iPad mini enough to write my review.
I've written about my preference for the iPad mini's form factor before. The iPad Air and the iPad mini are, essentially, the same iPad in two different sizes, and I prioritize the mini's lightweight design and screen size because I need a portable iPad that's bigger than my iPhone but easier to carry and operate with one hand than the 9.7-inch iPad Air. My work consists of writing, reading, collecting research material, and communicating with people over email, Twitter, and group messaging, and I'm not always at my desk. I may need to write while I'm waiting in the car or at my doctor's office, and I like to catch up on my reading queue in bed, in the kitchen, or just about anywhere else.
I started using the iPad as my primary computer out of necessity while I was stuck in a hospital bed for three weeks, but, with time, I realized that I was enjoying the freedom granted by the iPad's intrinsic portability. And if my iPad needs to be portable, I find the iPad mini to be a compromise that's just right: smaller but not too small, a big screen that's not too big, and the same iOS apps of the larger iPad.
In my first impressions, I wrote that I didn't care about the color of my iPad much and that I was fine with a white model. I was wrong. A week later, I drove to my local Apple Store again, returned the white model, and got a black1 one. I can't pinpoint with exact accuracy the reason behind my preference for the black iPad, but I believe it's related to the fact that the white color sticks out too much. Especially when it's late at night, the black iPad's bezels are less distracting and the device seems to disappear in your hands while you're holding it.
The Retina screen is a pure wonder with a minor shortcoming. In practical terms, the high-resolution display has allowed me to read more with less eye strain, eschewing the need to get closer to the iPad to decipher small/thin type as I used to do on the non-Retina iPad mini. Text is incredibly crisp, graphics are smooth and bright, and I'm still amazed that such complex technology is available in 7.9-inch device that weighs less than 400 grams. I could say that the Retina iPad mini is what the original iPad mini should have been, but that would diminish the quality of this upgrade. In a year, Apple has doubled the resolution of the iPad mini and preserved battery life while adding only 29 grams to the entire device to fit the new screen and battery. As a consumer, I see this as a technical miracle.
The downside is that colors displayed by the Retina mini aren't as vibrant as those generated by the iPad Air and iPhone 5s. The lower color gamut has been analyzed and confirmed by people far more knowledegable in this field. In comparing the same colors – either from a picture or an app's user interface – side by side on an iPad Air (which I tried), an iPad mini, and an iPhone 5s, there's a clear loss of color vibrancy and depth on the Retina iPad mini. As a writer who deals with black text on a white screen, however, I don't think this is a big deal, and I don't see it as a major shortcoming for consumers either because the screen remains a remarkable feat; if you're a professional who needs the best color reproduction on the iPad's display, though, I would recommend the iPad Air.
Speaking of trade-offs Apple had to accept to make the Retina mini happen as a second-generation device, weight increase hasn't proven to be an issue for me. I stand by my first impressions: 29 extra grams are noticeable, but the iPad mini is still more comfortable than the iPad Air.
When we got home, I unboxed the iPad, then closed my eyes and asked my girlfriend to put my old iPad mini and the Retina one in my hands to see whether I could recognize which one was heavier without looking. She said that I could also tell the difference just by touching the aluminum back of the device, but I didn’t feel that. Instead, I recognized the Retina mini right away because it did seem slightly heavier. After spending five hours with the device, I think that the increased weight is noticeable if you pay attention but I believe it’ll disappear after a few days. The best way I can describe it is that, if you really want to feel a weight difference, the new mini feels “dense” in the back – which is probably due to a new weight distribution of components.
In practice, it’s 29 grams and I’m already getting used to it. I’ve held the device with one hand while reading for 30 minutes and even with a thumb-index pinch in the lower left corner and, unlike the iPad Air, I didn’t feel stress on my wrist. Holding the iPad with two hands in portrait feels good as usual, and I can pick up the device from my desk grabbing it from a corner with no “Wow this is much heavier” sudden realization. If you have the old mini and the Retina mini side by side, you will probably notice the weight difference when comparing the two devices. Overall, the iPad mini is still crazy light, comfortable, and the best one-handed iPad I’ve tried. The Retina screen is absolutely worth the extra 29 grams.
I was afraid that making even the slightest tweak to the iPad mini's weight distribution would inevitably compromise the device's one-handed operability. I tend to hold my iPad mini with one hand in the lower left corner of the device, using my right hand to interact with the screen and both thumbs to type in portrait mode. This is one of the aspects that I highlighted in my iPad mini for Content Creation piece back in October:
The 7.9-inch screen has allowed me to use the iPad mini in portrait mode far more often than I used to on a 9.7-inch iPad. Thanks to the smaller screen, I can quickly thumb-type with the portrait keyboard – an important aspect of my iPad experience that has made composing emails and publishing linked posts on the site much easier. Because I don’t have to switch from holding my iPad in “reading position” to placing it on my lap with a Smart Cover, I can move between apps and keep writing without adjusting myself to the iPad. To paraphrase the promo video of the original iPad from 2010, the iPad mini fits me better. That was impossible with the larger iPad: I couldn’t type in portrait mode, the device was heavy, and I was constantly switching between portrait reading and landscape typing.
Thanks to the iPad mini's screen size and weight, I can hold it for prolonged periods of time and type on it without feeling wrist fatigue. The 29-gram difference between last year's WiFi + Cellular iPad mini and this year's model is there, but I got used to it and nothing has changed for my iPad writing and reading habits.
My main gripe with the iPad mini's hardware is with the device's RAM, or lack thereof. The iPad mini now comes with a Retina display that makes every element more readable, a 64-bit CPU that speeds up tasks such as exporting video/audio files, and built-in, high-speed cellular connectivity, but it still has a measly GB of RAM that makes switching between apps a considerably worse experience than it should be.
Because of memory constraints, for instance, when I'm using Safari and I open more than five tabs, when I switch back to the first one it often needs to reload because the device removed it from memory. When I'm in Editorial and I switch to Safari to look up some information I need, all tabs reload, forcing me to wait, and then when I switch back again to Editorial, the app needs to reload too because the iPad had to allocate RAM to Safari. This happens frequently with any app and, while the problem is mitigated by iOS' state restoration and fast startup times, those extra seconds add up over time.
Considering all the advanced technology that the Retina mini has, not including more RAM is a shortsighted decision that is especially troublesome for people who work on the device and need to use multiple apps that deal with large amounts of data.
My other problem has been with the iPad mini's software – iOS 7. As I wrote in September, I still believe that Apple needed more time to build iOS 7 for the iPad, both from a design and performance point of view. Apps like Reminders and Calendar as well as system features like Control Center and Notification Center feel like stretched out versions of their iPhone counterparts that don't take advantage of the iPad's larger screen in meaningful ways. This problem is also common to third-party developers who haven't been able to ship iPad-first software clearly meant for the device (with a few notable exceptions), and I'd like to see Apple leading by example in the future.
As for performance, my iPad mini has been crashing a lot on iOS 7. Aside from visual glitches and UI bugs that found their way into the public release of the OS, hard reboots with data loss are supposed to be relics of a bygone era that should never, ever happen on a modern iOS device. As we've discussed on The Prompt before, A7-equipped devices under iOS 7 have been crashing frequently, usually in the multitasking view, but also when performing trivial actions such as opening a folder or an app. These aren't regular app crashes – i.e. an app quits unexpectedly, but the main OS is still running – they are full SpringBoard reboots that, on multiple occasions, have caused data loss on my device. This is inexcusable and Apple should know better. As with iOS 6's Maps before two years ago, as a consumer, I shouldn't have to care about Apple's constrained internal resources or deadlines: the device I bought shouldn't crash twice a day, every day.
I've been running the iOS 7.1 beta, and things have improved and I expect the updated OS to be much better than 7.0 when it'll be released. iOS 7.1 makes animations faster and reduces crashes and other performance hiccups, which in return make the iPad mini more responsive and usable. In this case, it's right to say that iOS 7.1 is the iOS 7 that Apple should have released six months ago.
From a hardware standpoint, besides the obvious annual CPU and GPU upgrades, I would like to see Apple add more RAM and more battery life to the iPad mini. I'd love an iPad that can go on two days on a single charge with enough RAM to quickly move between apps. The Retina screen could use better color reproduction and the Smart Cover could be sturdier, but these haven't been notable shortcomings in my experience. Given Apple's experimentation with keyboard shortcuts on iOS 7, it would be nice to have a new iPad keyboard from Apple with special iOS keys and more shortcuts for all system apps. I'm finding Touch ID extremely convenient and easy to use on my iPhone 5s, and I would like to see it on my next iPad.
The iPad's software needs to be better, where by “better” I mean a) stable and fast and b) properly designed for the iPad as a standalone computer and not a bigger iPhone. I don't know where Apple plans to take the iPad next for average users and professionals alike, but a solid foundation of reliable software intelligently designed for the larger screen seems like a good starting point.
Overall, the second-generation Retina iPad mini is the best iPad I've ever owned. The Retina mini offers the best combination of portability, performance, and screen legibility for me, and it has enabled me to work from anywhere with a substantially better hardware than last year's model. While no computer will ever achieve perfection, the Retina iPad mini gets close to that ideal for my needs, but I'm looking forward to improvements in iOS this year.
- “Space Gray”. ↩︎