The Retina iPad Mini

Pay attention to Apple for a few years, and you will see that it’s a company of annual patterns. WWDC in June, a music event in the fall. There are occasional breaks or shifts — the iPhone was an annual June/July thing for the first four model years, but then switched to the fall with the iPhone 4S; likewise with the iPad, which was a spring thing until last year when the iPad 4 and original iPad Mini debuted in October.

But the familiarity of these patterns can be misleading when you use them to predict future product development. The new retina iPad Mini exemplifies this.

When the original Mini debuted last year, it was a lesser iPad compared to the iPad 4 it appeared alongside. Not just smaller physically, but a year behind technologically. Last year’s iPad 4 had a retina display, A6-class CPU, 1 GB of RAM, and a better camera. The original iPad Mini had a non-retina display, A5 CPU, 512 MB of RAM, and a lesser camera. The original Mini was, effectively, a shrunken iPad 2.

Thinking about it as an annual product, I assumed that if a 2012 iPad Mini was effectively like a 2011 full-size iPad, then the 2013 iPad Mini would be more or less like the 2012 full-size iPad. I hoped for a retina display in this year’s Mini,1 but it never even occurred to me to hope for an A7 processor or the same quality cameras. I assumed the most we could hope for this year in the Mini was the equivalent of the iPad 4. I assumed, performance-wise, that the iPad Mini was to the 9.7-inch iPad what the iPhone 5C is to the 5S.

That was totally wrong.

Last year’s iPad 4 and Mini were two very different iPads. This year’s new Air and Mini are simply two sizes of the same iPad.

I cannot emphasize this point enough. After three days of extensive use of the Mini (a review unit on loan from Apple), it works and feels exactly like the iPad Air. Everything about it is of equivalent or identical quality: the display, the cameras (front and back), the performance, the battery life.

Last year left me with the impression that choosing the Mini meant accepting numerous trade-offs. That is no longer the case. This is the same device as the iPad Air. The only significant differences between them are size and weight.

There are a few insignificant differences. On the iPad Air, the A7 CPU is running at 1.4 GHz; on the iPad Mini (and iPhone 5S), it runs at 1.3 GHz. Simple arithmetic shows that to be about a 7 percent difference, and the benchmarks I ran (Geekbench 3 and Sunspider) reflect that. Technically, the iPad Air is ever-so-slightly faster than the iPad Mini. In practical day-to-day usage, I perceive no difference between the two. I can think of numerous good reasons why a person might choose to buy an iPad Air instead of a new iPad Mini, but that minor difference in CPU clock speed is not one of them.

Battery life is almost exactly the same as on the Air. As a test, I played all 143 minutes of The Avengers on both the iPad Air and Mini, in HD, with both displays set at maximum brightness. The Air’s battery life dropped 34 percentage points (from 89 to 55). The Mini’s dropped 33 (from 87 to 54). Effectively identical. (You’ll get much better movie playback battery life than that at the default brightness level; I ran them at maximum brightness as a stress test.)

What about charging time? That was a real irritation with the iPad 3 and 4 — those devices gained weight and thickness to accommodate a battery that could power a retina display and still supply 10 hours of real-world battery life — and that big-ass battery took a long time to fully charge.

The retina iPad Mini handles this well, charging even faster than the iPad Air in my testing — and the iPad Air charges much faster than last year’s iPad 3/4. The Air ships with a 12-watt AC adapter; the new Mini with a 10-watt adapter. (Last year’s Mini shipped with an iPhone-style tiny little 5-watt adapter.) I charged both models using the adapter they ship with — it wouldn’t be fair to measure the Mini’s charging time while using the more powerful adapter that ships with the Air.

I performed this test immediately after the movie playback test. The Air went from 55 percent to 79 percent in one hour, and got to 100 percent in a little over two hours. The Mini went from 54 to 86 percent in one hour, and got to 100 percent in under two hours. So the Mini charges even faster than the Air, despite shipping with a slightly less powerful charger.

As I tested and just plain used the new iPad Mini, I kept thinking there had to be a catch — some sort of way that the device is less powerful or useful than the iPad Air. There is no catch. Does it get warm with use? Nope. It was cool to the touch after playing The Avengers, and it never got the least bit warm during a 90 minute train ride between New York and Philadelphia, during which time I used it nearly non-stop for Twitter, email, and web surfing, with spotty LTE networking.

There are reports that the production shortages Apple is facing with the new Mini are the result of image retention (a.k.a. burn-in) problems with displays from Sharp. I can’t speak to this issue in the large, but the model in my hands has no such problem. I tested it using Marco Arment’s image retention test. Marco himself tested his own new iPad Mini the same way, however, and his device failed.

I’ve also seen reports of white-balance issue, or yellow-ish tinting, with the new Mini. To my eyes, colors are nearly identical between the Mini, the Air, and my iPhone 5S.

Big Question #1: Is it worth upgrading from last year’s Mini? I usually don’t recommend year-over-year upgrades for iPhone and iPad users. If you can afford it, sure, they’re always better. But for most people, a two-year upgrade cycle is natural. You really can — and should — get two or three years of high-quality use out of an iOS product.

But this new retina Mini feels like a two-year upgrade over last year’s. There is no longer any compromise over display quality or CPU performance. All of the advantages of the original Mini remain — smaller size, lighter weight — and there are no drawbacks. When the full size iPad went retina, it was a two steps forward, one step back sort of upgrade: you got the beautiful retina display, but the device got noticeably thicker and heavier to accomodate the battery that was necessary to power all those pixels and maintain 10-hour battery life.

There is no drawback to the iPad Mini going retina. There is a negligible increase in weight, and an even more negligible increase in thickness, but the differences are so slight I honestly don’t think they matter. The old and new Minis are so close in thickness that both fit perfectly in Apple’s new leather Smart Case (and the same polyurethane Smart Covers fit both as well).

With the speakers, maybe the Air sounds slightly better, but come on, the external speakers on any iPad are relatively tinny in the grand scheme of things.

If you liked the original Mini last year, you’re going to love everything about this new one. All the same advantages, none of the performance or display quality trade-offs.

Big Question #2: iPad Mini or iPad Air? It really just comes down to size. I think the Air is better-suited for those who use their iPad as their primary portable computer (or primary computer, period). And if you use your iPad for things where bigger is better — watching video, reading comic books or PDFs or print-derived magazine apps (where you’re better off with a screen that is closer in size to that of the printed page), or for on-screen touch typing — well, you probably want the bigger display of the iPad Air.

Me, I use my iPad primarily for reading — Twitter, email, web pages, and books. The Mini, for me personally, is the better-sized device. I like that it’s easier to hold in one hand, and that it’s small enough to fit in a jacket pocket. (A new test for any new jacket I’ll buy: Does an iPad Mini fit in the pocket?)

So the iPad Air is an excellent year-over-year update over the iPad 4 — double the performance, and a serious reduction in size and weight. But the retina iPad Mini is an almost unbelievable year-over-year update — four times the performance, a retina display (which therefore means four times the pixels), and yet no appreciable difference in size or weight. This is the iPad Mini I expected to see next year, in 2014. But here it is today, in my hand.

Consider the iPad 2 from 2011. Non-retina display, A5 chip. A nice improvement over 2010’s original iPad in many regards: performance, weight, thickness.

Then, in 2012, a fork in the road. At the full size, the iPad 3 and 4: same basic size as the 2011 iPad 2, but now with a retina display and, with the 4, a significant performance improvement with the A6X. And then the original Mini — same basic specs as the iPad 2, but radically reduced in size. Two very different ways to improve upon the iPad 2: one with better tech specs, the other with a dramatic reduction in size.

Just one year ago, those were the compromises Apple was forced to make. They could shrink the year old iPad 2 into the Mini form factor, or go retina and A6X with a thicker and heavier battery.

This year, there are no compromises, there is no or. The iPad Mini has gone retina and provides just a hair less than the full performance of the Air, with no appreciable increase in weight or thickness over last year’s Mini.

Hence, I think, the name change for the 9.7-inch model, from last year’s “iPad” to “iPad Air”. There no longer is a main or regular or standard iPad. Last year Apple billed the Mini as “every inch an iPad”, and that was true, but it was every inch an iPad 2. This, year, it’s every inch a top-of-the-line iPad.

  1. To date, Apple has introduced three iOS device form factors: iPhone, iPad, iPad Mini. The iPhone went through three generations before going retina (original, 3G, 3GS). The full-size iPad went through two before going retina (original, iPad 2). The iPad Mini spent just one generation with a non-retina display. If that pattern holds, Apple’s next iOS device will debut with a retina quality display in its first generation. ↩︎