The 2021 iPad Mini

I don’t generally lead with benchmarks or pricing, but here’s a thought about the new iPad Mini, which comes equipped with a version of the same A15 chip as the new iPhone 13 and 13 Pro models: For $500, you can buy an iPad that’s more or less as fast, if not faster, at single-threaded CPU performance as an M1 Mac.

That’s a tremendous value. The iPad Mini even has an A15 with an extra (fifth) GPU core, like the iPhone 13 Pro.

Upgrading from 64 to 256 GB of storage costs $150; upgrading to add cellular support costs $150. So a maxed out iPad Mini — 256 GB of storage plus cellular support — costs $800. (There are only two storage options, 64 and 256 GB.) It’d be nice if — like all the new iPhone 13 models — the base storage were 128 GB instead of 64. But, still, the new iPad Mini is a terrific little tablet, and has performance that should keep it very useful for many years to come.

It is, effectively, an iPad Air Mini. Just like the iPad Air, the new Mini sports a round-cornered display, no home button, and Touch ID on the power button. The new no-adjective entry-level iPad still has a square-cornered display, and Touch ID on a traditional home button on the front face. Also like the current iPad Air, the new iPad Mini uses a USB-C port instead of Lightning, and thus uses the superior magnetic second-generation Apple Pencil.

Because the Mini is brand new and the current Air came out last October, the Mini was able to pull ahead in certain respects: A15 instead of A14, 5G support on cellular models, and a better front-facing camera (12 MP vs. 7 MP) — including support for Center Stage, Apple’s recent feature that dynamically adjusts the front-facing camera’s field of view depending on how many people are in the frame and where they are. The rear cameras of the Air and Mini are similarly specced, and to my eyes shoot equivalent quality photos and video, but the new iPad Mini includes True Tone LED flash. The big win to me is the upgraded front-facing camera with Center Stage support. I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but video calls have become a big deal over the last two years.

I think most iPad Mini fans would have been delighted if the new model were specced exactly like the current iPad Air, at these same prices. (The iPad Air costs $100 more than the equivalent Mini for the same amount of storage — $600 for 64 GB, $750 for 256 GB — but it only costs $130 to add cellular support to the Air. I suspect the difference in cellular model pricing is a 5G thing.) That the iPad Mini offers several technical advantages over last year’s iPad Air is pure gravy.

I’ve been using the new iPad Mini for a week. As is my tradition for reviews of and first looks at new iPad models, I’m writing this piece on the iPad Mini itself, using a bluetooth keyboard and Magic Trackpad. It’s a nice small-footprint setup. The smaller text on the Mini’s smaller display is a little hard on my aging and somewhat problematic eyes while sitting at hardware keyboard distance, but my biggest annoyance is the lack of Face ID. I’m spoiled by my 2018 iPad Pro — while using a keyboard with an iPad, I expect to both wake it up and unlock it by just pressing the space bar or any other key. Having to reach over and touch the Touch ID button on the iPad is, simply, an inferior experience compared to Face ID. And it’s especially hard for me, right now, after a few years of expecting Face ID to just work with an iPad connected to a keyboard. I felt the same way writing last year’s piece on the iPad Air.

If you don’t already have a Face ID habit using your iPad, however, this should be no big deal at all. Perhaps it’s even unfair for me to complain about, given that I do the vast majority of my writing on an M1 MacBook Pro — which also uses Touch ID, not Face ID. But maybe it is fair to complain about, because on a MacBook the Touch ID button is right on the keyboard — much more convenient to reach — and Macs support unlocking via the proximity of your Apple Watch. I think it’d be very cool if iPadOS supported unlocking via Apple Watch, much like MacOS does.

All that said, if you’re the sort of person who’d like to do a lot of writing on an iPad Mini, you’ll be fine.

One interesting change is that the hardware volume buttons have moved to the same side of the device as the power/Touch ID button. That means the volume buttons are on top when the iPad is in vertical orientation, and on the left side of the device when horizontal. The reason for this is obvious when you think about it, and consider the size of an Apple Pencil. Speaking in vertical (a.k.a. portrait) orientation terms, the Pencil, when attached, doesn’t leave any room for volume buttons on the right side of the device. But the volume buttons can’t go on the left side, because they’d get covered up when you connect a cover (like Apple’s own Smart Folio, which is very nice — the English lavender Smart Folio that Apple provided me with pairs nicely with the purple iPad Mini.) So, the volume buttons moved.

One quibble: there are a few aspects of iPadOS that to me feel optimized only for larger iPads. The home screen Dock, for example, accepts up to 16 apps and folders. In vertical orientation, those icons are really tiny. Almost comically so. Yet in the same orientation, iPadOS will only display 5 apps in the Command-Tab switcher when you have a keyboard connected. I’m more annoyed by having just 5 apps in the Command-Tab switcher than by having super-small icons in my Dock, because I can adjust the number of apps in my Dock (by dragging a few lesser-used ones out) but I can’t adjust the maximum number of apps in the Command-Tab switcher. Here’s a screenshot, but viewing it on another device won’t do justice to the feeling of just how small those Dock icons are, and just how comfortably a few more apps could fit in the switcher. It’s hard to put a finger on it,1 but there are just certain visual elements in iPadOS that feel inconsiderately shrunken on the iPad Mini, in a way that is not true for iOS on an iPhone Mini.

A corresponding anti-quibble: After a fairly long stretch of not using an iPad Mini, I’m reminded how much nicer I find this size for typing with the on-screen keyboard compared to my 11-inch iPad Pro, because I can type with my thumbs, iPhone-style. I have never taken to typing on-screen on an iPad with my fingers, touch-typing-style, and at this point — over a decade into the iPad era — I doubt I ever will. As with the iPhone, I wouldn’t want to write anything long-form using just my thumbs on the on-screen keyboard, but it’s fine for dashing off text messages, tweets, and short emails. And, even better: the iPad Mini still supports splitting the keyboard in two, to make thumb-typing even easier. (It continues to baffle me that the iPad Pros do not support split keyboard mode.) If you like the idea of using an iPad as a sort of big-ass iPhone, the iPad Mini is obviously the iPad for you.

  1. No pun intended, I swear, vis-à-vis my complaint about tiny icons in the Dock. ↩︎