FOR A WHILE it looked like the iPad Mini was on its way to the bone orchard. While Apple updated the iPad Pro and gave the standard iPad a cursory refresh, the iPad Mini was stuck in its fourth generation, which was but a minor refresh and happened way back in 2015.
Then with barely a peep, Cupertino cranked out a brace of iPads: a new iPad Air and a fifth-gen iPad mini; the capital ‘M’ got dropped for a lower case letter because that’s how Apple rolls.
A new iPad mini was overdue, given how popular the dinky fondle slate was. But when it first made its debut in the dark ages of 2013, there weren’t really as many big display iPhones and Android handsets weren’t as slick as they are today.
The main question is does the new mini have a place in 2019’s tech pantheon. Onwards, fair reader, onwards.
Think (barely) different
Such a lack of fanfare behind the new iPad mini was probably due to it being barely different from its predecessor.
In fact, you’d be forgiven for picking up an iPad Mini 4 and being none the wiser.
The chassis of the mini is near identical to its older siblings. The same smooth rectangular design with reasonably chunky top and bottom bezels remain, though the former now holds a newer and respectable 7MP front-facing camera.
Those hoping for something akin to a shrunken version of the sharp-looking iPad Pro will be sorely disappointed and will have to put up with the perfectly acceptable Touch ID built into the home button, rather than use Face ID with gesture control.
But unlike the tablet-that-wants-replace-a-laptop (lol, no chance), the iPad mini retains a headphone jack and also keeps the proprietary Lightning port. The latter might not be as handy as USB-C, but at least I’ll work with legacy iThing accessories.
Even though the mini’s design has barely been since its first-gen ancestor from 2012, it still feels surprisingly like a modern gadget.
In Space Grey – Silver and Gold are also on offer – the aluminum back looks smooth and refined, while the black bezels feel like they meld a bit more into the screen making it look bigger than its 7.9in size.
The mini also feels well built and finished, though we dropped ours on an airport floor, denting a corner and causing part of the display to pop up from the chassis.
That’s more a reflection of our own butterfingered nature than Cupertino’s Constitution quality.
A small disappointment it there are only two speakers on the mini’s bottom edge, rather than the quad-speaker setup of the iPad Pros. The sound is decent enough but it can be easy to muffle one of the speakers if you’re not careful with how you hold the tablet.
While the mini hasn’t evolved in terms of design, it still feels just as good use as its predecessor did, even in the face of sizable Android phones like the Pixel 3 XL and Samsung Galaxy Note 9.
Toning up the display
You probably won’t notice it immediately unless you had an older iPad mini alongside the fifth-gen model, but Apple has given the display a good makeover.
There’s an LCD Retina display here, none of the OLED excellence you’d find on the iPhone X handsets. And the resolution remains at 2,048×1,536 offering 326 pixels per inch; plenty sharp but not cutting-edge for a mobile device.
But Apple has knocked the brightness up to 500 nits and given the display a wider P3 color gamut, which means everything on the display looks more vibrant and punchier than previous minis, without erring into the realms of oversaturation.
The Retina display is now laminated to the screen’s glass meaning the whole thing is closer to your fingertips and there’s no gap like there was in the earlier minis. That should make drawing on the tablet – now that it has first-gen Apple Pencil support – feel more natural, though we didn’t have Cupertino’s expensive stylus available to put that to the test.
Apple has also added its True Tone tech into the mix, which automatically adjusts the display’s white balance depending on the lighting of your environment to ensure colors are presented as accurately as possible.
In practice, this works really well and the whole display makes anything from tapping out a few emails and web browsing to watching videos and perusing photos a joy.
We could moan about there being no ProMotion 120Hz refresh rate for the Retina display as in the iPad Pro models, but the new iPad mini’s screen felt responsive enough and on the compact display, such a refresh rate is probably not worth the extra £100 or so Apple would likely slap on the £399 price tag.
One of the things that makes the fifth-gen mini feel so slick to use is the A12 Bionic chip that sits at the tablet’s heart.
We know the A12 Bionic is no slouch, and that proves to be the case with the mini. Geekbench 4 has the SoC’s ARM-based processor clocked at 2.84GHz with its rubbing shoulders with 2.84GB of available RAM.
With a CPU benchmark thrown at it, the mini achieves a single-core score of 4,819 and hits 11,519 in the multi-core test.
That beats the SoCs in the likes of Google’s Pixel 3 XL and Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus and smashes the performance of the 9.7in iPad, which now holds the spot as the entry-level tablet.
Combined with Apple’s iOS optimization, everything runs pretty much like a dream. Games like PUBG Mobile run very smoothly and the mini pull duties as a solid portable gaming gadget.
Naturally, photo editing feels pretty smooth and other iPad tasks like note-taking and web browsing are trivial to the A12 Bionic.
Alongside SoC power, Apple has always been decent at getting plenty of electrical juice out of its batteries. Doing a mixture of email perusing, gaming, and video watching, we found the new iPad mini would last a day’s worth of use. That’s inline and often above the touted 10-hours of battery life. Used sparingly, the new mini could last a couple of days before it gasps out for electrical relief.
But with the brightness cranked up and streaming video content, that battery endurance drops down to around six hours or so, which is to be expected when the Retina display is running at full whack.
While the A12 Bionic supports rapid charging, the iPad mini comes bundled with a standard 12W charger which can take a few hours to fill up the battery. Opt for Apple’s 30W USB-C charger and a USC-C-to-Lightning cable and you’ll get rapid charging but it’ll be a relatively expensive extra, which others would bundle into the box; again this is Apple we’re talking about about about so c’est la vie.
And that’s pretty much all there is to say about the iPad mini from a hardware perspective. What’s left is to figure out is if it’s worth the starting price of £399 for 64GB of storage; opt for 256GB and you’re looking at £549.
In many ways, Apple hasn’t really tried with the new mini. There’s naff all in terms of design innovation or special features; really the new screen and chip were pretty much the minimum Apple could do to the mini.
But then Apple doesn’t need to try as when it comes to small form-factor tablets, there’s nothing that can really rival the iPad mini.
Apple’s tablet hardware is still lovely to use and the tablet app ecosystem of iOS outclasses anything Android can offer. With the exception of Instagram, we found every app we used fitted the mini’s screen and worked perfectly, something that can’t be said with the Android tablet experience.
It’s worth noting that, unlike a smartphone or laptop, no one really needs a tablet, which is more a luxury tech device. So it’s just as well the iPads are as good as they are.
With that in mind should you get one? For iPad mini fans, it’s a resounding yes. You should get it if your current mini is getting a bit tired as there are enough changes to make the upgrade feel worthwhile.
For people in the market for an ‘affordable’ iPad, then the new mini is the best bet. The 9.7 iPad isn’t modern enough to justify its lower price, while the new iPad Air might be a little too big and expensive for one’s first Apple slate.
On the fence? Well if you wait for another year, there’s a chance Apple might bring the design of its 2018 iPad Pros to the mainstream iPads, which might be more appealing to people who’re after the best design Tim Cook’s crew can kick out.
Whatever camp you fall into, the iPad mini is still a lovely device and perhaps the last hurrah for small tablets before foldable phones iron out their display wrinkles and potentially render such tablets redundant.
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