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Apple iPad Mini review - Excellence, at a price

By and Amie Parker-Williams

The iPad Mini is, in many ways, pure Apple. With the product, the firm has been accused of jumping on the small-screen tablet bandwagon after watching the success of rivals Google and Amazon. It has also been branded a hypocrite over the fact that its late co-founder Steve Jobs publicly ridiculed the idea of a tablet with a display smaller than the iPad's 9.7 inches on the diagonal.

But this 7.9-inch screen slate also fits wholly with the company's ethos of entering an already established space and just doing things better. The iPad Mini is arguably better made, more usable and more pleasurable than its main rivals - the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 - and is in many ways better than Apple's own rather hefty (in comparison) iPad.

But the big question facing this little device is whether it is sufficiently superior to warrant being over £100 more expensive than the competition at this end of the tablet market.

iPad Mini

© Apple

Beautiful body

The iPad Mini is arguably the most beautiful and well-made small tablet around. The device's aluminium and glass body has been excellently finished, with the simplicity yet attention to detail that you'd expect from an Apple product.

Dimensions-wise it is wider than the Nexus 7 (133mm against 120mm), and also just slightly taller (199mm against 198.5mm), mostly because of its larger screen (7.9-inch on diagonal against 7 inches). But the iPad Mini is in fact lighter than the Nexus 7, and considerably so (308 grams versus 340 grams). Google's Asus-made slate is also thicker, at 10.56mm, compared to 7.2mm for the iPad.

You can really feel this difference when holding the two products. For a device that you will be holding possibly in one hand for long periods of time, the iPad really has it where it counts. This weight difference is even more pronounced against the Kindle Fire HD, which is a meaty 395 grams, and even wider than the iPad (at 137mm).

For the iPad Mini, Apple has taken the form of the iPad and the thin bezels of the iPod Touch to create a device that is great to hold and use, has superior build quality and is easily slipped into a larger pocket. In fact, in a strange twist going back to the main iPad after using its new little brother feels like shifting from a sports car to a truck.

iPad Mini

© Apple

Screen - detached Retina

Here is where Apple has somewhat dropped the ball with the iPad Mini. The lack of the Retina screen - used in the latest iPhones, Macs, iPads and iPod Touch - seems like a cost-cutting exercise, rather than Apple's trademark pursuit of excellence.

The 7.9-inch IPS LCD display has a resolution of 1024x768, and a pixel density of 163 pixels per inch (PPI), which is up from the iPad 2's 132ppi, but well down on the 264ppi of the fourth-generation iPad. On a specs comparison, the slate is beaten by the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD, which both have 7-inch displays with a resolution of 1280x800, and 216 PPI. But that is maybe not the whole story.

The iPad Mini's brightness and colour reproduction show vast improvements over the iPad 2. Colours are really well displayed and Apple again excels with its viewing angles, giving a clear and bright picture for multiple people. But there is no getting away from it, this display does feel dull when compared to the Retina and some might feel that is a showstopper considering the price (which we will discuss below).

Despite the tablet's smaller screen, it is still comfortable to use the on-screen keyboard, particularly in landscape mode. Indeed, the tablet has huge potential in landscape for both video playback (despite slight piller-boxing) but particularly gaming. Playing games on the screen is a really good experience, arguably better than the Nexus 7, although again the lack of Retina screen is a bugbear.

The iPad Mini

© PA Images / Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Hardware/Performance

The iPad Mini runs an A5 1GHz Processor with 512MB of RAM, giving broadly the same performance as the iPad 2. Anyone coming from the iPad 3 or iPad 4 will notice the drop in performance, including apps downloading a bit slower and some more challenging tasks taking longer. For comparison, Google's Nexus 7 also comes with a more powerful Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core chip with 1GB of RAM.

But for day-to-day usage the iPad Mini performs admirably. Web browsing is quick and video playback is crisp. This product is definitely not going to set any performance standards across the Apple range, but it is well equipped for its multimedia user market.

Battery Life

Battery life on the new iPad model fits with its bigger brother, easily hitting the nine-hour mark before needing a charge, even hitting more than 12 hours in the right circumstances. Using the new Lightning dock - introduced with the iPhone 5 - the device charges up very quickly, filling almost 3 hours in just half an hour.

Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, introduces the iPad Mini

© PA Images / Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Connectivity

As expected, Apple has confirmed that the iPad Mini will come in WiFi + cellular models, giving it an advantage over the Kindle Fire, but not now the Nexus 7, which comes with 3G connectivity in the top-end model. However, Apple went one step further by putting a Long Term Evolution (4G) chip in the product meaning users can access superfast mobile data speeds, including in the UK on the new EE network.

With 4G expected to roll out strongly over the next year in countries around the world, this is a really bold and welcome move from Apple. These small tablets are built for potability, and so it is important to have options with your data connectivity. We were unable to test the iPad Mini on 4G so don't know how it impacts on battery life.

Cameras

The iPad Mini also leads the way with its cameras, being the only small slate in the current crop to boast a rear camera. The iSight 5-megapixel camera with a wide open f/2.4 aperture delivers images that are comparable with the iPhone 4. But the lower quality sensor - compared to the 8MP snapper in the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 - is certainly felt, particularly when capturing 1080p video.

You also feel the lack of more recent hardware improvements, such as image stabilisation, that make taking photos a bit easier. It is a shame that the HDR and Panorama modes in iOS 6 don't make it onto the iPad Mini, but overall the system is impressive considering that tablets are not generally used for photography. There is also a front-facing HD camera for FaceTime calls.

Photograph taken with an iPad mini
Photograph taken with an iPad mini


Price/Competition

We don't usually talk specifically about price in reviews, but it is very relevant here. The iPad Mini starts at £269 ($329) for the 16GB model with WiFi-only connectivity. The equivalent model Nexus 7 costs £159 ($199). Apple intends to offer models with cellular connectivity from later this month, with the 32GB model costing £369 ($459), compared to £239 ($299) for the same Nexus 7 variant. The Kindle Fire HD, featuring a higher-resolution display than the iPad Mini, also costs just £159 for the base model, although that is WiFi-only.

The Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD are certainly strong tablets, although the iPad Mini just eclipses them in terms of overall hardware and software offering. But does it really have enough advantages to demand an extra £110+ of your cash? It is fair to say that Apple has never been overly concerned with price, after all this is a company that will charge £25 for an ugly adaptor just so people can still use their old accessories with its new Lightning Dock.

Rather, Apple is about providing premium products that are desirable to consumers for a number of different reasons - build quality, brand cache, apps etc. The firm also knows it can hook people into the comforts of its software ecosystem, including iTunes and the App Store, where the 275,000 apps built just for the tablet screen make its proposition almost unbeatable.

The New Kindle Fire HD 7 tablet

© Amazon

Google's Nexus 7 tablet

© Google



The Verdict

As you will see below, we did not give the iPad Mini the full five stars, which was a tough decision considering all it has to offer (particularly as we gave the same score to the Nexus 7). The lack of a Retina screen is a real shame for the small-screen iPad, but the inclusion of 4G connectivity, front and rear cameras, and great build quality makes this stand out from the small-screen pack.

However, the reason we can't give the full five stars is because of that price difference. Sure, Apple is never going to be about budget products, but pricing at around the £200 for the entry model would have just tipped the scales for a maximum in our review.

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