iPad mini with Retina display review

The iPad mini Retina is here and it clears up one of the biggest complaints about the original iPad mini: the screen. With the original it wasn't as good as the iPad or the iPhone, but with the Retina display now on board the iPad mini 2 looks to be an incredible tablet device.

In many ways the iPad mini was seen as the more poorly equipped sibling to the "proper" iPad's bigger screen - to get that portability you had take a hit elsewhere. The iPad mini with Retina display brings a completely overhauled specification in addition to the updated screen and, in doing so, is arguably the Apple device to go for now. We've been using one in the home and on the go to for an extended period to find out whether it's the ultimate tablet device.

Design

The iPad mini with Retina display is almost the same as the original iPad mini launched in 2012. There are no real changes to the design, except that the Retina model is ever so slightly fatter. But we're talking 0.3mm fatter, something you can't even tell by eye or by touch.

It's a little heavier than the original model - by between 23g to 29g, depending on which model you choose - but that's a negligible difference. We couldn't tell.

Your cases, keyboards and accessories will all still work without a hitch - ours do - and, for the most part, people won't even notice that you've upgraded unless you've selected a different colour.

iPad mini Retina colour options include the same white/silver as the original mini and a new space grey/black option. The colour schemes match the iPhone and the iPad Air. But you can't get a gold version.

READ: Apple iPhone 5S review

Screen

As we've touched upon, the biggest obvious change in the iPad mini with Retina display is apparent from its title: its screen eradicates any potential complaint that you might have had with the original model.

The Retina panel is the same quality as the iPad Air, just at a smaller scale given the 7.9-inch screen, and keeps the same ratio so the 465,000 apps and counting work on it no problem. That 2048 x 1536 resolution delivers a 326ppi density which, because of the scale, makes it theoretically better than even the iPad Air. 

READ: Apple iPad Air review

The screen is as crisp and clean as you would expect and reproduces colours nicely. iOS 7's thin fonts benefit from the new resolution available and the screen certainly helps you take advantage of that.

Whether it was reading text on the web, writing this review, watching movies, or playing games, it is a big improvement.

If you use other Apple products like the iPhone or a bigger iPad, the transition between devices is seamless. You've come to expect a good screen, and now you get it with the mini Retina. It's not better than the iPad Air in practice, but feels much the same - and that ought to live up to anyone's high expectations. The whingers have been muted.

Performance

Virtually every element of the iPad mini Retina has been updated compared to the first-generation device. There's a faster processor, a new motion processor, better Wi-Fi, better LTE, a bigger battery, and bigger storage options are all available - if, for that last one, you're prepared to pay out the big bucks.

The crux of it all is that you now get a tablet that is identical in performance to the iPad Air and, aside from the rear camera and Touch ID sensor, the same as the iPhone 5S.

If you are already an iPad mini user then the speed and graphics boost is immediately noticeable. Jumping from the A5 chip used in the iPhone 4S to the A7 chip found in the 5S and the Air gives a huge speed boost. What that means is that applications really do load faster, especially games, while you've got more oomph when it comes to editing pictures and video in apps like iMovie - an app that you now get free.

The M7 co-processor, as found in the iPhone 5S and Air is also present. However, as with the Air, we are struggling to see how the mini Retina will benefit as much. You aren't going to use a tablet to track steps, like you can in the iPhone 5S, for example, but Apple says that it will help when it comes to saving battery. We'd rather have it included than not, too, as one day someone will find a really good use for it in a tablet environment.

Much the same can be said for the 64-bit processing - sounds great but, nope, you won't notice what that means right now. But that does mean it's all the more future proof.

Going mobile

On the connectivity side of things, users get a better grade of Wi-Fi antennas inside the mini Retina so you can be further away from your router and still get a good reception. However Apple hasn't opted to support 802.11ac - the faster wireless speed. Apple claim it's a balance between fast download speeds and battery life.

All that said and done the Wi-Fi range is good. It seems better than before: in places in our house where the original iPad mini only had two bars we now get three on the Wi-Fi icon.

The modem has also been improved, adding support for Vodafone and O2 in the UK if you select the pricier "Cellular" model for 3G/4G connectivity. You now have the choice of which provider to go for if you want to go mobile.

We tested the iPad mini on Vodafone and EE and had good experiences with both providers. It certainly makes for a complete experience and if you are planning on travelling with the iPad mini with Retina display it will save you carrying a dongle or hunting down Wi-Fi hotspots like an addict.

Storage

The improved connection means cloud storage is better than before, but it's the all-important on board storage that you'll need to consider in advance of purchase.

Although there is no micro SD options - this is Apple remember, we'll probably never see it - you shouldn't need it if you pick the right device. The entry-level storage option is 16GB, but if you are feeling flush you can bag yourself a 128GB version giving you plenty of storage for movies, music, games, apps and more.

We've got a stack of all of those, including about half a dozen HD movies to keep the kids quiet and are nowhere near filling up the 128GB model we've been sent for this review. Quiet frankly if you are worried about storage options this pretty much negates any arguments. But the 128GB Cellular device does cost £659, not the £319 of the Wi-Fi only 16GB model.

Camera

The iPad mini Retina comes with a rear camera that's okay - enough to get you out of trouble - but isn't amazing. But this is a tablet after all, not a primary camera device. The more important improvement compared to the original is the front-facing camera that can be used for video calls (or selfies to show off our incredible Movember 'tache growth).

In the mini Retina that front camera can now cater for FaceTime HD and that, just like everything else, is an improvement. It's maybe not as noticeable as some of the other improvements found on board, but we'll take it all the same, thank you very much.

Battery life

All this extra power and storage should also equate to poor battery, but that doesn't appear to be the case from our tests - and we've had it as our go-to tablet for over a week.

Using the iPad mini with Retina display heavily with 4G turned on and we've still managed to get a good experience from it - certainly one that is comparable to the original iPad mini. The question is how Apple has managed to achieve this? A combination of a bigger battery - hence the ever so slightly thicker chassis - and software optimisation enhancements in iOS 7.

Whatever Apple has done, it works. And that's all you'll really need to know: the battery is good. With half screen brightness while using 4G on the move we were surfing and writing emails and getting around 10 hours of continuous use, more if you include standby time. Obviously that number soon drops if you are playing games or watching movies, but you should be more than good enough for a long haul flight.

iOS 7, iLife, and iWork

Apple iOS 7 is great, but more exciting still is that you get a bundle of new apps with the iPad mini with Retina display, including GarageBand, iPhoto, and iMovie, as well as Keynote, Pages, and Numbers.

READ: iOS 7 tips and tricks: here's what your iPad can now do

A huge advance over what iPad users have had previously - and without paying any extra - is that these apps add loads of functionality to the tablet straight out of the box. Edit photos, make movies, record a song, write about it, manage your costs in a spreadsheet, and then present it to people ready to lap it all up. It's a creative hub, more so than any iPad before it.

Each app sits in line with iOS 7's redesign. Take iMovie, for example: it now gives you much greater control than before and means you can actually edit home movies on your iPad without having to get your laptop out. iPhoto, too, sees improvements and now offers a hub to order prints and books via Apple without getting off the sofa.

READ: iOS 7 review

The combination of all the software really adds huge value to the tablet device, and while it won't be what everyone is after - power users, we are looking at you - for most it will be more than enough.

Combine that app power with the mini Retina's portability and you have a killer combo when it comes to being creative on the go.

Mini Retina vs Air

When we used the iPad Air we where still debating over whether we would still be using it when the iPad mini with Retina display arrived. Now both are available to buy it's a decision a lot of people will be contemplating.

Where before both iPad 4 and mini devices filled two vastly different specs - the mini very much played second fiddle to the full-sized iPad - that's no longer the case. The only real difference now is the screen size. With the smaller bezel and lighter design the mini Retina is still the more portable and that will appeal to a lot of people, us included.

We suspect many mini owners will struggle to work out which of the two they should go for if they're contemplating an upgrade.

For us, we are still torn, but think having lived with both, we prefer the mini Retina's size for our purposes. When teamed with a Logitech Ultrathin keyboard it's an ideal device for working on a train or plane, and it certainly saves the weight and size of having to drag a laptop around with you.

Accessorise

Like the iPad Air, the mini Retina brings with it a new Smart Case that completely surrounds the device to keep the back protected. The Smart Case is made from the same materials as the iPhone 5S cases and is soft to touch, both inside and out. It doesn't add that much bulk to the tablet and if you aren't getting a keyboard we think it's a worthwhile investment, certainly over the standard iPad mini cover. It costs £35.

Verdict

The iPad mini with Retina display bests the efforts of the original mini in virtually every department - and where it doesn't offer an outright improvement it sticks with what worked before.

The naysayers will tell you iOS 7 is chaotic, that Android delivers more "openness" and that Android tablets are cheaper too. For us the iPad mini may have to work harder to establish itself in a busying and improving market sector, but at the same time it's an effortless device that just works.

What you get with the iPad mini with Retina display is one of the best tablets on the market, if not the best tablet on the market. Fantastic portability, amazing battery life, a great screen, a huge array of apps, and all the processing power to keep delivering great experiences day in day out. You won't be disappointed.