Apple iPad mini review

Is it a small iPad or a big iPhone or is the iPad mini a device that forges a whole new market for Apple? They're legitimate questions, but the truth is, it's all of the above. 

We've been thinking about all this for a while now, it started with the first rumour of a smaller iPad and we're only now, with this review, coming to a definitive answer. But your decision to read this view probably comes from the question of whether you should bother with the iPad mini, or stick with the full-size iPad - or, for that matter, ignore it and get an iPod or iPhone. 

Design

Yep, it has got a smaller screen, 7.9-inch this time rather than the 9.7-inch found on the iPad 1, 2, 3 and 4 and that, of course, affects the design and pretty much everything else. 

Measuring 200mm x 134.7mm x 7.2mm and weighing 308g it's far from a replica of the full-size iPad's design with its wide frame surrounding the screen.

Held in portrait the edges are thinner than the top and bottom - like the iPhone 5 - and it sports those chamfered edges too, which allows Apple to create a device that isn't too wide, given the 4:3 ratio of the screen.

READ: Best iPad mini accessories

If you're worried that thinner frame will be harder to hold without affecting the screen, don't be. Apple has already had that thought and changed iOS to ignore your accidental finger presses on the edge of the screen. It's subtle and unnoticeable, but essential in stress-free tableting. 

It will probably fit in your jacket pocket

Beneath the 7.9-inch display is Apple's standard physical home button, while above the screen you get a 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera with 720p HD video support and the option to make FaceTime and Skype video calls.

READ: Apple: We looked at multiple sizes for iPad mini

On the right side of the iPad mini is a screen lock key and individual volume up and down keys. They are refined too, different in design from both the iPhone 5 and the original iPad.

Elsewhere you get a headphone jack and power button on the top of the device, and a Lightning connector socket on the bottom, sandwiched between the two speakers that pump out stereo sound from the base of the device.

READ: Best iPad mini cases

The left-hand side of the mini has been kept intentionally clear so you can attach the iPad mini cover. As with its big brother, these are magnetic, and as cunning as the full-sized versions. A 5-megapixel f/2.4 camera, with 1080p HD video recording capabilities can be found at the top left of the device, and a silver Apple logo that is polished adorns the back of the tablet. 

All those features, design tweaks, and implementations create a design that is incredibly easy to handle and one that is even more portable than the iPad, which by comparison now looks bulky and large. In a quiet moment, you have our permission to pretend that you're on the bridge of the Enterprise, passing a futuristic information device to the captain. But rejoice, because the future is here, now. 

Hardware

While the iPad 4 now comes with an Apple A6X processor to make it more "powerful than you can possibly imagine", the iPad mini comes with an A5 processor, the one found in the iPhone 4S.

While the Apple purist would probably whinge that the device is sub-par compared to the iPhone 5 and the new new iPad 4, in reality you won't notice the difference, especially if you are new to the iPad family, or haven't upgraded to the iPhone 5 yet.

Also borrowed from other Apple products of yesteryear is the screen technology - in this case the iPad 2 screen resolution. It's a bit of a disappointment, coming from the awesomeness of the full-size iPad, but, in fact, when you're using it it's hardly a huge problem. 

All of the usual features are here, like accelerometers, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but GPS is missing. An odd decision for a device that's so much more portable that the larger iPads. Could Apple be missing out here, as a tablet this size could work really well for in-car navigation. 

Screen and iPad mini apps

In a perhaps controversial move, Apple has opted to grace the iPad mini with the same resolution as the iPad 2: 1024 x 768 pixels.

The smaller screen size means the resolution is better than the iPad 2 because it has the same resolution of a 9.7-inch screen but in a smaller area. It is not quite good enough to be what Apple class as a "Retina" display.

The reason Apple hasn't included Retina display support at this time is that it would create yet another resolution for app developers to have to cater for, and possibly fragment the App Store too much.

Apple has already forced developers to create apps for the different iPad and the iPhone screen resolutions, and making them create a third version would more than likely disenfranchise them.

READ: iPad mini or iPad 4: What's the difference?

Apple's reasoning, until it can force a work around, is that by doing it this way all the 120,000 apps that are designed for the iPad will work perfectly here. And it's right. Apps designed for the iPad work effortlessly, although it is also fair to say that icons are smaller, as is text.

As far as we're aware, Apple does not allow developers to create dedicated iPad mini apps, which is a shame, but from what we've seen, everything works well here, even with the reduced screen size.   

Apps and resolution aside, if you spend all day looking at the iPhone 4S or 5 or the iPad 3 or 4 you will notice a difference with the iPad mini screen. It will feel soft around the edges especially when it comes to fonts on the web. But, if this is your first iPad, or you're upgrading from the iPad 2, you won't be able to spot the difference. When playing games or watching movies the screen quality is excellent.

In our tests of the iPad mini we played a number of games from Need For Speed: Most Wanted from EA to Where's my Water, through to watching The Adventures of TinTin - the Secret of the Unicorn and Avengers Assembled. Across all apps and video footage we were more than happy with the performance of the iPad mini. It's also good for reading emails and surfing the web. It's a cracking little display and one that most will be happy with, or at least become accustomed to.

Internet Browsing

Let's face it, tablets are used for a lot of web browsing. The good news is, the iPad mini holds its own here too. 

Whether you are using the built-in Safari app, or have opted for the Google Chrome browser, the 4:3 aspect ratio of the iPad mini screen means that you get to see more on screen than you would with a 16:10 ratio device - like the Nexus 7, for example.

If you've already got an iPhone or use another iPad, or have OS X Mountain Lion installed on a Mac you'll benefit even further with the iCloud tabs and offline reading. Save a page to read later on your Mac and it will also save on your iPad mini. Want to carry on reading something from your iPhone 5 when you get on to the sofa - you can do that too.

The browser itself is pretty nippy, and works well - as long as you don't want Flash - and as you probably know already, if you use an iPhone, all your bookmarks are automatically synced the moment you log in to your Apple ID.

The perfect size for children

"Daddy have you shrunk the iPad?" were the first words from our 6-year-old daughter when we showed off the mini. 

It is a trend that continued at a Sunday lunch when we introduced it to a dozen children under seven. The new, smaller size means it was a lot more kid-friendly when it came to playing games - we recommend anything from Toca Boca - but the smaller size also means not all could see when we played a video. So it's a mixed bag, but the kids love it and it does keep them quiet far longer than anything else. 

Talking to parents around the dinner table, the size works well for little hands, but does make it a solo, rather than group experience.

Camera

There's a case for saying that you should never use the camera on the iPad mini for anything other than video calling. That might be true for the larger iPads, but the mini is a different form factor. But even so, we know from bitter, vision-blocking experience that people are all too happy to use the big iPad for such activities.

Thankfully the reduction is size means snapping on the iPad mini isn't as stupid as holding up a tabloid newspaper in front of you to catch that magic moment, although it is still pretty daft.

READ: iPhone 5 camera review

The rear-facing camera loses many of the tricks we've come to enjoy from Apple, including the panorama and HDR modes from the built-in software.

The camera itself is okay. It's not as good as the iPhone - of course - but would get you out of trouble, and you can see from our test shots, the results are good. It is still better than many tablet cameras out there and even many phone cameras too.

The front-facing camera is certainly good enough to be used for video conferencing, however we would have liked it to be a bit more wide-angle than it currently is.

Accessories

The iPad mini is pretty shy on accessories at the moment. Apple does make the Smart Cover, a protective front flap that will stop your screen - but not the metal back - from getting damaged, and it doubles as a stand thanks to the same folding mechanism as the original iPad cover. Because it only has  three panels, rather than four, the viewing angle is slightly laid-back in comparison to the iPad and to give it extra stability Apple has also included a magnet along the outer edge that keeps the triangle together.

Other accessories from Apple include the Apple TV - which you can wirelessly stream to, from the iPad mini, and a throng of cables to fit the new Lightning adapter, including a USB socket to connect your camera and interestingly your iPhone (for pictures), as well as SD card and HDMI options.

Battery and Performance

Apple promises a battery life of around 10 hours and, as with any battery-powered device, how it lasts depends what you do in those 10 hours. In our heavy testing we've managed to get those battery times easily, even playing a lot of games rather than just surfing the web or listening to music. It's certainly comparable with the iPad in terms of battery performance and we are happy to say that if you used it on a regular one-hour commute, you would easily get through the week on a single charge.

Negatives

It's not all amazing, amazing, amazing. There is the price for one thing. This is Apple, and it demands a premium. If you want to be in their club you've got to pay the bounty man. In this case it's over £100.

READ: EE 4G UK: Devices, speeds, availability, coverage, prices

While we are in a complaining mood, there's the lack of a Retina display, the iPhone 4S processor rather than iPad 4 or iPhone 5 offering, and at the moment you'll have to wait a month or two for 4G version. And then there's the fact that in the UK, 4G will only work on the EE network, even when O2 and Vodafone launch 4G next year. 

Verdict

The iPad mini is the new iPad to lust after. It's a lot more manageable. It a lot more kid-friendly, it's a lot more game-friendly. It is a lot more "you" friendly.

It's a lovely size, it's a lovely experience, and one that we can easily see cannibalising iPad 4 and iPad 2 sales in the future. That's not to say there isn't a place for the iPad in your tablet world, but just that this is good enough to become the "lead" iPad, at least in our minds.

It might be mini by nature, but it is mighty by the things it can offer. We love it.