(Pocket-lint) - When the iPad mini with Retina display launched alongside the iPad Air in 2013 the biggest choice you had to worry about was whether or not you wanted a 7.9-inch or a 9.7-inch screen. The message from Apple was clear: you get the same power either way.
But fast-forward to the winter of 2014 and the message has changed. While the iPad Air 2 comes with a new screen, a new processor, and a new slimmer chassis, the iPad mini 3 gets nothing of the sort. It's the same as its predecessor (now renamed the iPad mini 2) with Apple's TouchID fingerprint recognition technology.
So it the iPad mini 3 still a good tablet or one that's undermined by the mini 2?
If it ain't broke why change it?
The 7.9-inch iPad mini comes in the same chassis as the iPad mini 2 did last year. Don't worry you aren't missing anything, there is zero change to the design aside from the inclusion of a TouchID sensor and the ability to have it in gold rather than just space grey or silver.
As a standalone tablet experience, we love the size. It's small and compact, offers amazing portability, and works well if you are worried that the bigger iPad Air 2 is, well, too big.
The iPad mini 3 measures 7.5mm thick - so not the ultra-thin 6.1mm of the Air 2 - and is 200 x 135mm face-on. With its smaller screen and overall size, it's also the lighter-weight model, at 331g for the Wi-Fi-only model and 341g for the Wi-Fi and Cellular version.
Given the choice of the iPad mini or the iPad Air over the last 12 months we've opted for the mini every time, although now over a week deep into using the iPad Air 2, we have to admit that we do prefer the new bigger and thinner device.
Screen and power deja vu
The screen is the very same in both iPad mini 2 and 3 models, delivering a 2048 x 1536 pixel resolution at 326ppi. It still looks great, but Apple hasn't given the iPad mini 3 the new anti-reflective coating, or the new build process to make the screen punchier (and slimmer) as it has with the Air 2.
READ: Apple iPad mini 2 review
But the insides are different right? Nope, Apple has done nothing to bring the iPad mini in line with the top-spec iPad Air 2 or update the processing power from the 2013 model. That means you get the same A7 processor and same M7 motion co-processor, despite the Air 2 now sporting updated versions of both: the A8X and M8.
With power comparable to the iPhone 5S the iPad mini 3 is not a lame horse by any means, but it's no longer a thoroughbred in 2014. Applications run just fine, and there's enough oomph to edit pictures and video in apps like iMovie - an app that comes included for free. We've been watching movies, browsing and playing games with no problems.
The mini 3 also delivers the same camera capabilities front and back, and the same battery life, not surprisingly. That's still a good performance, though, delivering around 10-hours of continuous use with the screen brightness set to half while using 4G on the go.
It really is the same device just with a new colour and TouchID. It is a strange move given Apple has always given us a processing power boost and one that now makes the iPad mini sit somewhat awkwardly in the line-up and against the competition. It is the same price as its predecessor was at launch - starting at £319 - but as the iPad mini 2's price is now £239 that means the inclusion of TouchID adds a £80 premium.
Touching moments with Touch ID
TouchID has its obvious benefits though. Rather than tapping in a code to gain access to your tablet you can instead use a registered fingerprint.
We can't tell you how many times we've stared at our iPad mini 2, finger on the button, expecting something to happen only to realise that it doesn't have TouchID like our iPhone. D'oh. With the iPad mini 3 that's a problem of the past. The TouchID is the same as found in the iPhone 6 and the new tech combined with tweaks in iOS 8 has meant it's more responsive than when TouchID was first introduced on the iPhone 5S.
READ: Apple iPhone 6 review
However, if the iPad mini is going to be a family device, one kicking around the living room, then TouchID isn't likely to be so important.
That said you will be able to use it to unlock certain files (with apps like Dropbox), or if you are in the USA, pay for things online and in-app with Apple Pay (which will only be arriving in the UK from next year). Oh and like the iPad Air 2 there's no NFC support included within the iPad mini 3 so don't expect to be able to pay in shops either.
If you've used TouchID before then you'll probably agree that it's great. We love the inclusion, as the iPad mini to us has always been more of a work device rather than a family device, but we suspect many won't be able to justify the £80 more for the tech.
iOS 8.1 at launch
When the iPad mini 3 debuts it will come with iOS 8.1 already installed. Apple's iOS 8.1 offers a number of new features above and beyond what was available in iOS 7 including cool new ones like Continuity which blurs the lines between sharing content between your iPhone and Mac - if you have an Apple desktop of laptop.
That combined with enhancements with the Notification Centre, third party keyboard support, and (eventually) Homekit will all work to improve the experience. Likewise the seamlessness of sharing photos between Apple devices is a huge plus, especially for those that like to show off their efforts with others thanks to that brilliant screen.
Which to buy?
There's an argument for avoiding the higher costs associated with the most powerful processors, because not everyone will need a turbo-charged tablet. However, price-wise the iPad mini 3 doesn't benefit from that concept, particularly as the 2013 iPad mini 2 is the more affordable option. With the iPad Air 2 starting at £399, the iPad mini 3 just ends up stuck in the middle.
Apple clearly wants you to plump for the better, bigger, and more expensive Air 2 this time around. If you are looking for a powerful market-leading tablet then the iPad mini 3 isn't the one to opt for any more. And with the Air 2's reduction in thickness compared to the original Air we've already felt a lot more comfortable carrying that around.
Put simply the iPad mini 3 demands an extra £80 for TouchID and the option to choose the gold colour finish. That's a significant premium over the iPad mini 2, which is the better buy. If you like the idea of the iPad mini's sub-8-inch screen size then last year's model is still the one to go for.
By not updating the third-generation iPad mini more considerately, Apple has created a device that is neither top-of-the-tree in terms of power, nor does it offer enough of a pull against the increasing competition. There's some argument that the iPad mini line doesn't need to offer the top-spec power, but until its price point aligns with that concept the mini 3 doesn't make loads of sense. TouchID is also a nicety for device access, but until we see how Apple Pay takes off in the UK it's true value is an unknown entity.
We can only think that the iPad mini was so successful that Apple realised it drove down the overall cost people were paying for an iPad, and therefore hit the bottom line in the company's accounts. By forcing you to choose between power or budget - newcomers and early adopters will go bigger with the iPad Air 2, savvy budget buyers the iPad mini 2 - Apple has effectively raised the entry price point for customers once again.
However, the iPad mini 3 is still a great device built on the strong foundations of last year's model. But it's not isolated in a vacuum and is the victim of its own circumstance. The world continues to move on, and for many this particular iPad will be an anomaly that struggles to find its place.