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(Pocket-lint) - We've always had a soft spot for the iPad mini. Now in its sixth iteration, the device has finally had a major overhaul - bringing it up to spec with the iPad Air and, to some degree, the iPad Pro range.

But with a higher price tag than before does the 2021 iPad mini still have a place in Apple's tablet line-up, and is its smaller-scale screen at odds with what most people will want for productivity? We've been using the iPad mini (6th Gen) to find out...

Design and display 

  • 8.3-inch Liquid Retina IPS LCD display, 2266 x 1488 resolution (326ppi), 60Hz
  • Four colour options: Space Gray, Pink, Purple, Starlight
  • Dimensions: 195.4 x 134.8 x 6.3mm / Weight: 293g
  • TouchID fingerprint scanner on power button

Gone is the home button, the big bezel of iPads of yesteryear (excluding the new Apple iPad 10.2 9th Gen), and the sense that the mini is some sort of poor forgotten cousin.

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The 2021 iPad mini comes with a new squarer design, akin to the iPad Air and iPad Pro models, a thinner uninterrupted black bezel, and more colourful options - including Purple (more lavender), Pink (more faint rose), and Starlight (more white gold). Like the iPad Air, a TouchID fingerprint sensor is hidden in the power button.

The volume buttons have been moved to the top of the tablet to make way for the Apple Pencil (2nd Gen) to magnetically bolt onto the tablet's side when charging, although that does change the speaker grille configuration slightly - but it doesn't seem to make a difference in audio performance. What it will do if you're a long-time iPad user is confuse your memory synapses when it comes to changing the volume or grabbing a screenshot, but rather intuitively Apple automatically assigns the top volume button to be 'up' regardless of device orientation.

Unlike most iPads there's no Smart Connector for attaching a keyboard - we're not sure it would be that comfortable to use anyway at this scale - although those who do want to do some typing can always opt for a third-party physical Bluetooth 'board instead.  

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The size of the iPad mini is fractionally smaller than the previous iPad mini - it's now just slightly longer than the Apple Pencil - despite increasing its screen size by reducing the bezel surrounds. More importantly it's even lighter than the previous generation (only by 17 grams - but it all counts).

The form-factor and weight distribution is akin to an A5 Moleskin notebook or Amazon Kindle, which makes the iPad mini ideal for one-handed use, whether you're reading, watching, or sketching. That's not something that can be said for the bigger 10.2-inch models and above.

The 8.3-inch screen, which is plenty sharp looking, comes with many of Apple's screen technologies. When the screen is on it's hard to see fingerprints thanks to an oleophobic coating; reflections are manageable - unless you are in direct sunlight; plus there's True Tone and wide colour (P3) to help keep colours punchy and accurate.

However, there's no ProMotion, Apple's marketing name for 120Hz screen refresh rate, which has been in other iPad models since 2017. 

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In use and that 8.3-inch screen is great, just the right size to enjoy a show on Netflix, read a lengthy article on the web, or doodle something with the Apple Pencil.

At times the resolution combined with the smaller screen can make for small buttons and touchpoints. And whilst changing the dynamic type settings can help resolve this in some cases, many apps - including Apple's own - don't take those requests on board.

Hardware

  • 64GB/256GB storage sizes
  • 5G & Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax)
  • A15 Bionic processor
  • USB Type-C

There's plenty of updates on the hardware front to get excited about - and rightly so. The iPad mini comes with the same processor as the iPhone 13 Pro, ensuring it's on par with 2021's best available. There's also 5G and USB-C connectivity, as well as support for the Apple Pencil (2nd gen) which, as we've already mentioned, bolts onto the side magnetically to connect and charge.

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All that power makes this tablet fast enough to load apps and games quickly, yet still manage plenty of heavy lifting with some of the more demanding apps in the App Store.

The USB-C makes connecting other devices like SSD drives or a camera much easier than having to carry around additional dongles. It's something we've enjoyed on the iPad Pro over the last couple of years, so it's nice to finally see it on the mini.

What we would have liked to have seen, however, is the inclusion of FaceID facial recognition for login, and MagSafe charging - a magnetically attached charging disc option - as you'll find in the iPhone range.

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While MagSafe charging doesn't make as much sense on the larger iPads, it certainly would for the mini, especially if you want to charge and use an accessory at the same time. This smaller form-factor is just crying out for some form of wireless charging. Of course adding the MagSafe charger would mean moving to a glass rather than metal back, which could affect the durability of this tablet, and is why it's not a possible feature in this arrangement.

Cameras

  • 12-megapixel rear camera, f/1.8 aperture, autofocus
  • 12MP front camera, f/2.4, 122-degree ultra-wide
  • Center Stage support

Any tablet, including the iPad range - unless you are talking iPad Pro level - have never really had the camera experience at the top of their agenda. And that's just fine - because we don't when we're using a slate either.

This iPad mini changes that somewhat, however, taking a big leap forward over what the previous generation devices offered. There's a 12-megapixel wide-angle camera on the rear, capable of 4K video recording up to 60fps, and extended dynamic range for video up to 30fps - the same as the iPad Air (2020) model, not as powerful a combo as on the Pro range, but certainly considerably more than the previous 8-megapixel offering.

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On the front, there's another 12-megapixel camera, except here it's ultra-wide - the same as you'll find in the iPad Pro model - and supports 1080p video recording up to 60fps. Like the iPad Pro it features Center Stage, which follows you around the room when on a video call. 

The new wider camera is brilliant for fitting more into the frame when you're on a call – handy if there's a few of you crowded around the screen - and although we've been using Center Stage on the iPad Pro for a while, we still have mixed feelings about it (because many say it makes them feel 'seasick' when watching).

Pencil & Accessories

  • 2nd generation Apple Pencil support
  • No Smart connector for keyboards
  • No MagSafe charging

It's an optional extra, but the 2021 iPad mini supports Apple's second-generation Pencil stylus. It's responsive and the size of this new tablet's screen makes for a great sketching book - without being overly large.

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Pocket-lintApple iPad Mini review photo 10

With the huge improvements to iPadOS 15 - including features like Scribble and Quick Notes - you can easily see this slate being the perfect note-taking device for creative types.

Verdict

The 2021 iPad mini is a great update for the series, giving Apple's smaller-scale slate the love and attention it's long needed. The product is smaller and lighter than earlier versions, yet the screen is larger thanks to a reduction in bezel. It looks great.

The ability to use it one-handed will appeal to many. The speed, performance, and connectivity options make this an uncompromising entrant into the tablet space too. And those who opt to get an Apple Pencil (2nd Gen) will also benefit from the ability to draw, sketch and note-take. It's certainly versatile, just don't expect to use it as a laptop replacement as there's no Smart Connector for attaching a keyboard.

If there's one main gripe, it's that to embrace all this goodness you're going to have to spend more than you would perhaps want. Furthermore some Apple technologies - such as ProMotion 120Hz refresh rate, FaceID facial recognition login, and MagSafe charging - are lacking, some of which you'll find higher up the iPad range.

Overall, the iPad mini commands its own space in the market. It isn't trying to be a laptop replacement, rather something much more portable. Ultimately it's the tablet that's proud to be just that.

Also consider

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iPad Air (2020)

If you want a slightly larger screen and the versatility of laptop-like use - there's a Smart Connector here, so you can add a keyboard - then the Air will fit your needs better. It's great as an outright tablet, too.

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Writing by Stuart Miles. Editing by Mike Lowe. Originally published on 22 September 2021.