How do you use your iPad? Has it replaced your laptop, or do you use it primarily to consume content?
I’m firmly in the second camp. I could do some work on an iPad, but I’d have to make compromises. My MacBook is simply a better workhorse, no matter how cool the iPad Pro looks in Apple’s promo shots. The iPad is great for reading a book, a magazine, browsing the web, playing games, and watching the occasional video clip.
But my problem with most iPads is that they’re too big. I’ve tried many iPads and I’ve always returned to my trusty old iPad mini, which Apple kept on life support for years, occasionally refreshing its innards but keeping its basic design the same.
No more. For the first time since the original launched in 2012, the iPad mini has been redesigned — and the wait was worth it.
Just the perfect size
I’ve been harping about this for years: The iPad is so much better if it’s truly portable. And the 6th generation iPad mini is, by far, the most portable iPad. It fits in small bags and larger pockets, and it can comfortably be held with one hand for longer periods of time. It’s the only iPad you don’t have to plan for; just take it with you as you would your phone, and you’ll probably find some place to stow it away.
Of course, you could say that about the old iPad mini as well. But the new one has nearly all the goodies that pricier iPads have.
First, it has a larger display: 8.3 inches versus the old iPad mini’s 7.9 inches. The bezels on all sides are narrower than before, giving the iPad mini that Pro/Air look. It’s also a little shorter and lighter (but also a hair thicker), though you probably won’t notice the difference. There basically are no tradeoffs here: it’s a bigger, better display in a slightly smaller, prettier package.
An old criticism of the iPad mini goes like this: Phones are already pretty big, so aren’t you better off just getting a big iPhone? The answer is: It’s not the same thing at all. The iPad mini has a display that’s more than twice the size of the one on the largest iPhone (forget about diagonal measurements; think about surface area). It’s far better for reading books and magazines, and vastly better for playing games.
Apple did not bestow Face ID upon the iPad mini, but it did give it something (arguably) better: Touch ID built into the power button on the top right. It works without a mask on, it’s fast and reliable, and it’s in the perfect place in both portrait and landscape mode (though you will have to register two fingerprints to make the most of it). It’s better than Face ID in another small way: After unlocking your device, Face ID requires you to swipe up to access your stuff. On the iPad mini, all you need to do is hold your finger on the reader for a fraction of a second longer and the device will fully unlock.
Overall, the iPad mini looks exactly as you’d expect: Like a small iPad Air. It feels solid and compact in the hand, like a perfectly sized book. My review unit was in the silvery Starlight color, which may not be as dazzling as it sounds, but it looks good in contrast to the pitch-black display bezels. If I had to nitpick, the curvy sides of the old iPad mini may have felt a little comfier during long reading sessions, but it really is a small difference.
The old Lightning port is gone, replaced by the more versatile USB-C port. Good riddance; hopefully the iPhone goes the same way soon. However, with much pain in my heart, I have to inform you that the 3.5mm headphone jack is gone, just like on the iPad Air and iPad Pro. On the iPhone, which is waterproof and a lot smaller, this is understandable. But on the iPad, I just don’t see a good reason to remove this port, and I will probably keep grumbling about it forever.
Apple sent me an Electric Orange Smart Folio that’s tailor-made for the new mini. Like other Smart Folios from Apple, it’s designed perfectly, propping my iPad at exactly the right angle in landscape mode. At $59, it’s a little pricy, though.
The display the iPad mini deserves
The 8.3-inch display on the mini has 2,266 x 1,488 pixel resolution at 326 pixels per inch, with 500 nits of maximum brightness and True Tone support. In one way, this is overkill: the pixel density is much higher than what you get on the iPad Pro, which only has 264 pixels per inch. The brightness is a little lower, you don’t get ProMotion (Apple’s term for dynamically adjusted 120Hz refresh rate), but the display is still pretty great.
As much as I like the mini’s form factor, I do have to admit that larger iPads work better in certain scenarios. As an additional display through Apple’s Sidecar, the iPad mini is usable, but barely. Some apps just don’t look like they’re designed for the mini’s display, which is especially apparent when a humongous keyboard shows up in landscape mode covering more than half of your screen.
The display does have one minor flaw: One side refreshes slightly slower than the other, creating a dizzying effect that’s been dubbed “jelly scrolling.” I had to look for it, and I was only able to notice it while scrolling through a long page of text in portrait mode, and only when I quickly scrolled down, then up, then down again. The issue is there, but I would never notice it in real life. I guess one has to wonder whether this sort of thing is subtly affecting me in some way, perhaps by making me nauseous after a long scrolling session, but I don’t think you have to worry about it at all.
Lastly, even though the iPad mini looks a lot like the iPad Air and iPad Pro, it does have slightly thicker bezels. It’s barely noticeable, but it means that Apple could’ve squeezed a bigger display in there, and it might still happen in future iterations.
Speed and battery life
I could just end it there, because there really isn’t that much to say about a device running Apple’s latest mobile processor, the A15 Bionic. It’s not as powerful as the new iPad Pro which runs Apple’s latest desktop chip, the M1. But you’ll only notice that if you juggle several heavy duty apps and do serious work — and if you do those sorts of things often, you should get an iPad Pro (or a MacBook, heh).
I’ve never had the iPad mini slow down, even when I ran two apps in split-screen mode. I played a few games of Hearthstone and Sonic Racing without any hint of slowdowns, though the battery drain was pretty intense.
Overall, the standard iPad rules apply to the mini as well: If you’re going to play games, or use it aside your main computer as a secondary display, and connect it to many Bluetooth devices, the charger will be your friend. For casual usage, it’ll certainly last a few days between charges, and like all iPads, it’s pretty good at conserving battery life when it isn’t doing anything.
This is the first iPad mini to have a 5G chip. My review unit was WiFi only, so I couldn’t test the 5G connection, but it usually means faster download speeds and a strain on the battery.
Camera and speakers
The new iPad mini has stereo speakers positioned on top and bottom, which means you get a proper stereo effect when playing music in landscape mode. It’s not overly loud, but the sound is surprisingly good with clear vocals and plenty of detail, though you shouldn’t expect to hear a lot of bass.
The camera on the iPad mini is a single, 12-megapixel shooter with f/1.8 aperture. It’s roughly like having an older iPhone camera on the iPad: You don’t get Night Mode, but it’s fast and it will produce great photos during the day.
In the evening, the photos get shoddy pretty fast. It’s a nice reminder of how good today’s smartphones are when it comes to low-light photography.
On the front, the upgrade is even bigger: The iPad mini now has a 12-megapixel selfie camera (up from 7 megapixels) with f/2.4 aperture and 1080p video recording at 60fps. The most important upgrade, feature-wise, is Center Stage, which tracks your location and makes sure you’re in frame during video calls. Night Mode is absent here, too, so forget about night-time selfies, but the iPad mini’s selfie camera is better than the iPhone selfie camera in little ways. For example, if you zoom out, you’ll get a much wider field of view in selfie mode than you would on the iPhone.
Tablets, in general, aren’t the best devices to take photos with. But among all the iPads, the mini is the one that benefits from an upgraded camera system the most, as it’s the least clunky to hold while taking photos or videos. And with the new, ultra-wide selfie camera, you could actually carry it around in one hand and take a video of yourself doing something with the other. Try doing that with the 12.9-inch iPad Pro.
The Pencil in the right place
The new iPad mini is the only iPad mini that supports Apple’s 2nd generation Pencil. Apple sent me one to play with, and it was definitely the most underwhelming part of the review process. My handwriting is so crappy that I couldn’t get the iPad to recognize my Pencil-scribbled words, and my drawing skills are equally awful.
This is less about the iPad mini and more about the Pencil itself, so I’ll stop here. If you use and love the Pencil, know that you can use it with the new iPad mini just like you can with the iPad Pro models. And being the latest model, the Pencil sticks to the iPad mini’s side where it also charges automatically, which is vastly preferable to the old Pencil’s clunky Lightning connector.
It’s great, but it all boils down to one thing
The iPad mini is as close to perfection as an iPad can get. It’s a smaller iPad Air that does nearly everything better. It’s missing some Pro features, but few that I would pay extra for. It’s practical, pretty, and portable.
It’s not entirely without flaws. There’s no headphone jack, the jelly scrolling issue does exist, and battery life could be better.
That’s exactly one hundred bucks less than the very similar but larger iPad Air, and also $100 more than the previous generation iPad mini. The price bump is unfortunate, but the new iPad mini is a big upgrade. And it’s a better deal than the Air: It’s cheaper with a better front camera, faster processor, and 5G (if you opt for the WiFi + Cellular variant).
Still, when it comes to the iPad mini, the first thing you need to think about is that display. If you value more screen real estate over portability, get something else. If it’s the other way around, the iPad mini is the best tablet you can get.
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