Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Two Weeks With the Retina iPad Mini

iPad Mini head

I am perhaps not the best person to review an iPad. My iPad history is short: it began with an iPad 2, which was replaced with a third-generation model. That’s it. I have not spent substantial time with a fourth-generation iPad, a first-generation Mini, or an iPad Air, so I lack any point of comparison to recent models. Therefore, this won’t, can’t, be a review which compares the Mini against the other offerings out there and establishes the benefits and drawbacks of owning this against those. Rather, this will be a review of why I moved from a third-generation iPad (iPad 3 from here on) to an iPad Mini, and my experiences with this product in that context.

This iPad Mini, then.

I bought a space grey 16 GB WiFi iPad Mini. Its 16 (ish) gigabytes of storage are plenty for me, as I don’t keep a local media library on the iPad. It is WiFi-only because my 3G plan includes tethering and I don’t want give my cell carrier any more money than I already do. I chose space grey because it looks badass.

The iPad colour for Batman. Or Morrissey.
Space grey macro

My last new iOS device was a third-generation iPad, so I haven’t really experienced the enormous leaps Apple has made in build quality, aside from brief glimpses in an Apple Store. This iPad Mini is built so well that it seems as if it isn’t made, but sort of birthed in a fully-formed state. Every time I think the bar for build quality cannot be raised any higher, Apple proves me wrong. It’s a wonderful product to hold and to use.

It’s also extraordinarily thin and light. Apple says that it’s slightly thicker than the first-generation Mini, but it’s pretty thin any way you look at it. It’s obviously lighter than my iPad 3; what I was surprised by is just what that weight difference does to the device. When I got my iPad 3, I explained why I didn’t mind the weight increase:

Of course, Apple would rather they reduced weight with each generation of any of their portable products. But I would prefer to keep the battery life the same and increase its weight than preserve the weight of the iPad 2 and lose even an an hour of power. That’s exactly what they’ve done. Despite my heavy usage during the first weekend, battery life was never a concern.

The iPad 3 weighs 650 grams; the iPad Mini I’m holding weighs just 331 grams. Truth be told, the iPad 3 isn’t actually that heavy; I’m pretty scrawny, but it’s not an effort to use with one hand. But when devices shrink to this size, every extra gram feels substantially greater. As a result, the iPad Mini doesn’t feel like it’s half the weight of the iPad 3 — it feels like it’s a quarter of the weight, or even less. It’s crazy light.

iPad Mini vs iPad 3

Unlike the iPad 3’s hot and expensive A5X chip, the iPad Mini uses the A7 SoC; so, unlike the iPad 3, it doesn’t get warm to the touch. After using the Mini for even a day, I picked up my iPad 3 and it felt large, cumbersome, and heavy. The improvements of the Mini are extremely noticeable in such a positive way. In simple terms, this means you get a Retina display without the compromises you’d expect, such as those in the transition from the iPad 2 to the iPad 3. And, oh, what a display.

The Retina display in this year’s iPad Mini has the same 326 pixel-per-inch density as an iPhone, so it comes as no surprise that it’s tack-sharp and looks like a printed page. The reason I didn’t buy an iPad Mini last year is because I do an awful lot of reading on my iPad; the display in the model sitting right in front of me absolutely solves that issue. While it isn’t laminated to the glass like the iPhone’s display is, it sits close enough that there’s no noticeable distortion or aberration. If you thought the previous generation iPads were like a touch screen magazine, this is even closer.

On paper, the Mini should have a better-quality display than my iPad 3 does1 — it has the same number of pixels in a smaller space. In practice, however, the difference between those pixel densities is negligible: I can’t see individual pixels on either model unless I look very closely at, say, an uppercase “A” or “V”. Both displays have such a high pixel density that it’s hard to tell them apart.

All of this amazing display tech hasn’t come without a few hiccups, though. The earliest iPad Mini recipients reported significant image retention, similar to that of some of the first Retina MacBook Pros. Sure enough, I got worried when my iPad Mini arrived and — after going through the initial setup steps — I was presented with the “Connect to iTunes” screen, which has a white line drawing of a Lightning cable on it. After connecting, the screen changed, but the ghost of a Lightning cable remained for several minutes.

However, since then, I haven’t seen any retention at all. My guess is that either the winter delivery or the high contrast of the “Connect to iTunes” screen were to blame. I ran Marco Arment’s retention test and my iPad passed. In day-to-day use, I haven’t seen any issues whatsoever, even in places like the barely-changing status bar area.

One point of contention has cropped up with regard to this display, though: its colour gamut is relatively small. DisplayMate compared the iPad Mini against Google’s Nexus 7 and Amazon’s Kindle Fire HDX 7, and concluded:

[T]he iPad mini with Retina Display unfortunately comes in with a distant 3rd place finish behind the innovative displays on the Kindle Fire HDX 7 and new Nexus 7 because it still has the same small 63 percent Color Gamut as the original iPad mini and even older iPad 2. That is inexcusable for a current generation premium Tablet.

A damning critique of what should be the iPad Mini’s preeminent feature.

In his review, Anand Lal Shimpi came to a similar (if less strongly-worded) conclusion:

The difference is small but apparent, particularly if you’re used to panels with full sRGB coverage like the iPad Air or any of the rMBPs/iMacs. The biggest deviations are in reds/blues and magenta in between as you can tell from the CIE chart above. […]

Compared to the previous generation mini we’re obviously talking about a much better panel. But for those of you on the fence between the mini and Air, the Air does still hold a display advantage.

My iPad 3 very nearly has the full sRGB gamut. In a side-by-side test, the iPad Mini’s colours don’t pop quite as much, but it’s genuinely — hand on heart — fine. I browsed through the Atlantic’s selection of entries in this year’s National Geographic photo contest on both iPads and my calibrated Thunderbolt Display. The Mini was noticeably weaker than the others but, while I wish it had a full sRGB gamut, the difference isn’t as egregious as DisplayMate makes it out to be. It’s somewhat disappointing when comparing it to the (much cheaper) Amazon and Google units, but it was not a large concern. If it wasn’t pointed out, I likely wouldn’t have noticed.

Day to day use of the iPad Mini is sublime. At the very first iPad introduction, Steve Jobs described how exciting it was to hold the internet in your hands; with this iPad Mini, it feels like that to an even greater extent. This is due to a combination of the weight, size, and display quality. Nothing I’ve ever seen or used comes close to this browsing experience. It’s small and light enough to comfortably sit in one hand, so it’s a casual but very powerful way to work or to relax.

I did mean work, by the way. Even though it’s quite narrow on the long edge, you can still type on the onscreen keyboard with ease. Unlike a 10-inch iPad, it doesn’t feel like a full-sized keyboard, but I found it very comfortable to type on. As a bonus, it’s certainly easier to thumb type in portrait orientation. And because it’s pretty much the same as an iPad Air underneath — the processor is clocked at an imperceptibly lower rate, everything else is identical — it runs every application with aplomb. Numbers and Pages were as zippy as you’d like. Keynote was pretty great as well, though it did struggle when opening a 200 MB media-heavy presentation which I previously created on my Mac. But, hey, it takes a while to open that on my Mac, too; it’s a big presentation.

My biggest complaint with the iPad Mini is, as ever, that Apple hasn’t put enough RAM in it. Tabs in Safari are routinely dumped, even if there are only a few open, and apps are very likely to have been terminated in the background when switching between them.

Safari tabs suffer most from the low RAM, particularly when a tab has a form of some kind. There is no nastier surprise than switching to another tab to check something and then switching back to find that the page will refresh and the form contents have been cleared. It’s not as if every tab is playing loads of GIFs or anything, either — this happens on a regular basis with almost wholly text-based pages.

I see three ways in which this could be mitigated:

  1. User-entered content should always be preserved if the system needs to dump an app from memory.
  2. The memory consumption of the operating system could be reduced.
  3. iPads could ship with more RAM.

Way One is relatively straightforward, while Way Two is incredibly difficult — it isn’t as if Apple is being cavalier with the system’s memory usage as it is. Both have the advantage of being backwards-compatible, though. But I don’t see memory consumption going down in the future, so Way Three seems necessary as well.

It’s 2013, and lots of popular websites are heavy. They have loads of Javascript, plenty of images, and all sorts of HTML5 trickery. Quite simply, I’m disappointed that this feels like it has not been entirely accounted for. It doesn’t ruin the product, but the low RAM is the largest user experience drawback I have faced when using any iPad, including this one.

My only other complaint has to do with the Smart Cover. For the most part, it does its job admirably, but the tri-fold arrangement makes it awkward to deal with. The old four-fold version could fold back on itself and felt much sturdier. The tri-fold version can’t fold back on itself, so if you unfold it and hold the iPad with your left hand, as I do, it kinda flops around on the back. It also feels less study: I tend to use my Smart Cover in the landscape keyboard-friendly orientation (as opposed to the nearly-vertical orientation) and, though I’m not a heavy typer, the magnetic connection has occasionally given out underneath my fingers.

Despite these quibbles, however, this iPad Mini is one amazing product. If the iPad Air is like a magazine, this is like a novel. Indeed, I’ve spent a lot of time reading on this iPad in just the first couple of weeks I’ve owned it (including guiltily digesting “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls“). But, despite its size, I’ve also produced a fair amount of stuff as well — a number of posts on Pixel Envy, including some of this review, were written on it. It’s super light and tiny, so you can toss it in pretty much any bag and bring it everywhere with you. If you have a hankering for a sub-10-inch tablet, the iPad Mini is truly wonderful. It absolutely feels like the future.

  1. It’s interesting to look back at pre-release rumours which pondered how Apple would market an apparently superior display at a lower price point. The answer is obvious: the “Retina” brand encompasses all displays of high-enough density so the pixels cannot be seen. From a customer’s perspective, there is no difference. ↩︎