iPad Mini 2 review:

The most affordable iPad

Sarah Tew/CNET

So, maybe it's not too surprising to see the Mini's specs in such a small form, since the even smaller iPhone 5S managed a similar feat. But the Retina Mini is an impressively fast little tablet by any measure. In all our benchmark tests, the new iPad Mini performed a little bit slower than the Air, but close enough to put it in nearly the same territory. It's miles beyond last year's iPad Mini, performing up to 4 to 5x faster or even more depending on the benchmark. And, compared with the Google Nexus 7 released earlier this year, it's a significant leap forward.

As a result, apps run nearly identically on the iPad Air and the new Mini, again because they're running almost exactly the same hardware. The difference is basically screen size and pixel density: some apps like games can look even more finely detailed, while others might seem a tiny bit small compared with on the larger iPad. But, in general, almost all apps I've seen make the transition to the smaller screen size excellently.

Does it warrant an upgrade from last year's Mini? If you're power-using your iPad, yes. For everyday use, especially video viewing and reading, you'll be fine sticking with the non-Retina version. But, be aware that app developers are going to go full-force with new types of experiences that maximize use of the A7 across iPhone and iPad. As a way of future-proofing your iPad for an extra $100, new prospective buyers should seriously consider going Retina for the processor alone.

Moving up to a Retina Mini over the previous Mini, however, you will have to suffer increased download sizes: apps, and movies, and digital magazines all take up more space in their Retina-optimized forms. "Cloud Atlas," while long, was a 6.2GB download. You might want to consider a bump up to at least 32GB when getting a Retina Mini.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Wireless: A big step up for Wi-Fi and global LTE
I've never found the pay-up for a cellular-enabled LTE iPad to be worth it, personally, especially with so many Wi-Fi hot spots around, but Apple's newest iPads certainly make it tempting. Despite being offered for multiple carriers on Apple's site, all the LTE iPads are actually identical and unlocked: you can SIM-swap across carriers and overseas to your heart's content. Affording pay-as-you-go LTE or folding it into a family device plan isn't as affordable as it should be, and the $129 fee to step up to an LTE-enabled iPad Mini isn't cheap, but for a frequent traveler or someone without a data-heavy smartphone contract, it could be ideal.

The Mini with LTE had very good data connection via the Verizon account on my test unit, too.

The Wi-Fi antennas have also gotten an upgrade to MIMO technology, just like the iPad Air. MIMO promises better throughput, and better range with dual antennas. The new Mini did seem faster over office Wi-Fi, and wherever else I tested it. At home, I was getting well over 45 Mbps, while the previous iPad Mini (and my iPhone 5s) don't often crack 30.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Gaming: The perfect middle ground
The iPhone's handheld design feels good for screen-tapping arcade games, but it's got a small screen. The iPad Air is great for games, but it's better for larger-scale board games and tap-to-move strategy titles. The Mini is the perfect in-between. Now that its graphics have taken a serious step up, it's also capable of playing anything on the App Store without a hitch.

Infinity Blade III, Riptide GP2, and others look fantastic. And, with iOS game controllers on the horizon, the Mini could be an intriguing fit for a controller case/accessory.

Sarah Tew/CNET

iOS 7, and all the free iWork/iLife apps
Apple's new iOS devices come with a free suite of iWork and iLife software: iPhoto, iMovie, GarageBand, Pages, Numbers, and Keynote. Together, they comprise an excellent set of tools to do a lot of things on the go. These apps run very well on the Mini's 7.9-inch screen.

Sarah Tew/CNET

On the iPhone, things can get cramped. The Mini manages it all as a perfect middle ground: not too cramped, but the iPad Air offers up larger icons and menus.

Sarah Tew/CNET

iOS 7 comes preinstalled, of course, and on the iPad, iOS 7 really isn't much different than on the iPhone. Multitasking is easier than before, but it's still not a split-screen affair: instead, you double-tap and tap an icon to hop over to another program. Some applications run simultaneously, but if you open up too many, some will suspend and restart automatically.

On the larger iPad, I wish iOS 7 enabled deeper iPad-specific features. On the smaller Mini, it feels like a better match: basic, clean, and functional. Read CNET's review for more-specific features.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Battery life
Here's some good and somewhat surprising news: the iPad Mini's battery life looks to be as good as the iPad Air's. Our first battery-test run was eye-popping: 14 hours and 14 minutes of video playback, beating Apple's claim of 10 hours. The Air lasted 13.2 hours, while last year's iPad Mini ran for 12.1. Stay tuned for additional battery tests and our final, official number, but early gains are very promising.

I used the Retina Mini while browsing, playing games, installing apps, and more, while using LTE as well, and found I could get through a whole day with battery to spare.

A larger internal battery, more powerful display, and faster processor mean a bigger power brick: the included AC wall-plug is now a 10-watt unit, versus the iPhone-size 5-watt mini-plug. Charging up using the included charger takes about the same time as last year's Mini with its charger, all things considered.

Price: Clearly no budget mini tablet
This isn't a budget tablet, but it's clearly not meant to be. It's a packed-to-the-gills little tablet beast. The storage configurations now add a 128GB model: the Wi-Fi-only 16GB, 32GB, 64GB, and 128GB models cost $399, $499, $599, and $699, respectively. LTE-equipped versions, available in the US from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile, cost $129 more: $529 to a sky-high $829.

Apple iPad Mini with Retina display Google Nexus 7 (2013) Apple iPad Mini (2012) Apple iPad Mini with Retina display (base model)
Price $829 $270 $299 $399
Display size/resolution 2,048x1,536 1,920x1,200 1,024x768 2,048x1,536
PC CPU Apple A7 1.5 GHz Qualcomm Snapdrgaon S4 Pro Apple A5 Apple A7
Memory 1GB 2GB 512MB 1GB
Storage 128GB 32GB 16GB 16GB
Networking Wi-Fi/LTE Wi-Fi Wi-Fi Wi-Fi
Operating system iOS 7.0.3 (64-bit) Android 4.3 iOS 7.0.3 iOS 7.0.3 (64-bit)

The iPad Mini has already been designed to truly do a lot of tasks equally as well as a larger-size iPad, and that Retina Display makes it a better e-reader, Web browser, and photo viewer. But its price seems to acknowledge its versatility. And, while it's $100 less than an iPad Air for the same specs and promised battery life, some people will inevitably consider paying up just for a physically larger screen on the Air, even at the same resolution.

iPad Mini with Retina Display (top) and Google Nexus 7 Sarah Tew/CNET

iPad Mini versus the non-Apple competition
Of course, the tablet world is no longer an Apple-only affair. To that end, the iPad Mini with Retina Display is entering a very competitive landscape of small and midsize tablets (7 to 9 inches). The 7-inch Google Nexus 7 -- with its crisp 1080p screen -- starts at $229 for 16GB, and costs just $269 to double that storage capacity; the 32GB model with LTE can be had for $349 -- $50 cheaper still than the Wi-Fi-only, 16GB version of the Retina Mini.

Device Starting price
Apple iPad Mini (2012) $299/16GB
Apple iPad Mini with Retina Display $399/16GB
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 $379/16GB (with ads)
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7 $229/16GB (with ads)
Google Nexus 7 (2013) $229/16GB

It's largely the same situation with other like-size Android competitors with high-res screens. The 8.3-inch LG G Pad will run you $349.99, and Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX starts at $229 (for the 7-inch model) to $379 (8.9-inch model) -- albeit with Amazon's own offshoot Fire OS, which includes ads on the base models and a more limited, non-Android app store.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Air or Retina Mini: Only a matter of price and screen size?
So, indeed, there are a wide range of Android -- and even Windows -- tablets that could be classified as offering "more bang for the buck." But only the iPad will deliver iOS, along with the relative advantages and refinements of that app ecosystem -- a double advantage for anyone who's already an iPhone or Mac user.

Indeed, you're probably here because you've already looked past those competing tablets, and have held out for the new iPads. But now that they're both here, the question is: which should you get? The Mini certainly presents an awfully tempting proposition, offering a better overall value for pure performance and storage for the dollar. The Mini has a few small drawbacks: it's a little bit slower, and has a display that, based on our tests, is a little less perfect than the iPad Air. These differences are minute compared to the bigger differences: the Retina Mini is smaller, and it's less expensive. That will be an advantage to many, but keep in mind that anyone looking for a laptop alternative is probably better off with the Air -- just don't expect it to fully replace a laptop for every single type of use.

If you want the most affordable iPad Mini, last year's model is still being sold for $299 -- a $100 savings versus the Retina model. But I wouldn't do that. The Retina Mini is a better bet across the board.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion: Best in class
The one thing the Mini isn't? Cheap. If affordability is your game (and really, who doesn't want an affordable gadget), Android, Kindle, and other tablets offer far more budget-friendly alternatives. And many of them aren't bad at all for their catch-all offerings: the Google Nexus 7 has a bright 1080p display, great portability, and lots of storage for a low price (32GB, $269). Amazon's latest Kindle Fire HDX tablets have fantastic screens and live customer support services to boot. If you're using a small tablet as an e-reader plus benefits, one of these devices will easily do the trick.

But, if you want a small tablet with no limitations, that can run the best gamut of high-end apps, display productivity-type applications in a larger amount of screen space, and play games amazingly, the iPad Mini with Retina Display is hands-down the way to go. It's a better primary tablet, while those affordable competitors make good secondary tablets.

Plenty of phone-makers have been delving into "mega"-size 6-inch "phablets." Apple has no phablet, but the new Mini comes closest to offering that same large-screen versatility, especially with LTE.

As Apple heads into 2014, there are a lot of future directions I can imagine it heading. The larger iPad, perhaps, could co-evolve with the MacBook Air into the next-step future of computing. The Mini, though, is fine where it is. Other than price and inevitable spec bumps (and, maybe, Touch ID), I wouldn't change a thing.

3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Linpack multithread (MFLOPS)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Sun Spyder 1.0.1 (ms)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Geekbench 3
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

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