iPad Mini review: The perfect size, but at a price

One big advantage of the iPad Mini with iOS: it's compatible with all the big services (Kindle, Nook, Google Books). It's the closest to a universal e-book reader.

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iPad Mini as video player
That 4:3 aspect ratio has a drawback, of course, and that's video playing. Movies and HD TV shows will inevitably be more letterboxed than on a 16:9 tablet like the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD. On a Retina Display iPad, you at least have enough pixels to make for sharp video viewing in the space provided. On a 1,024x768-pixel display, it means the letterboxed video has an even lower resolution.

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Most shows still look very watchable, no worse than on the iPad 2 (and a little better since the pixels are smaller), and there are plenty of apps and services that the iPad Mini is compatible with, from subscription-based streaming to cable accessory TV apps to video stores like iTunes and Amazon Video on Demand. The iPad Mini has the greatest flexibility for apps and services among competing tablets, which is its huge edge.

Two speakers tucked on either side of the Lightning connector on the bottom edge pump out decent volume for such a small device. They're good enough to listen to music and videos with. Two aluminum volume buttons on the right edge are flat like on the iPhone 5, but longer, and not tapered like the plastic iPad's volume button. They're easy to feel for and press.

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iPad Mini as game handheld
The smaller dimensions of the Mini make it more comfortable for two-handed gaming. Games with virtual joysticks and buttons feel much less awkward than they do on the larger iPad. Games like N.O.V.A. 3, Geometry Wars, and Galaxy on Fire 2 HD felt much more like handheld games, as opposed to games grafted onto a tablet. Board games and games with lots of little buttons still held up well, too. Kingdom Rush, a tower-defense game with lots of little icons, held up great. So did the relatively complex board game Ticket to Ride. The Mini's design and weight also makes it a surprisingly comfortable device to hold in landscape mode.

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Even though Apple touts the iPod Touch as a great gaming handheld, you could make the argument that the iPad Mini, because of the extra screen real estate, is even better. Consider it the Apple version of the Nintendo 3DS XL .

Hardware features: Nothing really left out
Many of the more affordable tablets out there have missing features that are more common in higher-priced alternatives: expandable storage, HDMI video-out, rear-facing cameras. That's the case on the Google Nexus 7. The iPad Mini has all the same features, essentially, as found in the larger iPad: Bluetooth 4.0, front- and rear-facing cameras, video-out and SD card (for loading photos) via the Lightning connector, AirPlay compatibility, and optional LTE via Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T models. As always, storage isn't expandable, but the same storage options are offered as on the fourth-gen iPad: 16GB, 32GB, 64GB.

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Performance: Welcome back, A5
The venerable dual-core A5 processor has been around since 2011, and has been seen in everything from the iPad 2 to the iPhone 4S, fifth-gen iPod Touch, and Apple TV. The version in the Mini most closely matches the iPad 2's, with the same 512MB of RAM. The non-Retina screen has the same iPad 2 resolution: 1,024x768 pixels. The iPad Mini is really a smaller, redesigned, enhanced iPad 2. Or, it's a bigger fifth-gen iPod Touch, which has very similar components and actually costs $30 less for twice the base storage (32GB). However, keep in mind that the iPod Touch's 4-inch screen, even in Retina Display, isn't the same as the new iPad Mini's. It's more cramped, it's not as ideal for reading, and you certainly can't access larger documents and media-editing apps as easily.

What does that mean in terms of performance? I loaded up a bunch of games and apps, ranging from GarageBand to graphics-intensive games like Gameloft's N.O.V.A. 3, Real Racing 2 HD, and The Room, as well as standard apps like Ticket to Ride, Tweetbot, Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pages, iMovie, and Flipboard.

Apps loaded and played at the same speeds as on the iPad 2: good, but not blazing fast. Apps tended to load a few seconds slower on average than on the fourth-gen iPad, with its generation-and-a-half faster A6X processor. Web pages loaded on my home Fios network a few seconds behind the third- and fourth-gen iPads. Booting up the iPad Mini straight from full shutdown took 31 seconds.

On Geekbench, a popular benchmarking app on iOS, the iPad Mini got a score of 752 versus the iPad 2's 755. Comparatively, I found the iPhone 5 got up to 1,461, while the fourth-gen iPad hit 1,761 (higher is better). That type of score doesn't really reflect the feel of average app performance, and the iPad Mini is definitely not a speed demon compared with the iPhone 5 and fourth-gen iPad. It does, however, show that the Mini is nearly as fast as the third-gen iPad at many tasks, and is at least iPad 2-level at everything else. Using the SunSpider JavaScript 0.9.1 benchmarking test, the iPad Mini ran the test at an average of 1,503 milliseconds (lower is better), compared with the Google Nexus 7, which ran the same test at an average of 1,705 milliseconds. By comparison, the fourth-generation Retina Display iPad ran the same test at a blazing 876 milliseconds.

The iPad Mini's Wi-Fi connection speeds are, on a whole, better. Dual-band 2.5GHz and 5GHz 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi bring an improvement in speed over previous iOS devices. The iPhone 5 and fourth-gen iPad both have dual-band.

iOS 6
For more on all the various features of iOS 6, read CNET editor Jason Parker's full review. Most the iOS 6 features you'd expect are here, including Siri, which is curiously absent from the equally well-equipped iPad 2. Apple's Passbook app, oddly, didn't make the cut, even though it's included on the iPod Touch.

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Of course, Apple's controversial Maps app is also present, with 3D Flyover and direction capabilities. I haven't been able to test whether turn-by-turn works on the LTE version.

iPad Mini as camera
One improvement in the iPad Mini compared with the iPad 2 is its cameras. It has a 5-megapixel iSight rear-facing camera and a FaceTime HD front-facing camera, the same cameras that are on the third-gen iPad and later. The fifth-gen iPod Touch has a better camera, with more features and an LED flash. The Mini lacks app features such as HDR and Panorama, although other apps from the App Store have those functions.

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The point is, the Mini's cameras are more than good enough for snapshots, 1080p video recording, and high-quality FaceTime calls. They're above average for budget-tablet cameras.

Photo taken with the Mini's back camera. My taste can be discussed later. Scott Stein/CNET

Holding the iPad Mini is an easier affair, so it's also feasible to use this device to take photos and video, something I've yet to see a normal friend of mine do with a larger iPad. It's not your next point-and-shoot, but it could do in a pinch. Photos taken with the Mini turned around are about as good as any iPad photo I've ever seen.

LTE and the Mini: perfect match?
For an extra $130, the iPad Mini can be outfitted with LTE cellular, in either Sprint, Verizon, or AT&T variants. That's a steep upgrade cost over the base price of the $329 iPad Mini, bumping the price tag to a $459. And yet, I've had a chance to live with a Verizon LTE version of the Mini for a couple of weeks, and found the freedom of LTE to be a pretty killer app .

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First of all, few tablets this small and thin have LTE at all, making it one of the future-forward elements of the Mini. Secondly, the LTE version has GPS, enabling turn-by-turn navigation on the go. It's excellent in a car: in fact, the Mini's size comes close to the dashboard screens in many cars. I wouldn't be surprised to see car mount solutions arriving imminently.

It's also a nice surprise to answer FaceTime calls, respond to iMessages, or even use VOIP calling -- not to mention basic e-mail, Web browsing, and the like -- with a device this portable. With LTE enabled, it feels even more like Apple's stealth super-large phone. This is the most portable non-phone device Apple makes with LTE, no contract necessary. That could factor in for travelers who like the idea of using the LTE iPad for wireless tethering alongside other devices, too.

Apple claims an hour less battery life on average for Web surfing on the LTE iPad Mini. In my everyday use, I found the LTE Mini still packed more than enough juice on a charge that I didn't ever worry much about recharging.

Data plans, while contract-free, aren't super-cheap, but I found that Verizon's LTE access speed was generally very fast, with the typical shifts from LTE to 3G depending on where you are in the country. In my own home in Montclair, New Jersey, I got an average speed of only 7.4 Mbps download / 2.0 Mbps upload, but at a cafe I quickly ramped up to 27.4 Mbps download / 14.4 Mbps upload. On the Upper West Side of Manhattan at the 82nd Street Barnes & Noble, I got speeds of 27.9 Mbps download / 16.6 Mbps upload. Antenna signal strength generally help up well, about as well as on an iPhone.

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Smart Cover, gone mini
The iPad Mini even has its own little Smart Cover ($39) available in six colors, although the design is different from the larger version available for the 9.7-inch iPad. The all-polyurethane design doesn't have an aluminum latch, so it grips more softly to the Mini's side. The cover also has one fewer segment in its folding design.

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The Smart Cover still folds up to be a stand or a keyboard riser, but it joins into a similar triangle with no fold-over. It's just strong enough to support the iPad Mini, working equally well for typing and for picture-stand use. And it feels a bit more fun on a smaller device.

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Unfortunately, just like with the larger iPad, the Smart Cover doesn't protect the iPad Mini's back. People will be tempted to buy a full-body case or a back cover as well.

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In the box: Lightning and charger, no headphones
The included gear is -- as always -- limited when it comes to the iPad. The iPad Mini includes a Lightning cable and an AC adapter, which is actually the smaller version that comes with the iPhone 5. The two are cross-compatible. No larger AC brick is needed.

EarPods, Apple's newly designed headphones, are not included. Earbuds never came with any other iPad, either.

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The new Lightning connector, introduced with the iPhone 5, is easier to plug in and takes up less space, but most other gadgets use Micro-USB. Extra Lightning cables can add HDMI-out and camera/SD card slot input capabilities. If you have older 30-pin connectors you can use a separate adapter, although it's not guaranteed that it'll mean a fit with older accessories and devices.

Battery life
Apple claims 10 hours of battery life for the iPad Mini, 9 hours using LTE. That's equivalent to the claims for the larger fourth-gen iPad, and iPads in general going back to 2010.

Our battery test told an even better story: the iPad Mini held up through 12.1 hours of video playback, which is remarkable for such a small tablet. The Nexus 7, comparatively, only lasted 8.4 hours on the same test. Over a week of use the Mini seemed to last well more than a full day of use, and then some. After playing games, streaming videos, downloading large files, and using the tablet for everything I could think of, I had a hard time fully depleting its battery over the course of a single day. The new fourth-gen iPad lasted an hour longer at 13.1 hours, but you'd expect it to.

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Conclusion
The iPad Mini is one of the few new product lines that Apple has unveiled this year, yet it's really just an incredibly shrunken-down redesign of the iPad 2. It's a perfect size and weight and works exactly as advertised: it's a truly portable iPad with excellent battery life and nearly no compromises, except for lacking the most cutting-edge Retina Display technology and fastest processors. And it's priced above the budget range that's represented by devices from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Google. For a rundown on the iPad Mini versus the competition, read CNET editor Jessica Dolcourt's comparison .

If the iPad Mini had a Retina Display, a newer A6 processor, and a slightly lower price, it would be the must-have Apple gadget of the year. Even without those things, it's still incredibly appealing. Its $329 price still makes it one of the least expensive iOS gadgets Apple makes. Does it make more sense than a $299 iPod Touch with the same processor, twice the storage, and a sharper, if smaller, screen? The Touch is a tiny thing; the iPad Mini can be used at a distance, to read and even to type. So can a Touch, but it's not as comfy. It comes down to choice. The iPad Mini works with all of Apple's apps. It's superior for magazines and news, and for illustrated books.

I'm not sure who the iPad Mini is for. The budget-minded, perhaps, or kids, or those who want a second iPad. Businesses that want a more portable on-site iPad. People who want to mount an iPad in their vehicles. Actually, I guess I know exactly who the iPad Mini is for. With iOS having such reach, this is another way to use it, another form. It's as simple as that. The iPad Mini probably isn't for everyone, and that's exactly the point. Like the iPod and the iPod Nano, it's another style for another crowd. I will say this: when you see it, you'll desire it. Just remind yourself you may not need it.

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  • Wireless Connectivity Bluetooth 4.0
  • Type Apple iOS
  • Service Provider AT&T
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  • Weight 0.68 lbs
  • Storage 16 GB
About The Author

Scott Stein is a senior editor covering iOS and laptop reviews, mobile computing, video games, and tech culture. He has previously written for both mainstream and technology enthusiast publications including Wired, Esquire.com, Men's Journal, and Maxim, and regularly appears on TV and radio talking tech trends.