iPad Mini review: An excellent 2021 upgrade, but still a niche tablet
The Mini gets a complete redesign, but it may not be the price-and-size combination you need.
Scott SteinEditor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
ExpertiseVR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tabletsCredentials
Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
What's the most improved product in Apple's lineup this year? It might be the sixth-gen iPad Mini. The company's smallest tablet got the makeover I thought it needed years ago: Now it has the iPad Air's better display, a USB-C port instead of Lightning, a much better processor and better cameras too. You can also magnetically snap an Apple Pencil right onto the side now. Pretty great, huh?
iPad 9th gen vs. iPad Mini 9th gen
iPad 9th gen 2021
iPad Mini 2021
8MP Wide camera
12MP Wide camera
Apple Pencil support
The only problem is, the iPad Mini isn't a must-have gadget. Far from it; as much as the iPad is usually a secondary device for many people, the iPad Mini is often a second iPad. Which makes this a luxury for most. But the 8.3-inch screen, A15 Bionic processor (same as the iPhone 13) and excellent overall performance could make it a first choice for some, and the $499 (£479, AU$49) starting price, while high, isn't as absurdly high as other Apple products.
iPad Minis aren't as necessary with large phones nearby. And the Mini can't do the one thing larger iPads do very well: connect with keyboard cases easily to become sort-of laptops.
But if you think you'll want an iPad that can be an e-reader and gaming device and casual TV screen and sketch pad and notebook and smart home screen, with some email and social media stuff thrown in, this is a pretty lovely choice. If you're OK with its higher-than-basic-iPad but lower-than-iPad-Pro price, that is.
The Mini has grown on me the more I've used it. And really, all of its features seem upgraded, making for a lovely, speedy little tablet. But I won't be doing any serious writing on it. And with iPhones, more affordable iPads and flashy but still-evolving foldable devices all doing what this Mini does (and possibly better), you have to consider this Mini an overdue revamp that's unnecessary for most. Some will absolutely love it, though.
I'm going to stop trying to type on this Mini, and go back to my laptop to continue this review.
It's really small... and growing on me
As I take the iPad Mini out of its box, I think to myself, Oh, this really is small. I'm not sure I like that. After using a larger 12.9-inch iPad Pro recently, this iPad feels extremely tiny. Too tiny. I get used to it, though.
The size of this iPad lines up much more with the folding-phone-phablet-Kindle-Switch landscape. It's more of a relaxed handheld. It feels fine held in one hand, and it's easy to carry around in a pinch. It's got a smaller footprint than the 2019 iPad Mini, in fact, but it's also a bit thicker. The Mini comes in new colors now, but they're very very subtle. Mine is purple, but the matte aluminum finish looks more like a slight variation of gray.
And while that small size could be appealing to some people as a bigger-than-a-phone-smaller-than-most-iPads thing, it also makes using it as a laptop replacement really hard.
You can pair a keyboard with Bluetooth, but there's no dedicated keyboard case (maybe Logitech or others will make one). And the usable screen space gets even smaller when you use the onscreen keyboard to type.
You'll also need a brand-new cover, since no older Mini ones fit. The Mini uses magnets on the back so that a wraparound folio cover snaps right on, but like the iPad Pro and iPad Air cases, that won't provide any drop protection.
But yes, this is bigger than an iPhone. It's still significantly bigger than an iPhone 12 Pro (more than twice the size), and I have to admit, I'm carrying it around for reading and games a lot more than I was expecting. But these days, I'm still mostly carrying it around the house.
I stood it up (using the sold-separately smart cover) on my back porch table while putting together a Weber charcoal grill, and called up the instruction manual. It was better than using a phone, but I also thought… hmm, a regular-size iPad would be easier to read.
In the last few days, I've started taking it everywhere. I took it to the doctor's office even though I have a phone. Why? I like the extra screen. I guess it's why people like big folding phones, too.
USB-C and a new design, at last
The design of this iPad is completely revamped, much like the iPad Air last year. The flat edges, the sharper screen, the better stereo speakers, a USB-C port, a side magnetic charge strip where second-gen Pencils can snap onto and a side Touch ID home button… this is the total makeover I wanted in the 2019 iPad Mini. I love the look, and it makes me want to use the iPad, even if I'm not interested in using a Mini. It woos me. It all looks great.
But it's not perfect. The repositioned volume buttons on the top edge of the iPad feel weird, though maybe they make more sense when watching videos in landscape mode. And the bezels, while smaller, are still very noticeable to me. They become even more noticeable when using certain apps (see below).
A new aspect ratio means larger videos, but some apps don't benefit
Playing a few games from Apple Arcade, comparing side by side with the 2019 iPad Mini, I think: Wait, does this new iPad display look smaller?
The 8.3-inch, 2,266x1,488-pixel display is a longer display than the 2019 iPad Mini's. It also has slightly rounded corners like the rest of the iPad Pro and Air line. Apple says in the fine print that "actual viewable area is less" than the diagonal measurement. Also, apps that haven't been updated for this new screen size will be pillar boxed with subtle black bars, making the bezels seem bigger and the display seem effectively the same (or even slightly smaller) than the 2019 Mini's. Since this is a prerelease of the Mini, Apple Arcade games currently have black bars, for instance. Safari and Notes and other core apps don't. Some apps will autoadjust, and others will need developers to adapt them (as for previous iPads with different screen sizes).
PDFs, graphic books and digital magazines, which often have 4:3 document layouts, also don't take advantage of the larger screen area. It's just a reminder that the "bigger screen" isn't really what it seems to be here.
But it helps for videos, which play in a wider aspect ratio already. There's a bit less letterboxing, and videos fills a larger area of the screen.
A15 performance: Very good
The A15 processor in the Mini is like the one in the new iPhones. Think of it as a hybrid of older iPad Pros and more recent iPhones. The single-core Geekbench 5 benchmark score average I got was 1,598, which is similar to the iPhone 12 models' scores last year. But the multicore score is 4,548, which is close to what Apple's pre-M1 iPad Pros could handle with the more graphics-boosted A12Z chip. Like pretty much every current-gen Apple device, the 2021 iPad Mini is fast enough that you won't have to worry about taxing the system, at least with currently available apps.
Multitasking: Mostly works
Holding the Mini sideways with two apps open, it first feels cramped. Then I realize this is close to the two-app split view that the Microsoft Surface Duo has, or that folding phones like the Fold can do. It's kind of like two phone screens side by side, except you can't fold the Mini.
I wanted to hate how small the Mini is, but I'm starting to find multitasking on an 8-inch screen kind of addictive. It's exactly what the iPhone can't do. iPadOS 15 makes swapping apps in and out of multitasking mode a bit easier, but the tiny triple-dot icon on the top of the screen is also easy to accidentally press in some apps, since it's near a lot of top menu bars and icons.
Rear camera with flash, and digital-zoom wide-angle front camera
The Mini's cameras are good: not recent iPhone-level, but more than good enough. A rear flash and 4K video recording will make it good enough for documentation or on-the-spot videos and photos, though it doesn't have multiple rear cameras, and doesn't have lidar scanning like the iPad Pro models do. The front camera has a wider-angle mode that taps into Apple's digital-zooming Center Stage tech, which debuted on the iPad Pro in the spring. It's helpful for face-following while on video chats using FaceTime, Zoom and other supported apps, and is a feature that all Apple devices should add.
Game console? E-reader? Sketchpad? Sure. But… pricey
The size of this Mini sets it up as a gaming tablet, or a Kindle alternative, or a very nice superportable sketchpad. This is what Apple is clearly leaning into with the Mini. There's also a business audience for a revamped and faster mini tablet for point-of-sale or field work.
But add up what this will cost: $499 only gets you 64GB of storage and a USB charger in the box. Buy a case, which you'll absolutely need ($60) and that nice Pencil ($130), and upgrade the storage to 256GB ($150) and you're at $840. Not cheap!
Could this be a phone? Not really
It's tempting. The new Mini has 5G (but read the fine print on that one). It's small. It's sort of lower-priced than iPhones. But there are clear downsides. It's not water-resistant or drop-resistant like an iPhone. It's large, like really large -- you'd need a big jacket pocket or a bag. It doesn't have GPS. There's no actual phone call app. And I don't know why it took me so long to realize, but iPads have no haptics, which is weird. No buzzing for silent notifications, and no subtle feedback in games and in apps.
It really makes me think about using a 5G-enabled iPad Mini as a phone replacement. Apple has a clear gap in its product lineup. The Mini feels like the sort of device that folding phone makers are aiming toward. The Mini is the best option Apple has in that space. But a future iteration could end up being the candidate for a folding display, like the Microsoft Surface Duo or the Samsung Galaxy Fold 3 (which, by the way, both cost a lot more than an iPad Mini).
About that 5G: The Mini's flavor of 5G doesn't support the limited-availability but sometimes very fast millimeter-wave frequency like the iPhone 12 and 13 and the spring iPad Pro do. If you don't know what I'm talking about, 5G signals come in several types, and mmWave (where available) is like a very fast local hotspot. This means, effectively, that this Mini's 5G won't reach superhigh speeds. In suburban Montclair, New Jersey, my Verizon 5G test SIM speeds ranged from 270Mbps to 170Mbps, which is basically similar to LTE. The $150 cellular modem add-on plus monthly fee isn't worth it to me (but maybe your business will foot the bill?)
It's nice, but niche
I just bought a charcoal grill, a Weber. I already have a gas grill. Why did I do this? I wanted an affordable one that could do charcoal, too. Sometimes people buy second grills. It's a luxury, and a niche. People buy second things. Or specialized things. The Mini is a great total revision, but I wouldn't say it's a must-have… and it's far too expensive (and limited) for kids. (Or my kids, anyway.) For your family, maybe, it might be worth the upgrade if you're in love with the design and don't mind the mini size. But it's the best iPad Mini, if you ever craved one and have the cash to spend. It's a lovely little luxury.