Review: iPad Mini is back and Apple's 2019 update offers new mojo for small tablets

There are a lot of iPads now, but can the smallest one spark a little joy?

Scott Stein Editor 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.
Expertise VR and AR | Gaming | Metaverse technologies | Wearable tech | Tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
5 min read
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I remember when I met the iPad Mini. It was back in 2012, when I first moved to New Jersey and began my routine of hour-long commutes into Manhattan. I loved that it was small, but not too small.

It was my favorite iPad.

I now carry a lot of gear on that same train ride: A Nintendo Switch, a Kindle Paperwhite, my phone, a larger iPad and maybe a laptop. There's plenty of redundancy in my life. But it's also where we are as a culture. Busy people with their faces buried in many purpose-built portable gadgets.

The iPad Mini now lives in a land of 6-inch phones and tons of tablets, Chromebooks and convertible tablet PCs. It's another tool in the bag. Maybe I have gadget clutter. Maybe the new 7.9-inch Mini -- starting at $399 (£399, AU$599) and available to order now -- could help Kondo things up a bit.

But here's the thing: The new iPad Mini is an incremental product update, a spec bump to a tablet that otherwise looks the same as the model from 2015. Does that spark joy? After using it for a few days... it's fine. But it's not something you need. In fact, if you have an old iPad Mini 4, you're good. Lifestyle clutter problem solved. (You're welcome.)

Watch this: Who is the new iPad Mini for, exactly?

But if you want an iPad Mini and have been waiting for a good up-to-date version, it's here: The Mini now has an A12 processor and Pencil support. I've been using one here in San Francisco while attending the Game Developers Conference, where I've been running around trying on VR and AR headsets and taking notes like a maniac.

Is this a device you need? I don't. My phone takes notes. I jot ideas and watch movies on a larger iPad. The size of the Mini still feels really nice, but its nonupdated design -- same form, same bezels, same everything -- feels ancient compared to the future-bending foldable phone-to-tablet ideas arriving imminently. Foldables will cost a fortune, but they blow up the idea of even carrying two different gadgets.

Maybe the iPad Mini is a hold-the-fort update, a spec bump to last until Apple reinvents its product lineup again. If you want to know more, read on.


Pencil support: Nice to have.

Angela Lang/CNET

Yes, it's fast

Its A12 processor won't end up being as fast as the iPad Pro's A12X, though. Early Geekbench 4 benchmarks show a single core score of 4,810, and a multicore score of 11,559, which is basically the same speed as the iPhone XS. Meanwhile the 11-inch iPad Pro's A12X processor gets benchmarks that are somewhat faster in single-core and significantly faster in multicore. Multitasking, for the apps I've tried so far, seems to be a lot better than the iPad Mini 4 could handle, so no surprise there.

Pencil support is nice to have (and the Logitech Crayon too)

The iPad Mini doesn't work with the new Apple Pencil, but it can connect with the original Pencil and it works just as well as on last year's 9.7-inch iPad. It also supports Logitech's cute little Pencil alternative, the Crayon. Sketching is fun, but I'm not an artist. One problem with the Mini is that the smaller 7.9-inch screen has less real estate. The larger bezel removes a chunk of possible work area. And there's no place to store that Pencil, so you'll want a case that slots a Pencil holder in.


The Pencil charges via the Lightning port. But don't ever hold your iPad up via your Pencil like this.

Angela Lang/CNET

Touch ID and a headphone jack are still there (which I prefer)

I'm happy that the Mini lacks Face ID, and still works with headphones. Most people, I bet, will agree. The only downside here is that it has a ton of bezel at the top and bottom, which makes movies feel pretty hemmed-in and small. 

It's crazy small compared to other iPads... 

It's bigger than my Kindle, but it's easy to use one-handed and carry around like a book. For casual travel and reading, or anyone who needs one for on-the-go work, it's a solid middle-ground screen.


iPhone XS, iPad Mini, 11-inch iPad Pro. Note the bezel.

Angela Lang/CNET

...But that bezel. 

The extra space on the top and bottom of the iPad Mini aren't aging well. It could easily be used for more screen space. Against the latest iPhones and the fancier iPad Pros, it feels glaring. But if Apple had added Face ID and increased the screen-to-body ratio, then the Mini might be even more expensive.

This isn't for little kids... or is it? 

I mean, you could buy your little kid an iPad Mini for $399, but I wouldn't. That price (or $529 for the 256GB model) sets it out of range for a lot of parents. It's a shame, because the iPad Mini is otherwise a perfect tablet for children. The $329 9.7-inch iPad (which is often on sale for even less) isn't entirely a better bet, since it has less storage (32GB) and an older processor. But at least it's less expensive. 

If only this had a mini Pencil, too

The first-gen Pencil is still good, but it's big, and almost dwarfs the Mini. The Logitech Crayon is a little more compact, and works with the Mini, too. But it would be nice to have a smaller, custom-designed stylus instead.

Angela Lang/CNET

I'd get the iPad Air instead, or the entry-level iPad

I prefer typing on iPads with a connected keyboard case, which becomes tougher (but not impossible) on the Mini. The 9.7-inch $329 iPad has plenty of great keyboard options. So does the new iPad Air, which is basically the 2017 10.5-inch iPad Pro with an A12 processor and no 120Hz ProMotion in the display. The Air is an extra $100, but its extra screen size and smart connector seem worth it. But I don't have the new iPad Air to review yet, so I can't compare.

You know what this is, and whether you want it

An iPad Mini with a faster processor and Pencil support is filling a specific need not everyone will have. It's like a specifically sized screw, or a particular TV size. As Apple keeps splitting its iPad line into more variants, the Mini feels far less essential than ever, particularly as the iPhone screens creep to 6 inches or more. But if you need an efficient iPad this size and don't want a bigger iPhone for the job, well, this is what you're looking for.

A missed opportunity

It would be nice if Apple had reconceived the design of the iPad Mini and the Pencil to be even better at maximizing its size and function. Is this a notepad or something more? Could it aspire to be as versatile as a Surface Go, or push further to be a perfect little full-screen device? The Mini is a spec-bumped tablet, rather than a truly reimagined product.

And that's the thing: It's fiiiine. But unlike the iPhone SE, which managed to be both throwback and fun, or the Retina return of the MacBook Air, the Mini doesn't feel quite as triumphant in the sea of other Apple-made alternatives. 

I guess in the end, what I'm saying is it didn't spark joy.