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Review: Apple's iPad mini

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Why no Retina Display?

To achieve this light and thin design at a reasonable cost, Apple didn't include a Retina Display. However, because the screen is reduced in size, it delivers better screen sharpness and less obvious pixelation than iPad 2, which shares the same resolution at a lower pixel density (iPad mini is 163 ppi vs iPad 2's 132 ppi).

The result is that, while the iPad mini doesn't have the razor sharp, "electronic glossy magazine" appearance of the Retina display iPad, it's also noticeably less pixelated looking than the original iPad. It's hard to accurately capture this in a photograph without minimizing or exaggerating the difference, but below you can see the difference between a standard iPad (top), Retina display iPad (middle) and the iPad mini.

iPad mini unboxing

Steve Jobs debuted Apple's first Retina display on iPhone 4 in 2010; the fourth generation smartphone was the first time Apple had changed the iPhone's resolution, and it did so on a screen the same size as previous models, resulting in a very distinct difference between old iPhones and the new Retina ones. 

Apple did the same thing with the "new" iPad 3 earlier this spring, and again with its 15-inch and then 13-inch high end MacBooks. The new iPad mini is different in the fact that it delivers the same resolution in a significantly smaller screen, resulting in a modest improvement over the already very popular iPad 2. 

While comparing similarly-sized screens at 1x or 2x the resolution makes for a very noticeable difference, comparing the iPad mini to a Retina Display iPad is less obvious of a difference. In fact, if you were told the iPad mini had a Retina Display, you'd probably believe it if you held it up to the original iPad. Only when looking closely at text is the iPad mini's standard resolution noticeable.

While the iPad mini's resolution (1024x768 or 786k pixels) is effectively very close to iPhone 5/iPod touch (1136x640 or 727k), it uses its pixels very differently. The iPhone's Retina display basically makes it a very sharp looking version of the original iPhone screen (480x320), just as the Retina display iPad is a very sharp looking version of the original resolution iPad. 

In both cases, the Retina display is not showing more screen real estate, but rather just rendering the same screen area in a higher resolution. Taking the iPad mini to a Retina display would offer a more modest increase in text sharpness because it already shows the same screen real estate as iPad 2 on a smaller display. 

Jumping to a higher resolution display for iPad mini would require a screen with more pixel density than the iPhone 5 or iPad 4. It would also require a thicker body, more computational power to drive all those extra pixels, and more battery to support both the screen and faster chips. While it's popular to say that the iPad mini "needs" a Retina display, it really doesn't feel like it (and, notably, the rest of the industry hasn't been quick to deliver Retina-like screen resolutions on tablets or computers either).

The iPad mini is also not likely to get a Retina Display inside of two years, just as the iPhone didn't get one in its first 3 years, or the iPad didn't get one until its third year. As a user of Retina Display smartphones since 2010, and a regular user of iPad 3, the iPad mini's screen doesn't seem dated or pixelated-looking in the way that older iPhones or the original iPad look to me today, largely due to its slightly higher PPI than earlier, non-Retina display iPads, and the fact that text on the screen is all about 60 percent smaller.

iPad mini unboxing

The way the iPad uses its screen pixels also results in a sharper looking display, particularly in text, than other 7-inch tablets that boast a higher resolution specification. In part, this is because iOS appears to render fonts better. But it also wastes less of the screen in user interface controls (above), often making more of a web page visible, and almost always making text on web pages look much nicer and less "computery" looking. 

Below, the Retina display iPad (left) makes this Wall Street Journal text appear razor sharp and smooth, while the standard iPad resolution (middle) looks noticeably pixelated. Text on the Kindle Fire HD, despite having 30 percent more pixels on a smaller screen, looks significantly worse though, indicating that pixels don't act in isolation.

Retina Display iPad

Because the iPad mini is a scaled down iPad, and not a scaled up smartphone, it also presents a very different experience than the small ebook and tablet devices that are frequently being compared to it, which run smartphone-style, wide resolutions and display stretched smartphone apps.