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Review: Apple's iPad mini

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Faster WiFi

People are still reporting some issues with Wi-Fi connectivity in the recently released iOS 6, which introduced problems for users who want to connect to Wi-Fi for local, non-internet connectivity (such as in some corporate settings).

In our initial testing of iPad mini, it didn't appear to be any faster at Wi-Fi, seemingly refusing to connect to an AirPort any faster than the 54Mbps top limit previous iPads, despite the base station configured to support HT40 "channel bonding." Other devices had no problem. Later on, however, we did note the iPad mini reported a 150Mbps connection, so it does indeed support using two 802.11n 5GHz channels to dramatically boost its wireless speed.

The limited information exposed in iOS about the Wi-Fi configuration makes it difficult to explain why iPad mini sometimes connects at 54Mbps, and sometimes reaches 150Mbps. Other devices that support HT40 channel bonding (and MIMO) also fluctuate their connection speeds, but the iPad mini seemed to drop channel bonding support more frequently, and turned it on only when the device was in active use (below).

iPad mini

iPad mini HT40

There are devices with faster Wi-Fi; Apple's recent MacBooks use multiple "MIMO" antennas, enabling wireless connection speeds of up to 300 or 450Mbps (effective data transmit rates are lower) with the same base station. Other tablet devices, such as Amazon's Kindle Fire HD also use MIMO, making it potentially faster at Wi-Fi than Apple's iPads, including iPad mini.

In actual practice however, the iPad mini performed data-depended tasks, including loading web pages, significantly faster despite a hardware disadvantage. Still, Apple should be delivering leading WiFi features across its iOS devices; there is certainly room for improvement, as Amazon's cheaper device indicates.

Other hardware details

Apple will likely update the iPad mini's CPU performance at regular beats, but it doesn't currently feel slow or seem to have any trouble playing iPad games or using other apps or features such as AirPlay.

This is in large part because Apple originally developed iOS to take full advantage of the GPU to animate effects that make devices appear and feel faster than they actually are. At the same time Apple also engineered iOS as a platform that doesn't need virus screening in the background and isn't hobbled by unrestricted third party background tasks that gobble up resources and require users to manually kill processes just to get their devices to run reasonably fast.

In other areas, the iPad mini's hardware seems well appointed: the screen is vibrant and bright enough, the audio is impressively loud and clear (and benefits from dual speakers, although like previous iPads is still very directional from the bottom of the device), and the front and rear cameras are (like the new iPod touch) very close in performance to the latest iPhone 5, although like all iPads it still has no support for HDR or Panorama features, taking snapshots while recording video, and it lacks an LED flash.

iOS 6.0.1 & iPad mini software

Since the debut of the new iPad 3 earlier this year, Apple released iOS 6, adding a variety of new features to all iPads (apart from the original 2010 model stuck on iOS 5). Apart from the previously missing camera effect features, there are several iOS 6 features that don't work on iPads, or Wi-Fi-only iPad models.

Some iOS 6 features are only intended for smaller devices: Safari's new full screen view isn't supported on iPads, presumably because you're already seeing enough of the page. iPads also lack support for Passbook, as well as lacking widgets like Calculator, Stocks and Weather.

This year's iPads do support Siri (unlike iPad 2), and also support FaceTime over Cellular (if you have a 3G model of course). iOS 6 also introduces new Maps with 3D perspective, the 3D Flyover feature and Turn-by-Turn directions, although this feature requires GPS, which requires the 3G/LTE hardware option.

iPad mini

Because iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4 and the 2012/2011 iPod touch all lack support for 3D Maps and Flyover, there is a significant portion of the iOS installed base that hasn't actually seen the full extent of Apple's Maps. These new features are particularly impressive on the iPad's larger screen.

iPad mini in review

It's light, thin and carries an almost imperceptible weight when thrown in a backpack or purse. What's not to like about an iPad that's easier to carry? It's not hard to imagine it being better: it could have faster Wi-Fi, it could have a Retina display, it could have more substantial speakers and an A6X chip with extra system RAM to lubricate the loading of web pages.

But those features would all add cost, or weight, or eat into battery life. That makes it difficult to take issue with the design decisions Apple's engineers made to deliver the iPad mini as its existing price, performance and physical dimensions. It's really thin, so much so that it feels like a big generational leap over previous iPads, the same way that iPhone 5 and its companion new iPod touch similarly trounced the iOS devices they replaced at the top of the heap.

But which model to choose? Apple is really good at holding out a perfectly good product and then making options, some of which are rather expensive, available for a little bit more, just to upsell you to an even nicer one. In the case of the iPad mini, the entry level $330/16GB version is fine, but it would hold a lot more stuff at 32GB, for an extra $100.

This is a rather expensive upgrade, particularly given that there are so many new fat games and apps (many of which are even fatter due to Retina display graphics, which the iPad mini doesn't even use. It'd be nice to be able to strip these resources out, perhaps automatically by the device itself. There's also that 5MP camera and the videos it can capture, both of which can quickly take up lots of room. Think about how many apps you currently have, and whether you need as much storage on an iPad as you have on your iPhone.

The cellular option is another question for would-be buyers: don't just consider whether you'll be using LTE a lot. It's a nice option to have, and unlike a smartphone, you're not tied to an ongoing fee if you only want to sign up for sporadic use (say, when taking a trip). Remember too that the mobile option ($130 extra over the base price) also gives you GPS, making it more useful even if you don't have data service, because you can locate yourself on an offline map. The mobile option is also required when using Maps with turn-by-turn directions.

Almost a decade ago, Apple spawned itself a big new iPod business when it introduced the iPod mini (and later nano) as an alternative to the standard iPod. Besides being smaller, the iPod mini was less capable and had a lot less storage. This year, the iPad mini does everything the full sized iPad does, differentiated only by its screen resolution and size and its pure computational power (something few users would probably notice). It's not hard to predict that this will sell really well.

Score: 4.5 out of 5

  • Thin sturdy construction
  • Compact size but full power iPad
  • Very easy to setup and use
  • Very good cameras
  • Compass, GPS, mobile data options iPod touch lacks

  • Not a Retina Display
  • No LED, HDR or Panorama features

How to save money when buying

Since the ASP —or average selling price —of the iPad mini fairly low, there is little room for authorized resellers to discount pricing. Instead, some of the retailers listed in our iPad Price Guides ( relevant portion below ) will occasionally offer easier financing options, throw in a 2-in-1 stylus, or take $5 off phone orders. Therefore, one of the easiest ways to save on a new iPad purchase is to sell your existing iPad or mobile device to one of the many trade in services, which in many cases pay hundreds of dollars for old iPads, for instance.