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New Apple iPad Mini review: renovated, not reimagined

It still looks like an iPad Mini–complete with home button and headphone jack. But after three loooooong years, Apple’s little tablet is finally getting the features it needs to qualify as a modern iPad.

New Apple iPad Mini review: renovated, not reimagined
[Photo: courtesy of Apple]

In multiple ways, the new iPad Pro that debuted last fall was a classic Apple update–bold, clever, and willing to challenge users’ short-term expectations in the interest of long-term progress. The company gave the tablet a striking new industrial design with squared-off edges, more screen, and less bezel. It ditched familiar features with abandon, swapping out Touch ID for Face ID and Lightning for USB-C, forgoing a home button, and eliminating the sacred headphone jack. Apple also introduced a new version of the Pencil pressure-sensitive stylus that clings magnetically to the iPad Pro’s edge for storage and charges while it’s doing so–a tremendous improvement to what was already one of its best products.

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By contrast, the new iPad Mini is comfort food. More than three years after Apple last upgraded its smallest tablet, it’s given us a new version that looks just like the old one, with the same 7.9-inch screen size and starting price of $399. This tablet continues to sport features I wasn’t sure I’d ever see again on a new iOS device, including the home button, Touch ID, Lightning, and the headphone jack. Even the single most obvious improvement–support for the Pencil–involves the original non-clingy Pencil, not its ingenious successor.

[Photo: courtesy of Apple]
And yet the mere fact that Apple is introducing a new iPad Mini at all is significant. The Mini had remained dormant for so long–available, but unchanging–that ugly rumors of its death seemed plausible. With the new model, which incorporates a variety of under-the-hood and display upgrades along with Pencil compatibility, it’s clear that the Mini has a future.

And bringing the iPad Mini up to 2019 standard should benefit the entire iPad line, because it gives developers a more robust baseline to target. Until now, every currently available iPad offered support for the Pencil–except the Mini. And every current iPad had enough computational horsepower for cutting-edge graphics and AI–except the Mini. With the new model’s arrival, “except the Mini” is no longer a factor developers need to obsess over.

The revised iPad Mini is arriving alongside a new iPad Air with a 10.5-inch screen. Branding aside, these are pretty much the same tablet in two sizes–much as the first retina iPad Mini was a shrunken version of the original iPad Air in 2013. This year’s new Air is essentially a refreshed version of 2017’s 10.5-inch iPad Pro; starting at $499 (sans Pencil and keyboard cover), it’s a logical choice for those who crave the power of the new iPad Pro but aren’t going to pay the Pro’s price, which starts at $799 and goes way, way up.

Both new iPads are available for preorder now and go on sale next week. I’ve spent this week with the Mini, which Apple provided for review.

Amazing colossal iPhones

To reacclimate myself to the iPad Mini experience–my main iPad (and main computer, period) is a 12.9-inch iPad Pro–I borrowed my wife’s Mini, which I gave to her as a Christmas present in 2015. Remarkably, that version remained the current iPad Mini ever since, which means that her Mini has been simultaneously long-in-the-tooth and state-of-the-art.

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Physically, the new iPad Mini is identical to the old one; as I sat with it and its 2015 ancestor in front of me, I sometimes briefly confused one for the other. But even as the Mini has stuck with its 7.9-inch display, the world has changed around it. When Apple introduced the original iPad Mini in 2012, the need for a smallish iPad was so obvious that fans fantasized about the product well before it existed. Back then, the biggest iPhone you could buy was the new iPhone 5, with a 4-inch screen; the Mini provided copious additional display acreage in a package that was more portable than the full-sized iPad.

In the almost six and a half subsequent years, iPhones have just kept growing: The largest current model, the iPhone XS Max, has a 6.5-inch screen. For many people, that might be enough to make the iPad Mini a $399 redundancy. But you know what? 7.9 inches is still bigger than 6.5 inches. Yet the Mini remains small enough–and, at .66 of a pound, easy enough to hold–that it has an intimate feel that big-boy iPads lack. Many apps benefit from that extra space and the Mini’s 4:3 aspect ratio, such as Apple’s own Texture magazine reader, which is unwieldy on an iPhone and a pleasure on the Mini.

Then there are apps for drawing, painting, doodling, and jotting. Serious artists certainly benefit from having a spacious digital canvas, which is why professionals use Wacom Cintiq screens in sizes as big as 33 inches. But for impromptu expressions of creativity, there’s a lot to be said for a drawing surface that’s bigger than any smartphone screen–even that of the pen-equipped Samsung Galaxy Note–yet compact enough to hold in one hand while you wield a stylus with the other. Something, in other words, like an iPad Mini with the $99 Pencil.

The iPad Mini’s 7.9″ display makes for an approachable drawing pad. [Photo: Harry McCracken]
My favorite art apps, such as Procreate and Sketches Pro, work so well on the Mini that I forgot using them with a Pencil on a screen this small was a new experience. And though I’m not a taker of handwritten notes in real life, I found that the Mini’s screen was roomy enough to let me write in apps such as Notability and Apple’s Notes without my hand cramping up. Just to remind myself what drawing and writing on an iPad Mini was like in the past, I tried the same apps with the old Mini and a Wacom Bamboo, one of the better third-party styluses available for iPads that don’t support the Pencil; in the immortal words of Steve Jobs, “yuck!”

As delightful as using the new iPad Mini with the Pencil is, it’s only as delightful as the original Pencil, which is what the Mini supports. After a few months of charging my iPad Pro’s second-gen Pencil by snapping it to the tablet’s edge, charging the first-gen Pencil by sticking it into the iPad Mini’s lightning port felt even sillier than it did in the first place.

(Another nit: You can’t tap on the Mini’s turned-off screen with the Pencil to launch right into the Notes app, as you can with the new iPad Pro and Pencil. But if you touch the home button to turn the screen on, tapping the Pencil then takes you to Notes.)

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Lots of new stuff all at once

Running down the list of technical updates in the new iPad Mini is a reminder of how much new stuff Apple has introduced on other iOS devices since it last gave us a new Mini. Though the screen size and resolution remain the same, the display is now 25% brighter, offers a wider color gamut for more vividly realistic images, and features Apple’s True Tone technology, which adjusts the display based on the ambient lighting environment you’re in. The results are impeccable. (Well, maybe still slightly peccable: The iPad Pro’s ProMotion technology, which smooths onscreen movement such as scrolling text, is absent.)

As for processing power, the Mini now runs Apple’s A12 Bionic chip, like the current iPhones. That gives the tablet potent graphics and Apple’s neural engine, a coprocessor tuned for on-device AI. It also makes it up to three times faster than the previous iPad Mini, according to Apple.

The results are very apparent. It’s not that my wife’s 2015-vintage iPad Mini feels irredeemably pokey; in fact, I was impressed by how well it handled certain graphically intense apps, such as Asphalt 9, a racing game. But I didn’t have to push it far to be reminded that it was the most archaic iOS device still on the market. On it, the 3D models in Sketchfab look a tad grainy and jitter as you rotate them with your fingertip. With the new Mini, they’re crisp and fluid. Augmented-reality apps built atop Apple’s ARKit framework–such as Paint Space AR, which lets you doodle on the world around you–won’t run on an older Mini at all. Neither will Pixelmator Photo, a nifty upcoming photo editor that I tried in beta form; it intelligently tweaks photos using Apple’s Core ML 2 software and Neural Engine coprocessor, which are unavailable to the old Mini.

Bottom line: The Mini now runs all iPad apps well, as an iPad should. Just as important, it should be well equipped to handle future apps–even if you hold onto a new Mini for a few years, as people tend to do.

The price is a feature

Lately, Apple has been catching some flak for releasing products with impressive new features and higher prices to match. With the new iPad Mini (and new Air), it’s clear that the company made meeting the traditional price point a priority. The base Mini has only 64GB of storage–down from the previous 128GB–presumably to help pay for advanced new components without murdering its profit margin.

The fact that the new Mini features an existing industrial design and mature technologies such as Touch ID must also have aided Apple’s effort to keep costs in check. And even though Touch ID, the home button, and the non-edge-to-edge screen are throwbacks compared to the current iPad Pro and iPhones, they didn’t bug me in practice.

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[Photo: courtesy of Apple]
I was bugged by the first-generation Pencil, which–though just as good as its successor for the actual acts of drawing and writing–is nowhere near as elegant an iPad companion as the newer version. But it isn’t tough to suss out why Apple fell back to the previous Pencil. The new version can only ride along on the iPad Pro because of the Pro’s flatter edges and embedded magnets. That Pencil’s inductive charging also requires new technology inside the tablet. If Apple had given the iPad Mini a more substantial reworking to accommodate the Pencil 2.0, the tablet would be well on its way to becoming an iPad Pro, and wouldn’t start at a comparatively thrifty $399.

Now, it’s easy to envision a true iPad Mini Pro (or is that iPad Pro Mini?): a Mini-sized tablet with the Pro line’s bigger screen and shrunken bezel, Face ID, USB-C, second-gen Pencil compatibility, and other features. That sounds pretty sweet to me–at least until I contemplate the price tag, which would likely be $699. There may not be enough Mini lovers flush with cash to make such a product viable.

Still, I hope that elements from the iPad Pro line filter down to the iPad Mini–along with the iPad Air, and the $329 iPad–in models to come. At some point, aspects of the new Mini that are now pleasantly familiar will feel stale. And as nice as it is to see this tablet reassert itself, it would be a shame if the new version turned out to be a blip rather than a new beginning.

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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