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Review: The new iPad Mini goes upscale, the basic iPad stays basic

Apple’s smallest iPad offers the benefits of the midrange iPad Air in a more portable package. And its cheapest one avoids messing with a popular formula.

Review: The new iPad Mini goes upscale, the basic iPad stays basic
On the left, the iPad Pro, iPad Air, ninth-generation iPad, and iPad mini. On the right, the mini in its four available colors. [Photos: Apple]
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When Apple held a virtual product launch last week, it called the event California Streaming and filled it with footage of its home state’s natural beauty. But if the goal had simply been to accurately tie together the news it was announcing, it might have called the launch something like The Next Logical Step.

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That’s because the company sprung little in the way of surprises, departures, or major advances on us. Instead, it rolled out a lot of stuff you might reasonably have expected if you’ve been following the evolution of its products. Better cameras for iPhones? Larger screens for the Apple Watch? Of course.

That sense of obvious progression was especially true of the two iPads that were introduced at the event: the ninth-generation iPad and the sixth-generation iPad Mini.

That ninth-generation iPad—which I’m going to call the “basic iPad” in this review, since that’s what it is—improves on its predecessor but brings no major changes. Instead, it continues with the trajectory it’s been on for several years, emphasizing familiarity and its accessible $329 price over raw innovation. The new iPad Mini, meanwhile, is a substantial upgrade. But the improvements are mostly about bringing Apple’s smallest-screen tablet in line with last year’s iPad Air—itself the beneficiary of features that originated in the higher-end iPad Pro.

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Both of these new models arrive in stores on Friday. Apple provided me with review units, and I’ve been trying them over the past week. Since much more has changed with the iPad mini, let’s tackle it first.

The new iPad mini: The iPad Air, only smaller

Unlike most models in the iPad lineup, the Mini has rarely been updated on a regular schedule. Nor has it stuck to one clear formula, beyond the fact that it has a small screen and is therefore especially easy to hold and carry. It started out as a lesser tablet than the full-sized iPad of the time, then caught up—only to sometimes fall behind again or even be left for dead by rumormongers.

The new iPad Mini tries yet another approach: It’s a nicer tablet than the basic full-sized version, at a significantly higher starting price of $499. In most respects, it’s the same kind of tablet as the midrange iPad Air, only smaller.

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As with the iPad Air, the new iPad mini’s Touch ID sensor has migrated to the power button on the top. [Photo: Apple]
The previous mini, which had been on the market for two and a half years, tampered little with the Mini design in its traditional form. It sported the classic iPad industrial design, including a round home button/Touch ID sensor on the front and sculpted edges that made it feel particularly thin in your hands. It used a Lightning connector rather than the newer and more versatile USB-C. Heck, it even had a headphone jack.

All that changes with the new version. Like the iPad Air, the Mini has relocated the Touch ID sensor to the power button on the device’s top edge. That allowed Apple to shrink the bezels and add more display real estate: 8.3 inches, up from the previous generation’s 7.9 inches. The tablet now has squared-off edges, for an effect that’s more about solidity than thinness—the same basic aesthetic that Apple is currently using not just for the iPad Air but also the iPad Pro and iPhone.

The iPad Mini is only a tad taller than its Pencil stylus. [Photo: Harry McCracken]
The new flat-edged design is also essential to one of the best features the new Mini has picked up from the iPad Air and, before it, the iPad Pro: It uses the $129 second-generation version of Apple’s Pencil stylus. Rather than making you charge the Pencil by removing a cap and sticking the stylus into the tablet’s Lightning port—one of the most inelegant maneuvers associated with any Apple product—the second-gen Pencil clings magnetically to the mini’s side and charges as it does so. That makes it a far more inviting addition to the iPad experience for taking notes, doodling, and painting.

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(There is one catch: Because the iPad Mini is only a little taller than the Pencil, leaving the stylus stuck to its right edge as you hold the tablet in portrait orientation can be slightly ungainly—at least if you’re left-handed like me and clutch the Mini in your right hand. I did get used to it.)

The switch to the newer Pencil also allows Apple to ditch the mini’s Lightning connector for USB-C. The standard is now pretty much universal across gadgets except for the iPhone and ninth-generation iPad, and it’s handy for tasks such as connecting a camera to the Mini for photo downloading.

Along with these very noticeable upgrades, the new Mini includes some technical improvements of the sort that aren’t game-changers but keep it in tune with the times. The processor is the new A15 Bionic, which the company says is up to 80 percent faster than the A12 in the old mini. The rear camera now has a 12-megapixel sensor that lets more light in, and there’s a flash. The front camera is Apple’s new ultra-wide model that enables Center Stage—the clever feature that uses AI to automatically reframe your FaceTime calls and other video-conferencing sessions if you move around or someone else enters the scene. And if you spring for a version with built-in cellular networking, you’ll get 5G.

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The new iPad mini’s thinner bezels make for a better gaming experience. [Photo: Apple]
With its small screen and handy size, the Mini has always felt a bit like a paperback book—almost literally for reading web pages and e-books, and more metaphorically for activities such as playing games and watching videos. The new version’s roomier screen only makes that proposition more appealing. It’s still not as immersive as its bigger-screened siblings. But at 0.65 pounds, it’s the easiest iPad to hold, which makes it particularly approachable. And unlike Amazon’s cheaper Fire models, the Mini offers impeccable performance and display quality.

While the Mini is $100 cheaper than the similar 10.9-inch iPad Air, you shouldn’t opt for it purely as an act of economy: Serious artists, for instance, are still going to want more display space for their creations. Unlike larger-screened iPads, the Mini also makes no pretense of being a potential replacement for your laptop. It’s the only iPad model that Apple doesn’t offer a keyboard for; third parties will fill in the gap, as they have with previous Mini models. But its additional screen space and robust performance lend themselves well to productivity apps I wouldn’t have thought of as iPad Mini fodder in the past, such as the LumaFusion video editor. For light work, they’re usable in a way they wouldn’t be on even the biggest iPhone.

One of the best things about iPads is how long they stay useful, giving many people the ability to cheerfully stick with the one they’ve got rather than succumbing to the urge to upgrade. (My wife still seems pretty happy with her 2016-era mini.) But if you do have a yen for a new iPad mini, this one has plenty to offer—particularly if you’re smitten with the Pencil and own any previous Mini other than the 2019 version, the first to support the Pencil at all.

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The new basic iPad: (Almost) the same as it ever was

During the California Streaming launch, Tim Cook brought up a fact about the $329 basic iPad: It’s the most popular iPad model. Actually, he mentioned that twice. Melody Kuna, who demoed the new model, also referenced the stat.

These repeated reminders that the least expensive iPad remains a best seller struck me as possibly being a subtle rejoinder to any criticism the tablet might get for its decidedly old-school design. With its home button/Touch ID sensor on the front (and correspondingly smaller 10.2-inch screen), Lightning port, headphone jack, and compatibility with the original Pencil rather than its easier-to-charge successor, this iPad is now an outlier compared to every other model in the lineup.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a dinosaur akin to the old iPod Classic, which stayed on the market long after most people had moved on from MP3 players in their traditional form. Instead, the $329 iPad feels like a healthy acknowledgment of something that Apple rarely makes a priority: That an accessible price and familiar features can be selling points in themselves.

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For much of what people do on iPads—such as video calls—the $329 version competes well with the pricier versions. [Photo: Apple]
Normally, the company is notorious for its willingness to scrap features that people think they can’t live without—headphone jacks being the most famous example. It doesn’t shy away from switching connectors, rendering your drawer full of old cables obsolete. If it gets excited about a new technology, such as Face ID, it will often add it to a device and then raise the starting price correspondingly.

None of that applies to the basic iPad, the last model that is largely free of the influence of the iPad Pro models introduced in 2018. Instead of bragging about its own courage in leaving the past behind and expecting customers to follow along, Apple is offering them comfort food.

The basic iPad’s conservative formula is surely driven in part by the fact that it has a big market in education, where it has an even lower starting price of $299. If you’re a school IT manager wrangling a vast number of iPads, you’ve likely invested in accoutrements such as Lightning charging apparatus, first-generation Pencils, and keyboard cases designed for a particular form factor. Anything Apple did that rendered them incompatible would be a setback, even if it were theoretically in the name of progress.

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It’s not that Apple hasn’t made any meaningful changes to the new basic iPad. It’s just that they don’t break anything. Like the new mini, it has the ultra-wide-angle front-facing camera and Center Stage smart reframing feature that were introduced in the new iPad Pros last spring. The processor has been updated to the faster A13 Bionic chip. The screen finally supports True Tone, an Apple technology that adjusts colors based on ambient light to keep them consistent. And the standard allotment of storage is 64GB—twice the previous amount, and welcome insurance against the possibility of maxing out a few years down the road. (On the other hand, the optional cellular connectivity is still LTE rather than 5G.)

Along with not fundamentally changing what the basic iPad is, the modest nature of these new features allows Apple to keep the $329 starting price intact. That preserves the tablet’s bang-for-buck quotient, which has always been excellent; the iPad Air is most definitely a better tablet, but at a price that’s $270 higher, it doesn’t come out on top for sheer value. You don’t need to spend that much to get an iPad that’s just fine for reading, gaming, consuming movies and music, making video calls, and a high percentage of the other things that many people do on tablets.

You can trick out the basic iPad with a Smart Keyboard and Pencil, though it’s less adept at replacing a laptop than its pricier siblings. [Photo: Apple]
It’s certainly possible to push the basic iPad out of its comfort zone. You can attach Apple’s $159 Smart Keyboard and use it like a mini-laptop, but the screen is on the small side and it doesn’t work with the Magic Keyboard, which has much comfier keys, a trackpad, and a better hinge. An iPad Air would be better for that purpose, and an iPad Pro best of all. And the basic iPad’s use of the first-generation Pencil, which charges via the Lightning connector rather than magnetically, would quickly have me gnashing my teeth if I used it more than occasionally.

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Is this iPad worth the upgrade from previous models? That almost seems beside the point, since its goal is not to be radically different from its predecessors. You’d have to go back to 2017’s fifth-generation model—which had a smaller screen and no Pencil support—before you get to iPads that might make this one feel like a substantial improvement. Even then, you’d be better off upgrading to an iPad Air if you can swing the cost.

And yet, the basic iPad, in its unassuming way, abides. I used to think that its classic design was on the cusp of obsolescence and would soon go away. After several years of being wrong about that, I’m not making any predictions. Apple might just keep making it—with minor refreshes like this one—for as long as it has a market. Have I mentioned that it’s still the most popular iPad the company sells?

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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