Apple’s new $399 iPad mini has almost all the power of the iPhone XS, at half the price. It’s the tablet to get if you have demanding software needs, but you want something that will fit in a hand, a lab coat, or on a vehicle mount. Apple has done its usual yeoman job here, and there aren’t many other tablets on the market that are both small and powerful. That makes the 2019 iPad mini our Editor’s Choice for small, high-end tablets.
iPad mini Use Cases
Who’s the iPad mini for? That’s going to color a lot of my judgment from here on out. I’ll say that it’s not for people who want a “cheap iPad” or a “cheap tablet.” There is a better cheap iPad for your kids to play Toca Boca games on—the $329, sixth-generation, 9.7-inch iPad—and much cheaper tablets for basic use.
But if you look around, there are a lot of iPad minis in business. Smaller tablets work well on vehicle mounts, as point-of-sale systems, for taking your restaurant order, for writing a prescription by a bedside, for getting your signature for that FedEx package, or for augmented-reality-lensing a house on the market to check its Zillow status. The iPad mini is for people who are standing up a lot while holding their tablet, and for businesses that don’t want to pay for an iPhone and service plan for every device.
It also fits well in purses.
Design and Pencil
This iPad mini looks a lot like previous iPad minis. It measures 8.0 by 5.3 by 0.2 inches (HWD) and weighs 10.5 ounces. It comes in gray, rose gold, or silver. The 64GB model costs $399 and a 256GB model costs $549. You can add an unlocked gigabit LTE modem, the same one that’s in the iPhone XS, for $130 more.
It has big top and bottom bezels, a Lightning port, dual speakers on the bottom, and a SIM card slot. There is a physical home button with Apple’s simple, accurate Touch ID fingerprint sensor. It can be easily carried in one hand. The design works, but it’s starting to feel pretty dated.
The screen is a bit different. It’s still a laminated 7.9-inch LCD with 2,048 by 1,536 pixels. But this time around Apple adds True Tone, which changes the white point based on ambient light.
We measure screens using SpectraCal’s CalMAN for Business software and a Klein K-80 colorimeter. The iPad mini showed 559 nits maximum brightness, which is noticeably brighter than older iPads, and almost exactly the same color accuracy as the fifth-generation iPad and the 11-inch iPad Pro. Apple tunes its screens very tightly. In all of their cases, blues and reds are absolutely spot-on, greens are just a touch desaturated, and yellows tend a little bit toward red. Compared with, say, Samsung’s Galaxy S10 screens in Natural mode, colors have similar distances from their ideal but reds are more accurate.
This is the first iPad mini to support the official Apple Pencil or the $69.99 Logitech Crayon. We’re talking about the first-generation Pencil, though—the one with the Lightning port on the back and the cylindrical body that rolls away—not the nicer second-gen model, with the inductive charging and one flat side.
The Pencil is a little too long, proportionately, for the iPad mini. Its pressure and tilt sensitivity come through clearly in apps like Procreate, and its responsiveness is great for taking notes, but for simple tasks like signatures, you should probably get a cheaper capacitive stylus. For what it’s worth, when I compare the Pencil here with the second-generation Pencil on an 11-inch iPad Pro, I can definitely see the difference. The iPad Pro’s 120Hz refresh rate makes the digital ink noticeably smoother; there’s a tiny amount of lag with the Pencil on the mini (and on the sixth-generation iPad, as well).
Like other iPads and iPhones, the new mini runs iOS 12.2; we have an iOS 12 review for details. iOS 12.2 has a bunch of small-scale improvements over the base version 12, but the big deal is going to be support for Apple’s new streaming service, which is still a few days away from announcement as I write this.
In any case, iOS 12.2 will also come to all other current iPads, and to older ones back to the iPad mini 2. The biggest difference between this mini and older models is performance. Apple has jumped from an A8 processor on the last mini to an A12 here, and, wow. The A8, which was in the iPhone 6, is more than halfway through its useful life. It will probably be supported by two more OS generations, but third-party developers aren’t targeting it any longer. The A12, on the other hand, is the latest chip and will have at least a four-year lifespan.
The performance difference between the A8 and the A12 is comical. On the Antutu system benchmark, the iPhone 6 scored 80,620 when we tested it. The iPad mini got 373,092. On Geekbench multicore, a pure CPU benchmark, the fifth-generation iPad got 4,494. The sixth-generation iPad got 5,934. This one gets 11,548. (Those results are all pretty similar to the iPhone XS Max, and they fall short of the 2018 iPad Pros, which use a boosted A12X chipset.)
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It’s not just about the CPU; the image signal processor has been significantly boosted as well and there’s a special machine-learning unit, so things like bar code scanning and object identification will go speedily.
Apple does a good job of keeping basic apps running smoothly, so you need to work things a little to find the performance difference in real life. It’s easy to see in augmented reality applications. In
Rendering a movie in iMovie also shows the difference in power. Boiling a minute of 1080p footage down to 360p on the iPad mini takes 5.4 seconds; it takes 10.21 seconds on the A9-powered iPad, and it will take even longer on an older mini. And of course, the older mini doesn’t support the Pencil, which requires an A10 processor.
The iPad mini primarily uses 802.11ac Wi-Fi to connect to the internet. Speeds are fine, but nothing special; in testing I actually found the signal to be a bit weaker than on the $329, 9.7-inch iPad. The cellular model has a gigabit LTE modem that I understand to be the same Intel unit found in the iPhone XS. Using the built-in eSim, you can sign up for plans on demand from AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile, as well as per-megabyte prepaid and roaming plans from other carriers. There’s also a physical SIM slot that works with all the US carriers. You can switch between your physical SIM and eSIM in settings—for instance, to use your Verizon plan at home, but AlwaysOnline Wireless abroad.
You don’t need this kind of power if you’re just going to be watching videos. You do need it if you’re going to be doing serious work. Just don’t try to do it all day with the tablet on maximum brightness. The mini is very slim, with a 19.1-
The mini comes with a 12w power adapter, which charges it pretty slowly; I only got to 20 percent in half an hour. You can speed up charging by using a USB-C PD adapter and a USB-C-to-Lightning cable, but they don’t come with the tablet.
The iPad sports an 8-megapixel rear camera and a 7-megapixel front camera. Both record 1080p video at 30 frames per second. Compared with the fifth-generation iPad’s 8-megapixel camera, images taken with the main camera are aggressively sharpened, bringing out more details but also more noise. Low-light images are also stippled with noise from a somewhat straining sharpening
The front-facing camera
What was Apple thinking? Oh, I know what Apple was
The front-facing camera, meanwhile, is for video calling with devices that have high-resolution screens, and it does a good job at that.
And if you’re a real estate agent, sure, houses will look fine in photos taken with this tablet. But you can’t think of this camera
Left to right: iPad Pro (11-inch), iPad, iPad mini, iPhone XS Max
Comparisons and Conclusions
This year’s iPad mini and the new iPad Air ($499) are basically bigger and smaller versions of each other. Here’s how it steps up: The existing $329 iPad (just called iPad) is for all of your basic tablet needs. The $399 iPad mini is for people who specifically need a smaller, lighter tablet. The $499 iPad Air is for if you intend to run apps that will be too slow on the $329 iPad, or if you’re crazy about Apple’s keyboard case. The $799, 11-inch iPad Pro (or the $999 12.9-inch model) is a primary creative machine, especially for people who intend to use the Pencil.
We can’t recommend the old iPad mini 4, even if you can find it; that A8 processor has a short lease on life nowadays. And there isn’t much else out there in terms of premium small tablets. For basic form-filling and media playback, there are a ton of inexpensive Android tablets, such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab A, the Lenovo Tab 4, and the Amazon Fire HD 8. Those are all sluggish compared with the iPad mini, and while they work in basic ways with capacitive styli, none of them have a stylus as good as the Pencil. But they’re all fine for, say, the backseat entertainment and corner-of-the-couch web browsing that are all many people demand tablets for.
The mini shines when you need a tablet that runs powerful applications, but is still handheld. That could be in many enterprise contexts, such as retail, navigation, logistics, law enforcement, education, or real estate. It’s much easier to hold up a mini for AR viewing applications than to hold up a larger iPad. Its performance is vastly superior to the Samsung Galaxy Tab Active2, another enterprise-focused tablet. The tablet is also the right size for taking notes and
If you have an existing iPad mini of any generation that’s been acting sluggish, it’s because the processor is just too old for today’s apps. I understand the reluctance to get a new device that looks the same as your old one, but the processor change makes the 2019 iPad mini more than a worthy upgrade. And for anyone who wants an iPad, but finds the $329 model a little unwieldy, you now have an excellent alternative. The iPad mini is a versatile