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Retina iPad mini: The best tablet you can buy, but do you really need one?

iPad Mini Retina Review

Listen, I don’t have the greatest history when it comes to tablet relationships. We have… a checkered past. I was pitched on this fabled third device long ago, but I can’t help but feel that we’ve all been hoodwinked. I’ve found myself maximally productivity on a flash-based laptop, and on the go, with a phone at least keeps me in the game. I’ve been struggling to figure out how a tablet fits into such a workflow for years, and after living for a while without one, I talked myself into giving the whole thing another whirl.

The reason is simple: Apple outdid itself with the latest iPad mini. The Retina-equipped model truly is “every inch an iPad,” sporting the same A7 SoC and even an identical screen resolution as on the iPad Air. The 9.7-inch frame always struck as too gargantuan, but the original iPad mini was simply too weak and not nearly dense enough (from a pixel perspective, that is). The iPad mini with Retina display is the iPad mini that I’m sure we’ve all been waiting for, but has it proven itself a necessity? As these things tend to go, it depends.

So, there’s good news…

Let’s get one thing out of the way: this is the best tablet on the market if price doesn’t matter to you. The 64-bit A7 processor is devilishly fast, and the 2,048 x 1,526 display is perhaps the most stunning panel available on any mobile product today. (If you’re interested in seeing the benchmarks to prove the whole speed thing, have a look at the reviews posted up by Engadget, AnandTech, The Verge, and CNET.) It’s impressive that Apple opted to outfit the lesser of the two new iPads with the same internal componentry as the iPad Air, and in my estimation, the $70 uptick in the base price (compared to the original $329 iPad mini) is more than justified. It also upped the battery capacity in order to keep usage estimates (~10 hours or so) level with the original — considering how many more pixels are being lit up, that’s an achievement worth praising.

It’s also satisfactorily thin and light, and it’s ideal for kids. In fact, tablets make infinitely more sense for those between the ages of 3 and 13 than a phone or laptop. They’re relatively rugged, decently difficult to lose, they last a solid day or two on a charge, they only require input via digits, and they’ve access to an App Store that’s chock full of entertainment and education. The new iPad mini is tantalizingly quick — I tried iOS 7 on a third-generation iPad, and the lag was impossible to ignore. The good news is that the A7 is actually capable of pushing Apple’s newest mobile operating system the way it’s meant to be pushed. No stuttering, no annoying pauses. If you’ve been secretly concerned that the iPad mini with Retina display would somehow be hamstrung in the performance department, rest easy. It’s just as fluid as the iPad Air, but in a more portable package.

To me, the biggest reason to opt for the mini over the Air is the form factor. It’s the only one of the two that you can reasonably use in one-handed operation. To put it another way, the mini — to me — offers all of the benefits found on the Air, but few of the drawbacks. If I’m going to invest $500+ on a computing device that requires two hands to use, it’s going to include a keyboard, a trackpad, and a full-bodied operating system. That aside, the mini’s screen is dazzling; it’ll survive a flight from Atlanta to Tokyo while looping Planes, Trains & Automobiles; it’s cheaper than the Air; and you can get 200MB of LTE data free each month from T-Mobile. If you’ve already nailed down a use-case scenario for a tablet in your life, this one’s worth the premium. There’s (still) no comparison in the depth and breadth of the app ecosystem. For as many strides as Android has made in persuading developers to tailor apps for tablets, you’ll find sexier, more enhanced apps in the iOS App Store.

…and there’s bad news.

In an effort to spare the bush from yet another beating, I still can’t make a tablet fit into my life. Not even the world’s greatest tablet. It really boils down to this: if I’ve 30 emails to chew through, I can complete them in around half the time on a MacBook. Plus, it’s a massive pain to attempt to attach files on a tablet, so anything beyond a quick reply to a birthday message becomes more trouble than it’s worth on the iPad mini.

Conversely, when I’m on the go and nowhere near a laptop, I’ve got a smartphone that’s already connected to the internet. It also fits in every pants pocket that I own. Suddenly, I’m in a predicament if a slate’s involved — do I really need to carry around two devices instead of the phone I’m going to carry by default? And, moreover, do I really need to pony up an extra $10 a month to tack this thing onto my data plan? If I’m frank, it feels like needless complication; the iPad doesn’t handle any of my productivity tasks with a noticeably greater amount of poise than my iPhone.

I’ve heard the arguments that kicking back in the evening and catching up on the day’s news or skimming through backlogged articles in Pocket is a great excuse to own an iPad (or an iPad mini). I’ve tried it, but honestly, I enjoy reading on my iPhone just as much. Pocket looks splendid on it, and it’s even more of a one-handed device. Choosing to set my iPhone aside — a device I rely on constantly throughout the workday — only to pick up an iPad in the evening… just feels forced.

Even now, with the Retina mini around, I’m not inclined to swap my iPhone out for it following dinner. At no point do I stop and think: “Wow, I’m so glad I can set this phone aside and pick up this iPad.” On the other hand, I do get to a point in the day where it’s a relief to set the MacBook aside and casually check a few things on my phone.

Great if you need it, skippable if you don’t

I’m not naive — there’s a reason that Apple has moved tens of millions of iPads in just four short years. I also understand that use-cases exist. Heck, I wrote an entire book explaining how to best fit the iPad into your life if you’re in that crowd.

In fact, my wife makes excellent use of the new mini. As a wedding and family photographer, she loves being able to flip through saved images of couples and families in order to give new clients ideas on how to loosen up in front of the camera. It’s also a lovely notepad, and it’s a great way to collaborate with a wedding planner on the order of the night’s events. Trying to accomplish the same thing on the iPhone’s comparatively bantam display just wouldn’t work as well.

As I alluded to earlier, there’s really no better form of entertainment for young ones than a tablet, and if you’re a parent looking to score major points this holiday season, stuffing the new mini under the tree would be a great move. Or, if you’re looking to procure a device primarily for reading, springing for this over a Kindle isn’t a terrible idea; when (and if) you need to do something more than just skim through a new novel, it’s more than capable of doing so.

But the harsh reality is that it’s just not a great replacement for a laptop. You can create content, send emails, complete deals, and interact with your loved ones on an iPad mini, but you’ll spend much more time accomplishing those tasks than if you’d just sit down in front of an actual notebook with an actual trackpad and an actual keyboard. This will likely cease to be true as newer generations embrace mobile devices first and become wickedly quick at hunt-and-peck operations than the curmudgeonly among us have trouble with, but for now, it remains the case.

If you’re quite pleased with your efficiency with just a laptop and a phone, you still aren’t missing out on anything by passing on a tablet — even a tablet as fabulous as the iPad mini with Retina display. These things don’t come cheap, particularly if you’re springing for one with a non-laughable amount of internal storage and an increasingly necessary LTE radio.

Actually, Mr. Cook… is that “converged” laptop / tablet hybrid still out of the question?

Darren Murph has roamed the consumer electronics landscape for nearly a decade, earning a Guinness World Record as the planet’s most prolific professional blogger along the way. His work has been featured in Popular Science, Engadget, BGR, Mazda’s Zoom-Zoom owner’s magazine,, Gadling, Thrillist, and ShermansTravel, and he has appeared on ABC, PBS, CTV and NBC. He is presently dabbling in quantum physics in a bid to construct the 30-hour day.