Review: The iPad Mini with Retina Display Is a State-of-the-Art iPad, Only Smaller

The second-generation Mini sheds most of the first version's compromises.

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Harry McCracken / TIME

In theory, this could be the shortest review I’ve ever written. It might go something like this:

The iPad Mini with Retina Display is almost exactly the same tablet as the iPad Air, except with a smaller display. They’re both great tablets; pick the size that appeals to you and you’ll probably be delighted.

O.K., it’s a bit more complicated than that — but not by that much.

“iPad Midi” might have been a more accurate name for this tablet. As with last year’s original iPad Mini — which remains on the market at a reduced price of $299 — the 7.9-inch display may sound like it’s only a smidge more spacious than the 7-inch ones on Amazon’s smaller Kindle Fire HDX and Google’s Nexus 7. But an extra .9 inch of diagonal elbow room makes for a strikingly roomier screen (and, correspondingly, a less pocketable device).

The new tablet’s starting price of $399, for a model with 16GB of storage and Wi-Fi networking, is also less than mini-sized. Though it’s $100 less than that of the 9.7-inch iPad Air, it isn’t within a country mile of the bargain-basement territory claimed by the 7″ Kindle Fire HDX and Nexus 7, both of which are nicely-appointed tablets that can be had for $229 apiece.

The most direct rival to this tablet may be Amazon’s 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDX, which also sports an in-between starting price ($379) and an in-between screen size (8.9 inches). But the tablet the iPad Mini with Retina Display most resembles? That’s easy: It’s the iPad Air.

iPad Mini with Retina Display and iPad Air

Harry McCracken / TIME

The iPad Mini with Retina Display (left) and iPad Air

Both iPads sport screens with resolutions of 2048-by-1536 pixels, enough for ultra-crisp text and detail-rich photos. Anandtech’s Anand Lal Shimpi — the web’s grand master of highly technical reviews — points out that the Mini with Retina’s screen has a narrower color gamut than the iPad Air and some Android tablets; that means that it can’t render some colors as accurately, but I strained to see a difference.

Both models have powerful 64-bit Apple A7 processors, ideal for demanding apps such as 3D games — the Mini’s version is slightly slower, though I didn’t notice a difference — and a coprocessor called the M7 that lets apps log data about your motion without sapping the battery. They offer the same decent-but-not-spectacular cameras on the front and back. Their .29-inch thick cases, with skinny left- and right-hand borders, aluminum backsides and choice of “space gray” or silver colors, look the same. Even Apple’s estimated battery life — “up to” 10 hours of browsing, video or music over Wi-Fi, which my unscientific experience with the tablet seemed to confirm — is the same as the Air.

Bottom line: In almost every respect that matters, Apple put its best stuff into both the 9.7-inch, one-pound Air and the 7.9-inch, .73-pound Mini with Retina.

It wasn’t a given that 2013’s new iPads would be so twin-like. The original iPad Mini wasn’t just smaller, skinnier and lighter than the full-sized iPad that was announced at the same time. It also had a screen with only a quarter as many pixels, a meaningfully pokier processor and less RAM to hold running programs. By buying one, you were opting for portability (and a lower price) over power, a tradeoff that this year’s models have largely eliminated.

With the Retina-screen Mini, Apple did make one atypical-for-Apple compromise: The tablet’s potent components called for a beefier battery, which resulted in a tablet that’s a shade less svelte than the first Mini: It’s .05 pound heavier and .01 inch thicker. You can almost hear the gnashing of teeth emanating from Cupertino, though the difference is truly infinitesimal.

As with the iPad Air, the single best thing about the iPad Mini with Retina Display isn’t anything Apple crammed in the case. It’s the third-party apps available from the App Store — more than 475,000 of them, covering every possible base (except for those that the famously control-freakish operating system doesn’t permit, such as customized keyboards). iOS still creams every other platform when it comes to tablet-app quality, quantity and breadth, giving every iPad a built-in advantage over even slick Android tablets such as the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fires, as well as Windows 8 machines.

For the most part, those apps run well on the iPad Mini with Retina’s screen, looking precisely like they do on the iPad Air, only smaller. That helps explain why the Mini isn’t more diminutive than it is: If it were a 7-incher, icons, buttons and other elements of existing apps would be too teensy for comfort. But at 7.9 inches, they’re still highly usable.

In certain instances, apps do feel just a tad cramped. Dragging the handles you use to crop images in Photoshop Touch, for instance, requires a steadier hand than on the iPad Air. And the comics I read in Comixology, though perfectly legible, looked like the digest-sized reprints I bought as a kid.

Those who tend to use a tablet as if it were a super-portable PC — like me — may gravitate towards the iPad Air’s larger screen for other reasons. The extra inches are easier on the eyeballs if you’re staring at word-processing documents or spreadsheets, and they allow for keyboard cases from companies such as Belkin, Logitech and Zagg — cases that come far closer to matching the comfy size and spacing of a laptop’s keys.

For more casual use, though, the Mini with Retina has the edge over its larger lookalike. They may be in a dead heat when it comes to power and refinement, but this model is easier to hold in one hand, easier to tote and a hundred bucks easier to afford. That adds up to a wonderfully approachable package — and if your instinct tells you that it’s the right iPad for you, it almost certainly is.