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iPad Mini (2019) Review: Hello, Old Friend

Apple’s new iPad Mini is an 8-inch bundle of contradictions. It’s new! But also, it’s not new. It works with Pencil! But it’s only compatible with the older Pencil. It has a high-resolution display! It also has thick bezels, ones reminiscent of an iPad from another era. It’s the fifth iPad Mini, and it feels like a product borne from an operations meeting about ways in which to use up existing components, rather than something that emerged from a blank space and a Great Scott! moment of ideation.

Here’s the thing about iPad Mini, though: Most of this won’t matter. The iPad Mini is about emotion. It’s not the most popular iPad that Apple makes—that title goes to the 9.7-inch model—but the people who are gonna buy it are gonna buy it.

Did you love an earlier version of iPad Mini? Sold. Looking for a small tablet for photo and video viewing, one that doubles as a kind of aluminum unibody babysitter? There you go. Are you a jetsetter trying to cram your digital life into the small tray protruding from a seat back? Done deal. Maybe you’re not the one making the buying decision at all; maybe it’s your employer who has determined that the iPad Mini is the best one for you to use out in the field or behind the counter. And maybe you’re fine with that, because iOS, Apple’s mobile operating system, feels familiar.

These types of buyers will embrace the new iPad Mini regardless of specs and ports and Pencil-newness. (And, hey, there’s still a 3.5mm headphone jack!) Me? I want to love it, and wanted to believe this would be the iPad I’d finally fall in love with. But I still can’t hold the Mini comfortably in one hand, and I’ve felt little need to use a stylus with it over the past three days. On the upside, its battery life is impressive, matching that of its larger iPad brethren, and this little tablet can go, go, go.

iPad Spectacular

The iPad Mini starts at $399 for a 64 gigabyte model and can cost as much as $679 for a model with 256 gigabytes of storage and support for both WiFi and cellular data. The iPad Mini before it also started at $399, but that one shipped with a heftier 128GB of internal storage.

It looks exactly the same as the previous iPad Mini, shipping in three color tones—silver, space gray, and gold—with the same dimensions as before. That means it measures 8 inches by 5 inches, with a 7.9-inch diagonal display. It’s .24 inches thick, same as the new iPad Air, and weighs under a pound.

Unlike the new iPad Pros, with their barely-there bezels and FaceID unlocking technology, these fifth-gen iPad Minis have white bezels and a physical home button. The noteworthy physical differences between the last Mini and this one are the placement of the microphone on the back and the size of the volume buttons on the side. This matters because of backwards compatibility: Some old iPad Mini cases won’t suit this new one.

It does have an updated Retina display. It’s brighter and supports a wider color gamut, and it has Apple’s True Tone technology, which automatically shifts the display tone to match the environment around you. Photos and videos looked stellar on the iPad Mini, although to be honest, they didn’t look bad on earlier ‘pads either. While the front-facing still camera on this iPad has also gotten a minor bump, the Mini’s cameras only capture HD video. iPad Pros, on the other hand, are capable of 4K video capture, provided you want to shoot a lot of videos with your iPad.

Pencil In

Phuc Pham

The iPad Mini now works with Apple’s stylus, called Pencil, which sells for $100. It only works with the first-generation Pencil because that one pairs with devices via Bluetooth; unlike the $129, second-generation Pencil, which connects and charges magnetically to other iPads. Other Bluetooth styluses should also work with the iPad Mini.

The first-gen Pencil works fine with the iPad Mini. It feels almost, kind of, sort of like writing with a “real” writing instrument. Palm recognition on iPad is generally very good. Perhaps because old habits die hard, when an editor came by my desk the other day to dole out assignments, I still grabbed the nearest paper pad and ink pen. There still exists a barrier, however tiny, to opening up and scribbling in a tablet app. I tried using Pencil in Adobe Lightroom on iPad Mini to accomplish some light photo-editing, but as with other apps, the stylus will only accomplish so much.

The first-generation Pencil’s worst offense? Its charging mechanism. It must be inserted into the Lightning port along the bottom edge of the tablet, and sticks out like the pointed barb of a stingray.

But, the new processor! The iPad Mini 4, which was introduced back in 2015, ran on Apple’s custom-made A8 mobile processor. The new Mini is running on Apple’s A12 “Bionic” processor, the same one that powers the 2018 iPhone XS. This means the Mini is three times as powerful as the last small tablet and, Apple says, has nine times the graphics performance. It also has its own neural engine, a part of the chip that’s dedicated to machine learning tasks.

What does this mean in real life? First, battery life is very good. After two evenings of usage, including a two-hour movie-watching session, I woke up on the third day to a 50 percent charged iPad Mini.

It means apps download, open, and load quickly. Because of its size, the iPad Mini doesn’t carry with it the same expectations as its bigger siblings. When Google Docs is hamstrung on an iPad Pro, it’s frustrating because you want that super expensive tablet to effectively be your laptop. On the Mini? It doesn’t seem quite as offensive, because maybe you don’t get the Mini solely for productivity apps.

This iPad Mini can also run game apps and and handle augmented reality without a hitch. Personally, I still don’t feel compelled to use a lot of AR apps. You can only place so many digital loveseats or succulents around a physical space to decide if you should buy something from a home furnishing app. But AR is likely going to fill our lives in increasingly practical ways, like in mapping apps, or through tutorials. In this way the Mini is somewhat futureproof, at least, until AR glasses find their truly useful space in our lives.

Small Wonders

The iPad Mini’s value is less about actual value—having the same starting price for less base storage is hardly a steal, and the $329, 9.7-inch iPad is a better deal. The iPad Mini’s value is correlated to the space it occupies in your life.

I haven’t fallen in love with the new Mini, just as I never felt the need to buy one before. But I could see why people would. It’s less burdensome than a lot of other things we carry. It’s not quite pocketable, but it’s close. Again, I can’t hold it in one hand, but some people can, I’m sure. The Mini feels personal in a way that other devices no longer do. Not because of its actual newness, but because it is still here, and slightly reinvented, once again.


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