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IPad Mini Review: A Huge Update to Apple's Tiniest IPad

Todd Haselton | CNBC
  • Apple's new iPad Mini hits stores on Friday.
  • It's the first major redesign for the iPad Mini since the original model launched in 2012.
  • It's for people who want a portable reading and gaming device that they don't need to work or learn on.

Apple's new iPad Mini hits stores on Friday. I've been using one for the past several days. 

Apple typically updates its iPad, iPad Air and iPad Pros each year. But the $499 iPad Mini is unique. The last refresh was in 2019, and Apple typically sells it for a few years as an option for people who want a smaller tablet.

It isn't a watered-down tablet. It has Apple's latest chip, newer than the one even in the $549 iPad Air, and has a nicer screen and better speakers than the regular $329 iPad.

It's also the first major redesign of the iPad Mini since the original model launched in 2012.

Apple's iPad business continues to grow, likely driven by the pandemic as people find new ways to work and learn from home. IPad revenues were up 12% year over year during Apple's fiscal third quarter. It launched new iPad Pros in May and is keeping that momentum going with the new iPad Mini and a new regular iPad.

The iPad Mini is the more exciting of the two since Apple made some big design updates to it. But small-screened iPads aren't for everyone. Most people like having a big portable screen that can double as a work device, or one that offers a larger display for movies and other entertainment. But some people want something smaller, and that's where the iPad Mini fits in.

Here's what you need to know.

What's good

Apple iPad Mini 2021
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Apple iPad Mini 2021

The iPad Mini has an 8.3-inch screen, which is smaller than the 10.2-inch "regular" iPad and the 10.9-inch iPad Air. But it's bigger than the 7.9-inch screen in the last iPad mini thanks to the removal of the home button. 

It's like holding a really big iPhone compared with the other iPads. That makes it more appealing if you spend a lot of time on your iPad reading books, or want to use it to write down notes. It's more of a portable gaming/video/reading machine than, say, something you'd want to pull out and attach a keyboard to for work or school. The screen is too small for that. And Apple doesn't even make a keyboard for it.

iPad Mini
Source: Apple Inc.
iPad Mini

I love the size. It's perfect for reading on the couch, sort of the same way I'd use a Kindle, but with the option to also listen to music, continue texting with friends or check in on my fantasy football team. I've been a big iPad Mini fan since the first model was introduced, and I dig that it's all-screen now, without a home button. Instead, there's a small fingerprint reader in the power button, just like on the iPad Air. It takes some getting used to if you're used to a home button or Face ID on an iPhone or iPad.

It has Apple's latest A15 processor, which gives it a 40% processor bump and 80% graphics bump from the A12 chip used in its predecessor. It's a noticeable change over my aging iPad Mini from 2019, especially now that Apple's latest iPad update includes things like home screen widgets and improved multitasking. The graphics bump really just means it will hold up to the latest games and photo or video editing apps better than the last version, though serious photogs should consider the Pro models, which are more powerful.

Apple iPad Mini 2021
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Apple iPad Mini 2021

Apple also added a 5G option to the iPad Mini for the first time, which means you can download apps, music and movies faster if you're away from home. But you'll pay an additional $150 for 5G support. It doesn't support the fastest mmwave flavor of 5G like the iPhones and iPad Pro do, but those mmwave networks are still really sparse and you need to be standing near the tower to use them, so I don't think that's a huge loss right now.

The cameras also received a much-needed upgrade. I don't take photos with my iPad, since the one on my iPhone is always better and easier to reach for, but it's a sharper 12-megapixel resolution and is still useful for snapping pictures of documents or other things you need to sign. The front-facing 12-megapixel ultra-wide-angle lens is a more important upgrade. It replaces the lower-quality 7-megapixel camera on the older model and now supports Center Stage, which made its debut in the iPads Pro in May. It's a great new feature, also in the new regular iPad, which tracks you as you move around during a video chat. It works great and I'm glad Apple started to bring this to all of its iPads instead of just the more expensive Pro models.

Apple iPad Mini 2021
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Apple iPad Mini 2021

Several other updates bring the iPad Mini on par with its more expensive siblings. It has stereo speakers so you don't hear sound coming out of just one side while watching a movie, a nice improvement from the older model. It also uses USB-C charging just like other iPads and MacBooks instead of Apple's Lightning plug that is uses on iPhones. I just wish Apple would ditch the Lightning charger on its iPhones, too, so I could carry just one cable with me.

Apple iPad Mini 2021
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Apple iPad Mini 2021

I don't use the Apple Pencil often, but it's super handy to have when I need to sign something. The new iPad Mini supports the better second-generation Apple Pencil, which sticks to the side of the tablet and charges magnetically. I used it to sign several child-care documents. Artists might like the feature that allows the smaller iPad to double as a portable sketchbook. Plus, the iPad software also supports the pencil for all sorts of stuff, such as writing in search bars, converting notes from handwriting to text and dragging and dropping photos. It's useful to keep the pencil in your bag for when you need it.

Battery life remains about the same as the last iPad mini. Apple promises up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching videos or listening to music. That drops to nine hours if you're on cellular. I found those claims are pretty accurate, using the device for about three hours per night three nights in a row for reading and browsing Reddit before I needed to recharge it. As usual, your mileage will vary depending on what you're doing. Playing games will drain it faster, for example.

What's bad

iPad Mini
Source: Apple Inc.
iPad Mini

The volume buttons take some getting used to. They're on the top if you're holding the tablet in portrait mode, instead of on the side like on other iPads.

I'm spoiled by the far nicer ProMotion displays on the iPads Pro. It's just a lot smoother for scrolling through a news article or apps like Twitter. Apple sees ProMotion as something for professionals, though, which is also why it's included only on Apple's new iPhone 13 Pro models. I'd like to see it filter down to all of its products at some point.

The same goes for Face ID. While that appears only in Apple's Pro iPads right now, it's just so convenient that I'd like to see it on the iPad Mini. Instead, Apple embedded a fingerprint reader into the power button on the side of the iPad.

Also, without those Face ID sensors, you miss out on some of the fun Memoji that you might be used to sending to friends from your iPhone. It's minor, but I missed Face ID on my iPad Pro, which unlocks instantly when I look at it.

Apple iPad Mini 2021
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Apple iPad Mini 2021

Lastly, Apple sells only two storage options: 64GB and 256GB. You shouldn't buy a tablet with 64GB of storage if you're planning to download a bunch of apps and movies. Apple doesn't even sell a 64GB iPhone 13 this year. Still, the 64GB is fine if you just need a little email and reading device, which I think is how most people probably think about the iPad Mini. But, if you do need all the bells and whistles, you'll spend another $150, or $650 total, for the 256GB model. It costs $799 if you want that version with 5G. 

That's where things get tricky. I still think the iPad Mini has a lot of features you don't even get in the iPad Air (Center Stage camera, 5G and a new processor). But you're paying a lot for portability when you could get a still-great iPad Air with a larger screen and 256GB of storage for $749. And you can work on that if you add Apple's expensive but very good $299 Magic Keyboard.

Should you buy it?

Apple iPad Mini 2021
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Apple iPad Mini 2021

If you're a fan of the iPad Mini, or have always wanted a smaller iPad, then yes, the iPad Mini is a good buy. I've always owned the smaller iPad and this is a nice big upgrade to the aging fifth-generation model.

But if you're not dead-set on having the smallest iPad, you can save a lot of money and just get the iPad Air or even the regular iPad, which starts at $329 but lacks stereo speakers and does not support the new Pencil, 5G or some other modern options.

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