By Jason Snell
March 21, 2019 4:00 AM PT
When three and a half years go by without Apple updating your favorite product, you start to get a little antsy. In the case of the iPad mini, Apple has spent those years completely reconfiguring the iPad line, introducing multiple models of iPad Pro and creating a new low-price sixth-generation iPad—thereby making redundant the iPad mini’s role as the most affordable iPad around.
But at least in this case, the despair wasn’t warranted. It took a while, but here’s the fifth-generation iPad mini—instantly recognizable since it’s got the same shape and size as its predecessor, but now powered by the same A12 Bionic processor found in the iPhone XS. It’s amazing what a difference three and a half years can make.
Say hello to my little friend, again
The sixth-generation iPad has effectively usurped the iPad mini’s role as The Cheap iPad, meaning that as of now, the only reason to buy an iPad mini is because you want a small iPad. And there are plenty of people who do—from extreme mobile workers to people who want to slip an iPad into a purse or coat pocket to businesses who want simple point-of-sale terminals to children with small hands and keen eyes.
For several years, the iPad mini was my primary iPad. Then I switched to the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, which was a radical size change. It was quite a feeling to hold an iPad mini in my hands again after all this time. Coming from the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, the iPad mini is staggeringly small. If you’ve forgotten, it’s 8 inches (203mm) high and 5.3 inches (135mm) wide, weighs two-thirds of a pound (300g), and has a 7.9-inch diagonal display.
And yet despite its small size, that display packs in all the pixels of the 9.7-inch iPad—2048 by 1536 resolution—meaning it’s got a pixel density of 326ppi. This is a better screen than the low-cost iPad, though—it’s laminated, so it’s closer to the surface of the glass, and it’s got support for the P3 wide color gamut and True Tone. All it’s really lacking when compared to the iPad Pro display is ProMotion—this display refreshes at 60Hz, not 120.
For a while now I’ve been advocating for the idea that the iPhone should support the Apple Pencil, so it could be used as a sketchbook or notepad. The big problem with that theory is that it would really require a smaller Apple Pencil, and when Apple redesigned the Pencil last year, it didn’t go this route.
The iPad mini isn’t an iPhone, exactly, but it’s less than twice the volume and half again the weight of the iPhone XS Max. (It’s also got fewer pixels, owing to the XS Max’s higher-density display.) So if you imagine the iPad mini as a sort of reporter’s notebook or artist’s portable sketchbook, it starts to make more sense as the most portable device yet to support the Apple Pencil.
Today every new iPad being made supports the Pencil, but it’s important to note that all the Lightning-based iPads—the iPad, iPad mini, and iPad Air—all use the Lightning-based original Apple Pencil Model. The new Apple Pencil, supported only by the 2018 iPad Pro models, is superior in a whole lot of ways—but if you buy one of these non-pro iPads, you’ll be left with the older model. Not that the old Pencil is bad, it’s actually quite good, but it’s a bit painful to go back to a Pencil without a flat edge, matte finish, and magnetic-induction charging.
Drawing on the iPad mini (or these other low-end iPads) will also not be able to take advantage of the faster digitizer rate, which combined with the ProMotion display dramatically reduces lag—the space between where the stroke you just drew is visible and where the tip of the pencil is right now. It’s not a bad experience, it’s just not as good as the experience on the iPad Pro—but you’re also using a much smaller and cheaper device. It’s all a matter of trade-offs.
I’ve always preferred using a Kindle to read books, but I have to admit that the iPad mini is a pretty great size if you’re primarily planning on using it to read books, newspaper apps, and websites. The screen may feel a bit cramped when using productivity apps, but switching to the iPad mini from the 12.9-inch iPad Pro was like going from a coffee-table book to a trade paperback. Reading from apps while holding the iPad mini in vertical orientation in one hand was easy and pleasant.
However, the increased screen density of this device means you’ll probably need to crank up the default text size in your apps and in the Text Size setting in the Display & Brightness section of the Settings app. As on previous iPad minis, everything’s just a bit smaller, and unless your eyes are particularly keen (and young) you’ll need to slide that text size up a notch or two in order to get it back into comfortable territory.
I wrote a large chunk of this article on the iPad mini, and while it’s capable of all the same stuff as just about any other iPad, writing is probably not its forte. Several companies do make add-on keyboards for the iPad mini 4 (all of which will work with this model, since they’re identical on the outside), its eight-inch width in horizontal orientation is not really wide enough to fit a keyboard with normal size keys. I ended up using an Apple Magic Keyboard in a Studio Neat Canvas case, which worked fine. If you don’t mind tiny keyboards with ultra-compact keys, cases like the ones from Zagg or Logitech or even Brydge might work for you. It certainly would make this a remarkably compact and portable writing device. You just have to deal with a nonstandard, compact keyboard layout.
I should mention one of the best features of the design of this iPad mini, which is that it’s entirely identical to the iPad mini 4. That might bore people who were hoping for a complete re-think of the device, but it’s pretty obvious that wasn’t going to happen. And because Apple didn’t tweak the exterior even a little bit, every accessory made for the iPad mini 4 will work on the fifth-generation iPad mini. And at least for right now, many of them are quite cheap, because the iPad mini was considered a dead product. Old iPad mini cases and covers and keyboards should work fine with this device, provided they were designed for the iPad mini 4. (Apple made changes in design between the iPad mini 3 and 4 that broke compatibility; accessories build for other models are not likely to be compatible.)
As the iPad line expands—it’s a family of five now—the different models are better suited for different tasks. The iPad mini is all about that small size, and with Apple Pencil support it can serve as a sketchbook or basic notebook. It’s also an ideal size for reading books, newspapers, and other web content. At $399 it’s worth asking if we’ve gotten to the point where people will consider pairing an iPad mini with a larger iPad and using them for different tasks. The truth is, the iPad mini’s processor means it’s capable of doing almost anything its larger siblings can do—it just does them all on a smaller screen.
The new iPad mini doesn’t need to be all things to all people. It doesn’t even need to be the cheapest iPad in the product line. It just needs to be small and light while still providing the power of a modern iPad, and it does that quite well.