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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

iPad mini (2021) review: Small packages

Why does the iPad mini exist? Let me count the ways. It’s for kids, people with small hands and good eyesight, people who want a pocketable(-ish) iOS device that doesn’t compromise on features, claustrophobic spaces, readers… in fact, I probably can’t count as high as there are uses for the iPad mini. Like its edge-case cousin, the Mac mini, it serves a multitude of purposes because it just fits them better—figuratively or literally.

Also like the Mac mini, the iPad mini tends to go a few years between revisions, so it’s vital that Apple not skimp on features when it’s time for an upgrade. I’m happy to report that the 2021 iPad mini is thoroughly a modern iPad, more advanced than the 2020 iPad Air, which itself is basically a smaller iPad Pro. The iPad mini is not for everyone, but for everyone who loves it, this new model is pretty much everything they’d ever want it to be.

State of the (mid-range) art

The iPad mini (far right) joins the iPad Pro and iPad Air in assuming a flat-sided look.

As is traditional for Apple these days, innovations generally start on the high end and slowly make their way down the product line. Like last year’s iPad Air, the iPad mini inherits the flat-sided design of the iPad Pro, which I like a lot. That flat side enables support for the second-generation Apple Pencil, which is a serious upgrade from the prior model, both in terms of feel and charging method. (It attaches to the side of the iPad magnetically and charges inductively. And no, the sides don’t stick out—even the iPad mini is a bit longer than the Pencil.)

The iPad mini also shares a few of the compromises in the iPad Air, compared to the iPad Pro. There’s no support for Face ID, so biometric authentication happens via Touch ID integrated into the wake/sleep button on the edge of the iPad. And while the iPad Pro now comes with a Thunderbolt port, the iPad mini—again, like the iPad Air—offers a (slightly) less capable USB-C port.

Obviously the iPad mini doesn’t have an M1 processor, or a ProMotion display, or mini-LED backlighting for extreme dynamic range, either. At least right now, the iPad Air has more or less defined what makes an iPad in the middle of Apple’s range, and the iPad mini largely duplicates it.

One feature that the iPad mini has that the iPad Air lacks is Center Stage, which Apple rolled out this year with the M1 iPad Pro. The iPad mini has the same wide-angle, 12-megapixel front-facing camera as the iPad Pro, which Center Stage uses to automatically pan and zoom around that wide field of view to properly frame your videoconference shot. I really can’t say enough good things about Center Stage; it’s like having your own camera operator embedded inside an iPad, and its inclusion on the iPad mini suggests that Apple thinks Center Stage should be everywhere. I hope that’s true.

Also unlike the iPad Air, the cellular version of the iPad mini supports 5G networks. However, there’s one catch—it doesn’t support the millimeter-wave band that’s used for ultra-high-speed, short-range hotspots in certain dense areas. I’m not sure millimeter-wave 5G is more than a novelty, given that its limited range means it’s essentially a very, very fast hotspot. Still, if you’re someone who has a millimeter-wave installation near you that you were dying to use on an iPad, you’ll want to get an iPad Pro.

Like the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro, the iPad mini is in the first wave of devices to ship with Apple’s new processor, the A15. It’s a big step up from the A12 processor in the previous-generation iPad mini, with a 43% improvement in single-core performance, 52% in multi-core, and a whopping 248% in GPU performance. But the A15 in the iPad mini seems to run at a slower clock speed than the A15 in the new iPhones. As a result, in Geekbench tests, the iPad mini’s A15 isn’t appreciably faster than the A14 chip found in the iPad Air or iPhone 12—except in graphics, where the A15’s five GPU units helped eke out a 9% improvement.

It does everything you want

Don’t underestimate the iPad mini. Its power is equivalent to that of the iPad Air. There’s very little you can’t do with an iPad mini, though everything’s a bit cramped in its tiny 8.3-inch screen.

I needed to go vertical to get all the tracks to fit, but editing a podcast in Ferrite Recording Studio was easy.

And I put the iPad mini to the test over the last week. Obviously, scrolling through Twitter, reading newspapers, and visiting websites are all just fine. I’m a fan of E-Ink-based ebook readers like the Kindle and Kobo, and their limitations can be a virtue. But the iPad mini is almost as small and much more versatile. Every morning I eat my breakfast and drink my tea while reading on my iPad Pro, which is a load. The iPad mini would make an excellent reader, not just for newspapers and Twitter and RSS, but for books as well. (I’m not giving up my E-Ink reader, but I do wish it let me read more than just books.)

I also used Ferrite Recording Studio to edit the Relay FM Balderdash special entirely on the iPad mini, with the Apple Pencil. It worked without a hitch. The smaller screen of the mini meant I needed to work a bit differently—I used vertical orientation to fit all the audio tracks on screen at once—but beyond that, it was pretty much the same experience as on my iPad Pro.

And of course, I used the iPad mini for writing. I wrote the bulk of my iPadOS 15 review on the iPad mini while sitting at the bar in my kitchen. I put the iPad mini in vertical orientation in a wood business-card holder that worked well as a stand, and broke out one of my Bluetooth keyboards. The iPad mini is way too narrow for any decent keyboard case, but that doesn’t stop it from being a pretty great portable writing machine. Get a stand (you can use Apple’s excellent Smart Folio case as a stand, but it doesn’t support vertical orientation) and a good Bluetooth keyboard, and you’ve got a solid set-up. (You could even use a USB keyboard with the USB-C port on the iPad mini, though if you want to work in vertical, you’ll need to stare at a cord coming out of the top of your iPad.)

What I’m saying is, the iPad mini is a completely capable iPad. It’ll do what you want it to do. It’s just small and light and therefore ultra-portable. That’s what makes it such an excellent filler of ecological niches—it just fits.

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