Hands-On/Analysis: Apple’s New iPad Mini
Apple’s iPad was already the best-selling tablet, and now there are more options at regular price intervals. The iPad mini badly needed an update – or even acknowledgement that an update was coming. The new model won’t make everyone happy, but it enables use cases that the larger models can’t fill, while serving a vital role for Apple in the enterprise.
Apple walked me through demos of the new iPad Air and iPad mini early this week, and then gave me an iPad mini to test. That’s not enough time to do a full review, but it does allow me to infuse market analysis with hands-on experience.
Apple now has iPads from $329 to $999, with configurations topping out at $1899, not including optional Pencils, keyboards, or cases. There are three types of iPads now:
the iPad (9.7”/$329), which is good enough for most consumer use cases
the iPad mini (7.9”/$399) and iPad Air (10.5”/$499), which are a step up in performance
the iPad Pro (11”/$799 and 12.9”/$999) which are more powerful than – and can be just as expensive as – many laptops.
The iPad mini is the smallest iPad but not the cheapest, because it is not really an iPad, it’s a misbranded iPad Air mini. The new iPad Air 10.5” replaces the old iPad Pro 10.5” and outperforms it at a lower price. The iPad Air fills a pricing hole in Apple’s line, though it is not as targeted to a specific customer type as other iPads. The iPad Pro line sets itself apart with Face ID, narrow bezels, Pencil 2 support, even better displays, even faster processors, and USB-C. All the other iPads have fingerprint reader/home buttons, large bezels, and support the original Pencil. If it hasn’t rolled away under your desk, the Pencil’s battery is probably dead, but once it is awkwardly charged, having a Pencil opens up drawing and note-taking use cases.
The iPad mini had not been updated since 2015, but it retained two devoted fan bases: travelers and enterprises. For consumers, the iPad mini is the perfect size for supplementing a phone and a laptop. This is especially true for consumers who prefer smaller phones, but even the iPhone XS Max is a lot smaller than an iPad mini. The smaller size makes even more sense for corporate use, where the form factor enables specific apps or implementation. Full size iPads can be too big for some spaces and too unwieldy for some work. For example, the iPad mini has been integrated into retail POS (Point of Sale) systems and designed into the workflow of highly mobile customer-facing workers, like flight attendants.
However, corporate buyers often have long sales cycles and need predictability. While Apple’s roadmap secrecy boosts consumer excitement, it is problematic for enterprises. Some IT managers justifiably feared that Apple was abandoning the form factor, and by letting the iPad mini go so long between updates Apple likely lost some sales and design wins. These buyers will be pleased by Apple’s decision to maintain the previous iPad mini’s form factor – including enormous bezels and home button placement – because it means that they retain their investments in accessories and physical integration points like restaurant counter stands.
Consumers may not be so appreciative of the form factor stasis. The new iPad mini hardly feels new, and Apple has not maximized screen real estate for the size. This negatively impacts media playback, note-taking, and drawing. An imaginary iPad Pro mini would have a brighter, HDR-capable display, lower latency Pencil 2, and more room on the tablet to write with it. It would also have an even higher price, so perhaps Apple doesn’t think it’s viable. Maybe not. But I want one.
I tested three types of apps to get a sense for how the iPad mini performs:
Media: Given the upcoming “Show Time” event, the Apple TV app seems like it might be getting some extra attention soon, so I started my testing there. I have a 2015 iPad mini 4 on hand for comparison, and the improvements in the new iPad mini are dramatic: the app loads faster, the poster art is populated instantly, and movies start quickly. The old one is painfully slow in comparison. Some of the speed increase is due to the faster processor, but faster WiFi and more RAM also play a role. The display is also significantly brighter with much better color saturation. Often, year-over-year spec bumps are subtle, but anyone will notice and appreciate this. I did not test battery life, but Apple estimates it will provide 10 hours of video playback, which is sufficient for all but the longest flights.
Pencil: Apple is hardly the first tablet vendor to support a stylus, but the iPad benefits from good hardware implementation and strong third-party software support. I tested several photo editing, note-taking, and drawing apps and found that, as you might expect, the iPad mini’s size and weight makes it much easier to use as a digital writing or sketchpad than any other iPad. The Pencil/iPad mini combination is not as smooth and immediate as the Pencil 2/iPad Pro, but I had no problems with latency or lag. I was able to take a full page of notes during a product briefing using Microsoft OneNote despite the intrusion of the folder pane in the app interface. A beta version of Moleskin’s Flow was better for freeform notes. I was able to paint with fairly precise pressure sensitivity in Procreate. An unexpected winner: fixing photos in Pixelmator is significantly easier with a Pencil than using a finger on the iPad mini’s smaller screen.
Augmented Reality: Apple touts AR as a key benefit to the A12 Bionic processor in the iPad Air and iPad mini. The power is certainly necessary – the iPad mini 4 cannot do AR at all – but AR is still not mature enough to be a purchase driver. Apple showed off Home Depot’s app as an example of how AR can be used by contractors to show homeowners what different fixtures and furniture will look like in their home. This is a great idea in theory, but in practice, only a fraction of Home Depot’s catalog has AR assets available. Other retailers, like Wayfair, appear to have more 3D objects. However, I found that this use case is actually better on the larger iPads because your AR “window” (the display) is bigger. Conversely, Apple’s Measure app is easier to use because the iPad mini’s size makes it easier to hold still. AR is an emerging category.
The tablet market has largely split into premium tablet/convertibles and inexpensive media consumption devices. Apple plays in the premium segment. Windows convertibles offer terrific portability but still suffer from core design and app library limitations that make them better for trackpad use than touch. There are premium Android tablets on the market from Samsung, Google, and Huawei, but Google was never able to get a critical mass of developers to write apps for the form factor (in part because Google refused to segment the Play Store so that developers could monetize the additional work). iPads typically feature strong design and class-leading silicon, but the app ecosystem alone makes the iPad the best tablet for most people.
Amazon’s Fire tablets are a good budget option when content consumption is the primary use case, but Apple’s user experience is well worth paying for, and Apple sells the iPad in more geographies around the world. Amazon’s true competitor to the iPad mini may be the Kindle, which offers the best pure reading experience. Bibliophiles’ needs may be best met with a phone and a Kindle instead of a phone and an iPad mini.
Creative professionals seeking a mobile idea/sketch/design companion device will find that combining an iPad mini, a Pencil, and a case with a slot to hold the Pencil is a workable solution. However, Apple has not closed the door on Microsoft or someone else creating a purpose-built device targeting this use case.
The closest competition for the iPad mini in the enterprise is Samsung’s similarly priced Galaxy Tab Active2. The iPad is much faster, but also more fragile. Samsung built the Galaxy Tab Active2 with blue-collar use cases in mind: it has physical buttons that are designed to work with gloves, it comes with a stylus that slips into the removable ruggedized case, and it is MIL-STD 810G certified. Samsung has done a surprisingly good job surrounding the Galaxy Tab Active2 with third party accessories and enterprise software suites for plant maintenance, transportation, asset management, and the like. Now that Apple has update the iPad mini, Samsung will not be able to push as far into areas like retail and hospitality as it might have otherwise.
64GB RAM (or 256GB for +$150). The last iPad mini started with 16GB at that price (with 64GB and, later, 128 GB variants). The base 16GB configuration is nearly useless today, so Apple should see a lot of upgrades for that reason alone.
A12 processor, which is markedly faster than the previous iPad mini’s A8. The A12 is also faster than the A10X, making the new iPad Air an upgrade over the iPad Pro 10.5 from 2017, which it replaces.
LTE is available for a $129 upcharge. While the pricing delta is high, adding LTE makes the iPad mini truly mobile. Both a physical nano SIM slot and an eSIM are included for maximum flexibility.
3.5mm headphone jack is available on both the iPad mini and iPad Air, which preserves investments in headphones, music gear, and Square card readers.