Review : Apple iPad mini 4

Apple's iPad mini 4 stakes a claim for the best compact tablet on the market

MacNN Rating:

ratingratingratingratingrating

Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: From $399

The Good

  • Outstanding design & build quality
  • Great new display
  • A8 processor is fast
  • iOS 9 gives iPad new tricks

The Bad

  • More expensive than competition
  • Little else
Apple's iPad remains one of the most accessible personal computing devices ever made. Young, or old, there has never been a more intuitive way for people to engage with technology. When it was first revealed, the naysayers dismissed it as just a "big iPhone," which it is in some ways. However, what they failed to appreciate was that the larger screen real estate, combined with Apple's chip making and software prowess, gave it much more desktop-like capabilities. Even in its more-condensed mini form factor, the iPad remains a great example of powerful technology made simple, and accessible. The iPad mini 4 is no exception, as we discover in our our review.

Design & Build Quality

Apple says that the iPad mini 4 is very much like a smaller version of the popular and powerful iPad Air 2. Certainly, in terms of its form factor, it's hard to argue with that assessment. It features the same design language, which is to say that it is a seamless amalgamation of aluminum unibody rear chassis and an all-glass front, punctuated by Apple's iconic circular Home button at the bottom of the display. It retains the same 4:3 display ratio as the iPad Air 2, along with chamfered bezels that make it look very much like Apple took a ray gun to its larger stable mate and shrunk it down.



Compared to the model it replaces, the iPad mini 4 is only 0.24-inches (6.1mm) thick, and weighs just 0.65 pounds (298.8 grams), which make it substantially thinner and lighter than before. Apple has sometimes been accused of pursuing form over function, driven -- it is alleged -- by some sort of neurotic obsession with making its devices thinner and lighter.. In truth, when it comes to the design of any tablet device that is designed to be used in one hand comfortably, it can seemingly never be light enough. Thus, the changes that Apple has made to the iPad mini 4 form factor are more than welcome.



Apple has worked extremely hard to help its manufacturing partners tool up and enhance their manufacturing processes to deliver increasingly-refined and faultlessly-made devices. The iPad mini 4 epitomizes this approach, with design and build quality that remains the best on the market. If you didn't know that the glass was bonded to the rear of the device, you would think it sprung to life as one already unified form. In other words, the fit and finish is immaculate, and simply cannot be faulted.

Display

The new iPad mini 4 addresses one of our biggest criticisms with the Retina display in the previous iPad mini 3 and iPad mini 2, which had to do with its color accuracy. When the 7.9-inch Retina display was first introduced on the iPad mini 2, it brought with it the resolution and pixel density that we expect to see from an Apple Retina display at 2048x1536 pixels. In fact, this is the same pixel resolution of the iPad Air 2, meaning that even the iPad mini 2 has a higher pixel density at 326ppi against the 264ppi of the Air 2.



However, we would take the iPad Air 2 display over the iPad mini 2 display, simply because the iPad Air 2 display supports the full sRGB color gamut, and is far more color accurate as a result. The iPad mini 2 display only supports around 60 percent of the sRGB spectrum, showing colors that are noticeably duller when viewed side-by-side with an iPad Air 2 display. Thankfully, in giving the new iPad mini 4 a thorough working over, Apple has also seen fit to bring the Retina display on the iPad mini 4 completely on par with the iPad Air 2 display for color accuracy.



In addition to sporting a high pixel density and the full sRGB color space, the iPad mini 4 also incorporates Apple's groundbreaking display lamination and antireflective coating that is embedded in the Corning glass at a molecular level. This is also something that was not included on the iPad mini 3 and iPad mini 2, but which Apple first introduced on a tablet with the iPad Air 2. It really makes a massive difference to the quality of the overall viewing experience, particularly when in brighter light situations, and is a very welcome upgrade.

Performance

The iPad mini 4 is offers a step change in performance over the iPad mini 3 (now discontinued) and the iPad mini 2, which Apple continues to sell. It features the custom Apple second-gen, 64-bit A8 processor found in the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus from late last year, that Apple has also now fitted to the new Apple TV. It is a dual-core design that also incorporates Apple's M8 motion coprocessor, which, while useful for tracking health tracking data for iPhone users, also helps to preserve battery life for iPad users. It does this by detecting when it is not in use, for example, and reducing battery consumption accordingly.



Apple says that the A8 processor in the iPad mini 4 is 30 percent faster than the A7 chip found in the iPad mini 2 and 3, while it also offers graphics performance up to 60 percent faster as well. We don't have an qualms about Apple's quoted figures, and our benchmark results show that it offers excellent performance. While it is not quite as fast as the tri-core A8X found in the iPad Air 2, it is still more than a match for any tablet in its class..

Given that Apple's A9 chip found in the new iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus is architecturally a generation ahead of the competition, most of Apple's tablet rivals are only just catching up to the technology Apple has embedded in the iPad mini 4. Added to this, Apple has increased the clock speed of the A8 in the iPad mini 4 to 1.5GHz, while also doubling its RAM to 2GB.

As you can see from the benchmarks, the iPad mini 4 outperforms the iPhone 6 in both CPU and GPU performance, thanks to its higher clock speeds. It's not quite iPad Air 2 fast, but it's not that far behind, either. For a compact tablet, however, its performance makes it the clear class leader.





Cameras

Another area to get a complete overhaul for the iPad mini 4 is the cameras. The new optics in the iPad mini 4 are on par with the camera optics found in the iPhone 6, except for the aperture on the iSight camera on the rear, which is slightly smaller at f2.4 on the iPad mini 4, against an aperture of f2.2 on the iPhone 6. Its new 8MP camera shoots images in 3264x2448 native resolution, 43-megapixel panoramas, and 10 photos per second burst mode, which is seriously impressive for a tablet.



It also shoots 1080p video, time-lapse video, and 120-fps slow motion at 720p. The front-facing FaceTime camera also gets a boost to iPhone 6 level, with a larger f/2.2 aperture with bigger pixels that capture 81 percent more light. We have found that using it for FaceTime showed a marked improvement, with much better lighting, and better overall control of background brightness levels. Apple introduced its first custom imaging processor in the A8 SoC, and now iPad mini 4 users have a highly capable shooter in the iPad mini 4 as well.



What is the point of it all for a tablet, you might ask? As an iPhone user, I have certainly found moments where I don't have my iPhone at hand, but have my tablet handy. It's great to know that when I shoot any photos or video with the iPad mini 4, that these images are not going to suffer. Further, not everyone has a smartphone, particular younger users, and sometimes older users, who instead can also enjoy all the benefits and great new capabilities that Apple has brought to the iPad mini 4. The added benefit of taking shots on the iPad mini 4 is the viewfinder is a massive 7.9-inches, so you are getting a great look at exactly what you are taking.

Our sample still photos here, which are unedited, give you a good sense of just how capable the iPad mini 4 is as a camera.






Battery Life

Apple's current benchmark battery life for its iPad range is 10 hours. Despite going even thinner with the new iPad mini 4, it has been able to retain this claim, thanks to the increased efficiency of the A8 SoC. It is often the case that Apple's claims are actually exceeded in real-world usage, and the iPad mini 4 is no exception in this regard. We have found that if you are going to use it primarily for web surfing, you will get at least 11 hours out of a charge; if you veer towards mixed usage, however, you can still achieve over 10 hours of battery life. It's only when you start to play intensive 3D games for long periods, coupled with heavy video watching, that you will encounter battery life south of this estimate. Overall, though, battery life on the iPad mini 4 remains excellent.



Connectivity

The iPad mini 4 revision also brings with it welcome improvements in connectivity. It now delivers Wi-Fi and cellular LTE connectivity that is on par with the iPad Air 2. This means that the iPad mini 4 offers 802.11ac Wi-Fi support, for speeds up to that reach up to 860Mbps, or 2.8 times faster than before. LTE models now support up to 20 bands, making it compatible with more carriers around the globe, and offers speeds up to 50 percent faster than before at 150Mbps. In the US and the UK, the unlocked Apple SIM is pre-installed, which Apple says gives you access to data plans in more than 90 countries and territories globally and doesn't tie you down to a given carrier. Again, what is impressive is that these performance gains do not come at the expense of battery life.



Software, apps, ecosystem, support

The iPad mini 4 comes with Apple's iOS 9 software on board, which we have already looked at more closely. As a device capable of delivering the full iPad experience that you can enjoy on the larger 9.7-inch iPad, this means that all the eye catching iPad-only features that Apple baked into iOS 9 are available for iPad mini 4 users to enjoy as well. Highlights include the new Slide Over capability, Split View, and Picture-in-Picture, which makes multitasking on the iPad mini 4 very powerful. You might think that a function like Split View wouldn't be as effective as it is on the iPad Air 2, for example, but surprisingly, it is. It really works just as well, and makes tasks like quickly looking up a web page while continuing to watch a movie a seamless and ultra-smooth experience.



Of course, when it comes to apps, Apple rules the roost when it comes to having by far the most apps that have been properly optimized for the additional screen real estate offered by its iPads. We recently used the iPad mini 4 with Microsoft Word and the Logitech Keys-To-Go, the latter of which we will write about in more detail in a future article, and found the experience a lot better than expected, and more than acceptable. Apple's own apps, like GarageBand and iMovie, also work extremely well on the iPad mini 4, and make it both a device than can entertain and also allow to you be creative and productive when on the go in a way that punches well above its weight.



With features like Continuity, which seamless connects your iPad mini 4 the rest of your Apple device workflow, coupled with Apple's overall app and content ecosystem, Apple makes it very easy to get the most out of your investment. Apple has long had a policy where apps you download for your iPhone can also be downloaded to your iPad without any additional charge, even when some of these apps are designed to scale specifically to the larger iPad interface. Similarly, you can have up to 10 iOS devices all sharing the same content that you have purchased from the App Store or the iTunes Store. Apple is truly second to none in this regard.

Let's not forget Apple's customer support. Although Apple's Stores and staff have come under increasing strain over time as Apple's customer base has increased exponentially over the past several years, thanks to the success of the iPhone in particular, Apple customer support remains excellent. When it comes to genuine hardware glitches especially, Apple's capability to swap out devices with issues for those that are either new or refurbished is also unmatched by the industry. It is considerations like these that customers need to keep in mind before opting for something that looks cheaper and more attractively-priced upfront. There are two connotations to the word "cheap," and most of Apple's tablet rivals offer both of those meanings in their offerings. Caveat emptor.

Conclusion

The iPad mini 4 is very much like a shrunken down iPad Air 2. This makes it a very potent little tablet that pretty much blows away the competition in just about every regard. Everything from its design, build quality, display quality, performance, camera, connectivity, software, ecosystem, and customer support is absolutely first rate. Apple sometimes charges a premium for its products, but as competitive as its specs often are, it is the overall, end-to-end user experience that simply leaves the competition trailing in its dust. The iPad mini 4 may not be the cheapest compact tablet on the market, but is easily the best overall proposition by some margin.

-- Sanjiv Sathiah