New iPad Mini (2021) hands-on review

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New iPad Mini (2021) hands-on review


The iPad Mini has been overlooked for years now, with Apple favoring a spec bump here and there over a full upgrade. But for 2021, unlike the barely noticeable changes to the entry-level iPad, Apple redesigned the iPad Mini in an effort to place it more in line with the rest of its tablet offerings.

We’ve spent six days testing out the new iPad Mini and are here to answer the question: Who exactly is this miniature tablet — that barely outranks the iPhone 13 Pro Max in terms of size — for?

Portability with power

The iPad Mini is the ideal device for someone who wants an ultraportable tablet that doesn’t sacrifice performance for size.

Who this is for: The iPad Mini is the ideal device for someone who wants an ultra-portable tablet that doesn’t sacrifice performance for size.

What you need to know: While the iPad Mini does have a smaller 8.3-inch screen, it’s just as powerful as the iPad, iPad Air and even the iPad Pro in some aspects. The screen size does put some constraints on multitasking, though, and the device doesn’t feature a Smart Connector for easy accessory attachment.

How this compares: In head-to-head usage, the iPad Mini outpaces other smaller tablets like the Fire 7 and Fire HD 8 in terms of runtime and a faster experience across the board — applications open faster and content looks better. In comparison to other iPads, the iPad Mini performs a hair faster than the ninth gen and on par with the iPad Air for most tasks. You may feel a bit more constrained on the 8.3-inch screen versus a 10.2-inch or 11-inch, though, especially when attempting to use two apps at once.

Jacob Krol/CNN

The iPad Mini is almost ridiculously portable. The 8.3-inch tablet can easily be held in one hand. It’s pretty impressive and won’t cause a strain on your hand (or hands) when using. And let’s address the elephant in the room: It costs a lot more than a Fire HD 8 or Fire 7, but it also trades a nice plastic build for a much more higher-end one.

Like the iPhone 13 or the iPad Air, the edging is a flat and smooth aluminum with marks for the antenna bands if you have a Cellular unit. The top of the device, when held vertically (or the left when held horizontally), features speakers, volume up and volume down along with a power button that features Touch ID. And while there are minimal bezels that could have fit the TrueDepth sensor for Face ID, Apple decided to opt for Touch ID in the same way it did on the iPad Air. The fingerprint sensor has essentially been tucked into the power button and finished off with a piece of frosted glass. Adding a fingerprint or two was really quite fast, and it’s been great in use. We don’t miss the home button on the iPad Mini at all — it’s a more functional design this way. It’s also in a pretty good spot regardless of how you’re holding the tablet.

Jacob Krol/CNN

The bottom of the tablet is home to another key change: the USB-C port. Apple’s proprietary Lightning port is gone from this device, and it opens the door for interactions for the iPad Mini. You can plug in an external drive or a more universally acceptable dongle to transfer data. The real win, though, is that might let you clean up how many chargers you need to bring with you. There’s also a USB-C to USB-C cable in the box along with a 20-watt wall plug. And with the iPad Mini getting USB-C, it leaves the ninth-gen iPad as the only tablet to stick with a Lightning port.

The rear side of the tablet is pretty clean with a 12-megapixel camera that sticks out and eliminates the possibility of the Mini resting flat on its own.

The iPad Mini is available in four colors: purple, pink, Starlight (silver) and Space Gray.

Jacob Krol/CNN

The real star is the 8.3-inch Liquid Retina display. In our testing, colors were accurate with a bit more vibrancy and deeper contrast points over the previous iPad Mini. In fact, display performance is pretty much in line with that of the iPad Air. Images look realistic, and when taking in a video, content flows naturally across the display.

Another area of improvement with the display is with using the Apple Pencil on it — in comparison to the previous iPad Mini, there’s less latency and the handwritten text appears to flow onto the digital screen more realistically.

This is the second-generation Apple Pencil, though, and it can attach to the right-hand side of the device magnetically. It not only makes it easy to keep both devices together, but the iPad Mini will also wirelessly charge the Apple Pencil.

The bezels here don’t bother us at all, and, if anything, we found them to provide a bit more room to hold the iPad Mini itself. With a device this small at just 7.69 inches tall and 5.3 inches wide, you need ample room to hold it and effectively use it.

And the top (when held vertically) packs the all-important 12-megapixel front-facing camera, which also powers Face ID and the TrueDepth sensor. It’s also bringing along its Center Stage functionality, which makes the iPad Mini a perfect tool for video calls and content capture. While on a FaceTime or video call, your face will be kept in frame and zoomed in a bit. If you get up to move around or grab a drink, it will pan and move to keep you in the frame.

Jacob Krol/CNN

The iPad Mini belies the general notion that a smaller device correlates to fewer features or less power.

The iPad Mini is powered by the Apple-made A15 Bionic processor — the same one that powers the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max. It can handle work apps like Slack, Outlook, Word (really, the entire Office suite), Photoshop, management systems and even spreadsheets. In side-by-side tests against the iPad Air and even the 11-inch iPad Pro, it’s nearly on par with all of these core tasks. It’s capable in a way that many other smaller tablets aren’t. A Fire HD 7 or Fire HD 8 likely couldn’t handle the full production of a movie or batch out image edits in the same vein.

We will call out that Apple is not releasing a Magic Keyboard or Smart Keyboard for the iPad Mini — and it’s a little frustrating, as we feel it’s untapped potential. The iPad Mini has plenty of power and could be an excellent, ultra-portable way to knock out papers, emails or general work tasks. You can use Bluetooth to pair a keyboard and even a trackpad, but a case would have made this device feel more put together. Apple also didn’t include a Smart Connector in the design here.

You can also feel free to multitask, though know that opting to go Split Screen does give you a small amount of space with each task. In our eyes, we best see the iPad Mini like the original iPad in that it lets you focus on one task to complete.

The 8.3-inch display and overall size of the iPad Mini also makes it great for consumption. Catching up on “Ted Lasso,” the return of “The Morning Show” or even a throwback to “Lizzie McGuire” (we have a wide range in tastes) was a joy on the device this size. It’s easy enough to bring for a car ride, while commuting on the train or for watching while in bed or lying on the couch. Yes, we’ll admit that was some of our hardcore testing and even a light tablet hurts when it drops onto your face while dozing off.

Its screen size and overall build is similar to that of a Nintendo Switch as well, and gaming on the iPad Mini is a fun time. We tried out an early demo of Catalyst Black (a Fortnite-like title arriving in the coming weeks), which ran like a champ on the device. Same goes for Real Flight Simulator, which can sometimes throw the graphics into a dizzy state. We had clear virtual sight lines while flying, and Mini Metro was a pretty relaxing way to end the day creating an underground railway setup. The processor inside is plenty for nearly any gaming title you could play locally on an iPad.

Point being: The size is great for watching or engaging with content, along with reading a book digitally. It’s really a catchall device that aims to be a jack-of-all-trades iPad in an ultra-portable size.

Throw size out of the equation and the iPad Mini is just as powerful as nearly every other iPad. In fact, it surpassed the iPad Air and ninth-gen iPad in our qualitative testing. And similar to our experience on the iPhone 13, the A15 makes for an efficient chip. Apple promised up to 10 hours of playback, and we surpassed that in our battery test. In this test, we set the brightness to 50% and ran a video on a loop until the device died. We also turned off all connectivity and monitored it with two cameras for redundancy. The iPad Mini lasted for 10 hours and 45 minutes.

Like the iPad Pro last spring, Apple is adding 5G support into the Cellular models of the iPad Mini. There’s a bit of a catch, though, as just one of the core standards for 5G in the United States is supported here.

The iPad Mini supports Sub-6 5G, which is available more widely throughout the country across AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon. It’s not the super-fast standard of 5G, though — that’s mmWave, and it’s exclusive to the iPad Pro in Apple’s tablet lineup.

To a degree, it’s Apple being realistic, as you might not be in the market for 5G mmWave, but Sub-6 is more likely nationwide. When using Cellular on the iPad Mini and connected to 5G, you can expect speeds similar to 4G LTE at 100 to 300 Mbps. The real bonus of using a Sub-6 5G network would be that there’s more room on the network.

Cellular isn’t standard on any iPad, though, and it’s an additional $150 charge if you’d like it.

There’s a lot to like about the iPad Mini — it has a vibrant display and a processor that’s extremely up to snuff, and it really lets you do all that an iPad can do … with some size constraints. Multitasking can be a little hard, and there isn’t a dedicated keyboard case.

You just really need to be down for the size and be looking for an ultra-portable solution. And if you’re a previous iPad Mini owner, this is likely the model you’ve been waiting for.

If you’re new to iPad, though, it might be best to consider the options. For $100 more you can score the iPad Air, which has many of the same features and sports a Smart Connector for easy accessory attachment. For less, the $329 iPad is a more basic device but capable of many of the same tasks without a serious loss in performance.

Apple’s iPad Mini is up for order now — at a starting price of $499 — and will begin arriving on Sept. 24.