Apple has a reputation for forcing change on us right when we’ve gotten comfortable with its designs. Sure, we often resist (and sometimes Apple is wrong), but more often than not the Cupertino company proves that breaking out of our comfort zones leads to better user experiences and perhaps even a better future.
That’s why I’m surprised to see the new fifth-generation iPad mini. On the outside, it looks like a twin of its 2015 incarnation, to the point that I once accidentally picked up the old iPad mini to take it home for the evening. As far as I can tell, the only exterior feature that’s changed is that the regulatory information is no longer printed on the tablet’s backside. Even the display hasn’t changed much, as it still offers a resolution of 2048 x 1536 and a pixel density of 326ppi.
This isn’t lazy design. Instead, it’s a rare example of Apple choosing to give us an extra helping of products and concepts we love. If only Apple had the same attitude toward keyboards.
Getting the maximum out of the minimum
The new iPad mini looks like a relic from the past, but it’s undoubtedly a contemporary device. It’s awesome on the inside, which goes a long way toward justifying the $399 starting price tag for the 64GB model when the larger 9.7-inch iPad sells for just $329.
The rear camera remains the same at 8 megapixels and with a f/2.4 lens, but the front-facing camera got a boost to 7 megapixels and f/2.2. There’s an A12 Bionic processor inside now—the same one you’ll find in the iPhone XS and XR—and in benchmarks it runs almost neck-and-neck with the new iPad Air. For that matter, it clobbers the 2018 9.7-inch iPad across the board. It also now supports gigabit LTE, dual sim cards (if you get the cellular model), and wider DCI-P3 color support. A recent iFixit teardown revealed that its memory got a boost to 3GB (up from 2GB in the iPad mini 4).
It’s certainly the most impressive tiny tablet out there, as nothing running Android or Windows at this size offers anywhere near this type of performance.
I just wish it looked more modern. More specifically, I wish it took cues from the latest iPad Pros, with their sleek edges and minuscule bezels and support for Face ID (which I find better suited for iPads than iPhones). Unsurprisingly, Apple opted to maintain support with Lightning cables rather than USB-C. I realize this is asking for a lot, but I also wish it supported the second-generation Apple Pencil, which wirelessly charges when attached to the magnets lining the latest iPad Pro. Instead, the new iPad mini only supports the Logitech Crayon and the first-generation Apple Pencil with its famously losable cap. The iPad mini is far from ugly, but nothing about it excites me.
This won’t bother everyone. Sticking with the iPad mini’s old form factor allows Apple to keep popular elements that you won’t find in some of the latter-day expensive iPads. There’s Touch ID, of course, which some people prefer over Face ID (although I’m convinced those people haven’t give Face ID a fair shot), and yes, there’s still a 3.5 mm headphone jack. Most importantly, it’s still tiny at 8 inches by 5.3 inches (and 0.24 inches thick). I often find myself convinced that I forgot to put it in my bag.
The right fit
Not too long ago, I suggested that we wouldn’t see another iPad mini. I still say this tablet strikes me as an odd bird in an age when Apple’s biggest phones basically pass for small tablets and when the iPad Pros outperform a huge swath of Windows laptops.
The last few days, though, have reminded me that the iPad mini still has its place. The 7.9-inch display is almost as tall as that on the iPhone XS Max, but it’s also much wider, which means it’s better for both playing games and watching movies. I was especially astonished to discover how much I loved using Apple Books with it. The size is almost perfect for capturing the screen size of a regular paperback (or a Kindle Paperwhite) and Apple’s TrueTone technology makes it a little more satisfying to read white pages in darkened rooms.
It’s not, however, the best display for using the Apple Pencil. The 9.7-inch iPad is the low end for comfort when writing or drawing something with the Apple Pencil. You can do either of these things on the iPad mini, but at best I find it feels like scribbling something on a hotel memo pad with a Sharpie.
Even with its admirable precision, the Apple Pencil still doesn’t allow for the needle-like lettering you can get with a real pen or pencil, especially when the fifth-generation iPad mini doesn’t support the ProMotion technology in iPad Pros that makes the strokes of an Apple Pencil more true to life.
I’m not complaining that the iPad mini has Apple Pencil support. Any time the famously choice-resistant Apple gives us an extra option should only be celebrated. Indeed, Pencil is wonderful for highlighting PDFs. Apple even made the iPad mini with a laminated display, which means the glass sits more closely to the pixels and so better recreates the sensation of writing on paper. The Pencil certainly enhances the experience for some uses, and I wish Apple would start including the $99 peripheral in the box.
Indeed, there’s nothing really wrong with the iPad mini. It’s not the tablet you want if you crave an unstoppable powerhouse. Subjected to a Geekbench battery test at 200 nits of brightness (down from the impressive maximum of 500), it failed to last as long as any of its contemporaries. In actual field practice, though, I rarely saw any problems. Over the course of a week, I used it to play Fortnite. I used it for reading novels on the bus, and I watched an episode of the new Twilight Zone from Jordan Peele. And through it all the battery chugged along, never needing the kind of attention I tend to give my iPhone XS Max.
When I wanted to type something, I paired a Magic Keyboard 2 with it and typed away. It’s how I wrote this review. Which brings me to one of the only real drawbacks I can think of: When I try to use the onscreen digital keyboard, I find the display keyboard too cramped for long writing sessions even in landscape mode. That was true with the older iPad mini as well.
The iPad for folks who prefer the small things
The iPad mini is the best small tablet you can get. I like that it’s unabashedly a tablet at a time when Apple is encouraging all kinds of conversations about whether iPad Pros can replace traditional laptops. This little device? It excels at all the tablet things—including split-screen multitasking, which feels cramped but manageable—and I never wished it could be something greater. Judging from the many questions we’ve received about rumors about the iPad mini over the last few years, I’m willing to bet it’ll be a hit even with its limitations.
If you want more display space than what you get on your iPhone XS Max but also don’t want to worry about a gigantic tablet falling on your face when you’re watching a movie in bed—and believe me, I’ve been there—the iPad mini gets the job done. If you want a Paperwhite-like device that’s quite capable of performing other tasks, the iPad mini has you covered. It’s even decent for reading magazines in Apple News+ that are still in PDF format, and it makes a good sketch pad (if not a massive canvas) with an Apple Pencil. If you’re looking for portability in a tablet above all else, this mini marvel towers above the rest.