It’s no secret I’m a huge fan of the iPad Mini. It was my favourite gadget of 2012, simply because it was the one that changed my life the most. That’s not hyperbole, it’s actually true – I do everything with it now. The Mini is my device of choice for web surfing, sending emails, signing contracts, playing casual games, reading comic books and even writing stories when I’m on a plane or train. This year, I did away with paper notebooks – a staple in the journalism business – and now take all my notes on the tablet. I often joke that because of its indispensability, the Mini is the first thing I pack on my frequent travels, followed by a toothbrush and underwear.
The one flaw with last year’s model was its lack of Apple’s sharper Retina display. It was an unfortunate tradeoff in moving from a full-sized iPad since the most obvious result was text that almost looked blurry in comparison. Still, it was worthwhile in the long run for its size/weight and price benefits. You just can’t beat a $320 tablet that can fit in your back pocket.
So, to no one’s surprise, the iPad Mini with Retina screen is out now. It’s music to my ears but, as always, there’s a tradeoff. In this case, it’s an extra $100 on the price tag. Is it worth it? I’ve been using the new Mini for a few days now and I think I have some answers.
First off, it’s really nice to have the Retina screen back. It’s like getting your ace pitcher back from the disabled list – his return gives your whole team a lift. I immediately noticed the resolution bump – Apple says Retina is four times better – in the Twitter app, which is once again sharp as opposed to slightly blurry. I’m amazed that I’d gotten used to the lower resolution; I’m not sure I could ever go back to it now.
The new Mini also has Apple’s faster A7 processor under the hood. Its effects were most apparent for me when I fired up The Simpsons Tapped Out, that colourful game/life suck that I and so many others are addicted to. The game looks much more crisp, even in maximum zoom (pictured above). Perhaps more importantly, it performs much better now too. Panning around my mini-Springfield is faster and smoother and I don’t have to wait for the device to catch up. I found the older Mini would sometimes crash if you asked it to process too much too fast, whereas the new one simply glides along.
This year’s model also has improved Wi-Fi, which is good. In speed tests, I found it consistently logs slightly faster speeds. (Here’s a speed test on the new one and and on the old one, taken at just about the same time.) The new Mini also has better cameras, but that’s something I hardly ever use so I can’t comment on whether it’s a good practical improvement.
Overall, there’s little doubt the new Mini is a better version of last year’s model. Now that it has the Retina display, it’s actually complete. So what about that extra $100? The Retina version starts at $419 in Canada, while last year’s model is still selling for $319. That makes me a little uneasy because I’ve always thought that $300 is the perfect price point for a tablet of this size.
In an ideal world, Apple would have done away with the older version and simply sold the superior new one for its price point, but there is more, newer tech going into it and those profit margins do have to be met. In the end, it depends who’s buying. Price-conscious shoppers won’t be missing out on much by going with the older version, but if budget isn’t necessarily a concern than the Retina Mini is a no-brainer.
For those who already own last year’s Mini, the Retina model isn’t a must-buy unless the lower-resolution screen is really a bugbear. It’s a nice-to-have and not a must-have; if I absolutely had to, I could get by with the older one. The additional sharpness now feels like a luxury, although it’s one I’m happily getting used to.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens next year. In the most recent quarter, Android tablets overtook Apple’s iPads in total market share. Apple is sure to gain some of that back over the holidays with its new iPad lineup, which includes the larger Air, but Android’s momentum is clear and it’s very likely that it will eventually dominate the category, much as it does in smartphones.
With the increased competition, Apple doesn’t have much room for higher prices, meaning that $400 is probably pushing it in terms of what people are willing to pay for a seven-inch tablet. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a price cut at some point over the next few months or, at the very least, this year’s Retina Mini get priced down to around $300 when next year’s even better model is inevitably released.