Call it an iPad 2.5--or 3.5
Of the many rumors swirling around prior to the iPad mini's announcement, the most common pegged the mini as being simply a smaller version of the iPad 2. But the mini is actually somewhere between the iPad 2 and the current full-size iPad. The mini uses the same dual-core A5 processor, at the same clock speed, as the iPad 2; includes the same 512MB of RAM; and sports a display with the same resolution, 1024 by 768 pixels. But the mini has the same 1.2-megapixel FaceTime HD (720p-capable) front camera and 5-megapixel (1080p-capable) back camera as the fourth-generation iPad. (Note that Apple says the A6x processor in the fourth-generation iPad includes image-signal-processing features that allow that model to provide better image stabilization and spacial noise reduction for photos and video than the iPad mini. We'll publish imaging-test results later this week.)
The mini also matches the newest full-size iPad when it comes to wireless capabilities, offering Bluetooth 4.0, improved 5GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi performance thanks to channel bonding, and optional LTE wireless data. The iPad mini uses the same LTE chip found in the fourth-generation iPad, so it's compatible with more carriers compared to the third-generation iPad. Of course, the iPad mini also uses Apple's new Lightning connector instead of the older 30-pin connector.
Thanks to its iPad 2-matching processor, graphics capabilities, and screen resolution, the iPad mini should offer performance on par with that of the iPad 2. Indeed, in our benchmarks testing, the iPad mini performed identically to the iPad 2 in every test except for our Web page-load test, where the iPad mini bested the iPad 2 by roughly 40 percent--likely because of the aforementioned 5GHz Wi-Fi enhancements in the mini.
My real-world testing echoed these findings, as the iPad mini felt much like an iPad 2 when playing games and watching videos. With one exception, I experienced no stuttering or slowdowns, even when playing graphics-heavy games, and even when mirroring the iPad's screen to an Apple TV using AirPlay. The exception was Real Racing 2 HD, but only when hosting a multiplayer game in Party Play mode, where my iPad was mirroring to an Apple TV both my screen and the screens of other players. In this test, the on-TV images stuttered at times, though the game was still quite playable.
In fact, on a few high-end games, the iPad mini--like the iPad 2 before it--at times performed as well as the third-generation iPad in terms of maintaining smooth graphics, because the third-generation Retina model has to push four times as many pixels. (The fourth-generation iPad, with its much better processor and graphics capabilities, outperforms the iPad mini pretty much everywhere.) The iPad mini also never got uncomfortably hot during heavy use--just warm.
Thanks to its enhanced Wi-Fi capabilities, the iPad mini offers noticeably better performance than the iPad 2 when loading webpages or streaming video--at least if you're connected to a 5GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi network. However, as with the iPad 2, the iPad mini's 512MB of RAM means that you'll experience more Safari-tab reloads than with a newer full-size iPad.
In terms of battery life, Apple says the iPad mini can last as long on a full charge as the standard iPad: up to 10 hours of Wi-Fi Web surfing, watching video, or listening to music; or up to 9 hours of Web surfing over a cellular-data connection. In our standard battery test, which involves looping a full-screen video at specific volume and screen-brightness levels, the iPad mini lasted 9 hours and twelve minutes, compared to 9 hours and 21 minutes for the fourth-generation iPad.
Battery life: iPad mini
Speaking of charging, the iPad mini includes Apple's 5-watt USB charger, like the iPhone 5, rather than the 10-watt or 12-watt chargers you get with full-size iPads. This initially surprised me, but it makes a little more sense when you consider that while the fourth-generation iPad has a 42.5-watt-hour battery, the iPad mini uses a 16.3-watt-hour battery, so it will actually charge, using the 5-watt charger, more quickly than the latest iPad with its 12-watt charger. On the other hand, the iPad mini's battery capacity is three times that of the iPhone 5's, so it will take considerably longer to charge the mini than an iPhone.
The iPad mini actually surpasses the latest full-size iPad in one specification: Along the bottom edge, bookending the Lightning-connector port, you'll find two speakers, rather than just one. However, you shouldn't expect a lot from these speakers. You don't get much stereo separation, given how close together the speakers are. (It would have been interesting if Apple had put one speaker on the bottom and one on the top, providing some minor stereo separation with the iPad in landscape orientation.) The iPad mini's audio also sounds tinnier than that of the full-size iPad, likely because either the mini's speaker drivers are smaller or, thanks to the thinness of the mini, have smaller enclosures around them, or both. (We didn't peek inside, and it's tough to tell from iFixit.com's iPad and iPad mini teardowns.) The full-size iPad plays louder, and it sounds better than the mini at the loudest levels; the tinniness of the iPad mini's audio starts to get a little grating at higher volumes. Overall, the iPad mini's speakers are closer in performance to that of the iPhone 5, although the iPad mini sounds a bit clearer than the iPhone.
There's one way, however, in which the mini's speaker layout offers an improvement over its siblings: Because there are two speakers, and they're located near the center of the bottom edge, you're less likely to cover them with your hand when holding the iPad mini in landscape orientation. In my testing watching video and playing games, at least one of the speakers was always unobstructed. On the standard iPad, my left hand often covers the speaker unless I rotate the iPad 180 degrees.
Finally, the mini differs from other iPad models in that it uses the same nano-SIM card as the iPhone 5 does; the standard iPads use the older micro-SIM standard.
Detached from Retina
Surely the most controversial aspect of the iPad mini is that, contrary to Apple's recent trend towards high-resolution screens, it doesn't have a Retina display. Instead, it offers the same screen resolution as the original iPad and the iPad 2, 1024 by 768 pixels. That's considerably lower resolution than the 2048-by--1536-pixel display of the third-generation and fourth-generation iPads, and, in one dimension at least, it's even lower than the 1136-by--640-pixel display of the latest iPhone and iPod touch models.
Each iOS device originally debuted without a Retina display, so the iPad mini is simply following that pattern. But at a time when all other iOS devices--and even Apple's MacBook Pro models--have made the transition to Retina displays, the iPad mini lags behind. For those of us deeply involved in the Apple market (meaning we've already got Retina-display gear) the lack of a Retina display is disappointing.