October 24, 2013, 4:40 PM — Prepare your wallets, mortgage your house, and start looking for odd jobs around the neighborhood, because Apple's new iPad mini with Retina display looks to be one of the must-have gadgets of the year. By combining a small frame with a faster processor and a better screen, Apple's taken everything we loved about the original Mini and pumped it up a few notches to keep the tablet competitive against the Android tablets slowly invading its turf. We've already extensively compared two such tablets--Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX and Google's new Nexus 7--but it's time to throw the iPad Mini into the fight and see how it fares against these two 7-inch juggernauts when it comes to specs, price, and ecosystem.
Specs ain't nothing but a number
Much as with phones, quad-core processors are the standard in top-tier tablets these days. Last year's iPad mini had the same dual-core processor as the iPad 2, making it a little long in the tooth even when the tablet first launched. With this year's iPad mini, however, Apple's given the tablet a significant boost in processing power. The new mini has the same A7 processor you'll find in the iPhone 5s and the full-sized new iPad, making it capable of running pretty much any app in the App Store. Although it's still only a dual-core processor, chances are you won't notice the difference in performance between the new iPad mini and any of the quad-core Android tablets currently out. Our tests show the A7 is wicked fast.
The biggest upgrade comes in the form of the mini's new Retina display. It's the same resolution as the Retina display on the full-sized iPad, giving you roughly the same pixel density you get out of both the new Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX--both of which have awesome displays. While you'll still want to go with a larger 10-inch tablet for reading comic books and magazines, the high-resolution screens on these three tablets make them ideal for reading or watching videos on the go.
Simply comparing specs, the iPad mini seems well positioned against the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire HDX. The three tablets are all roughly the same size and should all offer the same performance, judging from their respective innards. But, as we've seen so many timesin the past, there's more to a device than just specs.
Bang for your buck
At $399 the 16GB, Wi-Fi only iPad mini is significantly more expensive than either the Nexus 7 or the Kindle Fire. A fully tricked out, 64GB Kindle Fire HDX sets you back just $7 more than the basic iPad mini with retina display, while the 32GB LTE Nexus 7 retails for a modest $349. Of course price is relative, but you get significantly more from Amazon and Google's Android tablets for less than the price of the entry-level iPad mini. If you're buying a tablet on a budget and want to get the most features for the least amount of money, Android or Amazon is the way to go.
Price aside, neither Amazon nor Google can hold a candle to Apple's ecosystem of Apps, content, and accessories. Tablet apps for Android are few and far between and even Amazon's heavily curated app store feels empty next to Apple's digital storefront. It's no secret that app developers often choose to launch on iOS first, so the mini will benefit from having all of the hottest apps on day one rather than waiting a few weeks, months, or even years like you do with Android.
It's not just apps either: As much as we loathe iTunes, it's still one of the most convenient places to purchase music, movies, and TV shows. The Kindle Fire HDX has the benefit of shipping with a free month long trial of Amazon Prime, but the selection of streaming content is limited and you only really benefit from the membership if you purchase most of your goods from Amazon. Amazon's tablet does let you save videos to it for offline streaming, but the media library really needs an upgrade if it hopes to compete with Apple's wealth of content.
Apple devices also have better accessory support, so you'll never have trouble finding a case, dock, or charger for your tablet. Even if you don't like Apple's Smart Cover or Smart Case, there are literally hundreds of other companies cranking out cases, shells, and covers that will work on the new iPad mini. Google makes its own cases and sleeves for the Nexus 7...but you'll have to really dig to find any other accessories for the tablet that don't flat-out suck. If you're concerned about having a matching leopard-skin case and dock for your tablet, then the iPad mini would be the way to go.
Keeping up with the Joneses
There's nothing truly "revolutionary" about the new iPad mini--if anything this is an iterative update that helps keep Apple's tablet competitive with Amazon and Google's offerings. Although the hardware isn't a massive departure from what we've seen in other tablets, Apple's ecosystem is what's going to really help the mini thrive in the long run. Even if Amazon and Google come out with the sleekest, fastest tablets ever, the two companies will continue to have an uphill battle against Apple when it comes to content and accessories. When you buy an iPad you don't just buy a tablet, you buy an Apple way of life, and in the tablet market, that makes a difference.