Katherine Boehret

An iPad That’s Mini in Screen Size Only

It’s largely accepted that miniature versions must compromise on something. Fancy sports cars lack back seats, snack-size candy bars are missing a whole lot of chocolate and the iPad mini wants for high quality screen resolution and speedy performance.

Until now.

Apple’s new iPad mini, which starts at $399 and became available last week, has virtually the same specs as its big brother, the full-size iPad Air. Both offer the same head-turning Retina display with a super sharp screen resolution. Both have the same new chip for faster processing and improved graphics performance. Both have better technology for connecting to Wi-Fi or cellular networks. And both have improved front-facing cameras that work better in low light.

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Apple’s iPad mini with Retina display has a processor that’s four times as fast as the original mini, which helps with apps like iMovie, second screen from the right.

This means you basically just choose what size screen you prefer, the 9.7-inch iPad Air or the 7.9-inch iPad mini with Retina display, without compromising.

I’ve been testing the iPad mini with Retina display for the past week and a half, and this miniature version doesn’t make me feel like I’m compromising on anything. My everyday iPad is the iPad 3 with Retina display, but I found myself reaching more often for the new mini, tossing it into a bag to use on the go. I also carried it around the house more than I do my full-size iPad. And in my taxing battery test, it lasted 11 hours and 17 minutes, which is longer than Apple’s estimate of 10 hours.

This iPad mini with Retina display is the second iteration of the iPad mini. The first version, which came out about a year ago, has now dropped in price and is only available in a 16-gigabyte model; the Wi-Fi version costs $299 and the Wi-Fi and cellular model costs $429.

When I picked up the new iPad mini with Retina display, it looked and felt like the original mini. Technically, it’s slightly thicker and heavier, but these differences are barely noticeable.

The real changes can be seen when this thing is turned on. While the original iPad mini’s screen wasn’t sending people back to the store with complaints, I noticed pixilation in it after being spoiled by the larger iPad with Retina display. This new iPad mini fixes that problem with a resolution of 2048 x 1536, compared with 1024 x 768 in the original mini. And since it has the same resolution as the larger iPad Air but has a smaller screen, it actually packs in more pixels per inch, 326 versus 264.

Apple included its A7 chip in this device, an addition that gives the mini a processor that’s four times as fast as its predecessor and graphics that are eight times as fast. It zipped from one screen to the next, downloading apps and movies much faster than previous iterations of the iPad. And I edited video clips in iMovie without any hiccups or delays.

Apple’s App Store now has over 475,000 apps for the iPad and all run on the iPad mini without any distortion or magnification required. As of Sept. 1, all new Apple mobile devices come with free versions of Apple apps, including iPhoto, iMovie and iWork (Apple’s version of Microsoft Office-like programs called Pages, Numbers and Keynote).

I tested the new iPad mini’s battery life by playing a nonstop loop of video with the screen set to 75 percent brightness and Wi-Fi turned on to collect email in the background. The 11 hours and 17 minutes I got was impressive on its own, but also notable considering that the iPad Air got over 12 hours in the same test. Needless to say, you won’t often worry about charging either of these tablets.

The front- and rear-facing cameras on the new iPad mini are improvements to their previous versions, as I noticed while capturing photos and videos or while making FaceTime calls. The front-facing camera now uses what Apple calls its next-generation FaceTime HD camera and it has improved sensors for low-light situations. I especially appreciated this new feature because, with a new baby, I make a lot of FaceTime calls to relatives from dimly lit rooms where the baby is sleeping. Thanks to the new chip and the new iOS 7 software, the rear-facing camera now captures still images and video with enhancements like faster autofocus and up to three times zoom in videos.

This new iPad mini uses two antennas for its Wi-Fi connection, instead of just one as in the original mini, and a flavor of Wi-Fi that doubles its data rate compared with older iPads and the iPad Air. If you want a new iPad mini with a cellular connection, these start at $529 and support more ways of connecting to cellular networks in various countries — great news for heavy travelers.

I’m still not a fan of Apple’s cases. I tried the $69 Smart Case, which is new for the iPad mini family and protects the entire device, including its back. But I still found myself frustrated when the device frequently fell over from its propped-up position.

Overall, the iPad mini with Retina display is a winner. Plenty of people will now consider this a viable alternative to the full-size iPad without any of the miniature downsides.

Write to Katie at katie.boehret@wsj.com.


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