400 Smackers and Up for a New iPad mini with Retina? Is it worth it?

You have to go check out this quick review over at CNET announcing (with a brief hands on) the new iPad mini. What amounts to a near-flame war erupts between anti and pro Apple fans in the comments section below (quite humorous as most flames quickly become.) The arguments against the new tablet mostly go something along the line of why Apple lovers would pay so much more (than for a Kindle Fire or Nexus 7, for example). I will attempt to explain my upgrade logic in this post. If you are considering a new lightweight, small. and snappy tablet this holiday season, I would definitely give the new iPad mini with Retina a long and hard look...

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I started writing this post as a typical, "I'm upgrading to a new mini, because blah blah, etc. etc." I stopped and really thought about it. I have the original mini, which I waited for and upgraded to from an old hand-me-down iPad 1. I love the mini, by the way. When I heard a new mini might be coming out, I skipped my birthday present (have to pool my gift opportunities for something expensive like an iPad). I have been entertaining other tablet options too recently (perish the thought)! Why not do some research and see if it's really worth it to upgrade, jump to something else, or simply wait another year, right??

A New iPad mini with Retina Display!

I expected a new Retina Display iPad mini would be announced this month, and figured it would have the new processors (which I was not disappointed to find is the case), but was surprised Apple decided to leave off the fingerprint scanner. That would have been a nice addition (though a bit of a gimmick on a tablet). The 16GB Wi-Fi version is a bit more than my original iPad mini 16GB, but I expected that as well (really only about 50 bucks). So to upgrade to a Retina mini, I would shell out as much as $399 (or more for more storage) for the exact same tablet I have; but it would include:

  • Higher Screen Quality. How important is this honestly? Retina has always looked great on the larger iPad, but the original mini has an attractive and sharp screen at its lower resolution and size. I am concerned that some of my older (non-Retina) games and apps (some of which are actually made only for iPhone) are not going to look too good blown up on the 2048X1536 display. However, HD content and Retina apps should look great with what is the highest pixels per inch of any iPad.
  • New A7 Faster Processor. This could equate to significant performance boost as discussed on this site about the iPhone (same CPU), but of course the truth is the boost will be subjective to the app (and maybe some bugs with it). No word yet on how much program memory the system will have, but I can't imagine it being much more than original mini. I think the A7 will make a big difference in the mini though compared to the A5.
  • New Motion Co-Processor. This should also result in more efficient processing, and the ability for certain apps that track motion to leverage the API. It's not a hugely compelling feature for a tablet in my opinion.
  • Faster Wireless. MIMO (multi input and mulit output) basically allows for multiple parallel packets to be transmitted and received through the wireless network interface (Air and mini support a 2X2 interface). Speeds of up to 300Mbps were kicked around as a theoretical max; but always remember that both the device and the router have to support these capabilities to achieve this, and other bottlenecks could still knock throughput back down.

The Competition

I work in an IT environment with other computer system engineers. If I want to see, try, or use just about any of the latest technology, I simply have to walk down the cube farm, and poke my head into someone's cube. I have briefly swiped screens and poked around on most of the late generation tablets on the market (Windows, Android, etc.). Consider, for example, that both the 7-inch Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire HDX have:

  • Good screen quality. Both Fire and Nexus 7 have HD quality displays at 7" and 1920X1280 resolution and can match pixel density with the mini. Though the mini is technically higher in screen resolution, the human eye may not really see much difference.
  • Good CPU. In the case of Kindle Fire HDX, the CPU choice is a quad-core snapdragon clocked at 2.2GHz, with a lower clock speed in the Nexus 7 (1.5Ghz). Though neither can claim a 64-bit processing architecture, I would say that for many apps, they will be on a par with the mini in terms of general performance (my impressions of Android OS and Kindle GUI in general are that they are a bit sluggish). Graphics-intense operations and games should clearly go to the mini.
  • Good Wireless. While both Fire and Nexus have cellular/Wi-Fi options on par with iPad, to my knowledge neither currently includes any advanced wireless options like MIMO. Still, for many use cases, this will not necessarily translate to huge boosts in network performance.

I am honestly mostly impressed with the various leading tablets. But, do I think there is a small tablet that matches the stability, flexibility, and quality of an iPad mini? Without hesitation, I must say no. Not that those other devices aren't great. Many of them are, but it's a flavor that Apple builds into their gear. They design their own hardware and operating system and it shows. It makes a big difference for someone who uses a tablet as much as I do. I test a ton of games and software, and write most of my reviews on my iPad mini. It is often a tool, an entertainment center, and more. 

The improvements to the mini (better screen and CPU) are compelling enough to justify upgrading. Since I already own a lot of Apple apps and are tied heavily into that ecosystem, I probably won't go with anything on the Android side. But that doesn't mean I have made a final decision yet. Just that the math is starting to add up to a new iPad mini with Retina Display in my mind.

The Verdict

My iPad mini has never had a single major problem since I bought it. It has never "crashed,"meaning it has never "blue screened" or frozen (requiring a full reset). I have never had to return it for support, or contact Apple for help. I usually keep it near its max storage limit, and it still runs great. If you want something of superior quality and performance (be it a car, a house, a boat, a computer, etc.), sometimes you have to pay a bit more. I do think the expense is worth it in the case of the iPad mini, so am strongly in favor of the upgrade. I may still elect to keep my original mini (which works great, as I said), and jump to a different platform (maybe a Windows tablet). I might wait until after the holidays. Either way, I will probably not be an early adopter, and will watch for the braver souls at iPhonelife to make the jump before I do in order to gauge their experiences. I encourage you to do the same; but if you are eye-balling a new mini as well, I can't see at this point how you can go wrong.

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Nate Adcock is a system and integration engineer with experience managing and administering a variety of computing environments. He has worked extensively with mobile gadgets of all shapes and sizes for many years. He is also a former military weather forecaster. Nate is a regular contributor for the iphonelife.com and smartphonemag.com blogs and helps manage both websites. Read more from Nate at natestera.tumblr.com or e-mail him at nate@iphonelife.com.