Review: Apple iPad Air vs iPad mini 2 with Retina display

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Price: iPad Air from $598; iPad mini 2 from $479 | By: Apple

Whether you like or loathe the company it’s hard to dispute that Apple is still the king when it comes to tablets with its market share hovering around the 30% mark just before the release of these new models. With the most mature tablet ecosystem and a year’s head start on everyone else it’s easy to understand why. And while the iPad Air and Retina-sporting iPad Mini don’t quite blow all the competition out of the water they do enough to beat back the more recent Android (and Windows) upstarts until the eventual 2014 refresh tools around.

More than hot air

To us the Air is the more appealing of the two – and the one that’s better value. The most significant change – and one you immediately feel – is the lower weight of the iPad Air. It may not sound revolutionary but the redesigned Air (whose new chassis makes it look like a blown-up Mini) has dropped around 180g from its predecessor going from around 650g to 470g and making it lighter than any other 10-incher our there.

Physical comfort can make a huge difference to the usability of a device and here it really pays off resulting in a tablet that’s light enough to be thrown it in a bag and hardly feel the weight. It’s likewise a device that’s not a chore to just pull out when needed or hold in one hand for prolonged periods.

And Apple’s new 64-bit ARM A7 processor (a dual-core unit running at 1.4GHz) absolutely flies along running on the back of a new 64-bit version of iOS. A sprinkling of apps can also already take advantage of those headroom upgrades – iMovie for example supports more audio and video tracks and can show editing changes in real-time to 1080p footage. (Apple’s made it relatively easy for developers to port their apps to the 64-bit architecture too.)

About the only gripe we have with the design is that the thinner bezels on the sides of the screen (when held in portrait mode) do make it slightly fiddlier to hold onto though the lower weight does somewhat mitigate the lessening of grip space.

Otherwise this new model is relatively similar to last year’s – that all-important display (9.7-inches at 2048 x 1536) for example is essentially identical producing clean and sharp images with solid contrast and colour balance.

Battery life was actually slightly improved over our iPad 4 lasting 11:56 hours compared to 10:27 hours in streaming video playback.

The new Mini

Though it might not look it on the outside the iPad mini has arguably copped an even more serious upgrade than its bigger sibling. The internals have jumped from being roughly on par with an iPad 2 up to almost matching the iPad Air – they both use the same CPU and GPU combined with 1GB of RAM though the Mini’s are clocked marginally slower (1.3GHz in the case of that A7 processor). Those changes actually mean it’s a tad heavier than before – 340g vs the older model’s 320g – but that’s not quite enough to make a noticable difference.

The change that current Mini owners will notice is that new screen. While it’s copped some flack online for not being great when it comes to colour and contrast when compared side-by-side with an original Mini the visuals on the Retina unit are clearly superior.

There’s the expected bump in sharpness and with the smaller size of text on that 7.9-inch screen that can mean less zooming is required; we found fine details looked less smeared too. Contrast was likewise superior adding more depth to scenes (both light and dark) in our test videos. The one downside was that the reds weren’t quite as deep on the new model – leading to things like skin tones looking marginally paler. Admittedly those are things that only really have impact in direct comparisons – in regular use it’s essentially unnoticeable.

As with the Air battery life was likewise impressive managing 10:04 hours in our streaming video test. The original Mini’s less-demanding hardware lasted 10:57 hours.

So which one?

The main argument against the new Mini is that price. The original model was already comparatively costly for its size and the extra $110 on top of that price (taking it from $369 to $479) puts it significantly above the likes of Google’s recently-refreshed Nexus 7. Apple’s clearly happy to charge a premium for its device and while the almost entirely new hardware does go some way to justifying that stance the smaller screen ultimately doesn’t offer as much flexibility as the full-size iPad Air.

Unless you categorically need that more compact size the Air’s larger screen does confer benefits for both entertainment and productivity. Text is rendered larger making it more legible for one and the bigger onscreen interface elements (such as keyboard keys) are less fiddly to activate. For an extra $120 the Air would be our choice as the more well-rounded option. Still it’s hard to argue that these are two almost equally-competent tablets that do cater to different usage models.

On the other hand this leaves Google’s 2013-model Nexus 7 virtually unchallenged at the budget end of the scale. If you’ve only got $300 to spend the 16GB model is still an absolute steal at that price.

 

APC Lab Benchmarks: iPad Air vs Microsoft Surface 2 vs iPad 4 vs iPad mini vs iPad mini 2 with Retina Display

Gaming performance

3DMark Unlimited Overall score
Apple iPad 4 10924
Apple iPad Air 14945
Apple iPad mini 2666
Apple iPad mini 2 with Retina display 14258
Microsoft Surface 2 14249

 

Gaming performance

GFXBench 2.7 T-Rex offscreen avg fps
Apple iPad 4 17
Apple iPad Air 25
Apple iPad mini 3.2
Apple iPad mini 2 with Retina display 25
Microsoft Surface 2 16

 

General performance

Geekbench 3 Single-threaded
Apple iPad 4 782
Apple iPad Air 1478
Apple iPad mini 262
Apple iPad mini 2 with Retina display 1394
Microsoft Surface 2 N/A

 

General performance

Geekbench 3 Multi-threaded
Apple iPad 4 1425
Apple iPad Air 2687
Apple iPad mini 497
Apple iPad mini 2 with Retina display 2514
Microsoft Surface 2 N/A

 

 

The Verdict:

 

iPad Air

Summary: A great all-rounder with excellent performance first-class battery life and a mature tablet ecosystem to back it all up.

Value : 4.5 stars
Features : 5 stars
Performance : 5 stars

Overall rating : 5 stars (out of 5)

 

iPad mini 2 with Retina display

Summary: Sporting essentially all the features of the Air but in a smaller package this is the king of mini tablets.

Value : 3 stars
Features : 5 stars
Performance : 5 stars

Overall rating : 4 stars (out of 5)


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