Introduction and design
It’s hard to work out what Apple’s up to with its iPad range. You’d have said the mini selection of tablets was being retired after the mini 3 got the minimum upgrade possible… but then the iPad mini 4 was quietly rolled out.
And it’s actually rather good.
Okay, you can easily argue that it’s the tablet the mini 3 should have been, and there’s an infuriating drop in spec compared to the iPad Air 2 (the mini 2 and the iPad Air were almost identical except in size, and it was awesome). But it’s still one of the better tablets around.
This is the iPad Air 2 in a smaller frame, which is a great base to begin with – even now the Air 2 is the best tablet on the market without doubt. It’s a shame we didn’t get the iPad Air 3 in 2015, but the whole slate market is in flux right now, so perhaps you can forgive a degree of caution on Apple’s part.
In fact, you could argue that Apple has too many products out there now – after all, this is a brand that only does one (ish) phone a year. With the addition of the iPad Pro, there are now three tablets in the line-up, with the bigger models taking the attention at the launch.
Despite that the iPad mini 4 is obviously the best smaller tablet Apple has ever created; well, I say obviously, but the mini 3 was actually something of a backwards step. That device was just the mini 2 with a new colour and Touch ID, but the mini 4 is a much better device.
If you’re torn between the large and smaller models, the key thing to know about the mini range is that it’s a tablet that can actually go in your pocket. Not easily, admittedly, but it’ll slip easily into a jacket for on-the-go slate action.
Coming in at £319 / $399 / AU$569 for the base 16GB Wi-Fi-only model, this still isn’t the budget option we’ve been after from Apple (and will probably never get, given the brand’s lust for premium, high-cost devices), but it’s much closer than the larger variants, and the mini 2 exists for those looking for a lower-price iPad.
So what’s Apple up to? Is the mini tablet market being eaten by phablets – in fact, is the iPhone 6S Plus cannibalising the mini 4? Or is it that we’re not replacing tablets at the same rate, thus making it harder for Apple to justify constantly creating a premium model each year?
It’s a shame – the lower price of the iPad mini 2 makes it a real consideration, so this review is essentially going to look at whether, despite the older components, the iPad mini 4 can be considered a decent ‘new’ tablet.
The design of the iPad mini 4 is going to come as no surprise to most, as it’s still borrowing the same design language from the original iPad mini. The same swooping curved edges are used once more, and the ceramic-like back of the tablet feels brilliant in the hand.
The mini 4, like the iPad Air 2, has had a little bit of thickness shaved off compared to its predecessor to make it even more portable, and the weight is reduced accordingly. The iPad mini 4 is down to 299g, from 331g, which makes it even easier to slip into the inside pocket of a jacket or hide in a bag.
The screen is still encased with the same large bezels from all other iPads, but with less down the horizontal sides (when you’re holding the mini 4 in portrait orientation) to make things look a little sleeker.
Is that a good thing? Will you not rub your palms all over it and interact with the screen unwillingly when you’re trying to browse the web or read a book on the go? Thankfully, the screen is more intelligent, and can work out when you’re going to want to do this and when you’re not, so you won’t have to worry too much about accidental taps.
The rest of the tablet is pretty much as expected, with only the silencer switch missing. This has been gradually eradicated from most of Apple’s devices of late, with the silencer finding a home in the Control Center section (found by dragging up from the bottom of the screen) and working just as well when you need to shut the iPad up.
Some people think Apple gets kudos for its design language simply because of the brand, but there’s still the same hallmark craftsmanship present throughout this tablet, with ergonomics carefully thought out. The volume and power buttons are just prominent enough to be found without looking, yet still don’t catch on pockets or bags when the device is being flung about.
The iPad mini 4 is one of the most robust and premium-feeling tablets on the market; it’s probably not going to survive a fight with barbed wire, but the casing can handle some rough treatment in a bag, that’s for sure.
It always makes sense to pick up a case or cover to protect the screen, but that display too has got some strength to it. I’m not suggesting you throw it out of windows regularly (not just for damage purposes – that’s just a dumb thing to do. Why are you even considering it?) but it’s going to handle the odd drop from the bed.
It’s all about the screen and apps…
While the iPad mini 4 represents a big step forward from the mini 3’s demi-upgrade, it’s not exactly chock-full of innovation – but then again, few tablets are these days. That’s not to say that the mini 4 deserves a free ride, as there are some brands doing interesting things (the Lenovo Yoga Pro 3 packing a projector, for instance), but the key thing here is that the whole package works very well indeed.
It’s about portability and power, and the iPad mini 4 has that in spades. However despite this being a ‘hitting the marks’ tablet, there are some impressive elements of Apple’s latest cut-down device, and while it’s not got 3D Touch, Live Photos, levitating abilities or laser projection they’re impressive nonetheless.
Easily the best part of the mini 4 is the screen. Apple has been charging hard at making one of the best tablet screens on the market, and it got pretty close with iPad Air 2, offering a more colorful and responsive touch experience through new technology.
The same screen has been used on the new mini, and as such it’s even better. That’s because the 2048 x 1536 pixel count has been kept and squeezed into the smaller 7.9-inch display, making everything look clearer and sharper than ever before.
While it’s not got the same pixel count of the iPhone 6S Plus (which has a 1080p screen at 5.5 inches, offering 401ppi) the tablet is a different device, where you’ll hold it further from your eyes. That means the 324ppi is razor sharp and photos, video and web pages look as crisp as can be.
You might argue that this isn’t anything new. After all, we’ve had this sharpness since the iPad mini 2, but you’d be missing the key upgrades Apple has brought.
The key thing here is the lack of reflection. The iPad mini 4 has a great screen because there’s so little glare coming off the display when you’re watching things on the go, and the effect of this is two-fold.
Firstly, if you’re on a train to work trying to catch up on the latest literally-must-see-otherwise-Twitter-will-ruin-it-when-I-forget-and-open-the-app-and-then-throw-my-tablet-out-the-window-in-anger drama, it’s so infuriating when a little bit of light can completely mask the action.
That’s not the case here, with the colors pouring forth from the screen with ease even in bright light. The hugely reflective screen was one of my biggest gripes with the first iPad mini, and it’s amazing to see that it’s evolved to such a point in a relatively short amount of time.
The other benefit is that when you’re watching in more ideal conditions – indoors for example – the depth and richness of the screen is really great. Grab yourself a few higher-power apps or indie games that focus on more noir-ish effects, and you’ll love playing them again and again on the iPad mini 4.
Similarly photos looks amazing on this thing – as well as 4K footage you’ve captured and shared with the tablet from an iPhone 6S or 6S Plus. In short, it’s one of the best tablet screens out there – and that’s a feeling echoed by the experts.
DisplayMate’s Dr Ray Soneira stated: “The iPad mini 4 has finally grown up and become a full-fledged respectable iPad family member, with a high performance display that Steve Jobs would be proud of.
“[It’s got] not only a full and very accurate 101% sRGB Color Gamut, but even more important, with a very low 2.0% screen reflectance – the lowest we have ever measured for any mobile display – very impressive.”
So there you have it.
Here’s where things could take a turn for the worse with the iPad mini 4. Apple’s iPad Air 2, as I’ve mentioned, is the basis for this new smaller tablet, but it’s not got the same power levels inside, as the benchmarks will demonstrate.
The iPad Air 2 uses the Apple A8X chip, designed specifically for tablets. However, the iPad mini 4 doesn’t take the same engine, instead going for the A8 chipset that was used to push along the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus – except it uses 2GB of RAM, rather than the 1GB used in the phones.
The benchmarks aren’t that impressive, with the iPad mini 4 being about as powerful as the mid-range HTC One A9, which uses the new mid-power Snapdragon 617 chipset. It’s not a real problem in day-to-day use, as I didn’t notice a huge amount of slowdown when opening and closing apps – but there’s the future to think about.
Given that most tablets have at least a three-year lifespan, according to recent buyer surveys, the mini 4 may begin to feel a little underpowered some time before you’re thinking about upgrading – so bear that in mind when buying, and think about whether something hyper-powerful like the iPad Pro might better suit your needs.
That said, if you’re specifically after a mini Apple tablet, there’s not much better around – the mini 4 is far more powerful than the iPad mini 2 (and is more expensive as a result – quite a lot more), so it’s the mini 4 or nothing if that’s what your heart is set on.
The benchmark results (explained in more detail later on), with the new tablet running iOS 9.2, show precisely what we expected: it’s not quite as powerful as the larger iPad Air 2, but still acceptable given what’s required from it.
The big seller for Apple with the iPad range is the sheer vastness of the app library, with so many designed specifically for the tablet. That’s a big plus point, as many Android equivalents are made for the phone and nothing else, meaning a scaled up version just doesn’t look as good.
App developers coding for the iPad know what they’re getting in terms of resolution and screen dimensions, and as a result the quality is magnified.
So whether you want a decent video player, a game that understands you’re going to have to hold the ‘gamepad’ differently or just something that packs in more icons thanks to the larger screen size, the App Store will always be a winning reason to pick up the iPad.
Specs and performance
The iPad mini 4 is, again, a powerful player when it comes to picking the best mini tablet around. The ease with which it can glide through most tasks is impressive, and I found very little that slowed it down at all.
The benchmarks tell the same story: scoring 3126 on Geekbench 3, which is over 200 more than the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. That makes sense given there’s more RAM on board the tablet than the phones, and iOS 9 has been further optimised to make the experience that much slicker.
The iOS 9 interface works well on the smaller tablet, with everything within easy reach, and thanks to the improved screen technology nabbed from the iPad Air 2, the mini 4 is much more responsive under the finger, thanks to being able to get the feel of your digit more swiftly.
Of course there’s no 3D Touch on offer here – it only landed on the iPhone 6S relatively recently, and Apple loves to save really good technology for its other devices until it really needs to add it in.
It’s a shame it’s not here, as Apple could have done something really amazing by putting the pressure-based interactivity on this smaller tablet, but I guess we’ll just have to wait until the iPad mini 5 turns up before we can get our hands on it.
It’s not ideal though, and Apple’s really short-changing consumers by not adding it into this new model.
Still, while the mini lacks a little on the hardware front, iOS 9 brings some much appreciated improvements to the interface.
Apple Maps is creeping ever closer to Google Maps, with the addition of public transport directions (though only for certain cities) and an easy way to find nearby shops, restaurants, petrol stations and other points of interest.
I’d still give Google Maps the edge, but Apple Maps is now a decent alternative. Similarly, Siri has been given a boost, as it can now better respond to requests. The keyboard has been improved too, most notably in now clearly differentiating upper case from lower case, so there’s no longer any excuse for accidentally TYPING IN ALL CAPS.
The biggest change to the interface is an iPad exclusive: the split-screen capability of the iPad range is going to entice some users. Well, I say that, but I keep forgetting it exists and barely use it.
The idea is simple: you swipe in from the right-hand side of the screen and get a list of all the apps that are capable of running, side-by-side with what you’re doing. The list of apps that are ‘multi-tasking’-enabled is largely limited to Apple native options, but there will be more in the future.
I can’t really see why on a screen this size, though. Why would you need to be browsing Google Maps and then have a quick read of Twitter at the same time? On a larger screen, especially the iPad Pro, I can see why this makes sense as you’re holding two iPads next to each other.
But it’s just as easy on the iPad mini 4 to double-tap the home button and skip between apps, rather than having too much information on the screen. And there’s more…
Maybe two apps at once isn’t enough stimulation. A couple of apps (and probably the TV on in the background) is never going to satisfy our multi-tasking needs, so why not watch some video too?
Yep, you can do that with the iPad mini 4, with a resizable window floating around the screen if you’re watching something in the official Apple Videos app. This allows you to be as advanced as on the Samsung Galaxy 3 from 2012.
Don’t do it though. Don’t be that guy.
Music, movies and gaming
The iPad mini 4 is a great tablet for media, simply because it’s been tuned by a company that’s got a lot of skin in this particular game.
The jury’s still out on whether Apple Music is going to be a success, but there’s something about it that I can’t seem to shake. Whether it’s the curation level or just the gloss the interface offers, I find something to listen to every time.
It’s very different to Spotify, which I just abuse for the same easy hit songs I like – apart from Discover Weekly, I’ll avoid pre-defined playlists or albums.
But Apple Music seems to have a slight edge – this might fade over time, but for now, on the iPad mini 4 it’s definitely backed up by excellent sonic performance.
The clarity is clear, crisp and comes with very little distortion. Even streamed tunes sound great in lower fidelity – the iPad isn’t the best thing for portable tunes, but if it’s next to you on the desk while you’re working, you’ll plug your headphones into it rather than into your computer.
The iPad range is easily the best set of devices on the market for portable movie watching, and after admitting that, it’s only a case of which size fits you best.
You can argue that bigger screens are better for a movie marathon, but the compact nature and higher pixel density of the mini 4 make it something I love to whip out on the train for a quick movie session.
It’s not necessarily that it’s the best tablet for movie-watching technically – you could argue that there are equally capable tablets for the task out there, depending on personal preference.
However, iOS has the greatest number of high-end movie and TV apps out there, and thanks to the security and consistency of the iPad range there are more apps that allow downloadable content too.
It’s not miles ahead of the rest, but that stability is a key consideration – and the longer battery life means a couple of movies on the plane is definitely possible. Throw in the improved screen and it really is a great tablet for watching films.
The only area of media performance that’s going to suffer down the line is gaming, as there will be new titles that come out which the mini 4 can’t get the best out of. High-power games from last year will be clear and crisp, with a great frame rate, but newer titles might not hit the heights they would on the iPad Pro or new crop of iPhones.
For instance, Real Racing 3 performs very well – better, in fact, than on phones which have a better benchmark score, as Apple has a very well integrated graphics chip that means everything plays together nicely.
And things that play well together perform better and consume less power – so while you might not be getting the ultimate gaming machine, it’s only going to be 4-5% of titles that will suffer even slightly.
That said, the screen response time is so good that the more tap-based games just feel far more fluid; for the casual gamer, this is a great device that stands astride phone and tablet.
Battery and camera
The battery life of the iPad mini 4 is very good. Very good indeed – but that’s hardly going to come as a surprise to anyone who’s used another cuttingedge tablet. They’re all really good at lasting hours and hours, given that for much of the time we leave them in sleep mode in bags or on sofas.
The 10 hours quoted seems to hold up with the iPad mini 4, as even though I didn’t have to go on any long-haul flights which could have properly tested the tablet, I could go at least seven days without charging the mini 4 before even having to think about finding a power source.
The battery test we conduct (where a 90-minute Full HD video is run at maximum brightness from full charge) yielded precisely the results we expected, with the power pack only dropping by 20% to 80%. That’s similar to the iPad Air 2, although that was a little less efficient with media playback, with the battery dropping to 77% in the same test.
The slightly stronger performance from the mini 4’s battery might be down to the lower-spec processor, but the difference between the two is negligible, especially in real-world use.
The good news is that playing around with the tablet doesn’t cause the battery to drop dramatically. The screen can be up at full brightness and you won’t get the scary drops in power that you’ll see on phones, even with the data connection on.
At half brightness, which is more around where you’re likely to keep it, the iPad mini 4 can keep chugging along for hours on end; 45 minutes of web browsing over Wi-Fi saw a drop of 6% for example. Gaming hits it harder, especially more demanding titles, but for anything short of a long-haul flight it should still have enough juice to see you through.
The iPad mini 4 doesn’t even seem to get that warm when pushed a little harder, which again has a positive effect on battery life. Overall, a tick from me.
The camera on the iPad mini 4 is predictably the 8MP iSight camera we saw on the iPad Air 2, back again – there’s no need for it, of course, given that this is a tablet and therefore should never be used as a main snapper, but hey… there we go.
I wrote in the iPad mini 3 review that taking a tablet to an event such as a wedding to capture images is never acceptable. And since then I’ve actually seen someone do just that. It made me sad.
That said, I don’t think Apple should ditch the camera – it has the potential to be a really useful tool when you add in the myriad apps that can do video analysis.
For instance, runners can be monitored by coaches and then have their performance slowed down and checked out. The same with golf, tennis, swimming – basically anything that we couldn’t easily see in slow motion before but can now.
To that end, it’s brilliant to see the slow motion effects being used here – you can record 120fps at 720p HD footage to get a really nice slow-down effect. It’s smooth, and looks really clear on the larger (than the iPhone’s) screen, and could be a real winner for people looking to use the mini 4 for that purpose.
That said, the iPad Pro offers a much better way of doing this, and packs in far more raw power. It’s up to you how you use it, and what size you want, but the Apple Pencil and larger screen mean that sports coaching, to stick with that example, is probably better served by the newer model.
Using the camera on the iPad mini 4 is simplicity itself, which is what you’d expect from a tablet photography app. The options are few, with the ability to turn on HDR mode pretty much the most advanced thing on offer, and the interface is kept nice and simple.
The time-lapse function is a good thing to see again – you’ll be able to shoot over longer durations thanks to the better battery life, and it’s another feature that helps to make the case for the camera actually existing on the iPad mini 4.
Just don’t take this to a wedding, please.
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Samsung Galaxy Tab S2
Yes, it’s another ‘Apple vs Samsung’ battle – and the South Korean firm is the only one that’s really offering anything resembling an alternative to Apple’s efforts to dominate the tablet market.
The Tab S2 is a really nice-looking device though, and it has the power of the Super AMOLED screen to make images and video look really great.
The power and battery life both outstrip the iPad mini 4, with the former scoring highly in our benchmarking tests. In fact it’s only bettered by a handful of slates, like the iPad Air 2 and the iPad Pro, in the tablet market.
There are a lot of reasons to dislike the Tab S2, thanks to the slightly cartoonish UI, but it’s a nice tablet that’s perfect for the Android fan.
Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact
This is Sony’s smaller tablet competitor, and it’s getting on a bit now. It’s not got a lot of power under the hood, and the screen is lower resolution. However, that lack of pixels is offset by the clever use of Sony’s display tech, which helps a lot.
The Z3 Tablet Compact is also waterproof too, which is a big advantage for a smaller tablet like this (where dropping into the bath is a real possibility thanks to its smaller size).
It’s a cheaper option, and Sony’s clever ability to mix in decent technology should never be overlooked; but there are better choices for the Android user.
This is one for the Android lovers out there – it’s the top Google Nexus tablet around at the moment (mostly because it’s the only one), and it’s still rather decent. Google has since topped it with the larger, pricier Pixel C, but that’s technically not a Nexus device – and at 10.2 inches it’s no alternative to the iPad mini 4 either.
The Nexus 9 will get the earliest updates to the newest versions of Android – and Android Marshmallow offers the best in terms of slick performance and battery economy. The HTC-made tablet also has some top features, such as dual front-facing Boomsound speakers, making this a great media device.
iPad Air 2
The larger tablet still costs a little more, but the mini 4’s older and bigger brother is still a wonderful tablet to use. It’s insanely powerful (only a handful of new phones and slates offer more grunt), and the larger screen works better with the new iOS 9 split-screen options.
The main thing to love about this tablet is the range of accessories though – there are just so many, and it’s really great to be able to flip into laptop replacement or gaming device mode. Plus there are loads of great apps which perform well on the bigger display. If you’re not bothered about size, upgrade.
iPad mini 2
The mini 3 is off sale, but unless you’re desperate for Touch ID you’re not missing much. The mini 4 predecessor is cheaper, but has a lower-power chipset and only comes in 16GB options – plus it’s a chunkier beast.
That said, the performance isn’t that much lower, and if you’re thinking of buying a budget Apple tablet for a loved one who’s not especially tech savvy, you could do a lot worse.
The iPad mini 4 is a strong tablet, and – especially given that I was worried we wouldn’t ever see a new iPad mini – a welcome addition to the family.
I’m not sure why Apple launched this powerful little tablet with so little fanfare at the iPhone launch, but I guess it wanted to make sure the iPad Pro and new handsets grabbed all the headlines.
That’s a shame, as there’s a lot to like here – even though it’s a little on the aged side in terms of the components being used.
The display on the iPad mini 4 is really lovely. It’s got less glare, a lovely resolution and pin-sharp clarity; in short, it’s a joy to look at everything on this tablet.
The power and performance are really strong too; while it’s not quite at the iPad Air 2 level, it’s perfectly capable of doing everything I wanted – and the media performance in particular is very strong.
The app library remains a key strength of the iPad line-up, and shouldn’t be taken for granted on this smaller iPad – especially as on that sharper screen everything looks colorful and pleasant.
This will come as no surprise, but it would have been mega if Apple has decided to throw 3D Touch onto this device. The mini 4 has the ability to run it (in terms of screen clarity), and while I understand that the brand wants to hold some toys back to make the next iPad mini impressive, there could have been something better here.
The split-screen option doesn’t quite work on the cramped screen, but that’s a decent optional extra rather than a key function, so it’s hard to see that as a massive negative.
Using the Apple A8 chipset seems to have improved the battery life, but it leaves the actual performance of the slate a little behind that of the iPad Air 2.
It’s not a big deal day to day, and it’s clearly been done to keep the cost down, but were the mini 4 to have the newer chip it would have been a more compelling purchase by far.
The iPad mini 4 is going to be an underground hit for Apple. While the mini 3 was woefully disappointing (coming with literally just Touch ID and a new color as upgrades over the mini 2), there’s a real step forward here.
The mini 4 should have been launched earlier, and could have helped to reduce the slowdown in tablet interest we’ve seen recently. I’m still not convinced that tablets will mimic phones in terms of sales in the future, but better hardware and an upgraded design will at least help in this respect.
The little things that irk Android fans will remain of course – using iTunes to transfer anything across is still a slight hindrance, but it’s manageable, and it’s not as onerous as it used to be thanks to the changes in the operating system that enable you to do such things wirelessly.
Apple did the iPad mini 4 a disservice by launching it so discreetly. It’s a powerful, compact device that doesn’t cost a huge amount – combine that with Apple’s App Store library, and you’ve got something very impressive.
First reviewed: September 2015