Faster, thinner and with a better screen, the iPad Mini 4 is a return to form and the best small tablet.
2014's iPad Mini 3 was a perfectly respectable tablet, but unfortunately it just wasn't the upgrade from the iPad Mini 2 that most people were expecting. Rather than revamping its internals, the only new feature introduced was Apple's Touch ID sensor and that was your lot. As a result, the Mini 3 seemed pretty poor value by comparison with its older brother.
Fortunately, it looks like Apple's back on track this year, as the iPad Mini 4 seems to improve on its predecessor in pretty much every way, cramming eerily similar iPad Air 2 specs into a significantly smaller body, looking to bringing an even greater level of parity between the small and large tablets Apple puts out.
There's one thing that seems to have remained a constant yet again, and that's Apple's excellent build quality, with the iPad Mini 4 seemingly retaining its crown as the best-made mini tablet. Its aluminium body, which is available in gold, space grey and silver, looks stunning, but still provides that reassuringly rugged feel that you expect from an Apple tablet. You just don't get this re-assuredness from plastic tablets, with the iPad Mini 4 blowing them all out of the water.
There are a couple of minor changes here, which I feel are for the better. As was also the case with the Air 2, the iPad Mini 4 no longer has the switch on the side, which could be set to toggle the screen rotation lock or silent mode. However, given that rotation lock is now in the swipe-up Control Centre menu in iOS and you can make the iPad silent by holding the volume down button, the button has now become quite unnecessary; in fact, I didn’t miss it on the iPad Air 2, as is also the case here.
There's also some newly redesigned volume buttons on the side too, so that rather from jutting out from the surface, they now sit inside a little hollow, which is yet again very similar to the button design on the iPad Air 2
Moving from the iPad Mini 2 and 3, the 4th iteration also has slightly different speaker grills at the bottom (one row of holes at the bottom, rather than stacked rows), and the size is now very slightly different: at 203x134x6.1mm the iPad Mini 4 is slightly taller and thinner than the iPad Mini 3 (200x135x7.5mm). During use, I felt that there’s very little difference between the new model and the older models: it’s actually extremely comfortable to hold and use one-handed, as you'd expect.
In use, there wasn't anything particularly wrong with the iPad Mini 2/3’s screen: it was bright and clear. But, put the older iPads next to a tablet with a better display, such as the iPad Air 2 and the differences became much more obvious, with the iPad Mini losing out on colour accuracy and detail in images. The Expert Reviews colour calibration tests sadly reaffirmed this, finding out that the iPad Mini 3 was sadly only capable of displaying 67.1% of the sRGB colour gamut.
This time around, we've now got a brand-new IPS panel with the iPad Mini 4 and the results are somewhat spectacular in comparison. I found that the new display was considerably better than the older version, with the colour calibrator registering that the iPad Mini 4 was capable of producing 94.8% of the sRGB colour gamut. What this means in real terms is that there's more detail in photos and more accurate colours, and I certainly found that the new display was one of the best that I’ve used.
There's been no alteration with the resolution in this year's model, with the new screen maintaining the same 2,048x1,536 resolution of the iPad Mini 3. At a high 324ppi, it means that everything looks extremely sharp. I have to say that this improved screen makes a clear difference to the product and it’s good to see that the one slightly weaker area of previous models has been improved substantially.
Performance and battery life
Up until this point we’ve had two generations of the iPad Mini using the same old A7 chip, but Apple has boosted the iPad Mini 4 with an A8 chip this time around, the same as used in the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. It's worth noting that this is not the A8X chip, as used in the iPad Air 2, which has three cores and greatly improved graphics performance. It’s also not the new A9 chip, as used in the iPhone 6S.
Still, the difference in performance from the previous generation is definitely noteworthy. Running GeekBench 3, which measures processor performance, I found that the iPad Mini 4 scored 1694 in the single-core test and 3058 in the multi-core test; a clear improvement over the 1385 and 2485 respective scores of the iPad Mini 3. That also puts the iPad Mini 4 in good stead against its closest competition, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2, which scored 1244 and 4182 - it's higher multi-threaded performance is because it has quad-core processor.
Web performance was also exceptionally good, thanks to the combination of the slickness of Safari, paired with the efficient processor and operating system. Running the PeaceKeeper browser test, we got an exceptionally high score, showing that this tablet can easily cope with any website.
In the GFXBench Manhattan benchmark, the iPad Mini 4 scored 925 running at native resolution and 1330 in the 1080p offscreen test. It shows that it’s more than capable of running any existing game you throw at it. Indeed, firing up Hearthstone, which is surprisingly graphically intense, the iPad Mini 4 ran the game beautifully as you'd expect.
The 5,124mAh battery was also incredibly good at keeping its charge, with the tablet lasting for 10h 43m in our video playback test with the screen set to a brightness of 170cd/m2. That’s a little over an hour more than the iPad Mini 3, which is mostly down to a more efficient OS and processor. It's also the best iOS tablet battery life score I've seen this year, as it beat both the iPad Pro and iPad Air 2 in our battery life head-to-head table. It's still got a some way to go before it matches other small compact tablets, such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 8.0 and Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact, but it's still pretty good overall.
The iPad Mini 4 originally had iOS 9, which brought with it some beautiful optimisations and animations for the diminutive tablet. The biggest introduction at the time, however, was the Split View mode, which allows you to run two apps side-by-side. It instantly makes the iPad Mini feel much more like a productivity tool.
Now, iOS 9.2 has been released and is available on the iPad Mini 4, but it wasn't quite so revolutionary. You do get some useful new apps, however, such as Apple News that brings curated news articles presented in an attractive and easy-to-use manner. Mail Drop, in particular, is also a welcome addition, which lets you attach large files to emails up to 5GB. It works by sending a preview of the attachment to the recipient who will then be able to download the attachment within 30 days.
The 8-megapixel camera installed in the iPad Mini 4 is up from the 5-megapixel camera in the iPad Mini 3, which certainly means that there’s more detail in our test shots. Outside, I’m pretty impressed with the camera, as my test shots were well exposed with plenty of detail across all parts of the image, from the brightness of the sky to the darker parts in shadow.
Inside and the camera’s limitations start to show up, with noise creeping into the image and colours becoming significantly more muted. It's worth mentioning that there’s no flash on this model, so if it gets too dark you simply won’t be able to take any shots. Given that most people will have a smartphone with them that's not necessarily a problem; what's important is that you can at least take some pretty good shots with this tablet outside when you need to.
There’s the usual range of options we’ve come to expect from Apple devices here, including Panoramas, 1080p video and 120fps slow-motion at a resolution of 1,280x720. Video, as with images, works best outside where there’s lots of natural light, but suffers a little inside from image noise.
As with the iPad Mini 3, this new tablet also has the TouchID fingerprint reader, which is becoming a substantially more important part of iOS. For starters, it gives you a quicker way of logging into your iPad, rather than having to type in a six-digit code (the default code length for iOS 9). It's also being used by many more apps too, such as for logging into your Amazon account. Finally, you can use it to authorise Apple Pay payments in-app, which saves having to type your credit card details in.
There’s no memory card slot, as is normal for Apple, so you need to buy the model with the right amount of storage for you. The entry level model has just 16GB of storage (£319), which isn’t really enough. Next up is the 64GB model (£399), which is the one that most people will buy; at the top is a 128GB version (£479). It’s a shame that 32GB isn’t available as the entry-level option.
Wi-Fi and 4G
As with previous generations, you get a choice of Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi+Cellular models. The first has 802.11ac Wi-Fi for fast wireless connections, which you’ll notice if you’ve got an 802.11ac router and a quick internet connection when you’re downloading apps or large files, such as films. If you pay the extra $100 for the Cellular model, you also get a built-in 4G receiver, so that you can also get online when you like.
You can fit any standard microSIM, although the iPad Mini 4 comes with an Apple SIM built-in. I have to say that this such a brilliant idea, as the Apple SIM can connect to any supporting cellular network, letting you buy the data plan that’s the best value for what you need now, and then letting you change to a different provider later.