iPad mini 2021 Review – Apple’s smallest tablet is a big deal

Chris Davies - Oct 1, 2021, 8:01am CDT
iPad mini 2021 Review – Apple’s smallest tablet is a big deal
Editors' Rating: 9/10
Pros
  • New design looks and feels great
  • 5G option adds a welcome boost in speed
  • Apple Pencil 2 support is well integrated
  • Competitively priced for a companion device
Cons
  • WiFi + Cellular option is an expensive upgrade
  • Screen isn't as good as on an iPad Pro
  • No mmWave 5G support

More so than most items in Apple’s range, it feels like you either love the iPad mini or you don’t quite understand its appeal. Now in its sixth-generation, the smallest iPadOS tablet has seen its biggest update so far, 2021 bringing a whole new look, larger screen, and extra features like 5G. It’s still relatively affordable, though, especially when compared to the foldable Android devices we’re starting to see make inroads into the tablet segment.

Where a Microsoft Surface Duo 2 will cost you $1,499, and a Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 a heady $1,899, the new iPad mini 6 starts at just $499. Admittedly, it you want the new 5G-enabled iPad mini WiFi + Cellular, you’re looking at $649, but that’s still a far cry from the Android foldables.

Unlike the numerous configurations of iPhone and iPad Pro, Apple keeps things relatively straightforward here. There are 64GB or 256GB storage options, along with four colors: Space Gray, Pink, Purple, or a silvery-gold Starlight.

Apple’s 8.3-inch display is bigger than the old iPad mini’s 7.9-inch panel, and – at 2266 x 1488 – higher resolution, too. The curved edges, though, do cut a little of that out. Still, at 326 ppi it actually has the highest pixel density of all Apple’s current iPad models, and the result is exceptionally crisp text and graphics.

It’s still an IPS LCD panel, though, rather than OLED as on the iPhone 13, or mini-LED as with the latest iPad Pro. With 500 nits of brightness, then, it’s neither as bright nor as color-rich as those devices; blacks don’t have quite that same inkiness. It’s not something that has particularly bothered me, but it’s worth bearing in mind if you’re planning on using the iPad mini outdoors in strong sunlight.

The two other issues worth mentioning are the bezels and the so-called “jelly scrolling” effect when the screen is in portrait resolution. I can’t say the former have upset me too much; in fact, it makes it easier to grip the tablet without overlapping too much of the screen.

The jelly-esque wobble as you scroll could be a bigger deal, since some people seem to struggle not to see it once they first notice it. Unfortunately it’s a fact of life for LCD panels, and while my eyes don’t seem to be too attuned to it, it’s probably worth trying to check out the iPad mini in person before you order to check if yours are more sensitive.

The power button and volume buttons are on the top edge, with a Touch ID sensor built into the former. iPadOS prompts you to register two fingers – with the iPad mini in different orientations – when you first set it up, which is a thoughtful touch. The volume buttons flip their up/down roles too, depending on how you’re holding the tablet.

The redesigned shape means there are now flat sides, on which an Apple Pencil 2 ($129) can cling magnetically. It’s designed to charge there, just as on Apple’s larger iPads, though as with those tablets I also wish the magnets were just a little stronger. All too often I knock the stylus off the edge when putting it into, or pulling it out of, my bag. Apple’s Smart Folio cover ($59) for the iPad mini leaves the Apple Pencil side exposed; I’d prefer for the stylus to nestle in the hinge instead, where it would be more protected.

I could leave the Apple Pencil at home, of course, but then I’d be missing out on one of the iPad mini’s best use-cases: a digital notepad. The dimensions mean that, unlike any of Apple’s other iPad models, the iPad mini is comfortable to hold single-handed for extended periods. That’s made it ideal for jotting down lists, reminders, and taking notes.

iPadOS 15’s new Quick Note feature, where you can summon a blank note by swiping up from the bottom right corner with the Apple Pencil, doubles-down on that convenience. One particularly nice thing is that you can use that gesture even when the iPad mini is in Sidecar mode, which allows you to use it as a wireless second screen with macOS. It’s obviously smaller than the display of any MacBook, but having a pen-friendly extension of my desktop has meant the iPad mini earned its spot to the right of my laptop.

Unlike the iPad Pro, which Apple positions as a laptop replacement, I find the iPad mini works most effectively as an adjunct to a traditional notebook. iPadOS is increasingly adept, but it’s still not quite capable of replicating everything I do with macOS; sometimes, the things it can replicate just take that little bit longer, or are more convoluted. Left with the choice of taking an iPad Pro or a MacBook Pro in my bag, then, I’m still going to pick the Mac.

Slotting an iPad mini in there too, however, is a different matter. The tablet feels like a companion device rather than one making a pitch for total dominance. eBooks are an obvious use-case, along with video, but it’s nicely scaled for triaging my email inboxes – complete with a multi-column view in landscape orientation – and browsing is much more desktop-like than even on an iPhone 13 Pro Max.

Like the newest iPhone, there’s the Apple A15 Bionic chipset inside. That has six CPU cores and five GPU cores, along with the latest-gen Neural Engine. It is, suffice to say, more than speedy enough to run anything in iPadOS that I’ve thrown at it. While Sidecar makes it easy to turn the iPad mini into a second screen for your Mac, its USB-C port also supports DisplayPort: you could connect a bigger monitor, add a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and find yourself with quite the desktop setup.

WiFi 6 and Bluetooth 5.0 are standard. Apple also offers a WiFi + Cellular configuration, now with 5G support. Unlike the iPhone 13, there’s only the Sub-6GHz flavor of 5G, rather than the fastest mmWave; it’s an omission I doubt most people will be too affected by, given the paucity of mmWave networks right now. As with other cellular-enabled iPads, you can quickly set up a long-term or temporary connection from the tablet itself, as short as a day or for months at a time. Alternatively, there’s pay-as-you-go data, and I appreciate that flexibility.

Taking photos with iPads generally makes you look like an idiot, though the smaller dimensions of the iPad mini mean it’s not quite so embarrassing. The 12-megapixel rear camera isn’t as impressive as the wide camera on an iPhone 13, and though it’ll shoot up to 4K/60fps it lacks the fun Cinematic mode which Apple added to its latest smartphones. That’s a shame since the bigger display would make editing the adjustable depth of field much easier than it is on the iPhone.

As for the FaceTime HD camera, that has a 122-degree field of view which allows Apple to implement its clever Center Stage feature. It keeps you centered during video calls, both in FaceTime as well as third-party apps, as though the lens was on a tracking gimbal. Without a headphone jack, you’ll be using either the solid stereo speakers and dual microphones on the iPad mini itself, or a Bluetooth headset.

The shortcomings of the iPad mini are more about the shortcomings of iPadOS than the tablet itself. What seems expansive and spacious on, say, a 10.9-inch iPad Air can feel small on the iPad mini. The icon spacing, for example, seems needlessly wide when the icons themselves are so diminutive.

Then there’s the perennial issue of iPadOS only being designed for a single user. The new iPad mini lends itself nicely to being used as a communal, coffee table or kitchen counter tablet. Problem is, without support for multiple user profiles, only one person can be signed into their various accounts.

I’d add lackluster accessories to the negative column, too. Apple has Smart Folio covers for the tablet, but there’s no keyboard option. Yes, it would be smaller than a regular ‘board, but I’ve done real work on an iPad mini-scale keyboard before and so I know it’s do-able. Hopefully, third-party options will fill in Apple’s gaps.

Apple says the 19.3 Whr battery should be good for up to 10 hours of WiFi browsing or video, or up to 9 hours of browsing over a cellular connection. Unlike with the iPhone 13, there’s a 20W USB-C power adapter in the box with the iPad mini, too. No MagSafe support, though, sadly.

In practice, as a companion device I’m getting a few days of sporadic use from the iPad mini. It’s worth noting that I’m still using an iPhone and a Mac alongside it; were I to try to replace one or both with the tablet, I think a day’s use is more realistic. That said, standby times are particularly good, in my experience, which means there’s less of a chance of the iPad mini being dead when you do pick it up.

iPad mini 6th Gen (2021) Verdict

Apple’s iPad Pro range is an impressive thing, and for the right person – with the right workload – the promise of a tablet that can replace your traditional laptop is not an exaggeration. All the same, though, not everybody fits into that category, and not everybody wants, needs, or can even accommodate a large tablet. That’s what makes the iPad mini so appealing.

Trying to use one as a do-everything machine probably would be a shortcut to frustration. As a companion device, though, it makes far more sense, and it’s priced accordingly too. I’ve found I use the iPad mini much more frequently than I do the iPad Pro or iPad Air, simply because it’s more portable.

Whether that idea of another device to join, rather than replace, your laptop, phone, and other gadgets strikes you as ridiculous or charming may well be the biggest factor in deciding if the new iPad mini is for you or not. For some it’ll absolutely occupy a sweet spot in their life; others will find themselves served just fine with a bigger iPhone. I doubt it’ll be the iPad with the greatest demand in Apple’s line-up, but for those in the fairly exclusive “small tablet lovers” club this update satisfies a lengthy wish-list of features that makes the 2021 iPad mini a no-brainer purchase.


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