Apple's newest iPads are a big leap forward from last year's models. But when it comes to choosing between the iPad Air and iPad mini 2, where do you start? Well, after spending a couple weeks with both tablets, we have a thing or two to say on the subject. Read on, as Gizmag shares our hands-on impressions of the iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina Display.
Update: We changed the title to reflect Apple's new name for the device, "iPad mini 2." When the article was published, it was known as "iPad mini with Retina Display," and is referred to throughout the article as such.
Size is now the biggest difference between the iPad Air and Retina iPad mini. Last year's iPad mini was underpowered, but this year is a different ballgame. The Retina Mini has the same next-gen processor and razor-sharp resolution as the iPad Air. It's more or less the same tablet, just squeezed into a smaller package.
How much smaller? Well, the new iPad mini gives you 33 percent less surface area than the iPad Air. Take the iPad Air, chop a third of it off, and you have the Mini.
If you used the original iPad mini, then the new Retina model is going to look very familiar. It's a smidge thicker than last year's iPad mini, but is otherwise the same size. The iPad Air is a much bigger departure, as it's ten percent smaller than the iPad 3 and iPad 4. It's thinner and much narrower, thanks to those trimmed-down side bezels.
We can't stress enough how much more comfortable the iPad Air is to hold than older full-sized iPads. And though it's 42 percent heavier than the Retina mini, the iPad Air almost feels lighter. That's because it's less dense, with its heft spread out a little thinner.
Despite being heavier, I also think the iPad Air is slightly more comfortable to hold for longer periods. Since its screen is bigger, I typically hold it with one hand, leaning it against my lap. With the Mini's smaller screen, though, I hold my hand upright, closer to my face. Both are comfortable to hold, but the vertical arm position for the Mini is slightly more tiring after an hour or so of reading.
I see the iPad Air as more of a magazine, while the Retina iPad mini is closer to a paperback book. Both tablets have the same 7.5 mm thickness, so it isn't a perfect metaphor. But it sums up the general feeling of holding each tablet.
Screen size and quality
You could also extend the magazine vs. paperback analogy to screen size. Measured diagonally, the screens are 9.7" and 7.9" (the same as last year's iPads). In terms of screen area, the Retina iPad mini gives you 66 percent as much real estate as the iPad Air.
It's a big difference, and screen size is probably the biggest thing to consider before making your decision. If you're happy with the iPad mini's screen size, then you get a more portable tablet in return. But if you want maximum real estate, then the iPad Air provides an excellent balance of screen size and overall footprint. No other 10-in tablet comes anywhere close to being this light.
Since both screens have the same 2,048 x 1,536 resolution, you aren't sacrificing any pixels in downsizing to the iPad mini. In fact, it's actually sharper (326 pixels per inch vs. 264 PPI for the iPad Air), since it squeezes that same resolution onto a smaller screen.
If you're worried about the iPad mini's screen size, remember that you can easily hold it a little closer to your eyes. I always had to hold the first iPad mini far away, to avoid straining my eyes on its crappy resolution. But since both new iPads have Retina Displays, a closer-held iPad mini should theoretically look about the same in your field of vision as a farther-held iPad Air.
The screens aren't, however, on a completely level playing field. Screen expert Dr. Raymond Soneira of DisplayMate pointed out that the iPad mini's Retina Display has a narrower range of colors when compared to the iPad Air and rival tablets like the Kindle Fire HDX and 2013 Nexus 7. Is this anything to worry about?
Well, having used both tablets for many hours on end, I can now see his point. It's interesting (and maybe a little concerning?) that Apple, known for demanding the highest quality from the most miniscule details of its products, cut some corners that much cheaper tablets didn't.
But I also don't think it's worth getting yourself worked up over. What it boils down to is that the colors on the Air's screen are a bit more nuanced. It's as if the iPad mini is painting from a smaller palette.
Ultimately, though, I still think the iPad mini's Retina Display looks great ... just not quite as great as the iPad Air's. And don't forget that the Mini's screen gives you 34 percent more real estate than the 7-in displays of the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire. I think that size difference is much more important and noticeable than the Mini's narrower color gamut.
There aren't many more differences here. Construction? Same design scheme and solid anodized aluminum build on both tablets. Battery life? Both iPads are terrific in that department. The iPad mini outlasted the Air in our standard test, but both tablets continue the iPad's tradition of excellent uptimes. You're looking at more than ten hours with fairly heavy use.
Cameras? They're both about the same as last year's iPads, only with improved low-light performance for video chat. Overall performance? No worries there, as these are two of the fastest mobile devices ever made (Apple's new 64-bit A7 chip powers both, along with 1 GB of RAM).
Most importantly, both iPads offer the same outstanding app selection from the stacked App Store, with its 475,000+ tablet-optimized apps. That's a much bigger library than any rival platform can claim. Google Play, Windows Store, Amazon's Appstore ... they're all still playing catch-up, in both quantity and quality.
Cut from the same cloth
So maybe the biggest remaining question is how you'd use the two new iPads differently. It isn't an easy question to answer, as the iPad mini is now basically on equal footing with its big brother. I suppose the Mini's size makes it a little better for throwing in your bag and whipping out to use on the train. It's also better for children, and perhaps for adults with smaller hands.
The iPad Air, meanwhile, is going to work much better with third-party keyboard cases. Since those cases fold over to cover the iPad, they generally match the size of the tablet. So the cases designed for the iPad mini end up being a little cramped for typing.
The Air's bigger screen also works better as a laptop replacement. Set it on a table behind a keyboard, and it's going to sit farther from your eyes, making that bigger screen more of a necessity. And with Apple now giving away its iWork office suite for free with every new iPad purchase, you have more reasons than ever to use it as a faux laptop.
As far as things like reading, web browsing, gaming, and watching video ... well, consider it a toss-up. Any argument you make for the Air's bigger screen could easily be countered with an argument for the Mini's portability. It's two versions of the same tablet, each reaching ever-so-slightly in opposing directions. You just have to figure out which direction works better for you.
So which iPad is better? Well, if you put a gun to my head and made me pick one, I'd have to go with the iPad Air. The smaller color palette in the Mini's screen takes what could have been its biggest strength – display quality – and instead makes it a slight disadvantage. But we're really splitting hairs here. The bottom line is that these are easily the two best iPads ever made. Regardless of which model you pick, this is a great time to upgrade from an older iPad.
If you're still on the fence, then why not follow the money? Starting at US$400, the Retina iPad mini rings up at $100 cheaper than the iPad Air.
Still can't decide? Then feel free to check out our individual reviews of the iPad Air and Retina iPad mini. And if you want to cast your net a bit wider, you can always check out our 2013 Tablet Comparison Guide.