Apple iPad Mini (2021) review: A powerful & fantastic little tablet

Yes! A new iPad Mini.
PHOTO: Hardware Zone

A new iPad Mini at last.

Maybe because it is small and therefore somehow cute, but whatever it is, the iPad Mini enjoys a loyal fanbase.

Apple doesn't disclose sales figures so it's hard to say, but anecdotally, it appears to be one of the more popular iPads. I know many people who own one.

Despite this, Apple doesn't update it frequently. The last iPad Mini came in early 2019. And the one before that came in - get this - 2015.

So this newest iPad Mini - the sixth generation - is only one of three new iPad Minis in a span of six years.

Care to guess how many iPad Pros were announced in the same period? Five. Still, as the saying goes, better late than never, right?

Design & features

Old iPad Mini on the left, new iPad Mini on the right.
Old iPad Mini on the left, new iPad Mini on the right. PHOTO: Hardware Zone 

The sixth-generation iPad Mini has an all-new design with squared-off edges and flat sides that brings its looks in line with other Apple devices like the iPad Pro, iPad Air and iPhones.

Visually, this new iPad Mini is best described as a shrunken-down iPad Air. However, the colour options are nearly quite so interesting.

The iPad Mini is available in Space Grey, Pink, Purple, and Starlight. The unit I have is Starlight, which is a really unusual shade of pale gold or champagne. I'm quite fond of it.

It's really hard to pin down what colour Starlight actually is. Is it light gold? Silver? Champagne?
It's really hard to pin down what colour Starlight actually is. Is it light gold? Silver? Champagne? PHOTO: Hardware Zone 

Aside from the new chassis, the other most obvious differences are its thinner bezels and a larger screen. Though the bezels are considerably less conspicuous, the display isn't actually "edge-to-edge" as Apple would want you to believe.

If you take a ruler out, you'd find that the bezels are the same size as the iPad Air's which is to say they are still noticeable. The upside, however, is that there's some space for you to hold on to it without inadvertently touching the screen.

The bezels are actually still pretty conspicuous.
The bezels are actually still pretty conspicuous. PHOTO: Hardware Zone 

Speaking of which, the Retina display is now 8.3 inches large (up from 7.9 inches). To accommodate the larger screen size, the resolution is now 2266 x 1488 pixels so the pixel density count remains the same at 326 pixels per inch.

It supports the DCI-P3 colour space and has True Tone technology. It's not the most mind-blowing display in the world but it's certainly solid enough with crisp and sharp visuals and pleasant punchy colours that I don't think owners will complain.

The Touch ID sensor has been integrated into the top button.
The Touch ID sensor has been integrated into the top button. PHOTO: Hardware Zone 

Because there's no Home button on the front, the Touch ID sensor has been integrated into the Top button - just like the iPad Air.

Despite the button being so thin, Apple assures users that it is just as effective and secure. I concur with the bit about effectiveness.

If you have ever used an iPhone with Touch ID, this new iPad Mini is just as fast. As for security, my wife and kid haven't been able to unlock it yet so it must be working.

The front-facing camera has been upgraded and supports the new Centre Stage feature.
The front-facing camera has been upgraded and supports the new Centre Stage feature. PHOTO: Hardware Zone 

The iPad Mini might not have Face ID but the front-facing camera has been updated to a 12-megapixel ultra-wide unit with a 122° field of view with a camera-tracking feature called Centre Stage.

Using machine-learning, the iPad Mini analyses subjects in the frame. tracks them, and keeps them in the middle of the frame even as they move about.

Centre Stage in action.
Centre Stage in action. PHOTO: Hardware Zone 

I have written more about this in my iPad Pro review and you might want to read up more about it. But what you need to know is that it works well and the video quality is quite good.

But because what we are actually seeing is a crop, image quality can fall noticeably if the lighting is poor. Still, it can be an invaluable tool if you often find yourselves in virtual meetings.

Like the iPad Air and iPad Pro, the iPad Mini thankfully ditches the Lightning port for USB-C. Not only does USB-C provide faster charging and data transfer, but it's also far more versatile and opens the iPad Mini up to more accessories.

And speaking of accessories, you'll note that there's no Smart Connector which means Apple doesn't have a keyboard accessory for the iPad Mini.

This is understandable given the iPad Mini's petite size. It would have been too much of a compromise to design a keyboard around.

So if you wish to use a keyboard with the iPad Mini, you'll have to rely on third-party options. Fortunately, the iPad Mini will work with wireless Bluetooth keyboards and also wired ones via its USB-C - see, told you USB-C was good.

Happily, the latest iPad Mini ditches the Lightning port for the more modern and versatile USB-C port.
Happily, the latest iPad Mini ditches the Lightning port for the more modern and versatile USB-C port. PHOTO: Hardware Zone 

There is however support for Apple's second-generation Pencil. It attaches magnetically to the right side, and when it does it pairs and charges automatically.

It works as well as ever. The iPad Mini might not have the fast ProMotion displays of the iPad Pro, but you never get the sense that your pencil inputs are slow or lagging.

The iPad Mini's petite size means you look less goofy using it to take photos but the single rear camera is the same 12-megapixel f/1.8 unit that has been used for the past couple of years in other iPads.

It also takes 4K videos at up to 60fps and slow-motion videos at 1080p at up to 240fps. It's decent, but really, you should stick to your phone and only use the camera for scanning documents.

The 12-megapixel rear camera is decent but can't hold a candle to newer phones.
The 12-megapixel rear camera is decent but can't hold a candle to newer phones. PHOTO: Hardware Zone 

Some other things to know is that there's no headphone jack (because it is too thin) and that the volume controls have been moved to the top of the tablet to accommodate the connector for pairing and charging the Apple Pencil.

Also, unlike the iPad Air which only supports 4G, this new iPad Mini supports 5G - but only the slower sub-6GHz version and not mmWave.

Our 5G coverage has been improving and it's undeniably faster, but given that our 4G networks are generally still solid, I don't think it's something you need to concern yourself with too much.

If you intend to get the iPad Mini with cellular connectivity, just know that it's ready for 5G - that is until we have the fast 5G mmWave version.

READ ALSO: How good is gaming on Apple iPad 9?

Powered by A15 Bionic

PHOTO: Hardware Zone

To go along with its new looks, the iPad Mini is also getting new internals.

Inside it is Apple's latest A15 Bionic chip - the same found in Apple's newest iPhones. It's built on a 5nm processor and consists of nearly 15 billion transistors.

Like the Pro iPhones, the A15 Bionic chip in the iPad Mini has five GPU cores instead of the usual four. But for reasons unknown, the chip has been found to be running slightly lower clock speeds in the iPad Mini than in the Pro iPhones.

It can't be heat issues because the iPad Mini is significantly larger so the only reasonable explanation is that Apple is using binned parts to maximise yields.

In other words, the best performing A15 Bionic chips are going to the Pro iPhones while chips that are slightly off the mark are going to the iPad Mini.

Still, as you can see from the benchmarks below. The iPad Mini is no slouch. Because of its lower clock speeds, it's not quite as quick as the Pro iPhones but it handily beats last year's iPad Air and any flagship-class Android device.

In the real world, just know that this new iPad Mini will run anything you throw at it and run it well.

PHOTO: Hardware Zone
PHOTO: Hardware Zone
PHOTO: Hardware Zone
PHOTO: Hardware Zone

Battery life

Our standard battery test for mobile phones has the following parameters:

  • Looping a 720p video with screen brightness and volume at 100 per cent
  • Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity turned on
  • Constant data streaming through email

The iPad Mini lasted a little over five hours in our intensive battery test which is quite impressive when you consider that's longer than both the iPad Air and 12.9-inch M1 iPad Pro and yet has a smaller battery.

There's no doubt that it will get close to Apple's claims of 10 hours of battery life if you use it at more reasonable brightness levels.

PHOTO: Hardware Zone

A fitting and fabulous update

Fans of the iPad Mini can and should be happy with this update.

It retains the compact form factor of its predecessor and adds to that a larger screen, blistering performance, USB-C connectivity, 5G support, and compatibility with Apple's excellent (if expensive) second-generation Apple Pencil.

iPadOS 15 also adds a new multitasking menu and note-taking features to make it a more capable device for productivity-related tasks.

This is the update that fans of the iPad Mini have been waiting for. This is an exceptional little tablet.
This is the update that fans of the iPad Mini have been waiting for. This is an exceptional little tablet. PHOTO: Hardware Zone 

There are some minor annoyances. For example, the lack of a headphone jack can be bothersome if you don't have wireless headphones or earbuds.

And I lost count of the number of times I flipped open the Smart Folio only to find that there's no keyboard to type on.

I know the physical constraints would probably result in a heavily compromised keyboard but I really wish Apple developed a keyboard for it.

And then there's the price. The old iPad Mini used to start from $599, this shiny new one starts at $749. What's more, the entry-level model only comes with 64GB of storage so I suspect many people will pony up for the 256GB version.

But that version costs nearly one grand. The second-generation Apple Pencil is $189 and Apple's own Smart Folio cover is another $89.

Pretty soon you'd realise that for about the same money, you could have gotten an M1 MacBook Air or any number of entry-level ultraportable Windows notebooks.

6th generation iPad Mini prices

Capacity Wi-Fi only Wi-Fi + Cellular
64GB $749 $979
256GB $979 $1,209

But is there even another compact tablet that can compete?

So as popular as the iPad Mini may seem, perhaps the fact is that small-sized tablets really are niche items. Which explains why Apple doesn't update the iPad Mini as much as its fans think it should.

Happily, the wait has been worth it. This is a marvellous update to the iPad Mini and easily the best compact tablet you can buy.

You can order the iPad Mini from the Apple Online Store, the Apple Flagship Store on Lazada, or the Apple Flagship Store on Shopee.

READ ALSO: iPad and iPad mini go on sale: Which one gets your vote?

This article was first published in Hardware Zone.