I used Apple’s new iPad mini, and it might finally make me an Apple Pencil believer
- The iPad mini received a long overdue upgrade earlier this week that brings better performance, Apple Pencil support, and an enhanced display.
- The Apple Pencil feels more natural on the iPad mini than any other Apple tablet I've used it with so far, largely because of its size.
- But that benefit comes with R2,000 premium, and there are other less expensive options for those who just want a portable tablet for entertainment.
Apple's iPads have become increasingly capable of serving as laptop replacements in recent years.
Take the new iPad Pro models that launched last October, for example. They run on Apple's A12X Bionic processor, which the company claims is more powerful than most PC laptops, and use a standard USB-C port for charging, and for connecting to accessories like monitors or cameras.
But the iPad mini hadn't received an update since 2015 - that is, until this week.
Apple unveiled a new R6,999 iPad mini on March 18 that includes Apple Pencil support, runs on the same A12 Bionic processor that powers the latest iPhones, and features an upgraded display. It also comes in a 256GB storage option, whereas its predecessor topped out at 128GB of storage, and Apple has replaced the gold color choice with rose gold. Like the previous generation iPad mini, the updated model has Apple's Touch ID in the home button and an 8-megapixel rear camera, but its front-facing camera has got a big bump from 1.2 megapixels to seven megapixels.
After spending some time with the new iPad mini, I still think its form factor remains the most convenient out of the whole iPad lineup, especially when used with the Apple Pencil. But that doesn't mean it's necessarily the best value for everyone - particularly if you're fine with switching to Android and are really just looking for a portable device for reading or web browsing.
Here's a look at what's its been like to use the iPad mini over the past several days.
The Apple Pencil feels like a natural addition to the iPad mini
I've never been much of an artist, so I've always felt like the Apple Pencil wasn't worth the price. But using the R2,099 Apple Pencil with the iPad mini -which is sold separately from the tablet - might just change my mind, largely because the tablet's smaller size makes it feel much more comfortable to hold. The iPad mini is roughly the same size as my notebook or a clipboard, which makes it feel convenient and natural while using the Pencil. It's the first time Apple's stylus has felt like a viable pen and paper alternative for me.
But of course, the Apple Pencil is only as useful as the apps you can use it with. Today it works with apps like Moleskine Digital Studio, Microsoft Office, Notability, Paper, Pixelmator Photo, and GoodNotes 5 among many others. But Google still hasn't added support for Apple Pencil to its apps, so if you do most of your work in Google Docs and similar - like myself and the more than 5 million businesses using Google's G Suite - then you're out of luck.
The new iPad mini only works with the first-generation Apple Pencil, not the latest model it introduced alongside its new iPad Pro tablets in October. That means the Apple Pencil needs to be plugged into the iPad mini's lightning port to pair up and charge, whereas the new Apple Pencil just clings onto the newer iPad Pros magnetically to accomplish both tasks. It feels like a miss given that the iPad mini's ultra portable size makes it ideal for toting around to work and to meetings. It's a shame that you can't magnetically attach them together to avoid losing the Pencil at the bottom of your bag when carrying them around.
A better screen, but the same design
On a device like the iPad mini that lends itself to reading and watching video, Apple's display enhancements represent small but welcome upgrades. The new iPad mini now has features like TrueTone and wide color display support that Apple introduced on its larger tablets over the last several years. It's also 25% brighter and has a 25% greater gamut of colors than the iPad mini 4's screen.
I've found TrueTone to be particularly helpful when reading, since it adjusts the screen's white balance based on your environment, making the display look less blue. It's not quite as noticeable during other uses though, like watching videos and playing games. The new iPad mini's display is otherwise very similar to that of its predecessor; it still measures 7.9 inches diagonally with a 2048 x 1536 resolution, packing 326 pixels per inch.
The overall design is also largely unchanged compared to the iPad mini that Apple released in 2015. The thick old-fashioned bezels from older iPad models are present yet again on the upgraded iPad mini, which feels a bit dated in an era in which borderless screens have become the norm.
It's reasonable to understand why Apple wouldn't outfit a smaller and more affordable tablet like the mini with the Pro's edge-to-edge screen and Face ID. Plus, that design makes it possible for the mini to maintain the 4:3 aspect ratio that many iPad owners are probably used to. But I had hoped that Apple would at least make the most of the iPad mini's real estate by minimizing the bezels and expanding the screen a little bit while keeping the home button and front-facing camera, similar to the design of the new iPad Air.
The biggest improvement iPad mini 4 owners will notice in the new model is probably the speed boost Apple's A12 Bionic processor brings. Compared to the mini 4, which runs on Apple's older A8 chip, the new iPad mini should offer three times the performance and nine times faster graphics. Although I didn't get to test Apple's new iPad mini alongside the old one, I did find that both augmented reality games and graphically-intensive 3D games run just as smoothly on the new iPad mini as they do on the new-model iPhone Xr, which uses the same processor.
Who's it for?
At a time during which our phones offer larger screens than ever before, it's easy to question whether smaller-sized tablets like the iPad mini are still as relevant as they once were. Now that phones have become better optimized for tasks like watching movies, web browsing, and gaming, and tablets have gotten more useful for productivity, it begs the question as to what purpose a device like the iPad mini serves.
While this is true, there's certainly a place for the mini in Apple's iPad lineup for those who don't need a tablet that's as large and pricey as the new Air but want more performance than the $329 iPad offers. That said, there are other promising options for those seeking a similarly priced tablet that aren't married to Apple's ecosystem and don't care about stylus integration. Huawei's MediaPad M5, for example, is much cheaper than the new iPad mini at R6,438 and features a larger, shaper screen in an attractive design with an 82% screen-to-body ratio. And those who just want a tiny tablet for entertainment and little else can opt for Amazon's Fire HD 8 for next to nothing at just R1,399.
The iPad mini's Apple Pencil support, combined with the productivity-oriented software features Apple has added to the iPad in recent years almost makes Apple's miniature tablet feel like a Samsung Galaxy Note competitor.
That's to say, it's ideal for those in need of a super portable device that can handle some light productivity on the go, like note-taking or document annotating, and that don't mind paying a R2,099 premium on top of the sticker price for the Apple Pencil stylus. But it's also for those who don't want, or need, an iPad to get real work done, and still want to use a laptop or desktop PC.
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