iPad Air vs. iPad Mini with Retina

When Apple introduced the original iPad Mini last year, they marketed it with the phrase “Every inch an iPad”. What they were getting at was the fact that despite its diminutive dimensions, the Mini could run the rich library of iPad-optimized apps which was and still is the iPad’s greatest strategic advantage over its competition. While technically true, the every inch an iPad line rang a little false. After all, the mini had a last generation A5 processor and its display was not retina quality. True, its new dimensions made it possible for the first time in the iPad’s short history to credibly use the device one-handed, but the reading experience was subpar and the performance was merely adequate.

For those in the market for a tablet, the decision about which iPad to buy last year was therefore rather simple. If you wanted something light to consume content on, the mini was a credible if somewhat overpriced option, but for anything more, you’d have wanted a full-sized iPad. Fast forward a year and both product lines have now received an update. The full-sized iPad is now a full half pound lighter and goes by the name of iPad Air, and the iPad Mini has a retina-class display and the same beefy A7 processor as its larger sibling.

When I walked in to the Apple Store, my expectations were shaped by last year’s disappointment. I noted then that the Mini held a kind of internal contradiction in that its form begged to be used for content consumption like reading books and magazines, but the subpar quality of the display made the experience inferior. This year, Apple has moved the goal posts. The first thing I thought when I held the new iPad Mini in my hand was that line from last year: Every inch an iPad. This year it’s actually true and it makes the decision about which iPad to purchase much more complicated. Not only has the weight differential between the iPad Air and the iPad mini shrunk dramatically, but the performance gap has as well. It’s like Apple saying that screen size should be the only determining factor in the decision. Do you prefer to read paperbacks, or are you a hardcover kind of person? To be sure there are a couple of technical differences between the two models that go beyond screen size. The iPad Air has a slightly faster variant of the A7 processor and its screen has slightly better color reproduction, but in the real world, neither of these factors really matter. The only two factors that you need to think about when deciding between these two models is screen size and weight.

If you are looking for a device to create on, if you plan to draw, or make music, or edit photos, then the iPad Air is still your best bet. The additional screen real-estate is really necessary for these sorts of tasks. Moreover, for many people, the iPad can now credibly replace their laptop. While it hasn’t received as much attention as it deserves, the A7 processor that runs Apple’s new line of products is the biggest innovation from Cupertino this year. Through a series of brilliant decisions, Apple managed to cram an enormous amount of computing power into their new mobile processor. To get a sense of just what a leap forward the A7 represents, understand that its performance is equal to that of high end laptops that were shipping in 2008. If you are thinking of buying an iPad to replace your laptop, the Air is the one you want.

If, on the other hand, you aren’t looking to replace your laptop, but to supplement it, my recommendation would be to go with the iPad Mini. While the weight differential has been reduced and it is possible to hold the iPad Air in one hand for longer periods of time, it’s still not a one-handed device. The new Mini’s display is excellent and being able to hold it in one hand makes it an ideal device for long-form reading. And thanks to the A7 it’s responsive and finally lives up to last year's marketing line "every inch an iPad."