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The new iPad Mini is compact but incredibly powerful, and fans will love it

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Apple's new iPad Mini review — a powerful and compact tablet
Key Points
  • Apple's new iPad Mini was updated for the first time since 2015 with a new A12 processor and a better display.
  • It's very good and, at $399, is worth considering if you're in the market for a new iPad.
  • It's portable but still powerful enough to do pretty much everything that bigger iPads can do.

The iPad Mini has a cult-like following. The 7.9-inch screen is small enough for you to carry it around like a mini-notebook or slide it into a jacket pocket or purse, while providing many of the same features of its larger iPad counterparts. It's been so popular that Apple continued to sell it for three and a half years without updating it.

That finally changed earlier this week when Apple announced a refreshed version with a faster processor and a better display, plus support for the first-generation Apple Pencil so you can use it like a notebook -- although, weirdly, it does not work with the newest version of the Pencil.

The 5th generation iPad mini
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The size is so appealing, if I'd known this was coming I would have bought it instead of the 11-inch iPad Pro I purchased. With a starting price of $399, its price fits nicely between the standard 9.7-inch iPad ($329) and the new iPad Air ($499).

The bigger question is whether the new Mini will help spur a wave of upgrades.

Apple sold 9.7 million iPads during the fourth quarter of 2018, the last time it broke out individual hardware unit sales. That was a drop from the 10.3 million iPads it sold during the same quarter in 2017. In general, people treat iPads more like personal computers than phones, meaning they keep them for longer before upgrading. Then again, Apple has been slow to refresh the older models, giving them little reason to upgrade.

The 5th generation iPad mini
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Now Apple has completely revamped its iPad portfolio, with fresh options for all iPad owners. That might help spur a wave of upgrades. Especially for the Mini, which is a great device at a fair price.

Here's what you need to know.

What's good
The 5th generation iPad mini
Todd Haselton | CNBC

It's crazy, but Apple and its retail partners continued to sell the 2015 iPad Mini until this week. It was terribly outdated but somehow managed to still appeal to enough customers that it remained on the shelf.

The new iPad Mini dramatically improves the components that matter most: the screen and the processor.

The 5th generation iPad mini
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The display on the iPad Mini is better than what's on the standard-sized iPad. It's laminated, which means the screen looks much clearer because there isn't a small air gap between the glass and the screen. It's also the sharpest on any iPad, which is required since the text and other content you're viewing on the screen is much smaller. I never felt like I had to squint at the display, and the size made it much easier to type with two hands. I have to stretch my thumbs a bit on larger iPads, which can get annoying when I'm sending longer emails.

The 5th generation iPad mini
Todd Haselton | CNBC

You'll want to buy the $99 Apple Pencil, too. The iPad Mini supports it for the first time, and it's a lot of fun. Given that the tablet feels like a tiny notebook, I liked sketching in it at night while watching a movie -- I'm a terrible artist and don't do this often -- and taking quick notes. If you like to jot notes on a notepad -- or even type them in Apple Notes -- you'll enjoy doing the same on the iPad Mini. It feels natural.

Just make sure you're buying the old version of the Pencil, as the Mini (bizarrely) doesn't support the new version. More on that later.

The new A12 chip is the same one found in the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max. It's powerful enough that I was able to run two apps side by side and stream a baseball game in a pop-up window, all at the same time. It's also capable of running the latest augmented reality apps, so I was able to overlay a 3D image of the Mars Insight lander on top of my living room and walk around it.

The 5th generation iPad mini
Todd Haselton | CNBC

It's impressive how smoothly everything works, as it's tempting to think of this tiny iPad as an under-powered device. But it isn't at all. In fact, Apple says it's more powerful than last year's 10.5-inch iPad Pro.

The battery life is good. Apple promises up to 10 hours of usage before you'll need to charge it again. I was able to get nearly 6 hours of screen time on the first day I tested — that's while the iPad was draining juice trying to download movies, apps, and other content I had backed up in the cloud. With normal usage, you should be able to get close to what Apple promises. Just expect that to dip if you're playing 3D games or streaming movies.

What's bad
The 5th generation iPad mini
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The design is showing its age a little bit. Apple didn't include Face ID and there are still bezels around the screen, for example, so it looks pretty much exactly like the iPad Mini that launched in 2015. That means it also doesn't have full stereo speakers on the top and the bottom like Apple's iPad Pro does.

The speakers sound good, but I prefer having full stereo so that music and audio from movies comes out of both sides while I'm holding it in landscape mode. It just feels more engrossing.

The 5th generation iPad mini
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The cameras are OK but not great. I took a picture of my dog Mabel and it looked a little blurry and not nearly as good as what I can get on an iPhone. You don't get fancy features like portrait mode, either, which is only in the iPad Pros.

My dog Mabel, snapped with the iPad mini's camera.
Mabel Haselton | CNBC

Finally, it's confusing and bizarre that the new Mini this uses the older Apple Pencil instead of the new one. That means it still charges awkwardly in the Lightning port, instead of on the side of the iPad, like on the iPad Pros.

Make sure you buy the first-generation Apple Pencil instead of the second-generation version, which has the same name, or it won't charge. If you're buying from Apple's web site, use the "Select" function and make sure you're buying the version that supports the Mini. If you're buying in a store, make sure you get help from a knowledegable salesperson -- and save your receipt!

I don't have many other complaints. I think the price is right given what you get here. It's a better buy for most people than the regular 9.7-inch iPad, which is larger but slower, with a worse screen.

Should you buy it?
The 5th generation iPad mini
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The iPad Mini is for people who want a smaller iPad with all of the power of the new iPad Air. I think there are a lot of those people and, even if you don't think you want a smaller iPad, it's worth checking out.

That said, if you're bargain hunting and just want any iPad, consider the regular 9.7-inch model. It's a year old and not as powerful, but only costs $329. If you want a bigger screen than what the iPad Mini offers but still want the new A12 chip, consider the new iPad Air which is only $100 more.

Ultimately, the new Mini is a near-perfect upgrade from a three-and-a-half-year-old one, even if it still looks the same.

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