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iPad mini 2 Retina vs iPad Air: which should you buy?

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Thinking about buying a new tablet? The iPad mini 2 and iPad Air are two of the very best tablets you can get. However, choosing between them is very, very difficult.

There isn't the wide spec disparity we saw in last year's models, and both have 'Retina' screens this time around. There's no clear poor relation. We're going to have a look at the main reasons to buy each, before looking a little closer at the key differences.

Reasons to buy an iPad Air

The Air has slightly better screen quality
On paper the iPad Air and iPad mini 2 are evenly matched. They use the same 2,048 x 1,536 pixel resolution and the same base IPS screen type. However, the iPad Air display is slightly higher-quality. The mini's colour reproduction is slightly worse, meaning its images look a little less vibrant and lifelike.

It’s ridiculously light for its screen size
Design-wise, the iPad Air is more impressive than the mini. It’s the first time we’ve seen a 10-inch tablet this small and light. At 469g, it’s even lighter than the ridiculously slim and light Sony Xperia Tablet Z. It’s one of the only large tablets we feel happy to use one-handed. The iPad mini is of course even smaller, but the Air's thinness is more remarkable.

Larger size makes it a superior laptop-replacer
Many people buy iPads looking to replace their laptops. If this is your aim, we strongly recommend getting an iPad Air rather than a mini. The extra screen space is a big plus if you’re dealing with info-heavy work documents or spreadsheets, and you can happily use it further away from your peepers than an iPad mini. It's also a better size if you watch a lot of TV and video.

Battery life is slightly, slightly better
The iPad Air and iPad mini are pretty even in battery life, but the iPad Air does have a slight advantage. Its 32Wh battery provides around 10 minutes extra video or web browsing, or – more interestingly – around 40 minutes extra gaming when the GPU is pushed.

Get a closer look at the iPad Air in our video review below


Reasons to buy an iPad mini

It’s smaller, and more portable
The ‘bigger is better’ maxim is something that’s often applied to tablets. However, it doesn’t work in all cases. If you want a tablet to take on the train with you every day, the iPad mini is a better bet in our opinion. Unless you get a seat every day, that is. A smaller tablet feels less conspicuous in use, and the 130g weight difference is something your arm will appreciate if you have to use it standing up.

It’s £80 cheaper

The most obvious difference between the two tablets is that the iPad mini is substantially cheaper. £80 may be a worthwhile extra spend for many who'd appreciate the larger 9.7-inch screen of the Air, but for others it’s that stack of tenners too far. Things you can buy for £80 include three years of iTunes Match music streaming, a bunch of accessories or more than a hundred low-cost games and apps. 

And has as much power, for less cash
You don’t trade off a great deal for that £80 saving, either. The tablets both use a dual-core Apple A7 64-bit processor, one of the most powerful chips you’ll see in a tablet. This is the part that’s crucial for the longevity of the devices, ensuring support for both for years to come. The processor in the mini is believed to be clocked ever so slightly lower, but not enough that you'll ever notice the difference.

It’s the same resolution as the iPad Air
The iPad Air and iPad mini 2 both have ‘Retina’ displays, but pixel density in the mini is actually much higher. With the same 2,048 x 1,536 pixel resolution, the mini’s 326ppi density is a good deal higher than the iPad Air’s 264ppi. If you get real up close with the display, there is a noticeable sharpness increase in the mini. However, at normal viewing distances you wouldn’t notice it, and the iPad Air display remains superior thanks to the better colour reproduction.

SEE ALSO: iPad Air vs iPad 4


Now let's take a close look at the differences between the two tablets.


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Size – iPad Air is bigger, but...

The iPad Air is – as you might guess – a good deal larger than the iPad mini 2. It has a 9.7-inch screen where the iPad mini has a 7.9-inch screen. These are the same-size displays as their predecessors.

However, in terms of generational change, the iPad Air is much more impressive. Where the iPad 4 was a big chunky tablet, the iPad Air is lighter, thinner and less wide. It has shed some serious poundage. Now it’s not all that much thicker than the iPad mini, and just about light enough to use one-handed. It weighs around 454g and is just 7.5mm thick.

The iPad mini 2 is just about the same size as its predecessor. That’s around 7.2mm thick and 13.5cm wide.

The point to take from this is that if you’ve compared the iPad 4 with the iPad mini and thought the full-size iPad was a bit too big, it’s time to take a second look.


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Screen – Both are top-notch, both have advantages

All iPads use 4:3 aspect screens. These are less widescreen in aspect than the majority of Android tablets, meaning that when you watch a movie there’ll be black bars at the top and bottom of the screen.

For this reason, the iPad Air is definitely better to watch films on – it can produce a significantly larger widescreen image, although neither can quite match a 16:10 10.1-inch Android tablet display like the Xperia Tablet Z's.

Quality-wise, the screens are pretty similar. Both are top-notch, with great quality panels for top contrast, brightness and black levels.

It’s the iPad mini that’s had by far the biggest upgrade in this field. The original iPad mini’s screen was acceptable, but not all that much more than that (by Apple’s standards).

Contrast and colour reproduction are both much better this time around. But it’s the resolution that gets the most significant upgrade.

This is the first ‘Retina’ iPad mini, and it has the same screen resolution as the iPad Air – a bit mad when you think about it.

However, this is more an excess on the mini 2’s part than a failing on the part of the iPad 5. Both are sharp screens

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Power – evenly matched

Apple has finally given up the idea that the full-size iPad is the ‘flagship’ Apple tablet – seen in the processor of the iPad Air. It has the same Apple A7 super-powered processor seen in the iPad mini 2 with Retina Display.

The Apple A7 chip is new, 64-bit and fast as anything. The iPad mini is finally up to speed.

As pixels are crammed in tighter in the iPad mini 2, the smaller tablet may even have the slight visual edghe in person for high-end 3D games.


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Camera – level-pegging

Many of you may laugh at the idea of taking a photo with your tablet, but Apple has upgraded the main camera in both the iPad mini 2 and iPad Air. They have 5-megapixel cameras with upgraded sensors and processing engines. We'll see if there's actually much of an improvement when we get our units in to review.

Neither has a flash, so they’re pretty useless for late-night party shots. But in good lighting they will be able to produce some Facebook-worthy snaps.


iPad mini 2 Retina vs iPad Air: which should I buy?

With last year’s models the reasons to buy either an iPad mini or full-size iPad were pretty clear. The iPad mini was thin and light, the iPad 4 was fairly thin, but not all that light in comparison. Apple has closed the gap this time around, and we think it’ll win the full-size iPad back a few fans. Apple has improved the design of the iPad Air significantly, so unless you really want a super-portable tablet, there are few downsides to going ‘full size’ this time.


Video previews

iPad Air preview


iPad mini 2 preview


Next, read our look at what's missing from the iPad mini 2

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