A Weekend with the New iPad mini: I Love this Little Thing

It’s easy to get excited about iPad mini because it’s a different kind of iPad. Smaller, lighter, and thinner than every previous model, it’s surprisingly good for playing games. Its downsides are related to its tech, which is for the most part borrowed from the iPad 2, but it’s still an incredibly capable device and its distinctive physical features have me preferring it over my full-sized iPad based on my time with the device thus far.

A device is nothing without software, though. So, over the weekend, I tried out a lot of games on my iPad, moving from control method to control method: tilt, swipe, one-tap, and even button heavy games. For the most part, it was smooth sailing. Games just feel different on iPad mini.

Out of the box, my biggest concern with iPad mini was with games that use virtual buttons. All iPad apps run on mini, but shrinking down controls that were originally designed for an OG iPad screen could theoretically create problems with UI elements being too small to use. Most games work because you can move the UI around, which is the case with a button-heavy title like Street Fighter X Tekken, but others don’t offer such options.

Super Crate Box, for example, doesn’t. On the iPad mini, the buttons are just too low on the screen for me, and I found that when the action started to get intense I would miss some buttons altogether, almost always resulting in death. I had a similar experience with GTA Chinatown Wars which does allow you to choose an iPad-friendly option that places the controls higher up on the screen, but they’re a bit too high and the default placement too low, and again found myself mis-tapping when it counted most. Neither game is unplayable because of this, just a bit frustrating at times, and the ability to move the controls around would likely fix those issues immediately.

As for games that use single-tap controls or just a couple of buttons, like Jetpack Joyride and Super Hexagon specifically, they work like a dream on the iPad mini. That’s true of touchscreen games in general, though — synthesizing them down to the bare essentials of just simple taps usually makes for the most reliable control schemes.

Tilt-based games work great too. On the full-size iPad, and especially with the iPad 3 which is noticeably heavier than previous models, tilting games can wear you out in no time flat. On the new iPad mini this isn’t even an issue. It’s so light and small that holding it and tilting at length is much less fatiguing. Vertically-oriented games like Doodle Jump can even still be played with one hand, and driving games that use tilting for steering like Need For Speed Most Wanted feel fantastic on the mini.

Unfortunately, I did run into a couple of problematic games on the iPad mini. Intense games like GTA III and True Skate either (a) don’t run in the case of the former or (b) don’t run well in the case of the latter. It’s hard not to get disappointed with this, iPad mini’s lack of a strong enough GPU… but the convenience of this device is worth the trade-off.

So when it comes right down to it, the biggest advantage of the iPad mini is that it’s small and light. Much like the iPhone 5 and new iPod touch, it’s almost disconcertingly light, like a prop device you would find in a department store. That doesn’t mean it feels cheap, though. In fact it feels luxurious. This is easily the sexiest and sleekest iPad I’ve ever held in my hands, but it feels solid enough to toss into a bag on your way out the door and not think twice about, and the modest weight means you can game for a very long time before wearing yourself out. It should also be mentioned that the battery life is excellent in the iPad mini, taking me a full day and a half to run it down completely even with heavy use.

As great as the portability of the iPad mini is, though, I can’t help but long for a Retina Display screen and some beefier internal hardware. The iPad mini screen is far from terrible, after being spoiled with Retina Display on my iPhone and iPad for so long it’s hard not to immediately notice the pixels right from the Apple boot-up logo on the lower definition screen. On the flip side, if those are the tradeoffs needed to get the iPad mini as light as it is with an insane battery life, then those are things I’m more than willing to compromise on, and chances are we’ll see those upgrades in next year’s model of iPad mini anyway.

If you already own an iPad 2 or newer then it might be hard to justify splurging on the smaller model, though once you actually hold an iPad mini in your hands it’s nearly impossible not to want to just start throwing money at the register. It really is a device whose purpose becomes clear when it’s actually in-hand. However, if you don’t yet have an iPad or other tablet and aren’t concerned with being on the bleeding edge of technology, the iPad mini is an easy recommendation. It has a staggering number of apps and games, it starts at a lower price than any other iPad model, and it’s just plain fun to use.

As a side note: we’ve got a great list of games that feel great on iPad mini if you’re new to iPad gaming and are looking for somewhere to get started.