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The iPad Mini and the cost of Retina

The iPad Mini is a conflicted product.

It’s much better than the iPad 3 and 4 to handle, carry, and hold up during use. It has the best external design of any iPad to date. It runs cooler than the iPad 3 or 4, it has almost the same battery life despite its much smaller size and weight, and it matches the iPad 2 and 3 in most performance benchmarks. It charges more quickly than the iPad 3 or 4, and it’s more versatile in charging, since it’s the first iPad able to charge at full speed from an “iPhone” AC adapter. The Smart Cover even sticks to the back better when it’s flipped around.

And, of course, it’s much cheaper than the other iPads.

But the non-Retina screen is rough. If you’ve never used a Retina-screened device, you probably won’t care, but if you’ve been spoiled by Retina, you’ll notice the lack of it in the Mini almost every time you turn it on. I stop noticing after I start doing something with it, of course, but those first few seconds are a rough reminder every time.

The iPad Mini is conflictingly high-end and low-end. It’s the cheapest, “entry-level” model, but since this is Apple and this is their second-most-important product, it’s not bad, much like the 11” MacBook Air. On the contrary, the screen is the only thing about the iPad Mini that feels low-end. If they release a Retina iPad Mini next fall — and I don’t expect one earlier — no part of it is likely to feel low-end except the price, a recipe for a fantastic product.

Despite being the cheapest model, the Mini has top-notch build quality and materials. Almost every hardware spec is great: great battery life, great performance, great storage and cellular-data options. It doesn’t feel cheap at all, and no part of it feels like it was short-changed or underpowered because of price alone.

Including the screen.

A Retina screen at iPad resolution has a much higher cost than the price of the panel. I’m convinced that the other tradeoffs and costs are why the Mini doesn’t have a Retina screen.

This isn’t theoretical: we can see the cost of Retina for ourselves with the iPads 3 and 4. The iPad 3 was the first Retina iPad and showed us the initial issues, and the iPad 4 shows us the best Retina iPad that Apple could ship with the technological improvements available since the iPad 3.

We can see that a Retina iPad screen is a much bigger power hog than a non-Retina screen of the same size. That’s why the iPad 3 needed to be thicker and heavier than the iPad 2, and why it takes so long to charge: the battery is huge. The iPad 4 has roughly the same size, weight, and battery as the iPad 3, so we know that technological progress hasn’t been able to meaningfully shrink it yet.

And we can see that pushing four times the pixels needs four times the GPU power to keep performance similar to the non-Retina equivalent, especially in games. To achieve this, the iPad 3’s A5X needed to be inelegant: it was physically huge, it drew a lot of power, and it ran noticeably warm even under routine tasks like web browsing. The iPad 4 was able to improve significantly with the much faster, die-shrunk A6X, but its GPUs still need a lot of power and it still runs warm.

It’s not hard to imagine, given what we see with the iPad 3 and 4, what an iPad Mini with a Retina screen would be like with today’s technology. Its battery life, portability, or performance would suffer significantly. (Probably all three.)

Apple didn’t make an arbitrary decision to withhold Retina on the Mini to save money, upsell more buyers to the iPad 4, or “force” the first generation of iPad Mini owners to upgrade next year. They chose not to ship a Retina iPad Mini because it would be significantly worse than the previous iPads in very important factors.

Imagine the fallout if a Retina Mini shipped with only three hours of battery life, or was inelegantly thick and heavy. Or, very importantly to the iPad’s market, imagine if its GPUs were slower and it ran existing iPad games extremely poorly. And then add the component-price differences: imagine a Retina iPad Mini that was bulkier, shorter-running, or much slower (or all three) and that started at $399 instead of $329.

That’s why we don’t have a Retina iPad Mini yet. It’s not only about price: it’s because the resulting product would suck in at least two other important ways.

Until a good Retina iPad Mini can be made, it will be an unfortunately conflicted product: high-end in every way except the screen, which is a big one. But this tradeoff is anything but arbitrary.

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