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An iBook page as it appears on the mini (left) and a magazine page from Apple's Newstand (right). Only the text in the small green box was difficult to read.

Like Apple’s other iPhone and iPads, there are only a couple of physical connections, including the headphone jack and new Lightning connector. USB and SD card connections can still be made with the purchase of Lightning adaptors. Otherwise, the case design is similar to the iPhone 5 at the bottom. The stereo speakers do put out a fairly decent amount of sound, and retain depth at higher volumes. A FaceTime HD camera is on the front, which captures 720p video for video conferencing, plus there’s a 5MP iSight camera on the back for photos and recording HD video.

While it can’t shoot panoramic shots like the iPhone 5, the rear camera does provide image stabilisation for recording 1080p, or full HD, videos. Photo quality is reasonable from the F2.4 lens system, with useful low-light performance, touch-based focus and exposure controls and face detection for up to 10 faces. Still, it’s not quite up to iPhone 5 camera’s standard, but will get the job done for most uses.

The photo taken from the iPad mini (left) is slightly more exposed and has more grain than the comparison shot taken with the iPhone 5 (right).

While the unit we tested did not have 4G (or LTE) connectivity, the mini will come with this option a few weeks after the Wi-Fi only versions are released on 2 November. Like the iPhone 5, the system can also revert back to DC-HSDPA, which is also fairly speedy, and then 3G if an LTE signal isn’t available. Apple has confirmed the mini will work with 4G LTE from Telstra, Optus and Virgin, and it will use the very small nano-SIM format.

Since there are few physical connections, most of the time you’ll use Wi-Fi to transfer information in and out. Apple has equipped the mini with the ability to combine two Wi-Fi streams together for improved performance – up to a theoretical 150Mbps. To do this, you’ll need to be running on an 802.11n type of Wi-Fi connection that has both 5GHz and 2.4GHz frequencies.

Power matters

Inside, the mini’s brain consists of Apple’s A5 dual-core processor, which is the same class of processor found on the larger iPad 2. During our discrete testing, we found that the mini was actually marginally faster than the iPad 2, although you’d be pressed to see a difference when using apps in the real world. It’s not nearly as fast as an iPhone 5 or the 4th generation iPad, which are both based on Apple’s newest, and most powerful A6 processor.

While it would be fantastic to see the mini with a A6 chip, which includes quad core graphics, as well as a small Retina display, this would drive the price up considerably. For more on how the mini compared on our tests, check our benchmarks of the new tablet.

We did find that, while not perfectly fluid, the mini performed quite well on a suite of processor and graphics intensive games, including Real Racing 2 and Sky Gamblers – Air Supremacy. In fact, the mini’s size is just about perfect when it comes to portable gaming and is more comfortable to use as a game controller via the built-in accelerometer than a full-sized iPad. With the comparatively low price of games on the Apple App Store, the mini is probably the final nail in the coffin for the few dedicated portable gaming devices still out there.

The mini's compact shape makes it a fantastic hand-held gaming device and great fun with Sky Gamblers - Air Supremacy.

Battery life and accessories

With portability in mind, it’s good to see that the mini has a good amount of battery life. Since its last charging our test mini has lasted two days and still has 54 percent battery life remaining. Of course, how the mini’s battery will perform depends heavily on what you are doing with it, and ours has seen a combination of gameplay, movies, Wi-Fi tests and benchmarks, so it has been fairly busy.

The mini’s battery would not last as long on the Wi-Fi + LTE version, as a cellular connection can place considerable demands on power consumption. According to Apple, the mini’s 16.3-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery is rated for 10 hours of charge, or 9 with the LTE version.

Like its bigger brother, the iPad mini comes with its own Smartcover, only this one doesn’t have the metal bits, but otherwise it works in a similar fashion. By using magnets, the case figures out just where to attach, and there’s an additional magnet that helps the folded cover stay in place. Also, since the mini is lighter, it can be lifted by the cover without falling off, and only after a good amount of jiggling did it come loose.

There’s also a reasonable selection of mini cases from third party makers appearing, and you can read more about them here. The mini’s Smartcovers come in six colours, starting from $45.

The new Smartcover, minus the metal found on the larger iPad version (left). The magnets can support the mini's weight but it will fall off with some spirited jiggling (right).