iPad mini 6 or iPad Pro mini: The future of Apple's tiny tablet

iPad mini 5 hero
iPad mini 5 hero (Image credit: Rene Ritchie/iMore)

The original iPad mini was never something Steve Jobs wanted. When tiny Android tablets started coming out, Steve snarked that you'd have to file down your fingers just to use it.

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Then, Eddy Cue, Senior Vice President of internet services, read an article about all the reasons a smaller iPad made the same kind of sense, he picked up one of the Android half-tabs, came to the same opinion, and convinced Steve to do it.

That, by the way, is one of the biggest differences between Steve Jobs and almost everyone who tries to be the next Steve Jobs — he hired smart people, and then, more times than none, he even listened to them.

That's how Apple got the iPhone and not the Fire Phone.

But, this isn't about Steve Jobs.

This… is about the iPad mini and where it goes next.

Previously on iPad mini...

That Steve Jobs was willing to evolve his opinions was one of his greatest strengths. But it sure didn't make things easy for Apple product teams.

No one wants to watch video on an iPod, then Apple ships a video iPod. No one reads books. Then comes iBooks. You'd have to shave your fingers down to use a tiny tablet… hey, we need to ship a tiny tablet.

It wasn't just the kind of whiplash that comes from going 0 to 60 in a ludicrous mode launch, it's the kind of whiplash that comes from going -60 to 60.

But, luckily in this case, Apple's iOS frameworks team discovered they could shrink the existing 132ppi 9.7-inch iPad interface down to the iPhone's 163ppi, and it would fit a 7.9-inch display with tap targets that every bit as usable. Especially with the shorter throw of a smaller screen.

It wasn't the result of any master plan, it was just the kind of good, solid luck that comes from having made good, solid choices in the past.

Because, if they'd had to come up with yet another version of the interface, they wouldn't have made their deadline and wouldn't have pleased developers, who'd have to scramble to make yet another version of their apps.

And that deadline also included the new industrial design language Jony Ive and his team had been working on for future iPads, with slimmer bezels along the side, and the new Lightning port that was going into the iPhone 5 and every iOS device that came after.

At the time, it was the fastest product turn around Apple had ever done, and when it launched in October of 2012, it was a hit.

But, design language aside, it was almost always a step behind.

It took until 2013 to get the Retina display of the 2012 regular-sized iPads. In 2014, it kept up with Touch ID, but it took until 2015 to get the A8 chipset and laminated display the regular-sized iPad got the year before.

And when the regular-sized 9.7-inch iPad went Pro in March of 2016, the iPad mini… did not. It didn't even get updated, not in 2017 when the Pro went ProMotion, and not in 2018 when the Pro got it's all-new, all-screen redesign.

Not until March of 2019 when, alongside the resurrected iPad Air, it finally got bumped to an A12 Bionic chipset and support for Apple's first-gen Pencil. Though, unlike the Air, without a Smart Keyboard to call its own.

And that's where the iPad mini, 5th generation, sits now. Just a step ahead of the iPod touch in the — same design you love, new internals so you can keep loving it a little longer track.

iPad mini 6 rumors

Fake iPad Pro 7.9 concept

Fake iPad Pro 7.9 concept (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

Back in March, supply chain exfiltrator extraordinaire, Kuo Ming-Chi, reported that Apple was planning to update the 7.9-inch iPad mini with a mini LED display sometime in 2020. Along with a literally leak-ton of other Macs and iPads.

Mini LED is basically a technology that takes the traditional backlights used for LCD and replaces them with pixel-level backlights for better local dimming. In other words, it's a way to try and get some of the deeper blacks and higher contrasts of OLED, but without all the drawbacks that come with OLED.

Then, plot twist, just this month, Kuo added that Apple would launch a new 10.8-inch iPad by the end of 2020 and an 8.5-9-inch iPad sometime in the first half of 2021.

That first one is suspected to be a new iPad Air, which… if you want a video about that, let me know in the comments below.

The second one is suspected to be a new iPad mini, either with a bigger display or smaller bezels. Or, yeah, why can't it be both?

iPad Pro mini?

It may seem like the gap the original iPad mini filled so well has narrowed considerably over the years. I mean, when the mini first launched, the iPhone had just gone 4-inches. But, in short order, Apple went to 4.7 and 5.5-inch Plus displays. Now, 6.5 inches is the Max and, rumor has it, the iPhone 12 might just Max out at 6.7-inches.

So, Apple could do what the did with the 12.9-inch iPad Pro and Thanos-snap off half the bezels, keeping the same screen size but making the overall casing size smaller and more portable. That matches up with Kuo's March rumors, but it also seems to hit up against the ever-growing iPhones even harder.

Sure, the iPad mini is different. The aspect ratio is different. Where modern iPhones are slightly wider than 2 by 1, the iPad is still 4 by 3. So, the pages of books and comics better fit the screen, side-by-side apps are useful in portrait, and the keyboard doesn't blot out the screen in landscape. But, still, the market for that might be shrinking even faster than the bezels.

Instead, Apple could do what they did with the 11-inch iPad Pro: Still Thanos-snap half the bezels, but do it by keeping the same casing size and increasing the screen size. That matches up with Kuo's May rumors, even if it effectively makes the iPad mini not quite so mini anymore.

Now, there's no word on whether or not the iPad mini will actually get the new iPad Pro design language. Apple can reduce the bezels either way, though obviously keeping Touch ID instead of moving to Face ID limits the amount of vertical bezel that can be removed. Unless Apple goes with a side button mounted or under-display Touch ID, but there's no indication of that yet either.

Personally, I'd love a full-on iPad mini Pro. The squared-off design is just such retro-future fire, and the magnetic, inductive Apple Pencil 2 is a huge improvement over the port-plugging original.

With that design language, even a slightly bigger iPad mini would still seem small and light. Basically, the digital field notes of my dreams.

Especially if it came with the same LiDAR Scanner and USB-C port as the current iPad Pro, even if I have a feeling Apple's going stick to a more traditional camera… and Lightning port.

I'd also love it if Apple would give it a smart connector and figure out a way to make a functional Smart Keyboard, if not full Magic Keyboard for it as well.

I know Apple is culturally incapable of making cramped keyboards, which is why the MacBooks hard-stopped at 12-inches, and the 11-inch Magic Keyboard can already seem like an inch too far.

But I'm curious what they could come up with or how they could engineer around the size constraint. Or even maybe just figure out a way for it to work, awkwardly, with the 11-inch model?

iPad mini minus?

That said, there's also an argument to be made for Apple going in the opposite direction. Not in terms of size but in terms of feature set.

An entry-level iPad mini.

Right now, the 10.2 level iPad is less expensive than the iPad mini. $329 instead of $399. That's thanks to an older processor, the A10 instead of the A12, and a non-laminated display.

What if there was an iPad mini with an older processor and non-laminated display? Something that could further push-down the starting price?

That would make for one hell of a gateway into Apple Arcade, Apple TV+, and everything the App Store has to offer. Better, perhaps, than the current bargain-basement iPod touch.

iPad mini 6 future

Of course, it's also possible the market for either a super-cheap small iPad and a Pro — read expensive – small iPad — just isn't there.

And, instead, the iPad mini will stay where it is now — smack, right in the middle. Slowly getting the features that trickle down from the Pro line, if and when they make sense, but always staying a step or several behind.

Mini LED and a larger display doesn't sound like an entry-level, even mid-range product to me. But, 8-inches is below the current 10-inch minimum for a Smart Keyboard and 11-inch minimum for a Magic Keyboard, so my best guess is we'll get something premium but still just short of Pro.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.