iPad mini review: A Lightroom Mobile lover’s perspective
Tech specs and combination options here. 

I am making this review public because it's of general interest. Most reviews are embargoed for some time for premium patrons, and I am building a collection of helpful posts for, among other things, all the Lightroom Mobile talk that Adobe itself doesn't really help with very well. Peruse through it all for $5. 

This is not a comprehensive review of the iPad mini. That would be pointless; there are scores of good ones out there already. If you’re interested, you’ve read some already. And, of course, you can always go to the Apple store and try it out.

This is a quick take of my impressions on it, and more importantly directly addressing something I find annoying every time a new iOS device comes out: I find that the most important photographic tool on iOS by far Lightroom Mobile. But none of the reviewers I see focus on its performance, and the Apple store models do not come with it installed, so you can’t see how it works until you buy one … and there are plenty of interface surprises from device to device. And this matters, because for the iPad, Lightroom Mobile is The Prince That Was Promised.

First, the general review: The iPad mini is a device dreamed up by someone whose idea of a good time is reading shipping manifestos. The purpose is clearly to use as many existing parts and assembly lines as possible … especially from the four-year-old iPad mini, which it shares the exact chassis with, but also from the iPhone A12 processors.

But this doesn’t mean it’s a bad device. Those components are pretty good. The display is updated and looks great, keeping a let’s-face-it-good-enough-for-anything 326 dpi resolution but updating color, and the A12 chip is an absolute wonder for mobile devices.

But the real point of the iPad mini is its size. This is the most obvious way it differentiates from the rest of the iPad line and it is, forgive the phrasing, no small thing.

Part of it is that the size of the iPad Pros, especially the largest one, mark them as laptop replacements … which, thanks to iOS’s limitations, they aren’t. But the size of it changes the entire way you interact with the device, as it is a near-perfect size for use with two thumbs:

I say near-perfect because it’s perfect for me, but I have big hands. This is one of many reasons I wish they had said “damn the supply lines” and also introduced an iPad mini. With the same screen but smaller bezels, the size would be as close to perfect as possible for many tasks, from touch typing to gaming.

So, when it was announced, I thought: “Dear Lord, this is perfect for Lightroom Mobile.”

Why is Lightroom Mobile so important? Because it unlocks something really important for photographers … getting you the heck away from your desks for a bit and still allowing you to chip away at an endless workload.

Fun, near-useless fact: I was the first wedding photographer to use an iPad at a wedding, anywhere. I know this because my assistant at the time waited in line on opening day and brought it straight to the beginning of a wedding, where I was able to show the bride photos from the rehearsal dinner.

The only way that matters is that instantly I knew what I desperately wanted from it  … some way to map photos from my computer to lighter, WiFi-friendly copies that I could use to cull through large shoots, and then have those sections sync to my desktop when I returned to the studio. I thought maybe Photo Mechanic would first something out with JPEG extractions, but Adobe engineers are a lot better at that stuff than I am and pulled it off with small RAW copies instead, allowing not just culling but non-destructive editing on the go, mapping perfectly to the home computer for further work.

Maybe you are nervous about doing color-editing in uncontrolled lighting environments … and you probably should be. But you can do other things. There’s nothing like cropping 100 images on your phone when waiting in the dentist’s office to make you feel like you live in the future.

Yeah … phones. After trying workflow after workflow, it turns out my favorite device for Lightroom Mobile is the iPhone XS Max. In fact, this one app is the entire reason I own this monster instead of smaller phone. The resolution difference is noticeable, especially when editing a horizontal photo when holding the phone vertically. (We’ll come back to that.)

So, to me, the XS Max is the defending champion … two devices that are pretty portable but not very portable. And it turns out the similarities and differences are really important, especially the way that the User Interface interacts with the size of each device.

Surprisingly, due to a significantly higher DPI, the XS Max has more pixels than the iPad mini … six percent more.^1 But this only matters if you like to use the device literally pressed against your nose, so in the UI comparisons below I am using the physical size, not resolution.

Sadly, Adobe has dropped the ball a bit on the iPad mini interface, and while they improve Lightroom Mobile at a far faster pace than Lightroom Classic, improving it specifically for the Mini would be way, way down their list, and given the way universal apps are bundled will likely never happen.

How so? Well, first of all, both devices are great for light culling sessions. This is where the two-thumbs perfection of the iPad mini really comes into play with flagging and rating, and the A12 chip makes it work without delay (which is why older iPad minis aren’t even really in play here … if you’re a high-volume Lightroom Mobile user, that delay makes all the difference in the world). I say light culling sessions because working through 10,000 at a time will cause some real soreness, if not eventually repetitive strain injury.

(When I am culling a big job, I create separate collections for horizontal and vertical photos so I don’t have to keep turning the device for maximum resolution.)

But if you are editing, whether personal photos or just as part of your workflow, then a glaring problem comes into play.

In horizontal mode, they are both pretty good. You have enough resolution to see what’s going on, and the sliders are of reasonable length for some precision. Generally here I use the device, especially the iPad, set down on a table or my lap, since at least my right thumb doesn’t have as much fine dexterity as my whole arm and index finger. That could be fixed if the iPad mini version used overlapping panels the way the iPhone version does, making the sliders even longer — this particularly matters in white balance, when the difference between, say, 2600K and 2700K can be a big deal.

(These  are sized for physical size comparisons, not resolution.)

So what’s the big problem? Well, let’s turn it vertically:

This is an absolute nightmare of wasted space, most likely because the device is more square than the phone. Maybe they’ll fix it to swap as the device turns one day, but for now it is the worst of both worlds — photos too small to even give a good-enough glance to sharpness.

So fine, don’t turn the device vertically when you have a horizontal photo. But maybe that’s the way you like it … and more importantly for the comparison, the vertical mode on the iPhone XS Max is so darned great.^2 The histogram is out of the way, and those sliders are so wonderfully, beautifully long, allowing for surprisingly precise and instantly responsive editing (more responsive than editing on most Macs).

Between the lack of overlapping panel in horizontal mode and not moving the panels to the bottom in vertical, it’s just not nearly as good an interface for editing (especially as I shoot almost 95 percent horizontal.)

So, is it out? Not at all. These problems are the sort of thing that most affect a small subset of power users … heck, the subset may be basically just me. And it has other advantages.

First of all, it’s much cheaper. The iPad mini starts at $399 (and thanks to smart previews, you can even use this on a 64GB device as long as you don’t have it otherwise loaded). That’s just over a third of the price of the XS Max … cheap enough to make it worth it to people who want a smaller, cheaper phone. The mini is a great companion to an iPhone SE, for example.

But the last advantage is a big deal: iPhone Pencil support — weirdly, for the 1st generation only, but oh well. Lightroom Mobile got its second killer application when they added support for the Pencil with selective brushing. Now, they have a ways left to go (why no selective adjustment presets), but this can be incredibly valuable.

Adding Lightroom Mobile as part of my workflow has gotten me more and more clever about collections, often, as I’m going through my photos on the desktop, I just toss anything that could benefit from Pencil editing into a collection — usually just editing for the exposure I want in the background and then having a precise, pressure-sensitive dodge option without specialized equipment.

I’m nervous about sharing these, because basic psychology makes calling attention to the dodging seem like its overdone, but in these you can see how the pressure sensitivity works. What I like to start with is a large, highly-feathered brush with the settings on totally nuclear (like +4.0 stops of exposure) but a very low flow setting (like 15). This means I could take it all the way to nuclear if I want to … but because I almost never do each stroke is fairly subtle.

Interestingly, the small size of the mini actually helps here versus the iPad. When doing selective edits anywhere, I make the canvas significantly smaller, because you can see when you’ve gone overboard much easier than on a giant screen.

This was lent to be by the friendly chaps at B&H, and as always I have the option to keep it … if I pay full price for it. So, am I keeping this? No — but that’s only because I already own my favorite mobile editing device in the XS Max and an older 9.7 inch iPad Pro, which covers my Pencil bases. If I did not have these? Especially if I were a lover of the older iPad mini? Absolutely. The power and Pencil support make a huge difference. 

1. The phone is a lot longer ratio, and has 31 percent more vertical pixels, but the iPad has 24 percent more horizontal pixels

2. While I’m not culling this way, the resolution difference between this and the X or XS allows me to reasonably see sharpness in a second pass as I edit. It’s important enough to me that I carry this too-large phone around.

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