This year's iPad mini is what last year's should have been. It's brilliant, which means I can sum up your buying options simply: if you're planning to use a tablet mostly to watch video, browse the Web and read books while on the go, this is the model you should buy. If you're mostly going to be using it at home, or want to try a tablet as a proper laptop replacement, buy an iPad Air for the larger screen. If it's for a child, spend less and get a Nexus 7 or Tesco Hudl in case they vomit all over it.
What makes the iPad mini with retina display so much better than the 2012 version is the screen. It has the same resolution as its bigger brother, the iPad Air, and boy does that make a difference. It's called a 'retina display' by Apple because, at a 'typical' viewing distance, your eye isn't supposed to be able to make out the individual pixels, like you can on the screen on last year's model.
It certainly looks great. Text is much sharper for one thing, and the edges of icons are properly rounded rather than ever so slightly jagged. When I moved from a normal screen to a retina model on my phone a while back, I found that the initial impact wasn't huge, but that it was almost impossible to go back. It's a similar effect with this tablet -- if you own last year's mini and don't want to shell out for the new one, my advice is to try very hard not to catch a glimpse of the retina model.
Although the screen has the same resolution as the iPad Air's, the quality of the image isn't quite as good. If you put the new mini next to the new Air, colours aren't as punchy on the mini. It's not something I would expect most people to notice, unless you make a direct comparison with the same image, but it's worth knowing if you're pondering which iPad to choose.
To cope with the extra power demands of the higher-resolution screen, Apple has put a larger battery inside the mini, which has made it under 30g heavier than the old model. That's something you definitely notice, although for me, the better screen is worth the trade-off.
iPad mini 1 and the 64-bit chip
The original mini is still on sale, but I wouldn't advise buying it. Not only is it expensive for last year's tech, it's starting to wheeze slightly, coping with the demands of the current operating system, iOS 7. If it's slowing down now, what will it be like in a couple of years?
The 64-bit chip inside the new mini certainly makes a big difference, even in everyday tasks like browsing and switching between apps, although it's actually slightly slower than the one in the iPad Air. So if the added weight of the iPad mini with retina is too much for you, I'd advise checking out a Google Nexus 7, which is about 40g lighter.
Otherwise the iPad mini with retina has a 7.9-inch screen and is essentially a smaller version of the iPad Air with its 9.7-inch display, which I reviewed here. If you read that piece most of what I say can be applied to this product.
The gist is that Apple has all the important things right: there are loads of apps to install, it's easy to use, there are 4G versions if you want them, the camera is OK if not amazing and there is plenty of video and music to buy to watch on the tablet. The battery lasts forever -- 14 hours in CNET's tests. I think its smaller size makes the mini more appropriate as a device for watching stuff, rather than doing things like writing documents and editing spreadsheets, but that's a personal preference.
If you're happy faffing around with a computer and iTunes, go for the smallest 16GB capacity model, but be warned, you'll end up moving video files and apps around quite quickly. A game that takes advantage of the high-resolution screen like Infinity Blade 3 is a massive 1.5GB, so you can see how you could quickly run out of space. Every time you increase capacity, it'll set you back around £80, which is loads for what you get.
If you've yet to buy a tablet and have the spare cash, the iPad mini with retina is a fantastic entry into the whole sector. For me, it's a toss-up between this and an iPad Air. I prefer the portability and lower price of the mini, but both are excellent products. Add to your list for Santa now.