It's back, and it's smaller. The iPad Pro came out in the fall of 2015 as tablet of vast proportions-- 12.9 inches. That's bigger than even most Windows tablets, and it's big size and price tag weren't for everyone. Now there's a 9.7" iPad Pro, Apple's mainstream tablet size that's likely to suit many folks, as is the lower $599 starting price. Though the 9.7" iPad Pro may look just like the iPad Air 2 (other than two additional speaker grilles for a total of four), it has Pro features like Apple Pencil support, a smart keyboard connector, four speakers and the new Apple A9 processor. The iPad Air 2 meanwhile drops down to a starting price of $399. Is it worth it to go Pro, particularly if you don't intend to use the Pencil? Read on!
Sizing it Up
The iPad Pro 9.7" is the same size and weight as the Air 2, it's just under 1 lb. and is just 6.1mm thick. In contrast, the 12.9" iPad Pro is 1.57 lbs. and 6.9mm thick. The 9.7 looks and feels like the iPad Air you know and perhaps love, and it's considerably easier to carry and handle than the 12.9" model. In favor of the bigger model that I bought and returned because it was too large, once you get used to that larger size it's hard to go back. I purchased it again when Staples had an incredible sale a few months back, and now I find the 9.7" iPad size too small. Too small for what? I use the Pro for writing reviews in Word with the Apple Smart Keyboard, I stream Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube videos and I use it for digital art with Procreate, SketchBook Pro and a few other art apps.
The tablet has Apple's usual Lightning connector that supports USB 2.0 speeds like the Air 2 rather than USB 3.0 like the 12.9 iPad Pro. It has Touch ID embedded in the home button and you can use it with Apple Pay for purchases online, but not point of sale at stores (really, who wants to wave a 10" tablet at a payment terminal?). Like the bigger model, it has four speakers, and they're just as rich and loud. They also create a good deal of stereo separation and when watching an action movie, you'd swear you're enjoying a bit of surround sound. The iPad Pro 9.7 is available in silver, space gray, gold and rose gold, like Apple's other recent products. As ever, it's an attractive, incredibly slim and well built tablet that's at the head of the class.
As ever, there's an LTE 4G option that raises the price tag by $130. It supports 30 LTE bands, which means it will work on most any carrier's network (no need to hunt out the right model for your carrier--there's just one LTE model, available in 3 storage capacities). The 9.7" model supports 300 Mbps LTE, while the 12.9" supports 150 Mbps LTE.
The 9.7" iPad Pro has an even less reflective display than the Air 2, a wider cinema standard color gamut and a new ambient light sensor that adjusts the display's color temperature to suit the environment (called True Tone). Mostly it makes the display warm (whites move away from the blue and toward the yellow) in typical warm home indoor lighting. I know many of you actually like displays that are cool white with a near blue tint, but they're not ideal if you're doing serious photo and video editing where accuracy is paramount. They're also harder on the eyes and some say bluish screens hinder sleep if used before bed (hence Apple also has Night Shift that warms the display in the evening). That said, Apple has stated that the feature isn't enabled for photo and video editing apps, because variable white balance makes editing tricky.
Is the display better than the Air 2? Yes, it is. I had a hard time seeing a difference between it and the also high quality 12.9" iPad Pro display, but you can see the difference in color richness and reflectance when comparing the Air 2 and iPad Pro 9.7. That's pretty impressive since the iPad Air 2 has one of the nicest tablet screens on the market. Will the iPad Air 3 have this display? Who knows, and who knows if Apple will release an iPad Air 3.
Apple's $99 digital writing instrument works just as well here as it does on the bigger, original Pro. It's still one of the best for artists since it supports palm rejection, pressure and even rarer--tilt. That means you can shade naturally by tilting the Pencil, and pressing heavily will make darker, wider lines than a light touch. It feels the most like drawing on paper of any pen-enabled digitizer on the market. Good stuff, even if that Pencil (which has its own CPU) is expensive. It pairs via Bluetooth, and that's taken care of automatically when you insert the Apple Pencil into the tablet's Lightning port. The port also charges the Pencil, or you can use your iPad or iPhone charger and the included adapter. The Pencil charges very quickly: a minute's charge will get you a half hour of use. I've been using the Apple Pencil with the 12.9" iPad Pro to draw and paint digitally in the evenings for months, and I've only had to charge the Pencil a few times.
Deals and Shopping:
iPad Pro 9.7 inch Video Review
One of the reasons folks don't upgrade their iPads as often as Apple might like is that they continue to feel spritely and work well for years. That said, if you're still using an iPad that's 3 generations old, you will easily notice the difference in speed with the iPad Pro. Like the bigger Pro, it has Apple's new A9 CPU and it's clocked at 2.25 GHz (it won't clock quite as high as the 12.9" model). This is a very fast CPU and for those who do intensive work with an iPad, say iMovie, 3D gaming and music production, it's good stuff.
The tablet has 2 gigs of RAM, which is the same as the iPad Air 2 and half that of the 12.9" iPad Pro. I'm surprised Apple didn't match the larger tablet's 4 gigs of RAM. More RAM means you can have more web browser tabs open without them reloading when you switch between tabs, and we can only assume that iOS 10 may make even greater use of additional RAM.
The iPad Pro is available with 32, 128 and 256 gigs of storage, mirroring the bigger model (Apple recently added a 256 gig option for the 12.9" iPad Pro). Each storage increment raises the price $100, but at least here we're getting hefty storage jumps. For those who wish to see storage parity with Windows tablets, well... we suspect you're happy. That said, Windows (and OS X) need more storage because their programs are typically much, much larger. Photoshop CC for Windows is 1.5 gigs, while a good photo editor for iOS is 200 megs. 3D games for iOS can be as large as 1.5 to 3 gigs. For Windows, many tier 1 games from 2015 are 45 to 60 gigs.
Though the smaller iPad Air doesn't have as much RAM or the faster USB connection of the bigger model, it fights back with better cameras. The iPad Pro 9.7" has the same cameras as the iPhone 6s, rather than being a generation behind like all other iPads. The 12MP rear camera can shoot 4K video at 30 fps, slow motion video and panoramas. It has an f/2.2 lens and is every bit as good as the iPhone 6s camera. The front camera likewise is a 5MP FaceTime camera that matches the iPhone 6s. We're not sure why the 9.7" model gets better cameras than the 12.9" model. It may have to do with meeting price points or perhaps Apple assumed that few would use a near 13" tablet as a camera (that's no excuse for the front camera that's equally likely to be used for video chat).
Apple claims up to 10 hours of use from the 27.5 Whr battery, which is the same as the iPad Air 2 and 12.9" iPad Pro. Apple tends to be accurate and honest with their claims, and with productivity, drawing and streaming video use at 40% brightness, we managed 10 hours. If you play 3D games like GTA, then runtimes will be considerably shorter. The iPad ships with the usual 12 watt small white charger and a USB to Lightning cable. Charging times are better than the 12.9" iPad Pro since it has a smaller battery.
As a Laptop Replacement
Tim Cook invited the comparison at the 9.7" iPad Pro launch event. I know many of you use an iPad as a computer stand-in, and it can do the job. Sure there are caveats, like iOS' lack of a file manager and accessible file system, but it's fine for web, MS Office (or Apple's free iWork suite) and streaming video. It's even very good for creating digital works of art, though iPad apps lack all the features of Windows and Mac OS X programs like Corel Painter 2016, Clip Studio Paint and Photoshop CC. I personally find the bigger 12.9" iPad Pro a better fit as a laptop replacement--side-by-side multitasking is usable there but still a little small on the 9.7" model. For art work, the larger screen is certainly better, and that's also the case for photo and video editing.
For those who loved everything about the 12.9" iPad Pro except the size and price, the iPad Pro 9.7" model has the magic of Apple Pencil support, the keyboard connector, quad speakers for noticeably better audio and a fast A9 CPU. For those of you who could care less about those features, the iPad Air 2 is still an option, since Apple's keeping it alive at a lower $399 starting price. Both get considerably more expensive as you increase storage and add on LTE 4G, but only the iPad Pro models are available with 256 gigs of storage. I'm not sure I'd call the smaller model a laptop replacement, but it is Apple's best mainstream sized iPad yet, and it's glorious for artists.
Display:9.7" Retina IPS display with wide color gamut and color tuning via True Tone software and ambient light sensor. 2048 x 1536.
Ion rechargeable. Battery is not user replaceable.
27.5 WHr. Apple 12 watt charger.
Performance:2.25 GHz Apple A9 CPU, 2 gigs RAM and 32, 128 or 256 gigs storage.
Wireless:Dual band 802.11ac WiFi with MIMO and Bluetooth 4.2. GPS on LTE 4G models. LTE 4G with 30 LTE bands available for $130 more than WiFi model price.
x 6.6 x .24 in. Weight: 0.98 lbs. (444 grams).
Camera:Rear (main) camera: 12 MP with 1.22 micron pixels, BSI sensor, 5 element f/2.2 lens and True Tone LED flash. Can shoot video at 4K @30fps and 1080p @30 and @60 fps, and slo-mo video at 120/240 fps. Has front-facing 5 MP 720p camera with BSI sensor, f/2.2 lens and face detection that can be used with Facetime video calls and Skype among others.
Ports: 3.5mm combo audio and Lightning port.
Software: iOS 9.3 with Garage Band, Photos, iMovie and iWork suite (Pages, Keynote and Numbers). Email, Safari web browser, Calendar, Contacts, Photo Booth and more.