For some people, a 12.9″ screen is the main draw of Apple’s first iPad Pro. For others, size was the main barrier to entry — despite a top-quality range of first-party accessories and the sheer power of a lightweight laptop under the hood.
Now that the iPad Pro is available in the same 9.7″ form factor as the iPad Air 2, choosing between Apple’s tablets doesn’t just come down to screen size. I’ve spent a few weeks working with the new 9.7″ iPad Pro to find out whether or not it’s time to upgrade.
Three Inches Matter
Unlike the larger model, the new iPad Pro feels just like a regular iPad. In fact, it feels positively ordinary. This isn’t a bad thing, and as a result it feels far more like a couch companion than the 12.9″ model. It’s nowhere near as unwieldy, and it doesn’t feel comically big when used anywhere other than a solid surface or your lap. This is down to the fact that the 9.7″ model matches the iPad Air 2 exactly in terms of dimensions and weight.
One of the first things you’ll notice is the brand new display, which Apple says includes a 25% wider color gamut and automatically adjusts white balance based on your surrounding. The so-called True Tone Display is easily the best screen we’ve seen from an Apple tablet yet. Images look more vivid than ever and balancing whites based on your surroundings is a subtle but ultimately welcome trick, particularly if you spend a lot of time writing on a white background.
Inside, things are pretty much identical to the larger model. There’s an A9X chip which delivers the goods as expected, though it’s clocked slightly slower than the larger 12.9″ model. In reality you won’t notice it, but one thing you might notice (in time) is the fact that the 9.7″ variant only has 2GB of RAM.
Compared to the 4GB found in the 12.9″ model, this is disappointing. Half the amount of RAM means apps and tabs are more likely to fall out of memory, though the hardware handles current demands surprisingly well. Try as I might, I couldn’t force an app refresh when juggling three tabs and six apps. I get the feeling as iOS and its apps become more demanding, the lack of RAM will begin to show though.
Just like the larger model, the 9.7″ Pro is rated at 10 hours battery life — a number it easily achieves. The tablet puts my MacBook Pro to shame — I’ll get maybe five or six hours of writing, email and web browsing done before my laptop gets critically low, but I’ll still have half a tank left after finishing for the day when I use the iPad Pro. Standby time is excellent too, at one point I left the tablet at 95% in my bag for five days and came back to 77% battery, despite being connected to Wi-Fi and receiving notifications for Mail and other apps.
That’s not to say that either iPad Pro is capable of replacing your laptop in its entirety, and the impressive battery life is ultimately down to the restrictive nature of iOS. This is the upshot of using an optimized mobile operating system for getting work done.
Not Just a Smaller iPad
The 9.7″ iPad Pro is considerably more portable than its larger counterpart, particularly when paired with the Smart Keyboard accessory. Using it as a mobile workstation makes for a very flexible rig, with enough power to handle anything the App Store can throw at it. Despite smaller being generally better, you should think long and hard about how you intend to use the iPad Pro if you’re tossing up between the two.
You’re essentially making a choice between a portable couch buddy that can handle work tasks and fit in smaller spaces; and more screen real estate which makes for a better work environment and more comfortable typing experience. Using the larger iPad Pro without the Smart Keyboard takes some serious getting used to, so if you’re looking for a tablet experience first and foremost the smaller 9.7″ model makes more sense.
On the back, Apple has added another reason you might want to pick the smaller model — the camera now protrudes from the back, just like the iPhone 6s. To accompany the full set of stereo speakers, Apple has added an iPhone-quality camera which takes 12 megapixel still images, 4K video at 30 frames per second, 1080p video recording at 30 or 60 frames per second, and the slow-motion video performance of their latest smartphones.
Combined with an aperture of f/2.2, the new iPad delivers the best iPad low-light performance we’ve seen yet, shoots Live Photos and comes with a True Tone flash for balancing skin tones. By comparison, the 12.9″ model is stuck in the past with 8 megapixel stills and grainy low light footage. Even the front-facing camera on the smaller iPad Pro now matches the 5 megapixel standard set by the iPhone 6s. It seems Apple has delivered a photographer’s iPad.
I know what you’re thinking — is Apple encouraging people to take pictures and videos on their tablets a good thing? The conclusion I’ve reached is that Apple is only pandering to the fact that people already use their iPad for these tasks. As someone who shoots a lot of video on an iPhone (the review that accompanies this write-up, for example), I can see why.
There are a lot of professional applications for this sort of thing, an iPad is a relatively flexible device that can accomplish many tasks — why not make it an effective camera too? It makes a lot of sense to put these camera improvements on the smaller model, which now also sports a better screen. Compared with a small smartphone display, you get a much better view of the action on the larger 9.7″ screen.
A New Smart Keyboard
One of the main selling points for the iPad Pro is compatibility with Apple’s first-party accessories — the Smart Keyboard, and the Pencil stylus. There’s no smaller stylus this time round (that would be silly), but the keyboard cover has been reduced in size to match the smaller tablet, at the slightly cheaper price point of $149. When I reviewed the 12.9″ iPad Pro I came to the conclusion that if you’re not interested in these accessories, you might be wasting your money investing in an iPad Pro — and the new tablet does little to change my opinion.
Compared to the larger cover, the new Smart Keyboard takes some getting used to. Despite sharing a layout with the standard Mac keyboard, I didn’t find the transition as smooth this time round. Typing is a challenge to begin with, and those with bigger hands are going to struggle and rely on autocorrect more than they’d like. After about 30 minutes of typing, I felt far more confident on the smaller keyboard and at this stage I turned autocorrect off.
In terms of feel, the smaller Smart Keyboard is identical to the larger model. The keys have the same satisfying pop, with enough feedback and travel to make typing a pleasant experience. Your hand position remains close enough to the screen that you’re still able to comfortably interact with touchscreen elements without over-stretching. Just like the larger keyboard, it doesn’t feel like it’s going to topple over when used on your lap.
Apple has been smart about reducing the size of the keyboard, maximizing the size of the main letter keys while shrinking down those found on the outer edges, like tab, apostrophe and backslash. There’s no denying that typing is a more cramped experience this time round. I couldn’t build up the same speed that I did on the larger model, but I have relatively large hands. If you have smaller digits then this might not be such an issue for you.
While protecting the glass touch screen, the Smart Keyboard adds some heft to the iPad Pro. It’s not enough to severely impact the mobility, but it seems like a bigger deal on the smaller tablet than it does the larger one. The Smart Keyboard doesn’t sit quite flat due to the way it folds, but it’s still the thinnest and most elegant portable typing solution you’ll find for your tablet. Best of all, it requires no batteries, charging or Bluetooth pairing, instead utilising the connector on the back of the unit.
The Pencil seems less useful here, though it works exactly the same way it does on the larger model. It’s probably best suited to handwriting aficionados, and for art and design purposes the 12.9″ display provides a far better digital canvas. If you’re thinking of using your iPad Pro as a graphics tablet for your Mac with the use of Astropad ($20) though, the 9.7″ model is a capable and portable solution that’ll serve you well.
Who’s It For?
The iPad Air and both models of iPad Pro can all take advantage of an iOS feature called Split View, which allows you to run two apps at the same time. By dragging from the left edge of the screen, a second app opens up occupying a third of the available display. Drag the divider to the centre of the screen and each app will take up half of the available space. On the 12.9″ iPad Pro this feature is a killer.
50-50 split screen seems a lot less useful here, and I found myself choosing the smaller 1/3 screen option for running secondary apps the majority of the time. When dividing the 9.7″ screen in two, websites revert to mobile versions, and neither app seems to get enough room to shine. If work and multitasking are your main reasons for buying an iPad Pro, you might be safer spending a little more on the larger model.
With this in mind, the 9.7″ iPad Pro feels more like an upgrade for iPad Air users who wish their tablet had a bit more oomph, and compatibility with some very nice first-party accessories. If you’re buying new today, you can pick up a 16GB iPad Air for $399, while the smaller iPad Pro will set you back $599. As the iPad Pro has a base capacity of 32GB, the pill is a little easier to swallow when you consider you’ll get double the capacity for that extra $200.
Most users will probably want a Smart Keyboard too (and if you don’t, you should seriously consider an iPad Air 2 instead), which takes the total minimum cost to $748 — still cheaper than an 11 inch MacBook air ($899). An entry-level Apple laptop may be more capable as it runs a proper desktop OS, but the iPad Pro is smaller with a better battery life to boot.
If you’re looking for an ultra-portable workstation and you’re confident the iPad Pro can do everything you want it to, sacrificing screen real estate in favour of a thinner and more mobile device may be the way to go. Apple has even introduced 256GB storage capacities (starting at $899 for the 9.7″ model), when previously 128GB was your limit.
The smaller iPad Pro feels like less of a laptop replacement than the larger model, but it could still do the job just as well depending on your demands. I still think the tablet exists as a supplementary device, to be used alongside your main machine; and for this purpose the cheaper 9.7″ iPad Pro seems easier to justify.
The Best iPad Yet?
In terms of hardware and form factor, the 9.7″ iPad Pro is the best iPad yet. Not only does it make a great touch screen companion for browsing Facebook and sitting on the sofa; new display technology, internal hardware, and camera improvements make it a force to be reckoned with. First-party accessories like the Smart Keyboard and Pencil make it possible to get real work done, even if you do have to get used to the restrictive nature of iOS first.
If you have a main machine like an iMac or ageing MacBook Pro, and you’re looking for something portable to add to the setup; you’re probably better off with one of these — which ticks both work and pleasure boxes — than a new MacBook Air. You might not be able to get rid of your main machine, but you’ll have an iPad that works great on the couch, and an ultra-portable workhorse to get real work done.
Your success here may be limited to how well you get on with iOS, however. For office tasks, blogging, communicating with workmates, responding to email, typing essays, and many of the uses for which people currently buy laptops, a 9.7″ iPad Pro with a Smart Keyboard is a surprisingly capable and versatile tool at a price point which won’t make your eyes water. Of course, you might not need to spend an extra $200 on an iPad Pro if the Air will do.
One last thing: Microsoft currently allows tablets with a screen size smaller than 10.1″ use Office for free, which means you’ll need to cough up for an Office 365 subscription if you want to use Word or Excel on the larger iPad Pro, but not on this. If you’re thinking of buying the tablet for school or small business use, and you want to save some more money, this may factor into your decision.
The best iPad yet, if you can justify the additional expense.