Review: Apple 9.7-inch iPad Pro

Review: Apple 9.7-inch iPad Pro 1

Pros: Great form factor is easier to hold than larger Pro. Less expensive than larger Pro. Technology represents a step up from iPad Air 2 at same size. A very fast tablet. Great, bright display with True Tone. The best cameras ever seen on iPad. Very good battery life. Includes multi-touch display and Smart Connector in a smaller package. Untethered Hey Siri is an exclusive on iPad. More LTE bands with LTE Advanced in Wi-Fi + Cellular model. Only iPad Pro with 32GB Cellular edition.

Cons: Expensive compared to current iPad Air 2 price, and extra features may not be worth it to a fair number of prospective users. Smaller screen makes for a slightly diminished drawing/typing experience compared to larger Pro. Audio not as good as larger Pro. Just a tad slower than larger Pro. Not compatible with iPad Air 2 cases despite same tablet size.

Apple’s iPad has undergone a number of transitions in its lifetime, and has popped up in an array of variations since its 2010 debut. The first iPad had a 9.7” display, and since then, there have been smaller (mini) and larger (Pro) iPads — to say nothing of how much thinner and lighter they’ve become over the years. But there has always been a 9.7” “standard” iPad. That size has basically defined how large a tablet should be.

Review: Apple 9.7-inch iPad Pro 2

Apple clearly believes in its newer iPad Pro — enough to bring its features to its 9.7” iPad, and even enough to bring the iPad Pro name to its standard sized tablet while leaving the iPad Air 2 in the current lineup. The new 9.7” iPad Pro comes in an equal number of Wi-Fi (32GB/$599, 128GB/$749, 256GB/$899) and Wi-Fi + Cellular (32GB/$729, 128GB/$879, 256GB/$1029) models. It pairs the hallmark 12.9” Pro features — four stereo speakers, multi-touch display, and the Smart Connector — with the best cameras that have ever been seen in an iPad, and new display capabilities.

Review: Apple 9.7-inch iPad Pro 3

On paper, the 9.7” iPad Pro seems like a winner, and really, a no-brainer. But how does it measure up to the larger Pro, and the iPad Air? Does it really do enough to earn your dollars? We’ll get into it all in the next six pages.

Body + Design

The 9.7” iPad Pro’s body and design are simple enough to understand: it’s an iPad Pro in the form factor of an iPad Air 2. This new iPad Pro is exactly the same size and weight as an iPad Air 2 — it’s 9.4” x 6.6” x 0.24”, weighing .96 pounds (the cellular model weighs .98 pounds). The small changes to the exterior clearly illustrate the differences between the 9.7” Pro and the Air. There are four stereo speakers, two each on the top and bottom of the iPad. The Pro’s Smart Connector, meant to connect and power certain accessories such as keyboards, is found on the left side of the iPad. And the rear camera now features a raised bump, as we’ve seen on the iPhone 6/6s/Plus models. Underneath the camera is a True Tone Flash, which is new to iPad.

Review: Apple 9.7-inch iPad Pro 4
Review: Apple 9.7-inch iPad Pro 5

There’s not much more to say about the body — if you’ve seen or held an iPad Air 2, you know what you’re getting. If you’re not familiar with that iPad, we’ll just tell you that it’s a great design and feels nice and light. The 9.7” iPad Pro is big enough to have an immersive screen presence, but small enough to hold comfortably. There’s a reason it’s the standard size. If you’re looking to use an old iPad Air 2 case, it’ll fit, but you won’t be able to take full advantage of the new iPad’s feature set.

Going Deeper

The 9.7” iPad Pro has the same top-of-the-line A9X processor and M9 motion coprocessor seen in the larger iPad Pro. However, the new iPad Pro’s chip is slightly underclocked, coming up just behind the 12.9” Pro in tests. Even Apple has listed the new Pro as slightly slower on its iPad comparison webpage. It’s also been revealed that the 9.7” iPad Pro has 2GB of RAM, as opposed to the beefy 4GB of RAM found in the larger Pro. The larger Pro is a bit faster, but the 9.7” iPad Pro is still plenty fast — there’s honestly not too much real world difference for most users. And yes, the new Pro is faster than the iPad Air 2 at the same screen size.

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Review: Apple 9.7-inch iPad Pro 7

Another notable change internally involves the new iPad Pro’s display. Yes, it’s obviously smaller than the other Pro, at 9.7”, with a lower resolution. But the smaller display actually offers a few added benefits, as it contains a new “wide color” and True Tone display not seen in the larger Pro, or any other iPad. The wide color part of the display makes the color gamut wider, giving it greater color saturation. Apple also pointed out during its keynote that this was the brightest display seen on any tablet, and yes, it does appear to get brighter than the other recent iPads at peak brightness. The True Tone display adjusts the color of the display based on the color of nearby ambient light to “make colors appear consistent in different environments.” Just by toggling the True Tone display on and off, you can see the difference. The screen’s color generally tends to get a bit warmer with its tint, though of course, this changes based on where you are. True Tone display is not the kind of feature that will sell devices on its own, but considering you can turn it on or off, it’s certainly not a detriment to have it around.

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Review: Apple 9.7-inch iPad Pro 9

Another strange difference between the two iPad Pros — the 9.7” iPad Pro has hands-free, charger-free “Hey Siri,” while the larger Pro (and iPad Air 2) needs to be plugged in. Hey Siri is a great feature that we use quite a bit, so that’s another feather in the new Pro’s cap. In hindsight, it seems like a strange omission on the larger Pro.

The New Cameras

iPads aren’t the best devices to use for mobile photography, if only due to their size. It’s just way easier to use and handle an iPhone for photos, not to mention how ridiculous it looks to use an iPad to take photos in public. That being said, if you take a lot of photos around the home, it’s nice to have a decent iPad camera, especially if you don’t happen to have a smartphone with a decent camera. Apple didn’t feel the need to upgrade the 12.9” iPad Pro’s camera — and really, it feels rather absurd to take snapshots with that device — but here in the 9.7” Pro, both cameras get a big upgrade. The rear iSight camera is now a 12MP camera with f/2.2 aperture, Live Photos, True Tone flash, focus pixels, and 63MP panoramic photos, a sizable jump from the older 8MP camera found in the larger Pro, iPad Air 2, and iPad mini 4. It’s the same top-notch camera found in the iPhone 6s Plus, though the camera bump on the Pro extends a tad farther from the device’s body.

Video recording also gets a boost to 4K quality. Slo-mo recording now gives iPad users the added option of recording for 1080p at 120 fps, and cinematic video stabilization and continuous autofocus also come to the 9.7” iPad Pro.

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As you’d expect, it’s hard to see much of a difference in pictures between the new iPad Pro and iPhone 6s Plus. This fire hydrant picture, captured at nearly the same angle on both devices, looks extremely similar. In all photo comparisons, the Pro photo will come first.

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Review: Apple 9.7-inch iPad Pro 12

Another longer shot shows little to no difference between the 9.7” iPad Pro and iPhone 6s Plus. It was an obvious trend we saw in a number of pics. Of course, it’s not nearly as convenient to tote your iPad Pro around in public for photos as it is your iPhone, but even around the house, pics should be nearly identical in similar situations.

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Review: Apple 9.7-inch iPad Pro 14

For those who are steadfast iPad photographers, the 9.7” Pro definitely represents an upgrade from previous iPads. The specs confirm it, and so do comparison photos. The upper Pro shot is sharper, while the lower Air 2 picture falls behind. It becomes even more evident when zooming in. Again, the iPad Air 2 is OK for an iPad camera, but it can’t compete with the Pro.

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Review: Apple 9.7-inch iPad Pro 16

The FaceTime camera gets an upgrade as well, taking 5MP photos, with the Retina Flash feature also available on the 9.7” Pro. While this aging pug is sadly going a bit gray, she’s not going quite as gray as she seems in the lower Air 2 photo —  the 1.2MP cameras found in all other current iPads just give off a less defined, faded feel, and they’re less forgiving when compared to the solid 9.7” Pro FaceTime camera.

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Review: Apple 9.7-inch iPad Pro 18

Battery Testing

The 9.7” iPad Pro ended up pretty much exactly where we expected in our battery testing. A 27.91 Whr battery is slightly larger than that found in the iPad Air 2, but definitively smaller than the large 38.8 Whr battery found in the 12.9” iPad Pro. The new Pro is presumably more efficient than the Air, and doesn’t have to power the huge 12.9” screen, so it basically ends up somewhere in between the two other iPads when it comes to battery performance, which is still quite strong. Our tests were done with the display running at 50 percent brightness and 50 percent volume.

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In our Wi-Fi browsing test, the new iPad Pro lasted for almost 12 hours, not far off from the larger Pro’s time of 12 hours and 41 minutes. This far outperforms Apple’s own conservative estimate of 10 hours, though as with all these tests, other factors may have an effect on the results.

Our video testing still gave us strong results, though not quite as impressive — the 9.7” iPad Pro ran for 13 hours and 35 minutes, which was close to the results of the first iPad Air, but nearly two hours behind the larger Pro. Again, the 9.7” Pro still easily outperformed Apple’s own 10-hour claim. In our gaming test, the new Pro clocked in at 8 hours and 48 minutes, besting both Air models with ease. Not a surprise, considering the A9X’s greater efficiency in running graphics.

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Using the included 10W power adapter and Lightning cable, our Pro recharged in 3 hours and 45 minutes, which is barely longer than an iPad Air 2. In fact, our results between the two tablets were so similar, we’d basically consider them even when it comes to recharging.

Audio + Accessories

The 9.7” iPad Pro is an upgrade from the iPad Air 2 in the audio department. The four stereo speakers simply have more power and provide for a better overall listening experience when compared to the two-speaker setup in the Air. Interestingly enough though, while the 9.7” iPad Pro has the same speaker setup as the larger Pro, we found that sound performance was obviously different between the two tablets. We’re not positive the speakers are different between the two Pros, but we do at least know based on teardowns of the devices that the larger Pro has much larger speaker enclosures. Whatever the case, the larger Pro has better sound than its smaller brother. Peak volume reveals a stronger, fuller sound in the 12.9” Pro, making the 9.7” Pro seem a bit hollow and weak in comparison.

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Like the larger Pro, the new Pro is compatible with the tremendous Apple Pencil. We found it works in much the same way, but we did miss the larger surface when drawing. We think digital artists and creatives will still want to pony up for the larger Pro to use with Apple Pencil, but those who just want to doodle and dabble should be perfectly happy with the 9.7” iPad Pro + Apple Pencil combination.

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As we alluded to earlier in the review, since the new Pro shares the same dimensions as iPad Air 2, you could use an iPad Air 2 case on the device in a pinch…but you should buy a true 9.7” iPad Pro case eventually, as it should — at the very least — have proper cutouts for the speakers and camera. As we’ve seen with the larger Pro, some cases will also come with an Apple Pencil holder and/or gap to link an accessory to the Smart Connector. Speaking of the Smart Connector, Apple has already released its own 9.7” version of its Smart Keyboard — but since the Smart Connector is the same size on both devices, the smaller Pro does indeed work with the larger 12.9” Smart Keyboard. (Even though it won’t cover the smaller Pro properly.) So if a company does eventually release a standalone Smart Connector keyboard — sans cover/case — you might want to opt for the bigger version for more comfortable typing.

Conclusion

If you’ve got your heart set on a new iPad, the 9.7” Pro isn’t as clear a choice as you’d imagine, despite being the latest iPad. There’s a lot to consider, from a number of angles. The new, standard-sized Pro does have the best cameras in any iPad, but to some, these upgrades may not matter much, if at all. Most iPhone users aren’t going to turn to an iPad Pro for photography. Even if it’s better than their current iPhone camera, an iPhone camera is far more convenient. So what does that leave us with?

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A price comparison between the new 9.7” iPad Pro and the iPad Air 2 can’t be made directly, as the models have different capacities. However: the Air 2’s 16GB Wi-Fi base model launched at $499, and it’s now $399. You can get a 64GB Air 2 now for that same $499 price, which is $100 cheaper than the Pro’s 32GB base model. Outside of the improved cameras, the Pro is faster than the Air. It also plays nicely with Apple Pencil and Smart Connector accessories. It has better audio, a better display, and slightly better battery life, too. We’d say if you’re interested in any of the distinct “Pro” features — Apple Pencil, Smart Connector support, or four speaker audio — pony up the extra cash for the Pro. Otherwise, the Air 2 is still a great iPad, and it may do enough for you. (As for the mini: the Air 2 and the mini 4 are the same price now, and we prefer the Air 2.)

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If you’re sure you want an iPad Pro, you’ve got to consider how much you’ll really use an Apple Pencil or a Smart Connector keyboard. If the answer is “a lot,” it may still be worth it to go for the larger 12.9” Pro, as it will offer a more comfortable drawing and typing experience, not to mention the best audio of any iPad. It has a higher resolution display, too, but it lacks True Tone. The big Pro is also a tad faster than its smaller sibling.

The smaller 9.7” Pro is obviously cheaper and much easier to tote around, which is important. It’s a more accessible tablet with better cameras. It can mostly do what the bigger Pro does — and in a few cases, it offers better features — and it represents a step up from the iPad Air 2.

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Which iPad you choose at this point is based on how you’ll use it. But on its own, the 9.7” iPad Pro is another top-notch addition to the lineup. There are really few reasons to knock it directly — it’s a fun, fast, enjoyable tablet with a great display and plenty of versatility. If you ultimately decide it’s the iPad for you, you won’t regret it.

Our Rating

A-
Highly Recommended

Company and Price

Company: Apple

Model: (9.7-inch) iPad Pro

MSRP: $599-$1029

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2 comments
  1. Cons, nothing new, not even force touch. Pros are less expensive and easier to hold than larger version? Really?

  2. Great device ! Bought the pro for video production and I can say that having those 4 speakers and 256 GB has made it worth it. Also having the same camera as my 6S plus makes it even better now when I need a few quick shots and now I don’t have to be sending files back and forth. All in one iPad.

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