Apple iPad Pro 9.7-inch Review
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This is the part where we normally introduce our readers to the device being reviewed, but seriously, does the iPad need an introduction? Not really. Six years ago, it single-handedly defined what a modern tablet should look and feel like. Today, it is the only tablet that matters in a segment of the mobile industry clutched by stagnation. And the iPad Pro 9.7 – the newest member in the lineup – further solidifies Apple’s position as a leader on the tablet scene.
Bearing a “Pro” in its name, the iPad Pro 9.7 adopts most of what we loved about the 12.9-inch model from last year – the duet of productivity-oriented accessories, the outstanding 4-speaker sound setup, the performance of Apple’s most powerful mobile processor, to name a few examples. With this new model, it all comes at a size that’s more manageable, more portable, more familiar to users, sprinkled with a few extra bits we’re going to mention in a moment. But at the end of the day, the iPad Pro 9.7 is an expensive piece of kit, starting at $599 without accessories. Is the figure justified?
In the box:
- iPad Pro 9.7
- USB to Lightning cable
- 10W Wall Charger
- Quick start guide
- 2 Apple decals
Yup, it’s an iPad alright – sleek, pretty, portable, and… familiar. Too familiar, perhaps. In fact, if you put an iPad Pro 9.7 next to an iPad Air 2, you might have a hard time telling them apart. The weight, dimensions, and overall design of the two models don’t just come close. They’re identical. And how are people around us to notice that we’ve upgraded?
Oh yes, the color! The iPad Pro 9.7 comes in Rose Gold, adding another option alongside the silver, gray, and gold variants we’ve already seen. So far this is the only iPad – and one of the very few tablets, for that matter – to be available in the trendy hue.
Colors aside, the newest iPad adopts all the design traits an iPad is known for. Meticulously crafted, the tablet’s metal body is pleasant to the touch and a beauty to behold. Its buttons – a pair of volume keys and a the home button with built-in Touch ID fingerprint reader – are conveniently placed and easy to operate. This is why we don’t really mind Apple sticking to its tried and tested design formula – there’s pretty much nothing in urgent need of change.
But there’s this one thing sticking out… Literally. That’s the protruding camera module spoiling the otherwise perfectly flat back side of the device. Still, we’ll swallow that, knowing that the snapper is supposed to be a great one. And no, it doesn’t make the tablet wobble, in case you’re wondering.
At a glance, not a whole lot of surprises become apparent. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro comes with a 1536x2048-pixel display at a 3:4 aspect ratio, just like the iPad Air 2. This gives it 264 pixels per inch, which is perfectly sufficient for a tablet. And it is a thing of beauty! Anything from high-res images and video to fine text and 3D graphics looks splendid on the iPad’s screen. On the downside, we’re disappointed to see no 3D Touch functionality here, the reason for its omission still being unclear.
One thing that’s new is the so-called True Tone Display technology, exclusive to the iPad Pro 9.7 as of this writing. In simple terms, it makes the display “colder” or “warmer” to match the temperature of the ambient lighting. The display should look more natural as a result of the color fine-tuning – “almost like looking at a sheet of paper”, as Apple puts it. Perhaps “almost” is too strong of a word, as we can’t really see a dramatic difference. The color shift is really there, but it is very subtle, and we definitely don’t feel like reading a book or a magazine when using our iPad. The real benefit of True Tone Display, in our opinion, is that it eliminates the blueish tone of the tablet’s display. Regardless of the lighting conditions, whites really do look milky white, not bluish as they would appear on most other mobile screens.
True Tone Display should not be confused with Night Shift, which is another color-shifting feature found on the iPad Pro 9.7. When active, the latter filters out blue light during the night hours, thus making the screen go easy on the user’s eyes. You can read more on the matter in our article dedicated to how Apple Night Shift works.
Speaking of colors, the iPad Pro 9.7 displays them beautifully and faithfully, as confirmed by our display measurements. All shades across the spectrum meet their target values with only slight, if any, deviations. There are some inconsistencies with the various shades of gray, but they’re tolerable.
We must also applaud Apple for delivering a tablet that’s easy to use even in broad daylight. The iPad Pro 9.7 shines with over 500 nits of brightness, which, when combined with its low reflectivity, translates to great outdoor visibility.
Interface and Functionality
Needless to say, the iPad Pro 9.7 runs iOS 9.3 out of the box – the same OS powering all other iPad and iPhone models. The update to iOS 9.3.1, which fixed a few glitches here and there, arrived soon after we started working on this review.
As the iPad itself, iOS is in no need of introduction, as a version of it runs on every iPhone and iPad in the world. Where it continues to excel is in overall reliability, ease of use, and availability of well-made applications – all reasons why hundreds of millions of users won’t even think of abandoning Apple’s ecosystem. Sure, there are still bugs and lags do occur from time to time, but overall, iOS remains the most polished mobile operating system right now.
Just like a high-end tablet should, the iPad Pro 9.7 has a variety of multitasking features baked right in. We’re not talking only about the 5-finger swipe gestures allowing us to flip back and forth between apps. We’re talking full-blown side-by-side action! And it’s really convenient – you may take down notes while YouTube is playing video, for instance, or have Safari and Pages running side by side. One detail that must be pointed out is that not all apps support Apple’s Split Screen mode. With those incompatible applications, you can only have a peek at another app in Slide Over mode. Our iPad Pro 12.9 review covers iOS multitasking in greater depth, so check that out if you’re curious.
Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard
One of the reasons for choosing an iPad Pro over other iPad models is the support for Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard. Both of them are sold separately and neither of the two is cheap, which is why a buyer will have high expectations of how well they work and how well they’re made.
We’re already familiar with the Apple Pencil and we can say with confidence that it’s a splendid sketching tool – probably the best of its kind. It has the size of a real pencil so it feels natural in the hand and it has a long-lasting, quickly charging battery so you can use it as long as you need throughout the day. Better yet, the tip of Apple’s stylus senses both pressure and angle, giving digital artists greater control over their work through the ability to vary the weight and shade of the brush with each stroke. Not an art expert? Well, we aren’t either, yet we had great fun unleashing our inner Bob Ross on the virtual canvas.
But the Apple Pencil has its flaws. For example, there’s little to stop it from rolling off a table, even though it is weighted, presumably to prevent it from doing so. Also, we wish carrying it around was easier. The stylus for the newest Surface Pro, for example, attaches to its side via magnets, which is convenient. And no less importantly, not all drawing apps can take full advantage of it, and the ones that do cost a substantial premium.
As for the Smart Keyboard available for the iPad Pro 9.7, it is an improvement over the tablet’s on-screen one, but it just isn’t convenient for prolonged use. We did give it time and we really wanted to like it, which is why most of this review was written using the accessory. Still, it wasn’t a pleasant experience. Typos were common, which doesn’t come as a surprise given the smallish size of the Keyboard. Worse yet, wrist strain set in soon after we got to work.
Mind you, it’s not all bad. The Smart Keyboard is pleasant to the touch, made of a grippy material with fabric-like texture. Its buttons have good travel given the accessory’s thickness. And we got used to typing moderately fast on it after some time. Also, the Keyboard doubles as a cover for the iPad’s screen when it isn’t in use, which is nice. But lifting it off and folding it into place is a frustrating, cumbersome process, requiring us to fiddle with the cover’s individual segments until they finally snap into place. Honestly, a $150 iPad accessory should be designed better.
Just like its 12.9-inch counterpart, the iPad Pro 9.7 has an Apple A9X system chip – Apple’s most powerful mobile silicon to date. Its RAM capacity, however, has been cut in half to 2GB. We won’t call this a dealbreaker, as the new iPad runs fluidly almost all of the time, handling everything from heavy web pages to intensive games with relative ease. Even the most demanding 3D titles are run effortlessly by the iPad.
To no surprise, synthetic benchmarks confirm that the iPad Pro 9.7 is a beast. Scores are off the charts, exceeding the results produced by Qualcomm’s most powerful mobile SoC, namely the Snapdragon 820.
As far as storage capacity goes, a base iPad Pro 9.7 comes with 32GB of the stuff, which should meet the needs of the great majority users. Those in need of extra gigs may go with the 128- or the 256-gigabyte version of the tablet, although these come at a high cost – an additional $150 or $300 respectively. Ouch! As usual, there’s no option for storage expansion.
Taking photos with a tablet is a surefire way of making yourself look ridiculous in public. Yet people do it anyway. Maybe that’s why Apple chose to put its best camera in the iPad Pro 9.7. On its back we see the 12MP shooter from the iPhone 6s, with Focus Pixels, Live Photo support, 4K and slow-motion video capabilities, up to 63MP panoramas, and software image stabilization.
Upon launching the camera app, we’re presented with an interface that’s simple, intuitive, and familiar. Basically, if you’ve ever used an iPhone or iPad to take photos, you’ll be feeling right at home. Most controls are at a few taps’ distance, and we must admit that having an iPad’s screen as a viewfinder is a great advantage.
But we know it is image quality you want to know more about, so let us show you some photos we took with our iPad Pro 9.7 over the weekend. Long story short, most of them came out great, just as we expected. Just give the iPad enough light to work with and it will capture a clear photo with pleasing colors and plenty of detail. Sure, there are some slight inaccuracies when it comes to white balance – some of the scenes we shot look warmer in the iPad’s photos than they did in real life – but the images were still pleasing to the eye. Even in low light, the new iPad Pro does a pretty good job thanks to its dual-tone LED flash.
Image quality aside, we’re once again impressed how fast Apple’s cameras are. The iPad’s 12MP shooter launches in no time and takes photos with little to no noticeable lag, even if you’re shooting Live Photos in rapid succession.
Videos shot with the iPad Pro 9.7 look steady and fluid thanks to the tablet’s amazing image stabilization algorithms. Better yet, 4K videos recorded with it captivate us with the amount of detail they pack. Seriously, when it comes to video recording, this tablet can outrun most of today’s smartphones. Our only complaint is that the viewfinder doesn’t show us the complete viewing area of the camera when in video mode. The frame is cut from the left and right sides for some inexplicable reason, meaning that the camera “sees” and records more than what is shown in the viewfinder.
We spent last evening listening to our iPad Pro 9.7 playing some of our favorite Spotify playlists, and we enjoyed it quite a lot. As its 12.9-inch brother, the tablet comes with a set of four speakers producing loud and clear audio. The sound has a substantial amount of depth and doesn’t come out distorted even at the highest volume levels. All in all, we can’t say that the tablet sounds better than a decent pair of Bluetooth speakers, but it is good enough to create atmosphere with some mellow tunes or to bring your movies to life with each thumping explosion.
Speaking of movies, we wouldn’t mind wasting an afternoon binge-watching the latest Big Bang Theory season in the company of our comforter, a cup of tea, and our iPad Pro 9.7. On a screen this good-looking, watching videos, looking at photos, and playing games is a pleasure.
In real life, the iPad Pro 9.7 easily lasts through a day of moderate usage. That includes browsing the web, listening to music, taking down the occasional note with the Apple Pencil, and wasting a few minutes on a favorite game in our spare time. In the evening, there’s usually enough battery for us to watch a movie or to catch up on the latest videos in our YouTube feed. In other words, battery life shouldn’t be a concern with this one. Still, we’ll run the tablet through our mandatory battery life benchmark and share the results once our testing is complete.
Sure, the iPad Pro 9.7 is expensive, but in return you get a tablet with a gorgeous screen, powered by a blazing-fast processor, armed with a powerful camera, splendid speakers, and the greatest arsenal of applications on mobile. It’s a device that can keep you entertained for hours at a time, that can help you get some serious work done, that can let you unleash your inner artist when paired with the Apple Pencil.
But we have to make one thing clear – the iPad Pro 9.7 cannot replace a laptop. Unless hanging out on social media is all you do on your laptop, that is. Apple’s tablet, as capable as it is, simply lacks the productivity capabilities of a full-blown desktop operating system, not to mention that the overpriced Smart Keyboard Apple made for it is in serious need of improvement.
Should you get one? If money is not an issue, then yes. Just bear in mind that the iPad Pro 12.9 has greater productivity potential due to its larger size. And if you’re really serious about productivity, consider taking a look at the Microsoft Surface Pro 4, which has a well-made physical keyboard and runs a proper, desktop-grade OS. And if money is tight, take a look at the iPad Air 2. It is $200 cheaper as of this writing, which makes it a worthy alternative if you’re not interested in the Apple Pencil or the Smart Keyboard.
Software version of the reviewed unit: iOS 9.3.1
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