Apple iPad Pro 9.7 review: A little less pro for a little less

Price when reviewed

Since Ian wrote this review back in April 2016, the iPad Air mentioned in the first paragraph has been retired. In its place, the unassumingly named iPad. As you can see from the benchmarks below, the iPad Pro 9.7 still comfortably beats the newcomer, even if its by a smaller margin than it saw off the iPad Air 2:geekbench_4_cpu_geekbench_4_multi-core_geekbench_4_single-core_chartbuildergfxbench_manhattan_gfxbench_manhattan_onscreen_gfxbench_manhattan_offscreen_1080p_chartbuilder

The trouble is that when Apple announced the new iPad, they also included a very attractive price cut. The iPad goes for £339 now – £10 cheaper than the iPad Air 2 it replaced, and a stunning £161 cheaper than the iPad Pro 9.7. A 128GB version of 9.7in Pro can be found on Amazon UK for £600 and as a refurb on Amazon US for $525.

Yes, it doesn’t support the Apple Pencil or the smart keyboard, but if you just want a tablet for casual non-business use, then it most definitely is worth a look. If you do want a tablet for business use, well, you might find the iPad Pro 9.7 isn’t quite helpful as the larger 12.9in sibling.

But I’ll let Ian get to that in his original review, which continues below.

What is it that puts the “Pro” in iPad Pro? Not so long ago, you would have included a larger screen in the list of characteristics that turns an ordinary iPad into a Pro device. The more cynical of us might even have wondered whether iOS was even capable of doing proper work. With the iPad Pro 9.7, Apple has cast such qualms to one side. 

Visually, you’s struggle to tell the iPad Pro 9.7in apart from the iPad Air. It’s the same size and weight, and the main clues that it’s not an Air are on the back, where the camera bulges out, iPhone 6-style, and – if you have a 4G-equipped version – the former black stripe at the top is now silver. There’s also the telltale three black dots on the side that indicate the presence of Apple’s Smart Connector, for hooking up compatible keyboards.

The main changes are all internal, where you’ll find an Apple A9X processor and up to 256GB of storage. The screen, too, is entirely changed and now supports the Apple Pencil. More power, more storage, and a stylus: the question is whether all this adds up to a genuinely “Pro” device.

Apple iPad Pro 9.7

iPad Pro 9.7 review: Pencil and Smart keyboard

If you’ve used the Apple Pencil on the larger iPad Pro, you know what to expect from it on the smaller one. As we said in that review, the Pencil is the closest experience you’ll get to writing with a real pencil on paper. Yes, you don’t get the actual feel of pencil on paper, the slight drag, the physicality of leaving a trail of actual atoms on top of something. But the way Apple reflects a change in the pressure you’re applying, and the angle of the Pencil itself, is somehow, magically, reflected in what appears onscreen. It’s an excellent experience.

Arguably, the Pencil is a better fit for a smaller iPad. The 12.9in version is a pretty big thing to write or draw on, more like an artist’s sketchbook than a business notepad. That’s great if you’re an artist – you can certainly see how the designers in Apple’s design studio would love the larger size – but for an average person, the smaller device feels more familiar and natural than its big brother.Apple iPad Pro with Apple Pencil

If you’re the kind of person who routinely carries around something like a Moleskine notebook, you’ll love the combination of the iPad Pro 9.7in and the Pencil. If you regularly use an app such as Apple Notes or Microsoft OneNote, you’ll love it even more. The combination of Pencil and iPad Pro 9.7in is possibly the ultimate OneNote machine. It’s portable, light, and a great writing and drawing experience.

Where the smaller iPad Pro compares much more poorly to the larger one is as a machine for typing. First, the good bit: Apple has done an excellent job of shrinking the Smart Keyboard cover to smaller iPad proportions and retaining a decent typing feel. However, even Cupertino is subject to the laws of physics and biomechanics, and a smaller keyboard is more tiring and less comfortable to type on than the more spacious one. I’ve found that I can happily type on the iPad Pro 12.9in’s Smart Keyboard for an entire day with no ill effects. The smaller version left me feeling cramps in the hands after only 500 words.

In a pinch, or when travelling, the Smart Keyboard is fine. However, if you’re serious about writing a lot, you’ll do yourself a favour if you buy an Apple Bluetooth keyboard instead.

Apple iPad Pro 9.7 Smart keyboard

iPad Pro 9.7 review: The screen

You’re going to love the screen on the iPad Pro 9.7in. It’s so good that I spent time just staring at the serried ranks of icons on the homescreen, admiring the colours on it. It’s not just pleasant to use: it’s an actual, real pleasure.

Apple’s done several things to make the screen better. The first is that it’s brighter – Apple claims 25% – and this, coupled with lower reflectivity, makes it much easier to read outside. But the biggest improvement is what Apple’s calling True Tone. True Tone is an active adjustment of the onscreen colour temperature based on the ambient light, measured by a tiny light sensor on the iPad.Apple iPad Pro 9

Executed poorly, this kind of system would be terrible. Get the calibration between screen temperature and ambient lighting wrong, and your screen would be oversaturated, or dull, or washed out. There are so many potential lighting conditions that creating an algorithm for optimising the screen is a very tough proposition.

But Apple hasn’t done it badly. In fact, True Tone looked fantastic in every lighting condition I used it in. I turned it off for a while and quickly wanted it back on. It just looks better – you’re going to love it and want it on every other screen you use.

iPad Pro 9.7 review: Camera

Tablet cameras are something you either use a lot or think are a complete waste of time. The camera on your tablet, if you own one, has always been a generation behind the camera on your phone – often, multiple generations behind.Apple iPad Pro 9.7 camera

The iPad Pro 9.7in changes this. It uses the same 12-megapixel camera as on Apple’s current flagship phones, and it takes good pictures. In fact, the pictures are so good that when I look at them in the Photos app, I struggle to remember whether I took them with the iPad or my iPhone.

You get all the bells and whistles you’re used to from the iPhone, too, including Live Photos. Whether you think that these are gimmicks or not, it’s good that Apple is taking tablet photography seriously enough to make sure it’s not a second-class citizen.

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