Review : Apple's 2016 9.7-inch iPad Pro

Smaller iPad Pro puts tremendous power in one hand

MacNN Rating:

ratingratingratingratingrating

Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: From $599, as tested $1,029

The Good

  • Game changing performance
  • Outstanding new Retina display
  • Class leading camera optics
  • Apple Pencil, Smart Keyboard add to iPad's capabilities

The Bad

  • Camera protrusion unwelcome
  • Smart Keyboard experience is suboptimal
  • Adding accessories becomes expensive
The new 9.7-inch iPad Pro is an interesting device, and perhaps one which reflects a new reality for Apple. Sales of the iPad have been slowing for a few quarters in a row now, while companies like Microsoft have also started making inroads with competing devices like the Surface Pro range. Before the larger iPad Pro, Apple resisted introducing a first-party stylus for its own iPad range, and even its own keyboard accessory. Times have changed, and we now have two iPad Pros, both with support for an Apple stylus and attachable Apple keyboards for the pair. Is the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro better for its newly-minted, notebook-like performance and bag of tricks?

Design and build quality

The design of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is largely similar to the iPad Air 2 and in fact, just about every overall dimension is exactly the same. The iPad Pro, just like the iPad Air 2, is 0.24-inches (6.1mm) thick, and weighs in at 0.96 pounds (437g), though there are several notable physical differences. For example, the iPad Pro (for better or worse) now has a slightly protruding rear iSight camera, just like the iPhone 6 and 6s. On the plus side, the longer focal length this allows means it takes excellent photos (which we will look at more later), but it also now feels pretty odd to feel a protrusion on back of an iPad when we have always been used to them being completely flat in your hands. The new True Tone flash, a first for an iPad, is also new.



Another, perhaps more welcome, addition taken from the iPhone 6/6s design is, surprisingly, the antenna band. This has allowed Apple to replace the black plastic antenna panel on the cellular models with a color-matched aluminum piece that actually makes a dramatic improvement to the iPad Pro's look. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro also borrows some design elements from the larger 12.9-inch iPad Pro -- this is the first 9.7-inch iPad Pro to feature four-speaker sound, and comes with the set of four eight-hole cutouts for the new powerful speakers contained within the unibody chassis. As it supports a new Smart Keyboard accessory, it is also the first 9.7-inch iPad to feature Apple's proprietary three-pin Smart Connector, which can be found on its left side.



As we have long become accustomed to, the build quality of the iPad Pro is absolutely first-class. The iPad has been the benchmark for tablet design and build quality for good reason. No matter how closely you look over the new iPad Pro, you will not find any signs of misalignment or ill-fitting components -- everything has been put together with the utmost precision.



Display

The display on the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is the best that Apple has ever shipped on one of its iPads -- yes, it is even better than the already excellent Retina display fitted to the larger iPad Pro. This might hurt iPad Pro early adopters more than a little bit. That said, the new screen is certainly one of those feature additions that really makes you sit up and take a little more notice of this iPad release than you might have otherwise. Apple has been rapidly iterating its display technology across its entire lineup these past few years, and the new iPad Pro is no exception.



While the 12.9-inch iPad Pro supports 100 percent of the sRGB color spectrum, the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro takes a cue from Apple's iMac range in that it also supports the P3 color space. This gives it the ability to support a color gamut that is 25 percent greater than the 12.9-inch model, and will delight photographers, graphic designers, and digital film makers in particular. What helps the colors really pop on the new iPad Pro is that the new display is also 25 percent brighter, and at the same time 40 percent less reflective than the iPad Air 2. Viewed on its own, the larger iPad Pro display is by no means a disappointment, but compared to the new iPad Pro display, it is apparent that Apple has taken a noticeable step forward in display quality.

Another reason the 9.7-inch iPad Pro display is a pure joy to behold is that is the first to feature a technology that Apple is calling True Tone. True Tone, as you may recall, is the name that Apple has given to its latest camera flash technology, which gives photos a more natural appearance when taken with a flash. A similar principle is at work here, except it is all about giving the display a more natural-looking tone in different lighting situations. New four-channel ambient light sensors automatically adapt the color and intensity of the display to match the light in your environment. In general use, it really does make a difference to the overall comfort of your viewing experience, though it can be switched off in settings should you need to when working with images, for example.

Performance

The performance of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro with its ARM-based custom Apple A9X silicon is right up there with ultraportable notebooks. In fact, it actually surpasses the performance of the first-gen x86-based Intel Core M processor found in the in 12-inch MacBook in CPU performance, and is streets ahead in terms of graphics performance. However, as you can see from the benchmarks, as configured in the 9.7-inch iPad Air, the A9X performs slightly less well in testing that it does in the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. This is because the CPU is clocked slightly lower in the smaller model, probably due to thermal constraints, and because it only carries 2GB of RAM, compared to the 4GB of RAM found in the larger model.





What the benchmarks show, though, is that Apple has given 9.7-inch iPad Pro users some serious computational power that is both comfortable enough for you to hold in one hand and highly portable. If you are going to be shooting 4K movies, for example, the ability to throw in a smaller 9.7-inch iPad Pro in your backpack and be able to use it for editing up to three simultaneous streams of 4K footage in the field on it is a pretty wild proposition. This is also thanks to the exceptional GPU performance of its 12-core PowerVR 7XT, which delivers performance twice as powerful as the Sony PS3. It might be hard to believe, but it is true -- and it helps to demonstrate how Apple has redefined performance parameters of tablets with these new iPad Pro models.

We've already seen what people have been able to achieve on less powerful iPads -- get ready to be blown away once again. App developers are already getting their hands dirty making more powerful apps for the larger iPad Pro which will work just as well on this model, while creative pros and others will be making jaw-dropping content on smaller iPad Pro in no time, thanks in part to its support for the Apple Pencil, which we take a look at below.

Cameras

Another area where Apple has really ramped things up on the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is with its cameras. It has endowed it with both the excellent 12-megapixel iSight camera from the iPhone 6s, as well as its great 5-megapixel FaceTime HD camera - the only unfortunate side-effect is the iPhone 6/6s-like camera protrusion. That said, it is a small price to pay for some absolutely stellar optics that put the iPad Pro at the top of the class in this regard. iPhone 6s users will already be familiar with all of the features of the iSight camera on that device, but as a refresher, the camera on the iPad Pro can take Live Photos and 63-megapixel panoramas, as well as shoot 4K video at 30fps, or 1080p video at 60fps.



The camera sensor features Focus Pixels, which provides faster autofocus for stills, but also gives the iPad Pro the ability to continually autofocus when shooting video. Although it is well known that Apple, like most high-end smartphone makers, uses Sony supplied camera sensors, it has been able to differentiate itself from the competition by developing its own Digital Image Signal Processor (DISP) in house. There are many elements that go into making a great photo, but clearly as far as Apple is concerned, when off the shelf components don't meet its requirements, it will make its own. As you can see from the unedited still shots below, Apple's optical formula means you will no longer have to be concerned about whether you have your iPhone handy to take shots when you are using the iPad Pro.





Four speaker audio

If you've heard the four speaker sound on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, you know that it pretty much dispenses with the need to hook up a separate Bluetooth speaker if you're looking to get a better sound. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro picks up the four speaker configuration for the first time in this form factor from Apple. Apple says that it offers twice the speaker chamber volume of the iPad Air 2, which we have no reason to question. It is not quite in the same class as the four speaker sound on the larger iPad Pro, which produces a richer and fuller sound thanks to the larger internal speaker chambers its extra dimensions afford it. However, compared to other 10-inch tablets, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro makes most of the competition sound anemic in comparison.



Like the larger iPad Pro, the 9.7-inch model has built-in sensors that automatically adjust the sound whether you are holding the iPad in portrait or landscape orientation. Bass goes to all four speakers, while the mid and high frequencies always come from the topmost speakers. The system works extremely well, and we found ourselves even more immersed in our content as a result. Having sound come from just one side of the previous iPad models has always been something of a shortcoming. However, Apple has been able to create the additional internal space required to deliver a much more satisfying listening experience, thanks to the efficiency of the A9X processor, while delivering the same battery life as before.



Connectivity

The connectivity of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro manages to take both a step forward and a step backwards from the 12.9-inch models. On the plus side, it connects to Wi-Fi 802.11ac networks at speeds of up to 866Mbps, while cellular connection speeds are double the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, at 300Mbps over LTE Advanced. On the downside, while the 12.9-inch iPad Pro supports USB 3.0 transfer speeds (depending on Lightning adapter), the 9.7-inch model only sports a USB 2.0 controller. For the most part, this will not affect users too much, but when it comes to transferring photos and video from a memory card, 12.9-inch iPad Pro owners are going to enjoy a substantial speed advantage.

Apple Pencil

Perhaps, for a large group of users, the biggest advantage of Apple taking the 9.7-inch form factor "Pro" is its new-found support for the Apple Pencil, a $99 extra cost. The general consensus on Apple's stylus is that it is by some margin the best performing stylus you can buy. Although this reviewer is not a visual artist, we have found it particularly useful for marking up documents. Artists, photographers, and graphic designers will be those who most appreciate the way that Apple has managed to virtually eliminate lag. This makes it feel much more natural and intuitive as a tool than competing devices. And yes, "Pencil" is indeed the correct term for this instrument -- when you see its ability to create extremely fine lines, and shade, it could not have been called anything else.



Smart Keyboard

It is curious that Apple has finally decided to create a native keyboard accessory for the 9.7-inch iPad lineup, a $149 extra cost. For many years it has been happy to cede this field to competitors, although clearly there has been a demand from 9.7-inch users for a keyboard accessory for the iPad beyond the Apple Bluetooth offering. While the Smart Keyboard accessory for the 12.9-inch model is truly luxurious in its expansiveness, the 9.7-inch Smart Keyboard variant uses what can be politely described as an economy of space reasonably well. Although Apple boasts that it contains the same 64 keys as the larger Smart Keyboard, when you see the almost laughable size of the 'Tab' key on the left, you know that is always going to be a suboptimal experience. Its main advantage is that because it is powered and connected via the Smart Connector, it is much more compact and light than current competition, which rely on integrated batteries and Bluetooth connectivity.





Software

Not quite the latest iOS 9.3 comes preinstalled on the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, and it demands an update to 9.3.1 right after the setup process. The new OS is a very important component in the overall value proposition of the iPad Pro. Sure, the A9X processor, the Apple Pencil, and Smart Keyboard support are all key elements in what makes this iPad a "Pro" model, but the split screen and other multitasking features built into iOS are very important in completing Apple's vision. If the iPad is truly the future of computing, as Apple insists it is, it needs to be able to go well beyond its content consumption origins.



Even though Apple launched the iPad with a keyboard accessory at its inception, alongside its own Pages and Numbers apps, its success came largely through iTunes and App Store content. Over the ensuing years, it has become clear that users have wanted to get more out of their iPads in terms of productivity. Accordingly, a thriving third-party keyboard accessory market has grown around the device and demand for true Office-style productivity, coupled with the sheer number of iPads Apple has sold, resulted in Microsoft eventually bringing its Office suite to iPad. It wasn't, however, until Apple added Split Screen, Slide Over and Picture-in-Picture to iOS 9 that basic iPad multitasking is now on par with notebooks.

The interesting thing about the iOS 9 is that, when combined with the power of the iPad Pro models, they can actually far exceed the capabilities of ultraportable notebooks. Try creating art like you can on iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil, or try editing three simultaneous streams of 4K video on a 12-inch MacBook and you quickly start to understand what we mean. Yet at the same time, you can do a lot of the essential productivity functions that most users own notebooks can do, which includes surfing the web, working with email, word processing and working with spreadsheets. It is not surprising then, that Apple is targeting the iPad Pro models at the millions of PC users who have not upgraded their PCs in the past five years.

That said, as far as iOS 9 has taken the iPad, there is still some desktop OS functionality that it misses, particularly for some productivity workflows. In these cases, a native file browsing system, as well as even deeper multitasking capabilities, for example, are needed to get users to ditch their PCs for good. Perhaps we will see something approaching this with the arrival of iOS 10, which is expected to debut at WWDC 2016 later this year.

Conclusion

In terms of form factors, Apple sells more 9.7-inch iPads than any other. Bringing the "Pro" features of the larger iPad Pro to this model certainly makes sense from this perspective. While we love the larger iPad Pro for its expansive display which makes for a brilliant creative canvas or productivity space, it is certainly on the large side. This is of course its whole reason for being -- it is offering a notebook alternative, with a notebook size display, that is also incredibly thin, light and powerful by comparison. The smaller 9.7-inch iPad Pro perhaps makes a better case of also being just a great regular iPad when that is all you want it to be, thanks to its much more compact footprint.

So while the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is more of niche model, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is Apple's first attempt at a mass-market iPad that is much more focused at giving users a real alternative to a PC or notebook. It is, if you will, the iPad reborn. It is the iPad formula rebooted and revamped, with a much wider repertoire of capabilities, coupled with the processing power necessary to take it to the next level. Whether this will help get iPad sales moving forward in the short term is something that remains to be seen. That said, it is certainly Apple's most compelling vision yet for the future of mobile computing, and one that will certainly have wide appeal.

-- Sanjiv Sathiah