Review: iPad Pro 9.7″ – it’s the best iPad ever but not for everyone

It's too expensive for casual users but professionals will need to buy extras

Apple’s flagship iPads have always featured 9.7″ screens, which the company feels is the sweet spot in terms of portability and screen real estate. Earlier this year, Apple released the monstrous iPad Pro with a 12.9″ screen. Professional customers have been requesting a larger iPad ever since the original so Apple knew exactly how to market it; it had support for their new Pencil and Smart Keyboard and was the most powerful iPad ever.

For visual artists, the 12.9″ screen is great. iOS now has great apps for sketching, working with architectural CAD files, video editing, photo editing, you name it. The downside is the loss of portability. You can still throw the iPad Pro 12.9″ in a laptop bag but it just isn’t as practical as the 9.7″ iPads that are perfect for whipping out on a tube journey to get some work done. Not to mention casual use of Netflix and web browsing are a lot less comfortable with a giant tablet.

Apple reached a compromise last week, launching a smaller 9.7″ iPad Pro. It looks more or less exactly like the standard iPad Air 2 but it has the power of the bigger Pro model. In theory it’s the best of both worlds and should be the ultimate iPad. Here’s our iPad Pro 9.7″ review.

The body

  • Colours: silver, gold, space grey, and rose gold
  • 240 x 165 x 6.1 mm
  • Weight: 437 grams for the Wi-Fi models, 444 grams for the Wi-Fi + Cellular models
Image © Apple

If you’ve ever seen an iPad before, nothing about the new iPad Pro will jump out at you as revolutionary at first glance. It’s the same size and feels the same but there are physical differences. The camera looks different; there are new speakers; and a sure fire way to spot a new iPad Pro is if you see the rose gold colour option, which is new to the iPad lineup. Rose gold products always walk a thin line between being a tacky pink or sophisticated and beautiful and the iPad Pro follows in the footsteps of the gorgeous iPhone 6.

Everyone was happy that the iPad 2 was so much lighter than the original iPad but the iPad 3 put on a tiny amount of weight due to it being far more powerful. I expected the same with the latest Pro but it’s alarmingly light. It has the innards of the bigger iPad Pro yet it weighs the same as the iPad Air 2, which is obviously supposed to be as light as air. It feels great even when held with only one hand. My brain is still quite astonished to find that it’s a whole 1 mm thinner than the iPhone 6s.

Image © Apple

The new camera is absurdly good for a tablet. I have no problem with tablet cameras as sometimes you might as well take a picture with the device you have in your hand. However, it’s not going to be a primary camera for most people so it really doesn’t need the best camera. Apple apparently doesn’t care and has included a 12-megapixel camera with all the bells and whistles found on the latest iPhones, including the ability to shoot 4K video. The iPad Pro also has the annoying camera bump found on the latest iPhones but it isn’t an issue since the iPad is so large that it does really wobble. That’s important as a lot of people will draw on this tablet while it’s flat on a surface.

The other major difference on the outer body is the additional speakers. Instead of two speakers at the bottom of an iPad (held portrait), there’s now a speaker at each corner of the device. This is easily the biggest sound upgrade ever made to the iPad. Firstly, stereo sound is actually useful now. Most people watch video content in landscape so it makes no sense to have both speakers on one side. Now the software pushes stereo content to the correct sides when you switch between portrait and landscape. And the speakers are infinitely better than on previous models. I played a YouTube video while standing next to a washing machine and boiling kettle and found I needed to turn the volume down. GarageBand sounds amazing without headphones.

The only external buttons are the home button (which has a finger print sensor), the volume buttons, and the power button. Like the iPad Air 2, the small switch used either for orientation lock or muting is gone. There’s a lightning port at the bottom as usual, a new magnetic smart connector on the left hand side for use with the Smart Keyboard, and our Cellular model has the SIM tray on the right.

The multi-touch display

We expect great screens from Apple, partly because of past products and partly because of the price we’re paying. The iPad Pro is easily the best screen we’ve ever seen on an iPad. At 2048 x 1536 it has a lower screen resolution than the 12.9″ model with its 2732 x 2048, but both have 264 pixels per inch. It’s a lot more anti-reflective than usual, which makes it considerably better to use in the sunshine. It’s obviously not like using a Kindle but it’s great that our content doesn’t disappear into blackness when we’re outside.

There’s a wider colour gamut making colourful images more beautiful than on any previous iPad. The new True Tone makes a huge difference too, as 4-channel ambient light sensors take in the light in your environment and adjust the screen accordingly. You can switch this on and off and it makes a huge difference. It’s like the amazing f.lux software but based on your environmental conditions rather than time and location. The result is that it looks less like a glaring computer monitor when you move into rooms with different lighting.

As a touchscreen it doesn’t do anything new that the user will notice. Multi-touch works the same way and it still doesn’t have the 3D Touch features of the iPhone 6s. The biggest difference to the screen’s interactivity might be the new iPad’s greatest feature: Pencil compatibility. The smaller iPad Pro borrows the tech from the larger model so that Apple’s Pencil can be used for sketching, note-taking, or anything else really. It’s a superb accessory but sadly not included with the iPad Pro.

Performance and battery life

  • 32GB, 128GB, and 256GB storage options
  • 64-bit A9X chip and M9 co-processor
  • 27.5-watt-hour battery

This isn’t just the next 9.7″ iPad; it’s a smaller version of the powerful iPad Pro. It uses the fastest processor of any iOS device so far and it screams. The iPad Air 2 is far from obsolete and there’s nothing yet that needs the Pro to run it. That said, the user experience is improved on the Pro when doing power-hungry tasks like video editing. I’ve been putting it through its paces by editing 4K video and playing 3D games at the same time using the new multitasking features and everything is buttery smooth. The multitasking is the best way to notice the speed upgrade when comparing with the latest Air model.

Even Apple's own video editing software can work with 4K video.

The storage options are 32GB, 128GB, and 256GB. Our model is 128GB but we’re happy to see there’s a 256GB option. What makes less sense on the Pro model is the 32GB option. Most iPad users can survive happily on 32GB as a lot of data can be stored on the cloud and streamed. Besides, a lot of people just use iPads for browsing websites and checking emails. That’s why the 32GB model is a weird starting point on the Pro; the type of people who won’t need that much space are the same people that would probably get as much out of the cheaper iPad Air 2 than the Pro model. The advantage of the power and storage space is that huge files can be stored by artists, musicians, and video editors.

The battery has always gotten through a full day in normal use that includes writing, browsing, gaming, and streaming video. Using it fairly regularly I managed to get a full 24 hours out of it. When watching HD video or playing games it lasts slightly longer than the iPad Air 2, which is impressive. The unexpected downside is that the smaller iPad Pro doesn’t have the fast-charging feature used by the larger iPad Pro.

The accessories

The iPad Pro doesn’t come with the Apple Pencil or Smart Keyboard but we have to discuss them because they transform the product and probably justify it as a purchase over the iPad Air 2. One of the major differences between this iPad and the iPad Air 2 is that the Pro can use the Pencil designed for the 12.9″ iPad Pro. We’ve used a lot of professional graphics tablets and we’re fans of the stylus on the Surface Pro but Apple’s Pencil is by the far the best writing tool for a tablet yet. It’s cliché Apple but “it just works”. As a tool for artists it’s right up there with the best and as a pencil for note-taking it’s easily the best we’ve ever used. That’s what makes it so disappointing that the device isn’t included with the iPad Pro.

Image © Apple

I understand that not everyone will need or want the Pencil, so it makes sense to make the iPad Pro available without it. However I can’t help but be reminded of the 32GB option and the target audience. If you don’t need the Pencil then why not just use the cheaper iPad Air 2? The Pro is more powerful but not so much so that the cheaper model is obsolete.

Also not included is the Smart Keyboard, which is a case that includes a physical keyboard. It’s not the best typing experience and I personally prefer the Surface Pro versions. That said, the cover has some cool features. iOS 9.3 makes good use of keyboard shortcuts, many taken from OSX, and some new ones for navigating around apps. 3rd party apps can have their own shortcuts too. The keyboard has a globe button like the software keyboard so you can easily switch between languages (or emoji for most people). I love how easily it connects to the magnetic port on the iPad with no pairing or charging. It just works, which is what Apple should always be aiming for. Hopefully the next version will add backlit keys.

Gadgette’s verdict

There’s no denying that the 9.7″ iPad Pro is the best iPad ever made but that probably isn’t surprising. If you absolutely hate iPads and iOS, this won’t win you over. It’s very much the same experience as before. For people who actually use iPads for productivity and make the most out of the more powerful apps, it’s the best option so far if you don’t want to carry the giant 12.9″ model around.

It’s important to note how Apple is marketing the newest iPad. You could look at it as the next main iPad, like a follow up to the iPad Air 2. It looks the same and it’s more powerful, which is usually the case for an upgrade. However, Apple still say that the iPad Air 2 is the latest normal iPad. Apple lists both sizes of the Pro models together as one advanced product merely available in two sizes. It’s supposed to be for people who need the extra power and the Pencil accessory, which is why we wish it included the Pencil.

Yesterday I filmed a 4K video, edited it, and streamed it all using the iPad Pro. I haven’t found myself using my laptop at all except for coding and even then there are great iOS code editors available such as Coda. Apple says the iPad Pro can replace your main computer. I think for the majority of tech geeks that’s probably not true. But for some people it really can and I’ve been entirely comfortable doing all my work on it.

The people who just browse and check emails can definitely use it as their primary computer but there’s no reason to choose this model over the iPad Air 2 unless you’re filthy rich and just throwing money away. If you want the Pencil, consider this one. If you use the iPad for productivity such as writing with multitasking or heavy media work, consider this one. It’s a dream to use for editing videos, photos, and music while on the go. It’s the best iPad ever but the price means that only a minority of people can justify the purchase when the iPad Air 2 is still such a great tablet.

Upsides: Powerful, light, still has the best tablet apps available. Best iPad screen so far and the speakers are genuinely good for a change. It’s simply the best iPad ever made, unless you want a giant one. The Pencil is top-class, if you go out of your way to get it.

Downsides: Extremely expensive. The cost is worth it for some people but it’s unforgiveable that the high starting price doesn’t include the Pencil or keyboard that make it the workhorse it can be. You’ll need to fork out on a lot of accessories to make the most of the iPad Pro. It’s weird not having 3D Touch once you’re used to it on the iPhone.

Price and availability

The iPad Pro 9.7″ starts at £499 on Apple’s website. The Wi-Fi models are £499 for 32GB, £619 for 128GB, and £739 for 256GB. The Wi-Fi + Cellular models are £599 for 32GB, £719 for 128GB, and £839 for 256GB.

These prices only include the iPad itself and the charger. The Apple Pencil is sold for £79 and the Smart Keyboard is £129.