Apple iPad Pro 9.7-inch full review
The new iPad Pro is sort of the iPad Air 3 which combines the best of the larger original iPad Pro in the size and style of the iPad Air 2, with some impressive new tech and features. But should you buy one? Here’s our in-depth Apple iPad Pro 9.7 review. Also see: Best new tablets coming in 2016.
As well as being the latest and greatest iPad (this is technically the best iPad you can buy), Apple has taken a stab at Microsoft saying that the device is the ‘ultimate PC replacement’ adding at the launch that using a 5-year old PC is ‘really sad’.
In this review, we’ll be looking at whether the iPad Pro 9.7 can indeed replace your Windows PC or laptop, how it compares to hybrids like the Surface Pro 4 and looking at whether you should upgrade from the iPad Air 2 or original iPad Pro.
iPad Pro 9.7 review: Price and rivals
Priced from £499, the new iPad Pro in its 9.7in size sits between the iPad Air 2 which is now £349, and the original iPad Pro - which is larger at 12.9in and costs £679. This makes it the most expensive standard size iPad Apple has ever launched. What you also need to bear in mind is that the purpose of the tablet is to be productive so you’re almost certainly going to want to buy the Smart Keyboard, which adds a whopping £129 to your bill.
That said, the Windows tablets which aim to replace a laptop are also pretty pricey. The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 starts at £749 for 128GB and doesn’t include the keyboard, the Samsung Galaxy TabPro S is £849 for 128GB with the keyboard and the Huawei MateBook starts at $699 with no news on a UK price and whether it’s bundled with the keyboard.
With some perspective on rivals, the iPad Pro 9.7 with the Smart Keyboard doesn’t seem so bad at a total of £628. It does only provide 32GB of storage though which is a significant amount less than those Windows alternatives. The equivalent 128GB model is £619 without the keyboard.
The question is whether it’s a better alternative and whether it can replace a laptop, Windows or Mac. A laptop, as long as you’re not looking for a very high spec, is likely to be a cheaper alternative to these tablet laptop hybrids.
Our sample was provided by MobileFun.
It’s really no surprise that the new iPad Pro is essentially an iPad Air 2. In fact, the two devices share the same dimensions 169x240x6.1mm and 437g, despite a few design tweaks and differences.
Also see: iPad Pro vs iPad Air 2.
As with many iPads which have gone before the Pro 9.7, everything is where you’d expect it to be. The main things to point out are that there are four speakers placed around the edge, the camera has a bump like the iPhone and there are three round contacts on one side for use with the Smart Keyboard.
The camera bump is our only real niggle when it comes to design and means the device doesn’t sit properly on a flat surface such as a desk unless you use a case with the tablet.
It’s a don’t fix it if if ain’t broke situation and we can hardly blame Apple for sticking with the stylish formula which has worked for years. As usual, the build quality is exemplary and if you get the cellular model the back looks a lot nice with just a thin strip of plastic around the antenna section rather than the more unsightly slab as previously used.
It shouldn’t be enough to tempt you on its own but the iPad Pro 9.7 is the first of Apple’s tablets to come in a Rose Gold colour option - it’s a sort of muted pink colour in real life.
With the same form factor as the iPad Air 2, there’s no prizes for guessing that the new iPad Pro uses the classic 9.7in screen size. It uses the same 2048x1536 resolution so the pixel density is still 264ppi but there are various upgrades and bits of new tech here compared to both the iPad Air 2 and the larger iPad Pro.
Apple claims the new iPad Pro is 40 percent less reflective, 25 percent brighter and has 25 percent greater colour saturation when compared with the iPad Air 2. We can notice a difference compared side-by-side in reflectiveness and brightness but less so on colour. It’s an all-round impressive display but it doesn't end there, the iPad Pro 9.7 has something even the larger iPad Pro doesn’t.
The ‘True Tone’ display means that the iPad Pro can optionally adjust the white balance of the screen based on your conditions via the ambient light sensor. You can see the difference and make a choice during setup. After while of having it on you don’t notice the great work it’s doing but it really helps.
In the engine room of the iPad Pro 9.7 is the same Apple A9X processor introduced with the original iPad Pro. It’s a third-generation 64-bit processor with an M9 coprocessor. What has become clear is that the smaller iPad Pro only has 2GB RAM while the original has 4GB.
There’s no doubt that the iPad Pro is one of the most powerful tablets around and can handle general tasks without breaking into a sweat. Whether the iPad Pro is the right device for you vs a laptop really depends on what you need to do on it. Although you can get app versions of the desktop software you use all the time, they are typically fiddly and frustrating when you use a touchscreen and tiny keyboard to interact - we’ll look at whether the iPad Pro can replace your laptop later.
The benchmark results, as you can see are very impressive, especially on the graphics side of things. For comparison we’ve shown the benchmark results versus the iPad Pro 12.9, Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book for as many tests as possible.
If you already own an iPad Pro 12.9, you might be a bit annoyed to discover that the iPad Pro 9.7 comes in a new 256GB storage capacity, although Apple has added this to the larger size now. Other choices are 128- and 32GB with optional cellular data.
While that’s enough choice, it’s a shame that a device which is supposed to replace a laptop only comes with 32GB of storage as standard. The iPad Pro’s rivals running Windows maybe a little privies but they all come with 128GB of space. As usual, the downside of using an iPad in this department is the lack of a memory card slot so choose your capacity wisely if you don’t want to rely on things like cloud storage.
Both cameras have received upgrades on the iPad Pro 9.7 starting with a 12Mp rear facing iSight camera with a True Tone flash which, as mentioned earlier, introduces a bump to the design. This is better than the larger iPad Pro and supports Live Photos and Focus Pixels. Furthermore, it can shoot 4K video and Slo-mo and 240fps.
It’s a decent camera for a tablet but the front camera is probably more useful for most people for video messaging and the like. Here is an upgraded 5Mp FaceTime HD camera with a Retina Flash (it uses the screen), which is quite a jump in quality compared to the iPad Pro 12.9.
As with the larger iPad Pro, the new 9.7in model has a four-speaker audio system where two drivers sit at the bottom and two at the top. These become the side in landscape, of course. We’d still prefer them to be front facing but the performance is the best you’re going to get on an iPad.
Many off the other specs remain the same as other iPads with 11ac dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2, Apple Pay via NFC and the Touch ID fingerprint scanner. It is worth noting that if you opt for the cellular model the 9.7in iPad Pro features an embedded Apple SIM, support for LTE Advanced and an extra three bands (compared to the 12.9in iPad Pro).
Apple doesn’t quote battery size in the spec sheet but maintains that the iPad Pro will provide the classic ‘up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video or listening to music’. As usual, you’ll charge over Lightning connector.
In our benchmark tests, the iPad Pro 9.7 faired extremely well and almost matched its bigger brother despite having a considerable smaller battery inside. It lasted an impressive 11 hours and two minutes with a score of 6623.
For comparison, the Air 2 lasted seven hours and 40 minutes, while the iPad Pro 12.9 managed 11 hours and 26 minutes.
The way the iPad Pro 9.7 works hinges, quite literally, on using it with the Smart Keyboard. It can't be the ultimate PC replacement without it so you really need to factor in the extra £129.
The keyboard is simply a scaled down version of the larger iPad Pro’s, and the smaller
(very small)keys make it fiddly to touch type on, at least until you get used to the narrower key spacing. Autocorrect does a decent job of fixing the inevitable mistakes, but there’s no doubt that the larger iPad Pro is a better choice if you do need to type long documents.
We’ve used the iPad Pro 9.7 and Smart Keyboard to write this entire review and we’ve found it easier than expected using the small membrane keyboard although it’s hard to switch back to it after using a full-size keyboard. Bear in mind that the keyboard is not backlit either and tends to lift up at the front due to the weight of the iPad.
The Surface Type Cover is a far superior experience offering proper kits which are backlit and a trackpad - it’s much closer to a laptop.
However, there are many frustrations which you don’t get when using a laptop. For starters, there’s not trackpad here and very few keys or shortcuts with which to do things easier and faster. You can cmd+tab to switch between apps but not much more. It’s awkward and time consuming to copy and paste text, too.
As with the larger iPad Pro, you can use the split screen view for running multiple apps at once - either a third of the screen or 50/50. However, not all apps support the latter mode - including Google Docs - and even when they do the experience feels a little unfinished with no way of swapping their positions around and the one third view must be on the right side.
While the setup is usable on a desk, once you get used to it, the experience goes dramatically downhill when you move it to your lap or somewhere like a small table on a train. What is also frustrating compared to a laptop, or even rivals, is the inability to adjust the screen angle.
There are other things which Apple clearly hasn't thought about when claiming the iPad Pro 9.7 is the ultimate PC replacement. For example, what do you do if someone hands you a USB stick (or any other USB device for that matter) or you need to plug into a projector with an HDMI cable? At best there’s an adapter (yet another extra cost) or at worst you simply can’t do it.
What about things like printing? Well if you’ve got a fairly modern printer which has an iOS app you’re probably going to be ok but an older device and there’s unlikely to be a way of printing straight from the iPad Pro.
There's also the Apple Pencil which we haven't mentioned yet. It costs £79 and will come in very handy for those looking to accurately draw, take notes or annotate. We've looked at it in details in our iPad Pro 12.9 review. You can also read about it from an artist or designer perspective over on Digital Arts.
When it comes down it it, whether the iPad Pro can replace your PC or laptop hugely depends on your specific usage - which we can answer to directly. As well as our final verdict, below expectations are some summaries for various different scenarios.
This one’s a simple no from our point of view. Although it might be tempting to get what is sort of the iPad Air 3, the chances are you use your Air 2 for basics like gaming, web browsing and social media and the iPad Pro 9.7 isn’t going to bring you enough benefits for the price. If you do also want to do some typing then simply buy a third-party keyboard solution.
Should I ‘downgrade’ from the iPad Pro 12.9?
Quite possibly, yes. As we’ve mentioned throughout the review, there are number of features here which the larger iPad Pro doesn’t offer. Namely the True Tone display and better cameras. Make the switch if you’re happy with a smaller screen and the more fiddly Smart Keyboard.
Should I switch from a MacBook?
This really depends which MacBook you’re thinking of moving from and what you use it for (and how old it is). If you only do the odd bit of light typing or other basic work then the iPad Pro 9.7 could provide a great balance between work thing and fun toy. However, if you do a serious amount of typing or complex work like video editing, for example, this all becomes long winded and fiddly on a tablet.
Should I switch from a Windows PC or laptop?
Similar to the above, it depends on your personal needs in this case. You need to ask yourself questions like ‘can I do my work properly on the iPad Pro?’ and even ‘is the software/app(s) I need available?’. Realistically, the iPad Pro 9.7 is only going to suffice if you need to do fairly basic things. Even as a journalist needing to mainly type, I would still take a laptop over the iPad Pro for work given the option to choose either (cost aside).
It’s likely, coming from a Windows point of view, that a rival such as the Surface Pro 4 or Samsung Galaxy TabPro S will better suit your needs.
Apple iPad Pro 9.7-inch: Specs
- Apple A9X processor with M9 coprocessor
- 32GB/128/256GB onboard storage
- iOS 9 (able to use all iOS 9 tablet features, including Split View)
- LED-backlit IPS LCD, capacitive touchscreen, 16M colours, 2048 x 1536 pixels, 9.7 inches (diagonal), 264 ppi pixel density
- Touch ID fingerprint sensor
- Four-speaker audio
- Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, dual-band with MIMO
- Bluetooth 4.2
- 12Mp (rear-facing) with True Tone flash
- 5Mp (front-facing) with Retina flash
- Smart Connector
- 437g (WiFi-only model) or 444g (Wi-Fi plus cellular)