9.7in iPad Pro
From £499 inc VAT apple.com/uk
The 9.7in iPad Pro, Apple’s appealing new midsize tablet, proves that while laptops might still be the best tool for working on the go, they’re no longer necessary. We evaluate its build quality and new features, put the device through our rigorous speed benchmarks and battery-life tests, and compare the value for money it offers compared to other iPads (and rival tablets) on the market.
If you’ve seen the iPad Air 2 then you’ve pretty much seen the 9.7in iPad Pro too. They’re virtually identical; the physical dimensions match up, down to the nearest gram or tenth of a millimetre, and the positioning of almost all the buttons, slots, apertures and so on is the same.
Yet some minor and a couple of significant differences can be discerned by the eagle-eyed.
Minor: the cellular antenna section at the top of the back of the (cellular-capable) iPad is now mostly the same metallic finish as the rest of the back, with just its edge picked out in white or black plastic, and therefore looks nicer than the entirely plastic section on the iPad Air 2 (and on the cellular 12.9in Pro, for that matter); the word ‘iPad’ on the back is now picked out in the thinner and to our eye better-looking San Francisco font; the SIM card slot has migrated fractionally higher up on the side of the device; and there’s a pink (sorry, Rose Gold) colour option.
Significant: the speakers at the bottom of the iPad are now spaced further apart (which is sensible; they used to be crammed so close to the Lightning port that you had no chance of making out a stereo effect) and a third and fourth speaker sit on the top edge, giving an altogether more formidable audio setup; there’s a discreet Smart Connector on the lefthand edge, for attaching and powering a keyboard case; and the rear-facing camera is now accompanied by a flash (and sticks out a bit, like the camera on the iPhone 6 and 6s generations).
The protuberant camera lens is quite annoying: if you lay the iPad flat on its back, particularly on a hard surface, then one corner is raised up awkwardly, and it scratches against the desk if you push it around. If you equip your iPad with a case or cover, however, this will be far less of a problem: we habitually use the Smart Cover, which means the iPad almost always has the cover tucked underneath when it lies on a table.
For those who don’t know the iPad range in general, it’s worth stating for the record that the 9.7in iPad Pro, like all of its stablemates, is beautifully designed and engineered.
There are many lovely touches, from the charming contrast between the brushed-metal sides and the narrow gloss chamfer (which we think looks particularly nice in the new pink finish) to the subtle rounding on the back edges, toned down from the original iPad, but still present all these years later, which makes the iPad easier and more inviting
to pick up. But Apple has been turning out such delights for many years, so we had better move on and look at the new features.
The 9.7in iPad Pro comes, as the name makes clear, with a 9.7in touchscreen Retina-class display: one that matches in size, resolution and (mostly) functionality the screen on its predecessor.
The 2048x1536 resolution produces a pixel density of 264 pixels per inch (ppi), which is standard issue for Apple’s tablets, and pleasingly sharp to the eye, but given that Apple routinely sells iPhones with a pixel density of over 400ppi, it can scarcely argue any more that Retina resolutions are the best that the human eye can discern. You can get a tablet with a pixel density above 350ppi if you’re willing to go over to the Dark Side and buy from Samsung.
Our subjective experience of the screen is that it is merely excellent, and we weren’t immediately struck by any differences from the iPad Air 2. But Dr Raymond M. Soneira, from DisplayMate, has run detailed specialist tests on the two screens’ performance and concludes that the Pro is a measurable step forward in a number of areas: colour output, reflectivity, brightness. The Pro’s display, he goes on to conclude, “is visually indistinguishable from perfect, and very likely considerably better than any mobile display, monitor, TV or UHD TV that you have.”
After reading the expert’s rave reviews on the iPad Pro’s reduced screen reflectivity, we looked again at its performance in bright sunshine, next to windows, under electric lights, and so on. Several
colleagues were convinced that reflections were indeed less of an issue than with the Air 2, and that screen legibility would be better outdoors. But this was subjective: others struggled to spot the difference. Your mileage may vary.
The most intriguing difference between the screens on this iPad and the Air 2 is a new feature called True Tone. (A feature so new that it is denied to those who buy the 12.9in Pro.) This is designed to subtly adjust the screen’s colour output to account for environmental light conditions.
Having only recently got used to the shocking colour adjustment imposed by Night Shift on default settings (we’d strongly recommend toning it down), we struggled to notice True Tone’s far more subtle changes at first. But sitting at a desk under electric light in late afternoon with the 9.7in iPad Pro and the iPad Air 2, it’s fairly clear that True Tone is gently warming things up – a kind of watered-down version of Night Shift. This should carry on doing its thing in the background throughout your day, and the nice thing is that you don’t need to worry about it, just getting a slightly better and more context-appropriate screen performance.
Again, we turn to the expertise of Dr Soneira for a technical examination of this feature. He points out first of all that while True Tone automatically changes both the White Point and colour balance of the display, Night Shift changes colour balance only. But he also sounds an alarm about True Tone’s affect on colour fidelity in some circumstances:
“When we turned on True Tone under incandescent lighting with a Colour Temperature of about 3000K, the Colour Temperature of the 9.7in
iPad Pro White Point shifted from 6945- to 5500K, which is quite noticeable and visually significant, but it doesn’t come close to matching the colour of reflected light from white paper. The colour change with ambient light may be better for reading text on the screen’s white background.
“And most users might not want such a drastic colour change with ambient light anyway, which would affect and significantly reduce the Absolute Colour Accuracy of all image content (including photos and videos), one of the iPad Pro’s strongest features. My recommendation is that True Tone needs a Slider adjustment so that each person can vary the magnitude of the effect, from very little to a lot.”
There isn’t yet a slider – as there is for Night Shift – but if you don’t like the effect, you can turn off True Tone completely: which is also good for evaluating the effect you’re getting if you haven’t got a non-True Tone iPad to compare it to.
The 9.7in Pro is equipped with Apple’s proprietary A9X processor and M9 motion co-processor – the
same components used in the 12.9in Pro and the most powerful mobile chipset that Apple currently uses. (For comparison, Apple claims that the A9X chip, as used in the 9.7in Pro, is 2.5x faster at general processing than the iPad mini 2’s A7, and 5x faster at graphics processing.)
It’s searingly fast, and comfortably powerful enough to handle anything on the App Store now and for the next couple of years. Indeed, unless you’re keen to run the most graphically intensive games or demanding creative or work apps, it’s hard not to regard this as spec overkill.
We continue to use the office iPad Air 2 for a range of new and demanding games and work tasks and haven’t observed any slowdown yet, but in terms of future-proofing the 9.7in Pro is clearly a better long-term bet. The Air 2, particularly if you plan to regularly update iOS, won’t stay fast forever.
In our speed tests the 9.7in Pro was streets ahead of the Air 2 (that’s a theoretical advantage, though – the real-world experience for the two is similar at present) and in most tests only slightly behind the 12.9in Pro. The larger iPad remains a faster machine overall because of its extra RAM – 4GB compared to the 9.7in model’s 2GB – but the greater demands of that device’s larger, higher-resolution screen mean that in onscreen tests the gap is fairly small. The gap was more noticeable in the offscreen sections of the GFXBench tests.
The 9.7in Pro comes with a 7306mAh rechargeable lithium-polymer battery. That’s pretty much the same capacity as the one in the iPad Air 2 (7340mAh), but coming 18 months further down the techdevelopment line it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect slightly improved power efficiency.
In fact, the 9.7in Pro exceeded expectations in its first battery test, achieving a score in Geekbench 3’s battery component of 6,711; that’s only a little lower than the 6,865 scored at launch by the 12.9in iPad Pro (which has a far larger battery – 10,307mAh – albeit one that has to power a far larger screen), and well ahead of the iPad Air 2’s 4,601.
This seemed impossibly good, so we repeated the test a week later. This time the 9.7in Pro laid down a score of 6,535 – slightly lower, but still extremely impressive. That’s a terrific average score of 6,623.
To put that into the context of actual times, those three iPads lasted 11 hours 11 minutes (9.7in Pro), 11 hours 26 minutes (12.9in Pro) and seven hours 40 minutes (Air 2) respectively. Bear in mind that this is
a demanding test and real-world battery life is likely to be significantly higher. In its second test, the 9.7in Pro lasted 10 hours 53 minutes.
Predicting battery life, for that matter, is never an exact science. But we’re satisfied that the 9.7in Pro is easily capable of matching the “up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video or listening to music” or “up to nine hours of surfing the web using a mobile data network” that Apple claims for all five of its current iPad offerings.
The 9.7in Pro has the best rear-facing camera of any current iPad – and that, annoyingly for last September’s early adopters, includes the 12.9in Pro.
The 9.7in model’s back camera is rated at 12Mp with an f/2.2 aperture, compared to the 8Mp/f/2.4 offered by the larger Pro, the Air 2 and the mini 4, and the 5Mp/f/2.4 model on the mini 2, and it’s been equipped for the first time with a flash.
It also gets the Live Photos feature, where short snatches of video are captured before and after still photos so they can be animated, that we’ve previously seen on iPhones only; 4K video recording (up from 1080p); a sort of ‘super slow-mo’ option (240fps, up from 120fps) as well as the option to shoot 120fps slow-mo at 1080p, up from 720p; larger panoramas (63Mp, up from 43Mp); auto HDR; and a focusing feature that Apple calls Focus Pixels.
And the front-facing camera is much improved, too, although in fewer ways: the megapixel rating has gone up from 1.2Mp (across the board) to 5Mp, and the 9.7in Pro gains the Retina flash feature – which lights up the screen as an improvised
front-facing flash – that we know and love from the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus. It also gains auto HDR on the front-facing camera, which the Air 2 and mini models don’t get, but unlike the rest of the improvements I’ve listed here the 12.9in Pro does get this one.
We took the two sizes of iPad Pro, together with the iPad Air 2, out into the north London sunshine for a series of photo tests. In sunny weather most of our shots were of a broadly similar standard – despite the 9.7in Pro in theory having a substantially more capable sensor.
Our shot of St. Pancras Hotel in moderately overcast conditions was a better demo of the 9.7in Pro’s camera chops. There’s much more ‘pop’ to the Pro’s image, better contrast; the Air 2’s shot looks muddy and subdued in comparison (although bear in mind that both are decent shots which we’ve zoomed into quite heavily to seek out weaknesses).
If you can bear it, take a look at these selfies , taken by the author with the front-facing cameras. (Bear in mind that the photo taken by the 1.2Mp camera in the Air 2 is much smaller than that taken by the 5Mp iPad Pro, and we’ve blown the former up even more for a comparison of how well each shot stands up to a heavy zoom.) You can clearly see more pixellation in the Air 2’s selfie, as you’d expect.
We gave the Retina flash a quick try-out too. A comparison wasn’t really possible here, since none of the other iPads have any kind of flash on their front-facing camera, but we took an unflashed shot with the iPad Air 2 just so you can see what you’d be stuck with if taking a selfie in the dark.
The Retina flash does a surprisingly decent job of lighting the subject, with colours holding up well and no noticeable overexposure, although there’s a bit of blurring around the bottom of the picture.
Speakers and audio quality
The 9.7in model, like the larger Pro, comes with four speakers: the two speakers at the bottom of
all currently available iPad models (albeit spaced more widely than on the iPad Air 2 and minis), and two more on the top edge. The speakers are still very slightly backward-tilted, however, sitting as they do on the iPad’s gently curved edges.
It’s a huge step forward sonically. The iPad Air 2 has always had mediocre audio output, but this is particularly cruelly exposed when playing songs and films at top volume alongside the 9.7in iPad Pro, which has a much fuller, richer sound: it fills our small test centre with clear, warm audio. The Air 2, by contrast, provides essentially no stereo effect whatsoever, since its speakers are so close together, and sounds desperately thin (and lopsided) after listening to the Pro.
Screen space is still a compromise, but in terms of sound the 9.7in Pro now feels like a legitimate choice for spare-room film nights – no longer do you need to plug in headphones for the proper experience. It’s also a far more appealing option as a portable music device for the kitchen or picnic table.
The 12.9in tablet is still ahead in this department, however. It’s possible that the speakers themselves are beefier, although Apple doesn’t release specs for these and may have just used the same audio setup in both models; more likely the slightly better audio simply reflects the larger separation between speaker units.
The 9.7in Pro is equipped to run the same types of accessories as its larger cousin. Its screen works with the Apple Pencil, and there’s a Smart Connector port on the lefthand edge for attaching a (smaller version of the) Smart Keyboard cover.
The Apple Pencil is an attractive and wellbalanced stylus that makes for extremely smooth, accurate and lag-free drawing, digital ‘painting’ and note-taking. Having this option takes the 9.7in Pro to the next level as an artistic tool – although like most Apple kit the Pencil is among the costliest options in its field. It isn’t bundled with the tablet and will cost you a further £79.
The 12.9in version of the Smart Keyboard is essentially full-size. For reasons of weight and slimness, the keys have a shallower action than those on a standalone keyboard for a desktop Mac – instead of a pleasing butterfly or scissor mechanism, the keys are kept in position by the tension in their covering fabric – and this makes them less satisfying to use.
But the familiar layout and size of the keys (if not shape – they’re more rounded than you’ll be used to) makes it surprisingly accurate. Not as accurate as a conventional keyboard, but accurate enough once you get used to it.
The 9.7in Smart Keyboard is a different matter. Its keys still feel a bit cheap, as a result of the shallow, weightless action, but because of their size (fractionally smaller than the pad at the end of my fingers, whereas the 12.9’s keys are slightly larger, which feels like a significant difference) they’re pretty hard to use accurately too: switching from the 12.9’s keyboard, or certainly from a conventional keyboard, is painful. It looks and to an extent feels like a toy.
As with the 12.9in model, however, practice will be rewarded, and this certainly isn’t a disaster: indeed, for a keyboard of its size it’s pretty usable. But of the many aspects of the 9.7in Pro’s quest to be taken
seriously as a work tool, its keyboard is the most glaring weakness.
(An extremely small side complaint: the lower weight of the 9.7in keyboard accessory means it doesn’t sit completely flat on the table - the front often lifts up slightly as the tablet pulls down on the back of the setup. We’ve tried two separate review samples here and both suffered from this – very minor – issue. Yet Apple assures us this is not a widespread problem.)
This won’t be the only keyboard for the 9.7in Pro, of course. Many of iPad & iPhone User’s 12.9in model owners prefer the Logitech Create Backlit Keyboard Case to Apple’s offering, and we assume that a version of this for the 9.7in Pro will appear before long. But if you do give Apple’s own iPad keyboard a go, prepare your wallet for a battering: the 9.7in version of the Smart Keyboard will set you back an eye-watering £129.
iPad & iPhone User’s buying advice
The price is high and at first glance slightly annoyingly so: given that the 9.7in Pro is externally almost identical to the iPad Air 2, Apple may have a hard sell convincing the average user to part with £839 when the top-end Air 2 cost £659 at launch, albeit with half the storage. (Business users –and Apple is pushing this tablet into the laptop-replacement sphere–will presumably find the pricing less off-putting.) Still, we think you get more than enough to justify the £60 premium over the equivalent launch-day iPad Air 2.
This is a considerably faster device than its predecessor – very nearly as quick in a lot of tests,
indeed, as the 12.9in Pro, despite having half the RAM. As ever, we must point out that this won’t make a difference just yet in your day-to-day usage, but offers far more future-proofing and the ability to run the most demanding apps and games for years to come. But the presence of the mega-powerful Pro devices at the top of Apple’s range gives app developers licence and encouragement to push their wares in more ambitious directions. And other than the RAM and the oversized screen, the 9.7in Pro gets every single upgrade offered by the larger model, and quite a few that it doesn’t.
You can now use the Apple Pencil and the Smart Keyboard with your mid-size iPad, instantly making this a more appealing device for work on the go, and particularly for creative design work and notetaking; and quad speakers make it a superior option for films and TV on the go, and make for better and more immersive gaming and music playback.
Leaping beyond the 12.9in Pro’s enhancements, the 9.7in Pro gets a True Tone colour-adjusting screen, heavily improved front- and rear-facing cameras (including 4K video recording, Live Photos and the Retina Flash) and the option for a pink colour finish. And unlike with the older Pro, buyers of the smaller Pro get the full range of storage options (including, for the first time on an Apple mobile device, 256GB) from launch.
The added improvements in the last paragraph will be galling for early (or even moderately tardy) buyers of the 12.9in model, who have every right to feel stitched up; they imagined themselves to be buying what would remain the top-end iPad for a good 12 months and now have to watch an even better (but cheaper) model come out, along with new options for the larger Pro that they didn’t have access to, a scant six months later. Then again, instant obsolescence is par for the course as a tech buyer. And writing as I am for prospective buyers of the 9.7in Pro, those upgrades are great news.
The smaller Smart Keyboard isn’t a convincing replacement for a full-size layout, and for mobile business users this is still a compromise in terms of screen space and range of available apps (even if the latter issue will dwindle and die as time passes). But overall we find this a strong and appealing mid-size tablet that advances the argument that while laptops might still be the best tool for working on the go, they’re no longer necessary.