9.7in iPad Pro

iPad&iPhone user - - CONTENTS - David Price

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.

De­sign

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.

Dis­play

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.

Per­for­mance

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.

Bat­tery life

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.

Cam­eras

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.

Cam­era tests

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.

Ac­ces­sories

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.

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