iPad Pro 9.7 Reviews: Apple's Finest Is Beaten By The iPad Air

Published on March 30 2016

Tablets were around long before the iPad showed up in January 2010, but as you would expect from a device debuted by Steve Jobs, that was the moment when the world shifted. From that moment, so we are told, everybody understood that you no longer needed a personal computer to do your work, you just needed a tablet.

Six years later, that future has not quite arrived. The tablet market is smaller than expected, with much longer replacement cycles than the smartphone market, and even if Apple’s Phil Schiller is going to call everyone ‘sad’ because they are still using a five-year old computer, the tablet occupies a curious place.

It can master a few areas, but not all of them, which means people can become very attached to a tablet or find it offers nothing extra over other portable devices. That makes the marketing of a new tablet even more critical. There is more momentum to overcome to convince someone to upgrade to a new device, and the barrier of entry is seen to be much higher for those looking to start in tablet computing or switch to another platform.

This is where the new iPad Pro comes in. It does add new technology and potential to the form factor, but will that be enough to bring in the sales that Apple needs? Will it be enough to change the perception of the iPad line? Let’s have a look at the early reviews to find out what the new and smaller iPad Pro can offer.

iPad Pro 9.7 Reviews: Apple's Finest Is Beaten By The iPad Air

The naming is a bit clunky. The iPad Pro 9.7 inch is certainly descriptive of the device, but it’s not as clean as iPad Air or iPad Mini – it also means the former device is now the iPad Pro 12.9, which looks even more like an OS numbering scheme than a way to tell two models apart. There’s also a reliance on the ‘Pro’ naming tag for marketing, an issue that Andrew Cunningham picks up for Ars Technica.

In some ways, it is decidedly more “Pro” than the iPad Air 2 it kind of, sort of replaces—the new iPad Pro is faster, and it supports the Smart Connector and Apple Pencil. Its screen technology is more advanced, and in some ways it’s even better than the 12.9-inch iPad Pro Apple released in the fall. But this new release isn’t quite as big and it isn’t quite as fast. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro also shares a few areas of overlap with the iPad Air 2, which is still hanging around at lower new and refurbished price points. It’s Pro, in the context of the rest of the iPad lineup, but it’s not the most Pro.

Both iPads Pro have the same third-generation 64-bit A9X system-on-a-chip, combining a custom dual-core processor with a monstrous 12-core graphics processor to very really redefine what it means to be “mobile” silicon. They’re also both paired with an integrated M9 coprocessor which handles the motion sensors.

The major difference here is that, while the 12.9-inch iPad Pro has whopping-for-Apple 4 GB of memory, the 9.7-inch version has only the same 2 GB as the previous generation Air. For a variety of reasons, iOS is nowhere nearly as memory dependent as some other platforms. The A9X also has far fewer pixels to push around on the 2048 x 1536 display than it does on the 2732 x 2048 version — 5.601,280 vs. 3,145,728. I’ve yet to see any hint of slow down, excessive tab reloading, or aggressive app jettisoning.

But less is less, and it makes the future-proofer in me sad.

Lance Ulanoff takes a closer look at the screen of the iPad Pro. Arguably the most important part of a tablet due to the size and nature of the hardware, he finds that the screen technology is unsurpassed:

While the 9.7-inch iPad Pro’s 2,048 x 1,536 screen resolution is the same as the iPad Air 2, the display is actually an upgrade from both the iPad Air 2 and the 12.9-inch iPad Pro (leaving aside the latter’s higher 2,732 x 2,048 resolution). The 9.7-inch iPad Pro introduces a much brighter (500 nits, as measured by Apple) screen that’s noticeable to the naked eye, reduced reflectivity that doesn’t kill reflectivity all together, a wider color gamut and True Tone.

The merits of these last two screen features will depend largely on your point of view. Colors certainly pop on the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, but they look good on the iPad Air and 12.9-inch iPad Pro, too. People who work on art, design and photography will probably appreciate the color prowess the most.

The biggest ‘Pro’ difference in this machine when compared to the iPad Air 2 is the use of the Apple Pencil This is a heavily-engineered stylus with accurate pressure sensing and positioning and the iPad Pro will be the only version of the 9.7 inch tablet that it will work with. David Phelan at The Independent:

It is impeccably crafted and feels great in the hand. The iPad’s Touch Rejection technology is especially good on the Pro tablets: lean on the screen with the heel of your hand or your fingers and it’s wise enough to ignore these inputs and concentrate on what the Pencil is doing.

And because it recognises the pressure you’re using and the tilt you’re holding it at, the Pencil is capable of doing a lot. More than anything, it’s the Pencil which makes the Pro iPads feel like the most creative tablets Apple has made.

What is missing from the screen is 3D Touch. Apple introduced this addition to iOS’s user interface with the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. It allows the level of pressure being used to trigger different UI elements. On the launcher it can show shortcuts to some of the more popular features, while in-app use can expose web page or picture previews. And for those of you looking at the pro tag and thinking that means more advanced users and extra features, Forbes’ Gordon Kelly has news for you:

When the iPad Pro 12.9 launched in November, perhaps the biggest surprise was that Apple’s most expensive iPad didn’t support the company’s most heralded new technology: 3D Touch. And here’s the shocker, neither does the iPad Pro 9.7 six months later.

Whether this is due to a limitation in the tech or cost behind 3D Touch remains to be seen, but it seems strange that a technology which best suits the same advanced users the Pro range targets continues to be left on the cutting room floor.

Then there’s the camera. It allows the iPad Pro to succeed in one area more than any other – it is the tablet that you would want to use if (and it’s a big if) you use your tablet for photography and video recording. Computerworld reveals this big win for the iPad:

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro tablet is little more than a scaled-down version of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro tablet, albeit with a better camera: 12-megapixel images and 4K video versus the12.9-inch iPad Pro’s 8-megapixel iSight camera with a top video resolution of 1080p. So, if you’re going to be shooting video with an iPad — God knows why — the iPad Pro 9.7 is a better choice.

The big push on the iPad Pro is the idea it can replace the laptop. A common thread running through all the reviews is a simple ‘not yet’, but Christopher Mimms for the Wall Street Journal puts it succinctly:

For one, it is missing some tools essential to PC-like work, most notably a mouse or a trackpad. Moreover, Apple diminishes the tablets’ utility by making it harder than it should be for creators of workplace software to make money through its App Store… ”the iPad Pro is hardly a laptop replacement. It has flaws that Apple executives once argued are deal breakers for doing “real work” on a computer.

iPad Pro 9.7 Reviews: Apple's Finest Is Beaten By The iPad Air

Apple has not released many press review units, although the extensive hands-on time at the launch event and the short period between the announcement (March 21st) and availability (March 31st) means that there is less need to keep the PR machine working before the sales can start. But it does feel like Apple is rushing people to make that initial purchase before the major players in the geekerati have been able to use the device extensively and report back with in-depth reviews.

If you were being generous you could point to that short timescale and the availability in Apple Stores for consumers to get a hold of the new tablet. If you were feeling a little bit less benevolent to Apple you’d note that the lack of advance reviews (alongside the rush release) is the same technique used in Hollywood for films that are expected to have weak critical acclaim and studios want to pack in the crowds in the opening weekend before the reviews have an impact.

Apple’s biggest PR push on this iPad Pro is that it can replace your laptop. That’s not the case, even with the additional keyboard, stylus support and increased performance. Put alongside the iPad Air 2, the 9.7 inch iPad Pro is barely a replacement for 2014′s 9.7 inch tablet. The specifications are slightly higher, there is a marginal gain in functionality, and there will be a wider range of peripherals to buy thanks to the smart connector, but is that enough to tempt existing users to upgrade?

I don’t think the 9.7 inch iPad Pro is enough to force an upgrade. It’s certainly an attractive first purchase, but the iPad Air 2 remains on sale at a lower price and offers much of what the iPad Pro 9.7 serves up.

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