9.7-inch iPad Pro review: What makes something “Pro” anyway?

The smaller Pro straddles the line between the 12.9-inch version and the Air 2.

If you’re Apple, how do you decide what constitutes a “Pro” device? Is it in the specs? Usually Pro products are faster and offer more storage and RAM than their non-Pro counterparts. Is it something special about the hardware and software? Often, yes, Pro products have specialized features that non-Pro products either get later or don’t get at all. Is it about the kinds of tasks they can perform? Sort of. Most Pro and non-Pro products run the same software, but the Pro can perform actions faster and better thanks to the aforementioned hardware improvements.

Some Pro products are also more “Pro” than others. There’s a huge gap between the lowest-end Mac Pro and the highest-end version of the same machine. The 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro offers all kinds of performance improvements that the 13-inch version doesn’t.

Keep all of this in mind as you consider the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. 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.

Look, feel, and screen

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro is a whole lot like an iPad Air 2 in many ways. The size, screen resolution, and weight are all identical, as are Apple’s stated battery life figures for both tablets (10 hours of Wi-Fi Web usage, nine hours of cellular usage). If you use your iPad primarily as a consumption device, there frankly isn’t much here to encourage you to upgrade.

The screen dominates the experience while you’re using a tablet, so let’s talk about that first. Most improvements are hard to spot unless you’re looking for them. The screen, for instance, is nice. But it’s only nice in ways that you’ll really notice if you’re a stickler for color accuracy or see an older and newer iPad side-by-side.

For instance, the screen’s DCI P3 color gamut (a feature originally implemented in the most recent 4K and 5K iMacs) means it can display deeper and more accurate shades of green and red, but it’s not nearly as impactful as the switch from a non-Retina display to a Retina one or even the switch from the original iPad Air’s non-laminated display to the Air 2’s laminated one. The screen’s brightness goes up to about 500 nits, a nice increase from the 400-or-so nits of the big iPad Pro and the Air 2. However, if you’re not outside or in harsh light, you won’t need the screen to be quite that bright.

SCREEN 2048×1536  9.7-inch (264 PPI) touchscreen
OS iOS 9.3
CPU 2.12GHz dual-core Apple A9X
STORAGE 32GB, 128GB, or 256GB NAND flash
NETWORKING 866Mbps 802.11a/b/g/ac, Bluetooth 4.2, UMTS/HSPA/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1700/2100, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)
CDMA EV-DO Rev. A and Rev. B (800, 1900 MHz)
LTE Advanced (Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 17, 18, 19, 20, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 38, 39, 40, 41)
CAMERA 12MP rear camera, 5MP front camera
PORTS Lightning connector, headphone jack
SIZE 9.4″ × 6.6″ × 0.24″ (240 × 169.5 × 6.1 mm)
WEIGHT 0.96 pounds (437g) Wi-Fi, 0.98 pounds (444g) with cellular
STARTING PRICE $599, plus $149 for the Smart Keyboard and $99 for the Apple Pencil
OTHER PERKS Charger, Lightning cable

The True Tone feature is subtle but easier to appreciate. The screen has “four-channel ambient light sensors” that detect not just the brightness of ambient light, but also the color of that light. This subtly changes the display’s white point, making it more orangey in warm light and more bluish under cool light. This feature makes the iPad’s screen more accurately resemble a sheet of paper.

The screen I’m looking at is just a little orange right now because of the dim ambient lighting of the room I’m in. Turning the True Tone feature off (something you’ll probably want to do if you’re adjusting photos for color accuracy) makes the screen look unexpectedly cool and harsh, though I know for a fact it’s not something I would have complained about before seeing the new iPad Pro. Just like the DCI P3 color gamut migrated from the iMacs to the iPad, the True Tone feature will surely find its way into other Apple products going forward.

One screen improvement may be more noticeable, at least if you’re working outdoors or somewhere with a lot of light sources and reflections. Apple claims that the iPad Pro’s screen is 40 percent less reflective than the Air 2, and the screen really does reflect less light. It’s no matte display, but it keeps getting better.

Moving on to other hardware features, the new iPad Pro picks up some things from the iPhone 6S but not others. The A9X enables always-on Hey Siri even when the tablet isn’t plugged in, which is a great feature if (like me) you like to use your iPad in the kitchen while cooking to look up recipes and set timers. An iPad with always-on Hey Siri is about as close as Apple gets to something like Amazon’s Echo right now. But it’s missing the faster TouchID sensor and 3D Touch, two features that still haven’t shown up anyway outside the 6S.

Another common question is about the “embedded Apple SIM” that the company lists on the iPad Pro’s product pages. The Apple SIM is a multi-carrier SIM card that lets the iPad connect to some cellular networks without a carrier-specific SIM card, which presumably simplifies the manufacturing and sale of the LTE-enabled iPads. But for carriers that don’t work with the Apple SIM (including Verizon in the US, apparently, because Verizon), Apple still provides a good old, regular old nano SIM tray on the edge of the device.

Finally, a quick note about that camera bump, a bump that exists because this iPad uses the same camera as the current high-end iPhone (a first; iPads typically use serviceable but inferior cameras). In the iPhones, that camera bump causes the body of the phone to wobble a bit when placed on a flat surface. A similar sort of wobble would be bad for the iPad Pro, particularly for people who want to lay the tablet flat on a table and draw on it with the Apple Pencil. Happily, the iPad is so big that it doesn’t wobble at all—the camera bump is just an aesthetic annoyance, not a functional one.


The hardware may have changed, but iOS 9 stays the same, so many of the problems I commented on in my 12.9-inch iPad Pro review and our main iOS 9 review are still present here. The Split View multitasking mode is a truly useful and welcome change, and it makes the iPad a device you’d actually want to work on rather than one that is merely capable of doing work in a pinch. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.

I’ll run down the list quickly to save some time if you’ve already read those reviews. The biggest problem is that iOS won’t let you open two copies of the same app next to each other at the same time, which would be especially useful for productivity apps like Pages or Word or Google Docs and browsers like Safari and Chrome (though you can kind of, sort of dance around this one by using two browsers or a hack like “Sidefari”). It’s a legacy of the one-full-screen-app-at-a-time model that defined iOS up until really recently.

The second-largest issue is that the UI for switching apps still needs work. There’s no way to “pin” secondary apps. Only three app icons are shown in the current app switcher at once, and there’s no preview of what you were doing in the app as there is in the primary multitasking switcher. Your list of apps is only shown in reverse-chronological order, which means a lot of swiping if you use a wide variety of apps or if you want to launch one you haven’t used in a while.

There’s no easy way to swap your apps—if you want the secondary app to become the primary app, you’ve got to drag the divider all the way to the left to close the primary app and then re-open it as a secondary app. While you’re typing in one app, the formatting shortcuts bar obscures the bottom of the other one. This can obscure the text entry field in chat apps like Slack that work especially well in the secondary app spot, and you have to dismiss the formatting bar and then tap the field, an extra step that doesn’t feel like it should have to exist (Apple fixed it for Messages in iOS 9.3, so it ought to be possible).

And while the 12.9-inch screen of the iPad Pro gives all apps plenty of room no matter how you divide them, on a 9.7-inch screen things can still get cramped. It can be difficult, for example, to read Word documents or sites without responsive designs in Split View mode; things just look too small. Your experience will vary depending on how good your eyes are and what apps you use. I was using Split View 100 percent of the time on the big iPad Pro, but I only wanted to use it 80 or 90 percent of the time on the smaller one (that’s still a lot, though).

The device has some flaws, but we’re dealing with Apple’s first-generation tablet multitasking interface here. Samsung, Microsoft, and now Google are all trying some version of the same thing, and none of those implementations have been perfect. The one-app-at-a-time model feels limiting for power users (an especially important consideration for any product with Pro in the name), but the relative simplicity of iOS is a selling point for many people, and you can’t completely throw that out.

There is good news, too. The big iPad Pro and iOS 9 have both been out for around six months at this point, which means that a lot of apps have picked up Split View and Apple Pencil support. And if an app already supports the Apple Pencil on the big iPad Pro, it’s supported on the little iPad Pro for free. If you’re using an older iPad and you upgrade now, you’ll find that most of the ecosystem is ready for Split View in a way it just wasn’t six months ago.

As for iOS, the 9.3 update improved iOS 9’s hardware keyboard support—I’ll just list the relevant section of the release notes:

  • Enables the use of arrow keys to navigate through lists in Spotlight, Mail, and Safari
  • Enables the use of the space bar to scroll in Mail
  • Improves performance when using the space bar to scroll in Safari
  • Adds the ability to bring up the software keyboard from the Shortcut Bar when a hardware keyboard is connected
  • Fixes an issue that could prevent unlocking an iPad using the hardware keyboard
  • Fixes an issue that caused hardware keyboards to become unresponsive in captive login pages
  • Fixes an issue that could cause the Messages input field to disappear behind the Shortcut Bar when connected to a hardware keyboard

For as long as iOS exists in its current iteration, there will be people who complain that it’s not a “real OS” and that you can’t get work done on it. Both of those complaints may well be valid if your narrow definition of a “real OS” limits you to traditional windowed OSes with an exposed filesystem and without App Store restrictions, and your work involves coding or strenuous 3D work (though there are a fair number of CAD apps in the App Store now). But it’s all relative. iOS is by no means perfect, but it’s evolved enough and the ecosystem is strong enough that people can easily use it to do more than watch Netflix.

Speakers and camera

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro gets a four-speaker configuration similar to the one in the 12.9-inch iPad Pro—most of this iPad’s additions are aimed at “pro” users, but this one is aimed at the traditional consumption-focused iPad user. The speakers put out higher tones through the two top speakers and deeper tones through the bottom speakers, and the software is smart enough to know which are the “top” and which are the “bottom” speakers based on the way the tablet is oriented.

The sound gets much louder than it does in an Air 2, and the quality of the sound is noticeably better. The bass actually sounds pretty good, and you can hear more “space” around the sound, where in the standard Air 2 it’s more muffled. It gets loud enough to fill a large room or small apartment with sound, though at the absolute highest volumes certain sounds (drums, especially) begin to distort slightly. The 12.9-inch Pro’s speakers are better by virtue of being larger, and a decent Bluetooth speaker is still probably a better way to play music for an impromptu party, but the 9.7-inch iPad Pro’s speakers make it a respectable portable jukebox and a better mobile Netflix machine.

Source: 9.7-inch iPad Pro review: What makes something “Pro” anyway?

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