Apple iPad Pro 9.7 review
The iPad Air 3 that also wants to be your laptop
Even though Apple's iPad rebranding was rumoured in the weeks leading up to its unveiling, many people were still caught off-guard by Cupertino dumping the iPad Air brand for its flagship 10in tablet. The newly christened iPad Pro 9.7 is both a smaller version of the iPad Pro 12.9 and a successor to the standard-setting iPad Air 2.
The iPad Pro 9.7 isn't just a tablet though - it's now a hybrid that Apple claims can replace your laptop. Whereas Apple was relatively circumspect in this claim when it came to the iPad Pro 12.9, this message is front and centre for the iPad Pro 9.7. As with Apple's 13in tablet, the basis for this claims lies in two accessories that don't even come with this 10in tablet as standard - a keyboard cover and the Apple Pencil.
Pencil and Smart Keyboard
The Apple Pencil is the tablet stylus that puts other styli to shame. It's accuracy, sensitivity, pressure-sensing and angle detection are almost unmatched. It makes for a very natural drawing experience and the only comparable competition are the Surface Pro 4 stylus and Wacom graphics tablets for laptops and desktop PCs.
Even so, we were sceptical about the Apple Pencil's utility on the iPad Pro 9.7 as its screen is notably smaller than the more expensive iPad Pro 12.9. Although Apple's larger tablet is still the best fit for painting and drawing, whether you're a professional artist or a budding one, this iPad's 10in screen was still just sufficiently roomy for precise and detailed artistry. This was due both to the ability to manipulate the canvas and other tools with our fingers while using the Pencil and the Pencil's spot-on precision.
Apple's Smart Keyboard was a less resounding success. By attempting to make a keyboard screen cover that doesn't add too much weight or bulk to the tablet like other efforts, compromises were inevitable - and these compromises inevitably mean it's an ill-fitting replacement for a laptop.
For a start, the screen is locked at a single angle when docked with the keyboard cover. Although we found this to be more comfortable than the same angle on the iPad Pro 12.9, largely due to the iPad Pro 9.7's lower screen height, it's still awkward enough that it won't suit everyone in all situations.
The smaller size of the iPad Pro 9.7 means that the keyboard cover isn't as deep as other tablet keyboard screen cover, so we were able to use it on our lap without it feeling unstable - unless we crossed our legs in which case the comparatively narrow width of the entire computer meant it felt so precarious as to be unusable.
The nylon-feeling keys are almost identical to those on the 12.9 Smart Keyboard and also feel quite similar to the keys on the 12in MacBook Retina. The keys give enough feedback when pressed, but have less travel and require less force than most good laptop keyboards. A few of the keys are smaller than others, notably the Tab key. This keyboard therefore requires some adjustment time, especially if you have a very heavy, pounding typing style.
The smaller-than-usual tab key is an annoyance, as is the lack of dedicated shortcut keys. Changes in iOS 9.3 mean that there is better support for keyboard shortcuts, such as Command-H to go back to the home screen and the ability to navigate menus and lists using the cursor keys. As with its bigger counterpart, the keyboard attaches magnetically to the iPad and adds relatively little bulk and weight to the tablet when not in use.
Update 27/7/16 -Apple's Smart Keyboard attaches, charges and communicates with the iPad Pro 9.7 using the magnetic Smart Connector on the left hand side of the tablet (when held in portrait mode). Given the deluge of accessories for other Apple products and that the 12.9 iPad Pro, which has been on sale for almost a year now and also has a Smart Connector, it's surprising that there are still so few third-party Smart Connector accessories available.
One of the very few that are available is the 90 (inc VAT) Logitech Base. Compatible with both sizes of iPad Pro, this single angle charging dock is attractive, looks as if it's made out of the same aluminium as the iPad, feels sturdy and does the job. You'll have to supply your own Lightning cable though as it doesn't come with one of its own. Its single viewing angle and the lack of both Lightning and Smart Connector pass throughs means it's not ideal for converting the iPad Pro into an ad-hoc desktop computer since you won't be able to use your keyboard and Pencil. This makes the Logitech Base a nice but ultimately rather pricey and non-essential luxury rather than a must-have accessory.
Screen and apps
The inherent limitations of the Smart Keyboard aren't the only reason why the iPad Pro 9.7 is an ill-fitting laptop replacement (there's always the possibility that a third party might design a better alternative). There's iOS itself - a brilliant smartphone and tablet operating system, but lacking in the flexibility that most of us have come to expect from a laptop.
The multitasking features in iOS 9 go a long way, even on the smaller 9.7in screen which inevitably feels more cramped when using multiple apps than the 12.9in iPad Pro. Even so, the lack of a user-accessible file system and the inevitable absence of some complex and truly desktop-class apps from the otherwise deep and diverse app store selection hold this iPad Pro back.
Even with those limitations aside, iOS itself could be better suited for use on the iPad Pro. Autocorrect may be invaluable on a touchscreen keyboard, but it's a frequently intrusive annoyance when used with the Smart Keyboard if you're a proficient touch typist. Annoyingly, iOS doesn't have the option to have autocorrect only apply to the onscreen keyboard and not the hardware keyboard. Having to manually turn it off everytime when switching between the two keyboards is a real pain.
The multitasking features in iOS 9 need refinement too. The most obvious is the vertically scrolling app picker that appears when opening a second app for Split View use. Unlike the paltry selection of compatible apps for the comparable feature on Samsung Galaxy Tab tablets, the selection of Split View-compatible iOS apps is so broad that scrolling through the app picker to find the one you want is a long-winded and tedious process.
For general tablet use though, the iPad Pro 9.7 is well served by its software. As it shares the same 10in screen and 2048x1536 resolution as its immediate predecessors, there's no shortage of optimised apps which isn't the case with the still nascent selection of optimised apps for the new iPad Pro 12.9in.
Image quality is superb thanks to great contrast, razor sharp text and spot-on colour accuracy. It's also notably less reflective under overhead office lighting than other tablets we've seen. The screen doesn't have the pressure sensitive 3D Touch technology of the iPhone 6s Plus' screen though, a convenience that we miss.
The screen also has a new feature called 'True Tone'. This uses sensors to judge the ambient lighting - this then adjusts the colour of the screen's backlighting to match and complement it. This is supposed to create a more paper-like experience, as paper tends to absorb light and take on its colour rather than reflect it and doesn't emit light, but we weren't terribly convinced. The difference wasn't dramatic enough that we felt we were missing out when we returned to the True Tone-less iPad Air 2. Thankfully, you can turn True Tone off if you want to.
Performance and battery life
Like its bigger cousin, this iPad is powered by an Apple A9X processor. It's clocked slightly lower at 2.16GHz though and has less RAM at 2GB instead of 4GB. Even so, it's very fast making the iPad Pro one of the most powerful tablets we've seen.
Comparing the ARM A9X against the Intel x86 chips in laptops and competing Windows hybrids is notoriously difficult, especially given the differences in the operating system and apps running on each. It's safe to say that it's comparable to most Atom and some Core 2 Duo and Core m processors - it's faster than those chips in some tasks, but not others. That such a feat is even possible says a lot about how far ARM-based processors have come, but says just as much about the continuing advantages of Intel processors in the laptops that the iPad Pro 9.7 is attempting to displace.
Apple iPads have a reputation for long battery life. The iPad Pro 9.7 certainly matches Apple's claims for ten hour battery life - it lasted just under 11 hours when playing H.264 video on a loop. It lasted 12 hours and 35 minutes when browsing the web continuously. These are lengthy results, but other tablets, such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2, can last even longer.
Camera and speakers
Although tablets haven't historically had great cameras, that hasn't stopped some people from adopting them as their main camera. Although we would still feel like a plonker using the iPad Pro 9.7 as our primary camera, it is at least up to the job. It has the same high quality 12 megapixel camera as the iPhone SE and 6s for great looking shots in both broad daylight and more dimly lit conditions.
Although the eight-megapixel camera on the iPad Air 2 was already good enough to act as a basic document scanner, the even better camera in the iPad Pro 9.7 is even more capable for such a role. If its low light capabilities aren't quite good enough for your needs, there's a flash to fall back on - the iPad Pro 9.7 is one of very, very few tablets to have a flash. The catch is that the camera lens protrudes from the iPad's casing, but this is a small price to pay.
The iPad Air 2 has louder sounding speakers than its predecessors, but headphones are still required for serious enjoyment of media files or for video conferencing when using that tablet. That's no longer the case with the iPad Pro 9.7, as this tablet has considerably louder and clearing sounding speakers. There are also now four speakers, instead of two, for clear and balanced sounding audio no what orientation the tablet is in. Despite the better sounding speakers, this iPad is no thicker, heavier, chunkier or any less sturdy than its predecessors - a fine achievement.
There is no doubting that the iPad Pro 9.7 is a superb tablet thanks to its excellent quality screen, lengthy battery life, loud and clear speakers, high quality selection of apps and incredibly precise Pencil. It's not a good enough all-rounder to serve as a laptop replacement for everyone though, due to compromises in the design of both of iOS and its optional keyboard cover.
If you're tempted by either the Pencil and/or Apple's official keyboard cover, bear in mind that they can add a lot to the total overall price - especially if you opt for a high capacity model with 4G - going all in for all the various extras can push the price over 1000.
In short, Apple's latest 10in tablet isn't without its quirks, limitations and flaws. While we wouldn't take an iPad Pro 9.7 over a proper laptop for most tasks involving large amounts of typing, it otherwise has a lot going for it - there are very, very few other tablets we'd prefer over this one.
This review was originally published on 19/4/2016 and has since been updated, most recently on 18/5/2016.
An excellent tablet, but it’s compromised enough that it won’t suit everyone as a laptop replacement
|Processor||Dual-core 2.16GHz Apple A9X|
|Rear camera||12 megapixels|
|Wireless data||4G (Cellular version)|
|Operating system||iOS 9.3|
|Part code||9.7-inch iPad Pro|