iPad Pro 9.7 inch, review: All the power of Apple's top tablet, but smaller and more affordable

The best iPad yet combines a stunning display, stonking audio and relentless processing power into a portable tablet

David Phelan
Thursday 24 March 2016 19:35 GMT
An attendee looks at the new 9.7' iPad Pro during an Apple special event at the Apple headquarters on March 21, 2016 in Cupertino, California
An attendee looks at the new 9.7' iPad Pro during an Apple special event at the Apple headquarters on March 21, 2016 in Cupertino, California

Last November Apple launched a big-screen iPad. The improved features across the board, compatibility with the super-precise Pencil and a comfy-to-use keyboard offered a whole new way to use an Apple tablet.

But the 12.9-inch screened machine was heavy (though still lighter than the smaller original iPad released six years ago) and so felt less conveniently portable.

Also, it wasn't cheap, starting at £679. Add in cellular connectivity, a keyboard (£139) and Apple Pencil (£79) and you'd racked up quite a bill even with an entry-level 32GB storage capacity.

Apple CEO Tim Cook (C) uses a new iPad Pro during a media event at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California

So the prospect of a Pro version of the iPad Air 2 – the 9.7-inch screened iPad that was noticeably not updated last autumn – was intriguing.

I've been using the new tablet for a week and it’s a pretty unqualified success, offering all the extra functionality of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro but at a lower weight and price point.

It's not as cheap as a regular iPad: since the iPad 2 arrived in 2011, this has consistently cost £399 for the entry-level model at each release, but at £499 the extra capabilities seem reasonably priced. And the previous flagship, the Air 2, is now just £349, something of a bargain and ideal if you don't need the Pro's extras.

The new 9.7-inch iPad Pro has some new features the bigger Pro model lacks. The screen, for instance, has a wider colour gamut than previous iPads meaning, Apple says, up to 25 per cent more colour saturation so that everything looks more vivid. I’m not able to measure that percentage myself but it certainly looks great.

It also includes a new technology called True Tone display. The idea is that two four-channel ambient light sensors monitor the temperature of the surroundings and adjust the output onscreen. This means when you’re reading something on screen it looks more natural. I’ve been trying it in different situations and the effect ranges from subtle to garish.

In every case, though, turning True Tone off revealed that it looked more natural with it turned on again. Switch it off and you see, as if for the first time, that the tablet screen looks surprisingly blue in most lighting situations. True Tone is a quiet, but revelatory, effect.

It's a hardware addition, separate from Night Shift, the feature introduced across multiple Apple devices with the latest update, iOS 9.3. Night Shift can be scheduled to activate in the evening and warms the onscreen colour temperature. You can adjust the warmth to suit. Some say the colder, bluer light from most smartphones can make it harder for you to get to sleep after you've been buried in your phone or tablet screen before turning in.

Whatever, I like the warmer glow it gives and think it should be mandatory in chic underlit restaurants where the standard blue light gives people a zombie-like effect. Night Shift is like free sunlight from your iPhone or iPad. Though be warned, setting it too far to the warm end of the spectrum, which Apple unaccountably calls “More Warm” rather than “Warmer”, can put you in mind of David Dickinson.

The display on the iPad Pro 9.7 inch uses the same faster refresh rate that makes the super-precise input from the Apple Pencil possible. The Pencil, which Tim Cook recently described to the Independent as “not a stylus” is indeed a world away from the squidgy-tipped, imprecise devices available for other tablets.

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.

Of course, it’s also still there for consumption of media from video to podcasts to games and more. Like the bigger iPad Pro, there are four speakers on board so you get louder, more effective audio than from the non-Pro models which have just one mono speaker.

The new 9.7' iPad Pro is displayed during an Apple special event at the Apple headquarters on March 21, 2016 in Cupertino, California

And they’re smart enough to know which way up you're using the iPad Pro, automatically re-configuring the audio so it always sounds right.

The new Pro also has a keyboard to go with it, attached by the Smart Connector buttons on the tablet's edge. This is a better system than Bluetooth, the main system used by many other keyboards because the connection is persistent – Bluetooth keyboards need a second or two to wake up which can be frustrating. Plus, of course, this keyboard won’t run out of charge at the worst possible moment; it doesn’t have a battery. It also means that as soon as you detach the keyboard the iPad knows to bring up the onscreen version instead.

This new keyboard has the same cloth finish as on the one for the bigger Pro. It sounds rubbish but it actually feels great. There's less room here than on the bigger model, obviously, but while this one doesn't feel cramped, it does take a little getting used to. Within 15 minutes, and I’m typing this review on it, I was completely at ease with it, typing accurately and at speed. There’s plenty of travel in the keys and the gently scooped surfaces make it easy to hit the key you want. If it lacks anything, it’s that the keys aren’t backlit.

And it turns the iPad Pro into an extremely effective laptop alternative, complete with touchscreen, unlike Apple's own laptops. In fact, the touchscreen works so well with the iPad Pro and keyboard, it's hard to think Apple isn't considering making a MacBook with touch-sensitive display. We’ll see. After all, at the product’s launch, Apple’s Phil Schiller said that the majority of people coming to the bigger iPad Pro had come from Windows PCs. Proof, if of nothing else, that the iPad Pro series are immensely powerful machines and can be taken seriously.

Like the bigger Pro keyboard, this one is solid and well-balanced enough to be highly usable even if you're resting it on your lap.

This iPad, like other recent models, has Touch ID so you can unlock it with your fingerprint. It’s not the newest, blazing-fast version of this tech, as found on the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, but nippy enough for everyday use.

The new model is also available in Apple's latest colour, rose gold. This is the first iPad available in this shade and it looks especially classy with the bigger expanse of colour as you look at the tablet's back.

The other thing you notice is the redesign of the top edge of the version with cellular connectivity. Since the first iPad, this has had a rubbery strip to let the 3G and wi-fi signals in and out. Now, there's a much more elegant look – the entire back of the iPad is one piece of aluminium, as it is on the wi-fi only model. But there's now a thin white line that follows the line of the strip and sorts the signal out.

Like the iPhone 6s, this new tablet has a 12-megapixel camera with True Tone flash. While I can’t really recommend a large, flat piece of glass as any ergonomic substitute for a real camera, these are mean specs and test photos were pretty impressive. Oh, it shoots 4K video, too.

The iPad Pro 9.7 inch brings the latest advances to the world of the tablet. It builds the considerable steps forward from the 12.9-inch version into a model that is more affordable. Mind you, you can still spend more if you wish by opting for the 256GB storage capacity now available in both 9.7-inch and 12.9-inch models, starting from £739 on this smaller screen size.

The Pencil and Smart Keyboard – this smaller keyboard costs £129 –are essential add-ons that work perfectly and add real extra capability.

But the real reason this is the best iPad yet built is because it combines a stunning display, stonking audio and relentless processing power into a tablet that’s supremely portable.

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