If you’re willing to sacrifice function keys, an uncramped keyboard, and a USB port for Apple’s thriving app ecosystem, then the iPad Pro 9.7 might be for you—especially if you fancy yourself a creative type. But, after using the tablet for a few days, I found myself wanting more. The compromises made to render it a sleek device ultimately hold it back from being the laptop replacement Apple promised.
Nearly identical in size, weight, and shape to the iPad Air 2 (now available at a reduced price), the new tablet (starting at $599) offers Apple’s latest A9X processor, two extra speakers, and the 5- and 12-megapixel cameras used on the iPhone 6s. With the A9X processor, it performs just as fast as its 12.9-inch iPad Pro sibling. And, just like the larger model, it supports Apple Pencil technology, too.
But, while a boon for portability, the smaller display on the iPad Pro 9.7 makes it somewhat less rewarding as a sketchpad, not to mention a laptop workspace.
And, though the optional Smart Keyboard looks slick and doubles as a cover, it's a little cramped compared to the keyboard on Apple's smallest laptop. On top of that, it lacks function keys for adjusting brightness, audio volume, and music playback, features people have come to expect—even on a convertible laptop.
And, because there's no trackpad, you'll be reaching out to tap on the screen to perform laptop tasks that usually require pointing and clicking, and that can be annoying.
To use a USB plug or HDMI cable, you’ll have to buy an adapter, which Apple sells for varying prices, depending on the function you require. By contrast, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 (similar in size to the iPad Pro 12.9) features a DisplayPort, a built-in microSD card reader, and one USB port, which comes in handy when you need to connect to a monitor or recharge a dying cell phone.
The Apple Pencil has not changed one bit, which means it has flaws to go with its charms. To charge it, you have to plug it into the iPad’s Lightning port, leaving a strange, obtrusive object sprouting from the device like an antenna (unless you opt for a Lightning cable with an adapter.) And with no eraser, it serves more like a pen than a pencil.
That said, it is one of the most fluid drawing tools on any tablet, so I wouldn’t be surprised to find it on all future iPads.
The Cool New Feature
The tablet's new True Tone feature makes reading easier on the eyes by adjusting the color of the screen to reflect the ambient light in the room. The experience feels more natural, like scanning an illuminated sheet of paper instead of a harsh computer display.
In our lab, we compared the iPad Pro 9.7 to the iPad Pro 12.9 and the iPad Air 2 in simulated lighting conditions ranging from a partly cloudy day to the bright halo emitted from an indoor reading lamp (see video above). The iPad Pro 9.7’s display adjusted accordingly, while those of the other iPad models remained the same.
If you’re viewing images or video, however, I suggest turning the True Tone feature off, as it will affect the white balance, altering the content's colors.
In the end, I wouldn’t recommend the iPad Pro 9.7 for someone who’s looking to work on business spreadsheets, but if you’re more of an artist than an accountant, it might function just well enough to justify the cost and limitations.
At $599 for the 32GB version, it’s $200 more than an entry-level iPad Air 2. But if it’s worth it to you to have the "professional" features, it’s a great tablet, especially when you’re looking to upgrade. If not, then get yourself an Air 2 and pocket the difference.
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