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iPad Pro 9.7-inch REVIEW: The very best tablet out there

by Brandon Russell | April 16, 2016April 16, 2016 12:00 pm PST

Apple’s iPad is eternal, an expertly engineered slab of glass and aluminum that perseveres, like the intrepid cockroach or a beloved family recipe. Back in 2010, when the first iPad was introduced, it was near-perfect, offering a casual sit-down experience that empowered users to consume and create in a new and enjoyable way.

Fast forward a few years and not even the iPad can save the declining tablet market. Over the past several months, we’ve witnessed iPad sales plummet, despite these gadgets getting faster and thinner. The problem is an iPad from several years ago is still good; the iPad 2, released in 2011, continues to hold up, so why upgrade?

Tablets just don’t have the same upgrade cycle of smartphones and there’s been no overwhelmingly compelling reason to ditch an old model for something new. Tablet A can just as well check email and browse the internet as Tablet B. The iPad Pro, if you hadn’t already guessed, is Apple’s answer.

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Originally offered with a massive 12.9-inch screen, Apple has shrunk the iPad Pro into a more manageable size without compromising what people loved about the first. It’s still fast, it still supports the Apple Pencil, and thanks to a few additions, it might be better than the iPad Pro Huge Edition.

Existing in that hybrid state between tablet and laptop, the iPad Pro is a product Apple vehemently believes is the “future of personal computing,” a device you’ll rely on for more than just watching a few dozen cat videos. While the current iPad Pro lineup doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights Tim Cook envisions, the 9.7-inch model makes a compelling case to upgrade.

It comes at a price

If you want to partake in Apple’s Pro tablet future, get ready to pay up the nose. Traditionally, the iPad starts out at $499; it’s been that way from the beginning of time. That changed with the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, and it gets even more complicated with the new model. The base starts at $599, and that’s before all of the accessories, which are necessary to use the device to its fullest potential.

The Apple Pencil retails for an absurd $99 while the Smart Keyboard is a mind-numbing $149. You’re better off carrying around a cheap Bluetooth keyboard and saving the extra $100 for something else. Seriously. Let’s say you do purchase the base model, which has just 32GB of storage, and then pick up the accessories. Out of the door, you’re spending a minimum of $850… for what is essentially a slightly better iPad Air 2. Economically, that’s… not good.

I understand why the pricing divide exists. Apple believes that because the box says “pro” it excuses the company from charging abhorrent prices. Take a step up to the 256GB model and you’re looking to spend $899 without any bells or whistles.

People will argue it starts at $200 cheaper than the 12.9-inch iPad Pro as if that somehow makes it okay. But it’s just not. Just because it’s expensive in no way means I dislike the tablet itself.

It’s faster than fast, with battery for days

With the word Pro in its name, the device better be fast; luckily, performance in not an issue. Consider this the Usain Bolt of tablets. Equipped with the same A9X chip as the larger iPad Pro, the 9.7-inch model is a beast, capable of editing, consuming, and browsing without breaking a sweat. And the fact that it comes with 2GB of RAM, down from the 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s 4GB of RAM, should not concern you one bit.

I don’t do a whole heck of a lot when I use tablets. My use typically consists of checking a few websites and watching YouTube videos. But I made an effort to see what the iPad Pro could do and found it’s certainly competent enough to rival that of a low-end laptop. In many cases, the iPad Pro is much more accessible on a usability level just because of how apps are designed. I found editing pictures and video to be much easier to understand inside of the iPad ecosystem.

I’ve spent next to no time with the 12.9-inch iPad Pro model, so I’m not sure how they compare regarding speed. However, you’ll certainly notice a difference if you’re coming from an iPad Air 2, which uses a still very impressive A8X chip. When you start bouncing between apps and putting them side-by-side, the iPad Pro wins without question.

Meanwhile, the battery is pretty much never-ending. Out of the box, I ran it into the ground from about 40 percent. From there, I charged it all the way up to 100 percent and found that it far exceeded Apple’s rating of 10 hours. In fact, I was able to get through several days of use (watching videos, email, and a lot of drawing) until the battery drained.

The True Tone is as good as you’ve heard

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro isn’t just an amalgam of previous Apple parts. The company says it made some substantial improvements to the device’s 2048 x 1536-pixel display, which uses the “same color space as the digital cinema industry,” according to Apple. That translates to what Apple claims is 25 percent greater color saturation than previous models. For artists, photographers and filmmakers, the improved display means a more accurate representation of their vision.

The real standout feature, however, has to be True Tone (not to be confused with Tone Loc), which utilizes sensors to dynamically adjust the device’s display. The feature is meant to mimic what it’s like to look at a sheet of paper, making the screen’s blue light less harsh on your eyes. It works, and it works well.

I initially thought True Tone would be nothing more than a sneaky trick but as soon as I turned the feature off, I was startled by how big of a difference it made. True Tone does provide a more pleasing experience, especially if you spend a lot of time using the iPad to read.

Of course, the feature pretty much negates the iPad Pro’s aim to be a device for creators. Chances are it’ll be something designers keep turned off, at least when they’re working. This would have been the perfect opportunity for Apple to include a quick switch in Control Center but no such access exists. Maybe in iOS 12?

As usual, it’s great for consuming

Like the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, the 9.7-inch model sports four speakers, which are loud and clear. And just like its larger brethren, the high frequencies will be automatically adjusted to the topmost speakers, ensuring you get the best possible sound experience. For casual couch surfing and sitting in bed, the combination of screen and sound proves why the iPad is such a good device for consuming. That’s been true from the first iPad until now, and it’s a formula Apple has mastered over the years.

However, I did find the speakers to be annoyingly placed, especially when you’re holding the iPad Pro in landscape. Because they’re on the back, it’s so easy for the speakers to be covered by your hands, so you’ll have to be careful how you hold it when watching videos or playing games. That wasn’t as big of a problem with the larger model because there was more tablet to grasp onto.

About that Pencil…

Say what you will about its utilitarian design and baffling charging method, the Apple Pencil (dumb name!) is a fantastic stylus. For an accessory that Apple executives have berated in the past, the company has created an experience that works in perfect harmony with the iPad Pro. It doesn’t completely eliminate the disconnect between writing on a piece of glass, but it’s the closest thing I’ve used to feeling like pen and paper.

That means it’s fantastic for drawing. I’m no artist but I enjoy the occasional doodle or two, and using the iPad Pro for this purpose is immensely enjoyable. The accuracy is astounding, and the fact that it detects tilting and pressure makes it super easy to just pick up and use. All of this you know, as it’s the same experience introduced alongside the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. Users just have a smaller canvas to work with.

Here in the office, our video producer Ralph Llerenas uses his iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil every day, whether it’s to jot down notes or to share an idea. That tells you right there how easy it is to add to your workflow. Yeah, it sucks that Apple charges $99 for the accessory, but if you’re buying an iPad Pro, you need to get the Apple Pencil to push the tablet to its fullest potential.

Oh, and its camera is good

You shouldn’t spend any time talking about a tablet’s camera because that’s bad and embarrassing and should be a fineable offense, but…

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro’s camera is pretty darn good, which, I mean, we already knew since it’s the same module and arrangement included in the iPhone 6s. I didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time snapping pictures with the iPad Pro—the experience of it is just odd—but the shots I did get looked great. Here are some I uploaded to Imgur.

Because Apple is aligning this as a device for creation, it makes sense the company would include its best camera technology (along with unsightly hump!). Snap a picture, edit it in post, and send it to your favorite social media platform. Same with 4K video, which is something the 12.9-inch iPad Pro can’t do.

It also comes equipped with a 5-megapixel FaceTime camera and support for TrueTone flash, so you can be sure your selfie game is always on point.

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With a starting price of $599 and an additional $250 for the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is not the most affordable device around. However, it offers a fantastic experience bolstered by a focus on simplicity and power.

In the end, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is the best tablet in Apple’s lineup, one that provides an excellent balance between content creation and content consumption. But it’s not good enough to replace your laptop and that’s mostly because of iOS’ limitations. Sure, it can do split-screen and quickly switch between apps, but Apple’s software just isn’t powerful enough as a complete alternative. There are far too many sacrifices.

The good news is that Apple is almost there, knocking on the door of products like the Surface Pro, which is an example of what a true laptop replacement can be. For most people, the iPad Pro is not going to be their main hub for work. However, it still offers a fantastic couch experience, something that’s been true of Apple’s tablet since it stepped foot on stage back in 2010. Now the question becomes, where is Apple going to take it from here?

Apple has said it has no intentions of combining iOS with OS X, so I’m not sure the iPad will ever be the future of computing—at least not the way Apple sees it. For now, consumers can expect a well-rounded product that has battery for days. It just comes at a premium price, which I guess is something we’ve come to accept from the Cupertino company.

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro is the culmination of all of Apple’s mobile products. It shares DNA with the entire family, from the big daddy iPad Pro to Apple’s latest iPhone 6s. It also looks identical to the iPad Air 2; thin, light, and supremely engineered. This is the finest tablet Apple has put out to date, but it’s still not a laptop replacement.

Rating: Buy


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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