Cheap 2017 iPad vs. 9.7-inch iPad Pro: How to decide

There is the iPad, and there is the iPad Pro. One is almost twice the price of the other. They are virtually identical, except for a few minor features. So which should you buy? And why?
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

David's $329 workshop iPad in its UAG-provided Metropolis MIL STD 810G-516.6 case

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro was released in March of 2016. The new, regular ol' iPad was released one year later, in March 2017. The base price for the iPad Pro (I'll only be talking about the 9.7-inch model in this article) is $599 with a mere 32GB storage. The new 2017 iPad is $329 for the same amount of storage.

That's a $270 difference and it's at the core of how to decide which machine to buy.

First, let's look at the elements of the two iPads that are virtually identical. The two devices are exactly the same length and width. They both have the same Retina resolution, 2048-by-1536 resolution at 264 pixels per inch. They both have Lightning ports, Touch ID sensors, and 3.5mm headphone jacks.

The iPad Pro is about an ounce lighter than the iPad. For those keeping track of such things, a slice of whole wheat bread weighs about an ounce, as does a single AA battery. The iPad Pro is also very slightly thinner than the iPad. The iPad Pro is 6.9mm thick, while the iPad is 7.5mm thick. That's only about half a millimeter difference, or about a third the thickness of an American penny.

Would you pay $270 to carry one fewer slice of bread in weight, or something that's a third of a penny thinner? Well, to be honest, there's more to it than that. Here's where the Pro of the iPad Pro comes into play.

iPad Pro supports Apple Pencil: The Apple Pencil is a pretty amazing writing and art creation device. It's another US$99, but if you're an artist, it's all that and a bag of chips.

iPad Pro has a slightly faster processor: The iPad Pro has an A9X processor, while the iPad has only the A9 processor. The A9X is an 2.16GHz dual-core 64-bit ARM-based CPU, while the plain iPad is running at 1.85 GHz, but it's also a dual-core 64-bit CPU. By contrast, the original iPad first-generation machine ran a 1GHz 32-bit ARM CPU. It doesn't sound like much, but there's a lot more power in the A9.

iPad Pro has a spiffier display: If you're an artist, the iPad Pro's fully-laminated screen and higher color gamut will mean something to you. Basically, you can't tell there's glass between your finger and the icons on the iPad Pro, and colors represent with a truer rendition.

iPad Pro has better cameras: Front and back, the iPad Pro ups the camera game. The rear-facing camera can record 4K videos, while the plain iPad can only record 1080p videos. The iPad Pro can take 12 megapixel images, while the iPad can shoot only 8 megapixels. The FaceTime camera on the iPad Pro can handle 5 megapixel images, while the iPad barely gets it done with a 1.2 megapixel imager.

iPad Pro goes up to 256GB: The iPad stops at 128GB of storage. But the iPad Pro goes all the way to 256GB. There's an Apple Tax for that, of course. The maxed-out 128GB iPad is $429, while the 128GB iPad Pro is $699 and the 256GB model is .. boom! ... $799.

Note that I've been quoting prices on the Wi-Fi-only units. For both, if you add the cellular chipset, you're paying an extra US$130 on top of whatever else you've configured up.

How to decide

Both machines look nearly identical, but the additional cost of the iPad Pro gets you Pencil support (you still have to buy the Pencil separately), a better display, better cameras, and the right to spend a lot more for more storage.

If you're flush with cash, you might just decide to go out and buy the fancier unit. But keep in mind that the Pro is pretty darn near twice the price as the base unit. Do you need to spend twice as much? Here are some considerations.

If you're an illustrator and use pencils, paints, chalks or other artist mediums, you'll want Pencil support. Every illustrator I've spoken to has raved about the quality of the Pencil experience, as well as the intelligence of the palm detection in the device. So if you draw pictures, you'll undoubtedly want the iPad Pro.

If you're a graphic designer or artist, you'll want the improved color representation on the iPad Pro. If the exact shade of a color or the breadth of color gamut matters to you (if you know what "gamut" means), then you'll probably want the iPad Pro.

If you're using your iPad as your main computer, you'll probably want the iPad Pro. If you're just reading Facebook posts, you won't care. But if you've traded in your laptop for an iPad, then you'll probably want all the storage and power that the Pro can offer.

If you're using the iPad as a camera, you might want the iPad Pro. The iPad Pro with a 4K display does give you a heck of a viewfinder, but you might do just as well with a smaller device. You can buy an unlocked iPhone SE with the same camera specs as an iPad Pro for $399.

If you just want the best, because screw it, you're spending other people's money, then you might also want the iPad Pro.

Most people won't notice the slightly faster processor speed, the slightly lighter weight, or the slightly slimmer body of the iPad Pro. If you don't fit one of the profiles I've mentioned above, you can probably keep some cash in your wallet. You won't need to pay the extra for an iPad Pro.

What I bought

I just bought a bottom-end $329 iPad. I skipped the iPad Pro. My wife and I already have an original generation iPad, an iPad 2, and an iPad 3. We also have an original generation iPad mini. All still work. The only problems are that even the iPad 3 is slow, and that some new apps I want to use won't work on the iPad 3. Those apps require iOS 10, and I didn't have any iPads that ran iOS 10.

I thought long and hard about getting the iPad Pro. I don't use iPads all that much. I read the web mostly on my big screen TV and on my Plus-sized iPhone.

What I wanted the iPad for was help in the workshop filming my DIY-IT how-to videos. I wanted it to act as a teleprompter screen. I've been doing some really complex videos where a teleprompter would help. I also wanted it to act as a remote camera viewfinder while pulling together my shots. That's what necessitated the upgrade, because the very powerful Filmic Pro and Filmic Remote apps require iOS 10.

The workshop has a concrete floor and a whole lot of moving parts. I have 3D printers, power tools, tripods, filming cranes, a drill press, and a ton of crap I haven't figured out how to throw out. I'm careful, but given that there's a chance I might drop the iPad (even if I put it in a nice case), I'd rather the damage be done to something that cost a little over three hundred bucks than something that cost nearly six hundred.

The camera quality caught me up for a while. I can use all the 4K cameras I can get. But when my wife got a new iPhone SE, she handed down her iPhone 6s Plus (with snazzy camera) to me. So the iPad Pro's camera was suddenly less compelling.

The big draw of the iPad Pro, to me, is the Pencil. I want to use the Pencil. More accurately, I want to "want to use" the Pencil. See, I have no drawing skills. None at all. I'd love to be able to use a wonderful graphics program and sketch out pencil sketches or chalk drawings using the iPad Pro and the Pencil. I've even thought about using the iPad Pro in concert with my Mac graphics programs. But I'm not that guy. I have no need for it, and if I'm really honest with myself, I probably wouldn't use it if I bought it.

Besides, we are planning, at some point, to get my wife a large 12-inch iPad Pro (she wants the big screen to see full page renderings of all her book PDFs), and that has Pencil support. So if I ever need to draw a square or a circle or a stick figure with a Pencil, I could use hers.

But again, I have to be honest with myself. I haven't used a pen or a pencil for much of anything since before Ronald Reagan was in office. I grew up using computers, keyboards, and mice. As far as I know, the only real use for a pencil or pen is pushing the point into a button to reset one device or another. I mean, really? Gripping a chunk of wood like an animal to scratch graphite onto dried pulp? You can't be serious.

So the odds of my really using the Apple Pencil are low. I wouldn't mind having it to draw some diagrams of servers (I like doing that as a way of relaxing), but need? No. And at more than double the price (the entry level iPad Pro plus the cost of the Pencil), did I need to waste that much money? No, not really.

That doesn't mean I'll never buy a smaller iPad Pro, because my work needs do change. But the key, and the lesson I'd like you to take away from this article, is that buying is about knowing your needs and picking what fits best for you. For now, for me, that's a cheap little iPad. And yeah, for a little, bottom-spec'd device, I quite like it. It was a good purchase.

There you go. Think through your needs, be honest with yourself, and then get what makes the most sense for you.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

Editorial standards