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Apple 9.7-inch iPad Pro review: Smaller tablet packs a powerful but pricey punch

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Written by Cliff Joseph on
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8.0/10

Apple 9.7-inch iPad Pro

Excellent
$209 at Amazon
Pros
  • A9X processor delivers impressive performance
  • Brighter, more colourful display
  • 12MP front camera, with 4K video recording
  • 10 hour+ battery life
Cons
  • Expensive
  • Lacks USB port and SD card slot
  • Requires expensive accessories to function as a laptop
  • Only 2GB of RAM
  • Editors' Review
  • Specs

Apple raised a few eyebrows when it launched the iPad Pro at the end of last year. After spurning hybrid devices such as Microsoft's popular Surface range for years, the arrival of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro -- complete with keyboard and stylus accessories -- was the sort of screeching U-turn that a politician would be proud of. Nonetheless, the iPad Pro was generally well-received, so Apple has swiftly followed up with a second model, this time with a smaller 9.7-inch display that places it right alongside the more consumer-focused iPad Air 2.

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The 9.7-inch iPad Pro has exactly the same dimensions as the iPad Air 2, but features upgraded components and supports the optional Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard.

Image: Apple

Air apparent

At first glance, the new iPad Pro is virtually indistinguishable from the current iPad Air 2 -- which remains on sale as Apple's 'low-cost' option, starting at £349/$399. As well as the 9.7-inch display, the two devices have the same overall dimensions at 240mm by 169.5mm by 6.1mm, and a weight of 437g for the wi-fi-only model (444g for the cellular model). The only visible differences are the Smart Connector on the side of the new device, which can be used to power accessories such as Apple's Smart Keyboard, the slightly protruding camera lens, and the four-speaker audio system that it shares with the larger iPad Pro model.

The resolution of the display is identical too, at 2,048 by 1,536 pixels (264ppi), although Apple does claim that the screen is 25 percent brighter, 40 percent less reflective, and provides 25 percent greater colour saturation than the iPad Air 2. It also introduces a new True Tone feature that uses ambient light sensors to match the lighting conditions around you.

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Screen real estate comparison: 12.9-inch iPad Pro (left) versus 9.7-inch iPad Pro (right).

Images: Cliff Joseph/ZDNet

The display is certainly impressive, and the sheer brightness of the image meant that we seldom needed to raise the brightness above 50 percent while using the device. Like the iPad Air 2, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro has a 27.5Wh battery (compared to 38.5Wh for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro), but keeping the brightness at that level allowed it to squeeze out an impressive ten hours and 20 minutes when streaming video over wi-fi from the BBC iPlayer. Apple only quotes 'up to 10 hours' for web surfing via wi-fi, so the smaller iPad Pro really delivers on battery life.

We did encounter one problem during our tests, though, when the screen froze in a similar fashion to the experience of some original iPad Pro users immediately following its launch last year. Apple did issue a support document advising a forced restart, and that did solve the problem for us, but it's still worrying that this known issue can continue to affect the newer iPad model as well.

Pro performance

The new iPad Pro performs well in other areas too. Like its 12.9-inch counterpart, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is based on Apple's latest A9X processor, although it only includes 2GB of RAM, rather than its larger sibling's 4GB. That does seem to cause a small hit on performance when running the Geekbench 3 processor tests, but the new iPad Pro still delivers strong results here:

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In addition, graphics performance with the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited test was virtually identical for the two iPad Pro models, and a full 50 percent stronger than that of the iPad Air 2, so the 9.7-inch iPad Pro certainly has the power to handle a wide range of graphics apps, or to simply play the latest 3D games:

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Only connect

That graphics performance is particularly important as the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is the first iPad model to include a 12-megapixel rear camera that's capable of recording 4K video, along with a new 5-megapixel front-facing FaceTime camera as well. There are, somewhat bizarrely, people who do carry their iPad around and use it as a camera, and Apple points out that the A9X processor in the iPad Pro is perfectly capable of editing 4K video using the bundled iMovie app. It's certainly impressive to have that sort of video recording and editing capability in a tablet -- but, at the same time, that also highlights one of the iPad's perennial weaknesses.

None of Apple's iOS devices includes any USB ports, and with 4K video weighing in at around 400MB per minute, the only practical way to transfer those large files is to use Apple's Lightning cable to connect the iPad directly to a Mac or PC. That's fine if you have a Mac or PC nearby at all times but, of course, Apple is pitching the iPad Pro as an alternative to a traditional laptop. In fact, at the launch event Apple's Phil Schiller made a barbed suggestion that the iPad Pro would be an ideal upgrade for millions of people who own 'really sad' PCs that are more than five years old.

But if you do use an iPad Pro as your primary mobile computing device, then the inability to quickly offload files onto a USB drive in order to save space, or to share files with colleagues, is a real weakness. Needless to say, Apple sells an overpriced Lightning-to-USB 3 adapter for the iPad Pro, but as well as costing an extra £29/$39, the specs on the Apple Store state that it only runs at USB 2.0 speeds when used with this 9.7-inch model (it runs at the full USB 3.0 speed when used with the 12.9-inch iPad Pro).

Upgrades and accessories

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The Smart Keyboard for 9.7-inch iPad Pro costs £129/$149, while the Apple Pencil costs £79/$99.

Image: Apple

If you're serious about using the iPad Pro for work then the entry-level 32GB of storage won't be adequate -- especially for the creative users who are clearly a key audience for Apple. Like its larger counterpart, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is also available with either 128GB or 256GB, although those options push the price up to £619/$749 and £739/$899 respectively. Throw in an Apple Pencil and a Smart Keyboard as well, and youre looking at well over £900/$1,100 for a fully kitted-out 9.7-inch iPad Pro. And, as always, adding cellular mobile broadband piles a further £100/$130 onto the cost.

Conclusions

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro is a terrific tablet, and its enhanced display, new camera and sheer horsepower make it ideal for photography, video and graphic design work. Even so, it's still very expensive -- a full £150/$200 more than the starting price of the iPad Air 2 -- and we imagine that most professional users would want to upgrade to the even more expensive 128GB and 256GB models too. It should sell well to Apple's loyal creative users, but the iPad Air 2 still represents better value for general use at home or for business users who simply need to run Microsoft Office.

Read more on the 9.7-inch iPad Pro

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