The 9.7-inch iPad Pro Review: Better Than the Bigger Pro?

A review of Apple's 9.7-inch iPad Pro

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro
Apple, Inc.

If the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a bigger, better iPad Air, Apple's 9.7-inch iPad is a smaller and mostly better iPad Pro.  It's easy to describe this tablet as simply a smaller iPad Pro, but when we take a good look under the hood, we find a number of improvements that surpass its bigger brother with a few areas where the 9.7-inch iPad Pro falls a little short.

I described the 12.9-inch Pro as the "ultimate family tablet." With enough processing power to zoom past most laptops, it is clearly aimed at the enterprise. But that beautifully large display and the thick, clear sound coming from the four speakers make it perfect for streaming music and movies. And if the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is the ultimate family tablet, the 9.7-inch variant is the ultimate travel companion. It has the same four-speaker setup, an improved display even over the 12.9-inch Pro and much better cameras.

A Smaller and Mostly Better iPad Pro

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro debuts at $100 more expensive than the original price tag on the iPad Air 2, but it packs in a lot for that extra Benjamin. In fact, while the 12.9-inch Pro cost $200 more, the 9.7-inch Pro is actually better in many respects.  And (of course) it blows the iPad Air 2 out of the water.

Apple made a big deal out of the True Tone display, which uses sensors to adjust both the brightness and the warmth of the display based on the ambient light. In practice, both displays perform similar in direct sunlight, but as you introduce varying degrees of shadow, the iPad Pro's True Tone display definitely helps. In high shadow, the iPad Pro's display is noticeably whiter than iPad Air, making it easier to read. This is in contrast to viewing both tablets under the artificial light of indoors when the Air will seem whiter while the iPad Pro takes on a yellow tone to blend better with the ambient light.  Read more about the True Tone display and whether or not it makes that much of a difference.

This iPad Pro also has a Wide Color display that matches the range of color captured in a cinematic camera. That means this Pro not only displays images and video better than any other previous iPad, it also allows you to edit those images and videos with more precision.

In terms of sound, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro features the same speaker configuration as its older brother. This makes the sound difference between an iPad Air 2 and the 9.7-inch iPad Pro like light and day. The Pro is not only much louder, it also has a much fuller sound. And because the iPad can rearrange the sound based on how you are holding the iPad, you won't get that muffled effect if you place the wrong end of the iPad on your lap. The sound quality isn't quite as good as the 12.9-inch Pro and it doesn't have the volume of the bigger iPad, but it is miles ahead of the Air and the Mini.

And let's not forget the camera! This iPad Pro has a 12 MP camera capable of shooting 4K video and with such niceties as continuous auto focus. It's basically a smartphone-quality camera about on par with the iPhone 6. It also support (drum roll, please. . .) Live Photos. These are photos that capture the entire moment of the photo, essentially becoming a 1-2 second video when you tap the photo. The front-facing camera also has improvements. The quality has gone up to 5 MP and it supports Retina Flash, which turns the display into a flash so you can take better selfies.

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro also supports Apple Pencil and the Smart Keyboard. The Pencil is a stylus that is not a stylus, using sensors in the display and Bluetooth technology to create a very precise drawing tool. And because it is not a true stylus, you can actually hold your hand down on the display and still use the device. The Smart Keyboard uses a connector along the edge of the iPad Pro to communicate, so there is no need to pair the device. Read How to Use the Apple Pencil to learn more.

But Not Quite a 12.9-Inch iPad Pro

I mentioned that the 9.7-inch iPad Pro was "mostly" better than the 12.9-inch version. It has nice features like the True Tone and Wide Color display and the ability to take Live Photos with an improved camera, but it is not quite as fast as its bigger brother. The speed difference is marginal, but it exists, with the 12.9-inch iPad Pro clocking in at almost 10 percent faster. The bigger Pro has an even bigger boost with graphics, but the higher resolution display will eat up some of that improvement.

The 9.7-inch Pro also sports 2 GB of memory compared to the 4 GB in the 12.9-inch. This isn't a big deal right now but, as apps designed specifically for the Pro line of iPads begin popping up, the extra memory will allow the bigger iPad Pro to be more efficient at multitasking and task-switching between these chunkier apps.

And as mentioned, the sound is slightly better on the bigger Pro. The volume is what is most noticeable, with the 12.9-inch Pro almost twice as loud. But there is also a slight increase in quality. This isn't nearly as drastic as the difference between an Air and a 9.7-inch Pro, but it can still be heard.

Is the 9.7-inch iPad Pro a Worthy Upgrade?

Everyone is going to love this iPad Pro. If you are upgrading from a pre-iPad Air tablet like the iPad 4, simply everything will be better. But even those upgrading from an iPad Air 2 will experience a world of difference. There's a better display, much better sound, much-much better cameras and a much-much-much faster processor. It's one of the biggest jumps in an iPad seen since the iPad debuted.

Do you need to upgrade? If you are still in an Air, you can wait. In terms of apps, the iPad Air and the iPad Air 2 will run everything that will run on the iPad Pro line of tablets. This is also true for the iPad Mini 2 and the iPad Mini 4. But you may want to upgrade anyway to get cool features like Live Photos, Apple Pencil support, and that Smart Keyboard.

If you are still using an iPad 4 or older, including the original iPad Mini, now is the time to upgrade. The 9.7-inch Pro will be a major speed boost, supports advanced multitasking features, includes Touch ID for both security and convenience, support for the latest accessories, much better sound, an improved camera . . . need I go on?