Apple iPad Pro 9.7-inch review

Apple's new iPad Pro is the best tablet you can buy. But it's still not a laptop

Apple’s 9.7-inch iPad Pro is the best tablet you can buy.
Apple’s 9.7-inch iPad Pro is the best tablet you can buy.
Apple’s 9.7-inch iPad Pro is the best tablet you can buy.

Highs

  • Best tablet cameras and speakers ever
  • Powerful enough for real productivity
  • Thin and portable
  • Apple Pencil is the best stylus available
  • iOS has best tablet apps, frequent updates

Lows

  • Expensive at every option level
  • Cramped screen for multitasking
  • Not a true laptop replacement

DT Editors' Rating

Last autumn, Apple released the giant iPad Pro. With a near 13-inch screen, it felt twice as big as the standard 10-inch iPad we’ve been used to for half a decade and promised to replace our notebooks. The iPad Pro brought laptop levels of power, different keyboard and stylus options, and fantastic speakers, all while remaining ridiculously thin. Yet as much as it tries, a giant iPad was still no substitute for a MacBook or Windows 10 PC. That hasn’t stopped Apple from trying.

If you liked the giant iPad pro, but had a problem with its … bigness … then say hello to the same old iPad you’ve always known, now with more Pro-iness. The new 9.7-inch iPad Pro is better than its big brother in some ways, and worse in others, but its mission is the same: Apple wants to get people to buy more iPads, and charge more for them. Yes, iPad sales (and all tablet sales) have been declining, and that’s not a fun trend if you’re a consumer electronics company.

Did a little Pro turn things around for the iPad? It certainly helps, but how much will depend on your needs.

Four speakers — and it comes in pink

Let’s face it: The 9.7-inch iPad Pro looks identical to the last iPad Air, and very similar to the iPad Air before that. Apple isn’t winning any design innovation awards this year.

If you squint, you can notice a few key differences. First off, you can buy it in Rose Gold now (hooray?). Second, the screen is now a tad more colorful and automatically changes its tint based on the type of lighting in your room, leaning warmer or cooler to help your screen better match the environment you’re in. Apple calls this TrueTone, and it goes right along with Night mode, which turns the screen all kinds of yellow, removing a lot of blue light from your eyes when you’re getting ready for bed. Science tells us that blue light is bad for sleep. Apple agrees.

The camera on the back now protrudes out a couple millimeters, as it does on newer iPhones. This is because it has the same cameras as the new iPhone 6S: a 12-megapixel rear camera and a 5-megapixel selfie cam, giving it the title of best camera tablet, possibly ever. Not that you really need a great camera on your tablet, but it’s there if you do. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro doesn’t even have a camera this nice. It relies on an 8-megapixel rear camera and 1.2-megapixel selfie cam. Compare an iPhone camera from a few years ago to the 6S and you’ll notice the difference, especially in low-light shots.

You may also notice three circles on one side of the iPad Pro. This is a wireless inductive Smart Connector port that Apple uses to attach and power its keyboard, and possibly other accessories in the future. That keyboard will cost you $150. We haven’t been able to test the 10-inch version yet.

Finally, speakers. There are four of them now, and they sound outstanding. In a sea of miniscule upgrades that you won’t notice, this is the whale of an upgrade you will. TV shows will sound louder, and music will sound deeper and richer. The iPad Pro is the best tablet for listening to music without headphones, hands down — and it’s a large step forward from the iPad Air 2.

Apple Pencil is a game changer

Artists should probably opt for the larger 12.9-inch iPad Pro, but if you want to draw or write, the smaller iPad Pro also works with the Apple Pencil.

If you haven’t tried one yet, it’s a real game changer for digital artists. While our favorite Bluetooth styli from Adonit and FiftyThree work well, the Apple Pencil’s pressure-sensing tech makes a stylus suddenly feel indispensible.

This is the fastest, most responsive, and utterly perfect stylus we’ve ever used.

This is the fastest, most responsive, and utterly perfect stylus we’ve ever used. There is no lag at all, and you feel like you’re actually drawing with a real pencil on a sheet of paper. The soft tip doesn’t clack like Adonit’s stylus does, and it can produce incredibly fine lines with variations in darkness as you increase pressure. Like FiftyThree’s Pencil, the side of the tip creates wider strokes, and it’s absolutely perfect for shading when you’re mimicking the effect of charcoal, graphite, or soft pastels. You get a fine point when you need it, and a wide one when you want it.

Although it looks long in pictures, it doesn’t feel odd in your hand. It’s the perfect width and weight, though the Pencil is slippery. Sometimes it’s nice to have grip when you’re doing detail work on an art piece.

To charge or pair the Pencil, you just pop it in the iPad Pro’s Lightning port (or the adapter for the wall outlet). Unfortunately, the cap that covers the Pencil’s Lightning connector is so easy to lose, you’ll look after it like a first-born child. We also wish this end of the Pencil worked like an eraser, as it does on Microsoft’s newer Surface products.

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Jessica Lee Star/Digital Trends
Jessica Lee Star/Digital Trends

Procreate, Adobe’s app suite, and FiftyThree’s Paper look splendid on the standard iPad screen, though not quite as nice as the larger iPad Pro. These are some of our favorite drawing apps optimized for the iPad Pro.

Of the bunch, Procreate feels the most attuned to the Pencil and the iPad Pro’s pressure sensors. It shows the greatest variations in gradient as you apply different amounts of pressure. Drawing on the iPad Pro is a dream, and the tablet’s ability to run several Adobe apps without a hitch is fantastic. The AstroPad app ensures that comic book artists, illustrators, and other creative types who once had to buy Wacom tablets no longer need to – the iPad Pro and Pencil are the answer.

Laptop-grade processor

It may have some issues multitasking, but like the larger iPad Pro, the new 9.7-inch Pro is a beast of a tablet. It has the same A9X processor as the larger Pro, which competes well with some of Intel’s laptop chips. Sadly it has only 2GB of RAM instead of 4GB, which is a shame and will hurt multitasking some, though we haven’t noticed lag on our unit yet. It comes with 32GB, 128GB, and 256GB storage options, but they will cost you.

If the 13-inch iPad Pro can’t replace your laptop, don’t expect the 9.7-incher to perform miracles.

But hey, if you’re reading this section, you want some numbers. Here’s what the 9.7-inch iPad Pro offers. On Geekbench 3, the iPad Pro racked up 3,068 for its single-core score and 5,248 for its multi-core score. The Surface Pro 4 performed slightly worse than the Pro with a single-core score of 3,023, but slightly better with a multi-core score of 6,304. To put both in perspective, the very powerful MacBook Pro 13 with Retina got 3,007 on the single-core score and 6,596 on the multi-core score.

In other words, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro’s A9X processor and 2GB of RAM seem to hold their own with laptop-level performance. The tablet also pulled off a 33,293 on 3D Mark’s Ice Storm Unlimited test, which puts it in laptop territory for both. Benchmarks aren’t everything, but they are a strong indication of just how much power the iPad Pro packs.

Like all iPads, the Pro has just one single Lightning port. You will need adapters (sold separately) to do things like plug in an HDMI cord, Ethernet, or SD card.

Can it replace a laptop?

After using the larger iPad Pro as a full laptop for a while, we concluded that it just doesn’t have what it takes to replace a full laptop for most of us. And if the 13-inch iPad Pro can’t replace your laptop, do not expect the 9.7-inch model to perform miracles.

As our Computing team writer Brad Bourque points out, the larger iPad Pro is versatile and effective at most tasks, but there are a few big pitfalls to using it as a main laptop. Some productivity apps – like Trello – don’t work as well on iOS as they do on a desktop, and switching between numerous apps can be a real headache.

Apple-9.7‑inch-iPad-Pro-apps-hero
Jessica Lee Star/Digital Trends
Jessica Lee Star/Digital Trends

These criticisms mostly come down to the design of iOS, which was originally built for an iPhone. It just isn’t fast and easy enough to multitask. Apple’s new splitscreen view is easy to use (just swipe from the right while in an app and then swipe from the top to switch apps), but on the cramped 9.7-inch screen, splitting your view in two doesn’t do a lot of good. Instead of barely having enough space to do one thing properly, you’re stuck with two half-size items.

The iPad Pro works best if you’re willing — and able — to alter your workflow to its favor. It’s not going to change how it operates to fit what you do, and despite the new splitscreen option, that often means focusing on one task at a time. While Slack and Spotify work well shrunken down, attempting to run most apps side-by-side in Split View doesn’t feel comfortable. For instance, there’s not enough room to even think about editing a spreadsheet while simultaneously editing a review document.

There are other oddities, too. Chrome users will run into problems with Safari being the default browser on iOS. Unfortunately, links in other apps open there instead of Chrome, which results in a lot of time spent copying and pasting links into Chrome tabs.

So, can an iPad Pro replace your laptop? It depends how you like to work. If your day-to-day involves many browser tabs and application windows at once, this might overwhelm the singular focus of iOS. Conversely, those who sit and stare at one document, or spend hours editing a single image, will find a lot to love in the small or large iPad Pro.

A steep price

Apple is really stinging us on price lately. This tablet honestly what we would have expected from an iPad Air 3, but the new “iPad Pro” costs $100 more out of the gate, costing $600 at its lowest tier. This is cheaper than the $800 larger iPad Pro, but yikes, it’s still a lot of cash for a tablet.

Honestly, you will probably need to pay more. That $600 only gets you 32GB of storage. This is a bare minimum. If you truly hope to use this as a laptop of any kind, or as a premium machine, and install fancy apps or games, you will need to get the 128GB option for an extra $150. Taking a lot of photos will also fill up your storage fast. Our 32GB unit just has a few streaming apps on it and it has only 20GB left after day one.

Do you want the ability to have 4G LTE? Add another $130 to the price. That fancy Apple Pencil will cost another $100, and a 10-inch Apple Smart Keyboard will add another $150 to the price.

So if you get a reasonable bundle of 128GB Wi-Fi with a keyboard, you’re looking at a price of $900. You know what else cost $900? A full laptop. A nice one, too. You can buy a MacBook Air for that price.

Long battery life

Apple promises 10 hours of battery life from the iPad Pro, and it appears to achieve that, just like every other iPad has in the past. We have only had our unit for a short period of time, but if we encounter any hiccups, we’ll let you know. For now, it appears to hold up just fine.

Warranty

The DT Accessory Pack

$149.99
$99.00
$49.00

Every iPad comes with a limited warranty that covers one year of hardware repair and up to 90 days of support. You can also always bring your iPad Pro into the Apple Store Genius Bar if you run into problems, AppleCare+ for the iPad extends your coverage to two years for an extra $100, and adds coverage for up to two incidents of accidental damage.

Updates

Since Apple sends updates out directly, this iPad should receive frequent security and feature updates for the next few years, at least. This runs contrary to most Android tablets (aside from a Google Nexus), which typically have slow or non-existent update cycles.

Conclusion

This new iPad Pro (or should we just call it the iPad 7?) is a fantastic upgrade on the inside, and has a few outward charms, as well. It looks nearly identical to the iPad Air 2, but its four speakers are a step above its predecessor, and can actually fill a small room. The camera matches the impressive iPhone 6S, the A9X processor destroys most other tablets, and it comes in Rose Gold. This effectively means, for its 10-inch size, it’s the most powerful, best-sounding, pinkest, and most camera-ready tablet on the market.

What it isn’t is a great bargain, or a great substitute for a good laptop. Apple has raised the price of the Pro to $600 for 32GB and to get a bundle with a keyboard and 128GB, you’ll pay about $900. You can buy a good laptop for that price, and even an entry-level Mac. If you’re looking for PC funcions, like typing and multitasking, this tablet is powerful enough on the inside, but its iOS operating system is still too clunky and limited to get a ton of real work done. Yes, you can certainly use the iPad Pro as a laptop, but there are much better options for the price, and all of them will have a much more spacious keyboard and screen.

So that’s the deal. If you want a fantastic tablet, this is it, and it will cost you. If you want a laptop, we recommend you keep shopping.