(Pocket-lint) - When Apple launched the iPad Pro back in September 2015, many liked the idea of the beefed-up iPad, but many also wished its large 12.9-inch scale was squeezed down into the 9.7-inch chassis of the iPad Air 2. Those wishes have now come true.
The iPad Pro 9.7 tablet tries to bridge the gap between offering a smaller iPad Pro and a more powerful iPad Air 2. But has Apple got the balance right? Is this the tablet that will finally replace your ageing laptop?
iPad Pro 9.7 review: An Air of design flair
A quick glance and the iPad Air 2 and iPad Pro 9.7 look almost identical. That's because the newer iPad Pro 9.7 dimensions are the same as the iPad Air 2 - 240 x 169.5 x 6.1mm and 437g number fans - and, aside from the Pro's option of coming in rose gold - they look the same.
It's only when you start looking closer do you realise there are actually plenty of differences. Ranging from the rear camera, which now protrudes slightly from the case; the antenna casing becoming metal with a thin plastic band; to the four speaker setup (rather than the two previously on the Air 2) - the iPad Pro 9.7 has all those pro extras.
There's also the inclusion of the iPad Pro's Smart Connector on the side so you can connect peripherals like the company's dedicated iPad Pro keyboard. Plus there's compatibility with the Apple Pencil - the company's stylus, sold separately - due to a change in screen technology compared to the lesser iPad models.
In terms of design there was little wrong with the Air 2, but the small tweaks in the Pro 9.7's design are welcome. As a tablet it's thin, light, well portioned, and well balanced. Crucially, for our needs, the smaller size compared to the iPad Pro 12.9 is much more manageable and a lot easier to slip into a bag - this is one portable tablet.
iPad Pro 9.7 review: Screen
The design might not have changed much, but the screen certainly has. While the resolution of the Pro 9.7 stays the same as the Air 2 (2048 x 1536 pixels with a pixel density of 264ppi), the new device now gets Apple Pencil support for drawing, a brighter and less reflective surface, a wider colour gamut, and a new technology introduced for the first time (in its display form anyway) called True Tone.
The brighter and less reflective screen is certainly noticeable, making it much easier to use the iPad Pro not only indoors with overhead lighting, but when out and about, like on the train sitting by the window. There is just less glare as a result from the lights around you.
The iPad Pro's display also delivers 25 per cent greater colour saturation than iPad Air 2. It uses the same wide P3 colour gamut that Apple introduced on the 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display, and while photos and videos look more vivid, we find it pretty hard to tell the difference compared to a normal display - unless you really look. Photpgraphers and designers with super-tuned eyes will want this kind of accuracy though.
Even more noticeable is the use of a new tech Apple calls True Tone. Using ambient light sensors the iPad can now automatically adapt the colour and intensity of the display to match the light in your environment. It's like dynamic white balance adjustment, which makes for a more natural and comfortable viewing experience. It's a bit like Apple's other new feature introduced in iOS 9.3 called Nightshift that changes the warmth of the screen at night time, but applied to your environment all the time.
As with most technologies that are subtle in their approach, you mainly notice the difference when you turn it off - but if you do you'll wonder how you lived with out it. For the most part the screen colour is a lot warmer and not so cold in appearance. That's a good thing for casual viewing, and we expect this technology to be rolled-out across new Apple devices over time.
iPad Pro 9.7 review: Sound
As you would expect, adding more speakers gives more potential for better and louder sound. The iPad Pro 9.7 follows the same approach Apple debuted on the iPad Pro 12.9: the tablet comes with four speakers (one for each corner) with the ability to realise whether it is in landscape or portrait orientation. Bass goes to all four speakers and the mid and high frequencies is always output from the uppermost speakers for a more cinematic-like listening experience.
The results are really good too. It's a much more rounded sound that doesn't come across as tinny as the iPad Air 2 can be sometimes. We watched a number of different shows and movies from different sources (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Sky Q) and could not only spot the difference instantly every time, but enjoyed the experience on the iPad Pro 9.7 a lot more.
It's not just for movies and music, though, the improvement in speakers translates well for other things like Skype or FaceTime calling.
iPad Pro 9.7 review: Tech specs
A new model means new hardware upgrades internally, here bringing the new A9X and M9 processor to the party. Apple states that the new iPad Pro is 1.7x faster than the Air 2.
That speed enhancement is noticeable with demanding apps like Gameloft's Asphalt 8 (that also uses Metal) loading around 10-seconds faster on the iPad Pro 9.7 than on the iPad Air 2. It's not just about games, though, as that speed boost clearly helps elsewhere: from picture editing to video editing and beyond.
Put simply the iPad Pro 9.7 is as quick and fast as tablets come. That makes it a good workhorse, especially when it comes to quickly switching between apps or running them spilt screen. Apple bills the Pro as a laptop replacement, and the speed improvements certainly help it go some way to fulfilling that claim.
Living up to the Pro name you also get all the latest Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and LTE technologies, as well as three storage options: 32GB, 128GB, and a whopping 256GB. If you are worried about storage space because there's no microSD slot for expansion then you should consider buying a larger capacity. With the 256GB option we can't see power users running out of space any time soon - but given the £739 price point you might run out of money before that.
The iPad Pro also comes with Touch ID and Apple Pay for secure payments, although you can't use the iPad at a cashier in a shop because there is no NFC. Still, you can use it for secure payments online.
On the battery side of things, it all comes down to what you use the Pro for and how. Solid use and you'll need to recharge daily, but that's using it as a complete laptop replacement. If you are using it on the commute to work, or surfing the web around the home, then it will last towards its official designation of 10-hours per charge.
iPad Pro 9.7 review: Cameras
It might make your blood boil when people use their iPad at sporting events to take a picture, but now you might find yourself joining them.
The new iPad Pro 9.7 features the same cameras as the iPhone 6S. That's on both the front and the rear of the tablet respectively: meaning a 12-megapixel rear-facing camera capable of Live Photos, Apple's huge 63MP panoramas, and 4K video; as well as a 5-megapixel front-facing camera for video conferencing, or (god forbid) tablet selfies.
Shots are detailed, and photos are good in the sun, in the rain (we've had plenty of that during our testing), and low-light too. Skin tones are well catered for, and there's not a bad thing to say about the quality. This is effectively the same camera Apple has used for its huge global billboard campaign ("Shot by iPhone") and if you like those pictures then you can expect the same creative potential here albeit in a device the size of a notebook.
Regardless of what you think about using the iPad as a camera replacement it's a great performer.
iPad Pro 9.7 review: Keyboard
The iPad Pro 9.7, like the iPad Pro 12.9, comes with two dedicated (optional) accessories from Apple: the Smart Keyboard (£129) and the Apple Pencil (£79).
The keyboard works in an identical way to the Pro 12.9 version and doubles-up as a protective screen cover. It's obviously just smaller to fit the new design (if you have an older Bluetooth-based 9.7-inch iPad keyboard that will work, it's just not as snazzy as the latest one).
The Smart Keyboard is around 4mm thick, is made from a woven fabric and uses the Smart Connector to talk to the iPad. As soon as you attach your Smart Keyboard to iPad Pro, it's ready to go. There is no need for charging or pairing, making it incredibly easy to use, as well as meaning there is zero battery drain on the device.
As this Pro is smaller than the original the keyboard doesn't feel quite like most laptop keyboards on account of size. That will present a typing issue for some, but we've been able to adapt to it quickly and easily enough. We've also found that it's been a lot easier to balance on our lap on the go and even possible to use one-handed while holding the keyboard with your other hand - although we wouldn't recommend this for any length of time.
iPad Pro 9.7 review: Pencil
The Pencil is really designed for artists or those who like to make written notes. For most won't be essential, but if you do draw though it's fantastic.
The level of precision is brilliant: you get single pixel control, while pressure sensitivity means you can create watercolours or drawings as well as you can on paper - either by pressing down harder with the Pencil or tilting the nib. There's zero lag or latency too - so the moment you touch the screen is the moment the digital ink appears in the app you are using.
Charging the Pencil is achieved via a Lightning jack found at its end. Plugging it into the iPad Pro and 15-seconds will gives you 30-minutes use, or keep it plugged in until full, which will give enough juice to last for 12-hours.
In use we find the Apple Pencil hard to fault. This isn't a stylus that you need to navigate, rather one for drawing or marking annotations on the screen (in Notes, for example). If you are an artist, architect, designer, or anyone who finds yourself making notes on things then you'll love it - like, really love it.
Concerns about a smaller canvas affecting the ability to draw are also unfounded. While apps like Paper do display fewer tools on screen at any one time, it's akin to drawing on a piece of A5 paper rather than A4.
In the iPad Pro 9.7 Apple has created a tablet powerful enough to act as a laptop replacement. But it's done so in a way that still feels very "iPad".
For users keen to have a tablet for watching TV shows on the train, or surfing the web at home then the Air 2 is still a very good option. For those seeking extra power and controls, but concerned that the iPad Pro 12.9 is just too big, the 9.7-inch version is the perfect portable answer.
The iPad Pro 9.7 has a good screen, brilliant connectivity options, powerful performance, storage options to rival Apple's Mac range, and solid accessories that enhance the offering, make it a viable laptop replacement. That comes with a tighter typing experience compared to the larger Pro model, but we can handle that.
As competition goes the Microsoft Surface certainly has its benefits - the Surface Pro 4 is probably more accomplished than the iPad Pro 12.9 - but as tablets go the iPad Pro 9.7 feels like the ultimate solution. It's the tablet to beat all tablets.