When Apple introduced a smaller iPad Pro, we knew it would either be the best iPad Apple could make, or some oddity that had no home in the tablet ecosystem. It’s essentially a mixture of the Air 2 and 12.9-inch Pro, which could either confuse or delight — or maybe both.
The same weight and dimensions as the Air 2, the Pro 9.7-inch (which I’ll just call the Pro for this article) is familiar in the hand. It’s basically an upgraded iPad Air 2 with quad speakers and a unique screen assembly.
The Pro also has Apple’s latest A9x SoC and 2GB RAM powering it along. The Air 2 uses an A8x chipset.
The screen is different for two reasons: Apple Pencil and True Tone display. True Tone uses light sensors to get a feel of your surroundings to adjust the screen color temperature. Apple thinks it will make looking at the screen more comfortable for long periods (spoiler: it does).
Apple Pencil requires some extra sensors, so the display is a different assembly from the Air 2. It’s got the same 2048 x 1536 resolution, but a wider color gamut with up to 25 percent more saturation than other iPad models — and it’s gorgeous.
Quad speakers seem gimmicky (at least to me) until you stream media. Turn on a Netflix movie or play a game, and the sound difference between the Pro and Air 2 becomes glaring. It’s also loud — really loud if you want it to be — and crisp. For a device of its size, the speaker arrangement packs a punch.
Can it replace your laptop?
My response to that is really lame, but here it is: it depends (but not really).
If you’re talking about someone like me, the answer is “definitely not.” I do a ton of really heavy lifting and routinely use programs iOS can’t be bothered with (like Xcode). I’m a power user, and only slink down to the 12-inch MacBook when traveling.
For moderate use, I can argue that it could. Apple also has a very nice smart keyboard cover for the Pros (each have their own appropriately sized cover). Typing on it isn’t a chore; it has nice key travel, even if the arrangement is a bit cramped.
Some like to knock Apple’s choice to leave shortcut keys off the smart keyboard cover, but that’s (mostly) negated by having a touch screen. I don’t need playback, volume or screen brightness hardware controls on an iPad keyboard.
That said, if you’re a day traveler or otherwise not-tied-to-a-desk type and do lighter work like check emails and whip up a few documents daily, I can say the Pro may serve you well. It’s great for responding to messages, using Safari and simple multitasking via split-screen mode. So long as apps you use have iOS counterparts, it’s a decent day-travel buddy.
Apple is actively positioning the Pro as a computer replacement, and its reasoning is solid. It’s modular because it has accessories, and serves as a fine line between the power of OS X and the desire of some to have a touchscreen Mac. I respect Apple’s position, here.
But to me, it’s a tablet that happens to do some traditionally computer-y things. The aforementioned examples push the Pro’s limitations as a laptop replacement, at least in 2016, and the 12.6-inch Pro is definitely a better option for a computer replacement than the 9.7-inch model.
Also, iOS is just not a desktop-class platform, at least not yet. Enough said.
Should you buy the Pro, or the Air 2?
That really depends on one thing: do you want the Apple Pencil?
If your experience with an iPad leans on the Apple Pencil, you’ll definitely want the Pro. I’m personally not fond of the Pencil as an input device; I only find it handy when editing photos, and that’s not compelling enough.
It’s comparably specced to the Air 2, so performance is essentially the same. The Pro also has the smart keyboard to lean on, but you can get keyboard covers for the Air 2 — they just use Bluetooth to connect rather than Apple’s new three-dot Smart Connector.
The Pro also has Apple’s best camera, a 12 megapixel shooter. Combined with the better screen, videographers might fall in love — except that it’s so large.
And if you’re a fan of 3D Touch (like me!), there’s no point of buying any iPad right now — and the Pro seems to err towards the Apple Pencil rather than 3D Touch. It’s a polarizing choice.
Apple Pencil on the smaller Pro is also a bit laggy for my liking. It didn’t lose any input during normal use, but writing faster than a stylus can recognize only punctuates why we prefer keyboards and fingers for input, by and large. It’s fantastic for mark-up or sketching, but is not a note-taking tool in my eyes.
The Pro is also a bit more expensive than the Air 2 (it starts at $599, while pricing for the Air 2 begins at $399), and the peripherals also cost quite a bit (Apple Pencil is $99, and the Smart Keyboard Cover is $149).
Still, of all the iPads on offer, I’d say the Pro at 9.7-inches is the best pound-for-pound model available. True Tone is subtly wonderful, and a solid eye-saving combination when paired with Night Shift. Battery life is (as expected) great, and it’s powerful enough to do just about anything you’d reasonably want an iPad to do.
Taking photos with it is odd, but knowing those moments you capture when your kids are being their cutest while you’re reading Medium will turn out great is beneficial.
I really like the iPad Pro; it’s just that I see it as the best tablet around — not a replacement for the computer, at least not yet.