Apple 9.7in iPad Pro review: a PC killer or a viable new alternative?

7 Apr 201622 Shares

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The 9.7in iPad Pro has more computing horsepower than most PC notebooks. But is that enough to make you want to ditch your PC for a tablet instead? Photos and video by Connor McKenna and Luke Maxwell

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Apple is targeting the iPad Pro device category at people that it wants to rescue from the trauma of using PCs. With the iPad Pro 9.7in, it achieves this in some respects, but not all.

Apple wants to use the iPad to rescue people from PCs.

“What?” you splutter into your tea – is that not what the Mac is for? True. Apple is triumphant as the rate of Mac sales flies high in the face of declining PC sales.

This is something that Apple CEO Tim Cook likes to remind everyone about on occasions like new product reveals or Apple’s annual developer event WWDC in the summer.

Just like how he likes to remind everyone that the majority of iOS users switch to the latest version of the iPhone/iPad operating system while rival Android users still stick with older versions.

Only a company truly confident in its technology can make such bold claims.

‘This is a brave effort by Apple. It has the horsepower to back up its assertions. The rest is up to you, dear user’

I was only a few metres from the stage at a special Apple event last September when Cook unveiled the 12.9in iPad Pro with Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard, declaring it as “the future of personal computing – it’s a piece of glass that can transform into anything”.

Apple’s key reason for saying this is the A9X CPU literally gives the iPad Pro the ability to perform tasks once reserved for workstations and notebook PCs, from designing via CAD, desktop publishing (remember that term?), sound engineering and a whole lot more.

During the event last September, Irene Walsh from 3D4Medical – a former Siliconrepublic.com Start-up of the Week – showed how medical research could be transformed by combining the iPad Pro with the young company’s Complete Anatomy app.

The first target of Apple’s iPad Pro attack is Microsoft’s rival Surface Pro and similar convertible PC/tablet combos.

The real question is, however, are people willing to lose the mouse and embrace tablet computing to do complex tasks?

This is a brave effort by Apple. It has the horsepower to back up its PC-replacement assertions. The rest is up to you, dear user.

Look and feel

iPad_Pro_landscape

This is a review of the 9.7in iPad Pro, not the 12.9in version, but when I saw the 12.9in iPad Pro in September, it was eerily the same emotive response as seeing the iPad for the very first time back in 2010 – the graphics were fresh and vivid and media felt exciting again, especially thanks to the split-screen display.

When I heard Apple was making a 9.7in version of the iPad Pro I decided this made perfect sense because there is an entire generation of iPad users who prefer the familiar form factor. This intuition by Apple is precisely why the company brought out the iPhone SE, a phone in the body of an iPhone 5s but with the guts of an iPhone 6s. People are loyal to form factors. Fact.

The iPad Pro 9.7in is extremely light, weighing just 444 grams. It comes in four metallic finishes, including silver, space gray, gold and rose gold.

The Retina display on the 9.7in iPad Pro is actually brighter than its 12.9in sibling and features True Tone sensors that automatically adapt the colour of the display to match the light of the setting you are in.

The device, which feels lighter than the iPad Air 2, also has the same colour gamut that Apple revealed with the 27in iMac, with Retina 5K display, which gives it a 25pc greater colour saturation than the Air 2.

It looks the part, with the only discernable difference from previous models being the 12MP iSight camera jutting out at the back. I’m not sure why this is the case and it appears to be the only iOS device where the camera lens juts out.

But the key here is that this is a device aimed at professionals, not just fussy aesthetic types, and it is ultimately about what you can do with the iPad Pro versus earlier models and, of course, PCs.

The problem with working on tablet computers versus personal computers (PCs and Macs) was that up until now you could only work on one app at a time on a tablet.

This all changed with the 12.9in iPad Pro where new multitasking features such as Slide Over (open a second app while staying in original app), Split View (have two apps open at the same time), Picture in Picture (sending a video to the corner of the screen while using another app) and new QuickType keyboard shortcuts were unveiled.

I haven’t mastered all of these features on the new 9.7in iPad Pro but find the Slide Over and Split View features quite handy. The one problem with this is that not all iPad apps are optimised for this so you tend to be stuck with mainly Apple apps and a few early movers like Slack or Facebook Messenger.

In Apple’s favour, I will say that when all of this works in harmony – such as opening Calendar or Mail while working on a Microsoft Word document – the overall feeling is smooth. The software works smoothly and beautiful.

Neat new additions include Night Shift, which came in with iOS 9.3 and basically uses the iPad’s clock and location to determine when the sun goes down in your current location and moves the screen from the familiar blue light to a more tangerine hue that actually is designed to help you sleep better at night.

CPU and battery

iPad_Pro_Pencil_1

All the apps on the device seem to just flow nicely and smoothly as you integrate multitasking into your work style. I commend certain apps such as Microsoft Word for iPad for translating elegantly onto the iPad Pro.

The heart of the iPad Pro 9.7in is the A9X chip, which gives it 1.7 times better performance over the iPad Air.

This also gives it 1.7 times the graphics performance of the Air 2. This isn’t easy for most eyes to notice but the processor is capable of handling intensive tasks like editing up to three streams of 4K video in iMovie, for example.

The iPad Pro also has the same M9 coprocessor that comes with the iPhone 6s and the new iPhone SE that offloads tasks from the chip, resulting in better battery life.

The device is capable of up to 10 hours of battery life, which definitely makes it a contender as a PC replacement.

Speakers

iPad_Pro_speakers

Aside from the display, the standout feature for me has to be the 9.7in iPad Pro’s speakers.

There are four speakers on the device that are located on each side corner.

Each speaker is a hi-fi stereo speaker that booms sound at twice the audio output of an iPad Air 2.

Built in sensors adjust the sound to orientation – whether in landscape or portrait – and this makes it ideal for presentations or just enjoying movies.

The litmus test of this for me was the Logitech speakers I use at home in my kitchen when listening to music. With the iPad Pro, I simply didn’t need them. The sound out of the 9.7in device is awesome.

Camera and 4K

Earlier I mentioned the 12MP iSight camera jutting out slightly at the rear of the device. It’s a curious design anomaly by Apple standards but does nothing to affect the performance or overall appearance of the 9.7in iPad Pro.

I tend not to use the rear cameras of tablet computers that often because it just seems incongruous taking pictures with tablets, so I prefer to leave this work to smartphones. But in a professional setting, it makes sense.

The 12MP iSight camera comes in handy for useful tasks such as scanning documents using apps like Scanbot. With this app, once a document has been scanned, you can search the text on the document and even import signatures. You can imagine this coming in handy for legal workers or auctioneers.

The camera is the same iSight camera as on the iPhone SE and iPhone 6s and what this implies is the ability to record 4K video. Ally this with the big display and the ability to edit up to four 4K videos at once within iMovie and it is a serious proposition for videographers, vloggers or people recording coaching videos.

The 12MP camera also features the same Live Photos features as in the latest iPhone and also the True Tone flash feature that matches the colour of the flash to the lighting around the subject, resulting in natural-looking photos in unnaturally lit settings like a conference venue, for example.

The front-facing camera is a Facetime HD camera that is 5MP and uses the same Retina Flash feature found in the iPhone SE and iPhone 6s, which uses the display as a flash. This results in clearer FaceTime video calls and natural-looking selfies.

Pencil

iPad_Pro_Pencil_2

You get the sense with Apple that its latest innovations are often a paean to tools of the past. For example, with the Apple Watch, the designers used terms like Crown and Complications as a hat tip to the original watch designers.

The Apple Pencil looks and feels like a tribute to those HB pencils we used to use in school during technical drawing class.

The material on the wand-like device feels as though it has the same waxy consistency of those old wooden pencils and even the top of the device where the Lighting charger exists, is reminiscent of where the eraser used to be on HB pencils.

My musings aside, I’m more of a keyboard warrior than a strategic scribbler and my messy handwriting style was made messier thanks to learning Pitman 2000 shorthand many moons ago. Long story short, I type faster than I scribble.

But having played with various apps like Paper, Penultimate, Scanbot, Adobe Sketch and even Microsoft Word I found the Pencil to be responsive.

In fact, in apps like Paper you can be quite productive in terms of drawing diagrams or spotlighting details in a photo, and with Adobe Capture you can capture the colour elements of a photograph or the room you are in to complement designs like invitations or flyers.

Smart keyboard

iPad_Pro_smart-Keyboard

Like I said, I’m more of a keyboard warrior, and so the Smart Keyboard, which is in effect a keyboard attached to an iPad cover that incidentally charges itself through the iPad, is a nifty move by Apple.

The concept is not new, having been done before on various iPad cases from Logitech or in a distinctly similar fashion on the keyboard on Microsoft Surface devices.

The Smart Keyboard for the 9.7in iPad Pro has the same number of keys as the 12.9in version – that’s 64 buttons – and is just 4mm thin.

It folds neatly inside the Smart Cover and draws data and power from the Smart Connector interface within the hinges that connect it to the iPad Pro.

Each key is understood to be laser ablated uniquely.

Having used it a few days, I can say the Smart Keyboard is quite responsive and quick and each plunge of a key is strangely satisfying.

Obviously designed to reflect the shape of the 9.7in iPad rather than the 12.9in version, the keyboard doesn’t feel cramped by any means.

Verdict: 4.5/5

The 9.7in iPad Pro is probably the most powerful tablet on the market in and around that size and Apple’s attention to detail, as always, shines through.

Will it make the ultimate PC replacement?

That really depends on users. The key thing that Apple has done here is create a device that can do everything a PC can do.

The iPad is powerful and exceeds many contemporary PCs for specs, and the software as you shift between apps is very smooth. It oozes quality.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is for everyone, especially people who have grown up with eyes on a screen and one hand on a mouse.

Also, because you can only keep two apps open at a time, it is still a limited experience compared to the full flexibility of a PC or Mac.

That doesn’t mean you can’t do everything you can do on a PC, you can – just not as fluidly.

But Apple knows its audience, and it is catering for a specific class of user that requires versatility without all the complications of personal computing.

In doing so, Apple isn’t exactly replacing the PC for existing users, but offering a new option for a new generation of users who just want to work differently.

In that sense, the 9.7in iPad Pro isn’t a PC-killer, but it is an extremely viable alternative.

9.7in_iPad_Pro

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com