I love my iPad Mini, I love my iPad Mini, I love my iPad Mini. I have to repeat things like this to myself every time I get ready to test-drive something new. This helps me to remember that it's OK to flirt with other devices—not only is it my job to try new stuff (best job ever), but my 1st-generation iPad Mini has been serving me quite admirably over the past three years and, frankly, it works just fine. Thankfully, my aging iPad still receives updates from the Mothership—although that may be ending soon with iOS 10—and it runs pretty fluidly in the process. However, since it's only a little larger than my current smartphone, I only use it for personal entertainment; I rely on my larger notebook computer for more demanding business needs, which means that I'm often carrying multiple devices. This is where the office-ready 9.7" iPad Pro begins to show its bridge-spanning appeal, at least on paper. If I have an opportunity to carry a single smart device that offers the best of both worlds, I’m all for it, and so are my messenger bag and shoulder, as long as the compromises aren't too great. While I welcome the luxury of convenience, I can't afford for my productivity to take a hit, and I imagine this to be the case for most power users.
I'm not beholden to one operating system or platform. I get that loyalists want you to pick a side, but I tend to take a "whatever works" approach. Sure, I've engaged in debates with family and friends over which OS has the upper hand in certain regards but, ultimately, usability and performance take the prize and the device that allows me to do the most with the least amount of effort will serve as my daily companion. Whether it be iOS, Android, Windows, or otherwise, when it comes to personal computing I just need to be able to do what I want, when I want, and it should work every time. Period. When Apple unveiled its 12.9" iPad Pro, its target market was clear: power users and creative professionals looking for a laptop alternative that is both capable and fun. While the original iPad Pro delivered on many fronts, it's still bigger than Apple's other iPads and isn't as portable as other tablets on the market, even if it outperforms those other devices in benchmarks and real-world performance, which it typically does. The challenge Apple faces with its 9.7" iPad Pro is offering the same horsepower and flexibility in a smaller form factor in an effort to accommodate people who wish to carry a more compact device. After pairing this tablet with Apple's Smart Keyboard Cover and Pencil, I was ready to see how its list of impressive specs and features kept pace with my real-life needs for personal and professional purposes.
What makes a Pro a Pro?
On the surface, the 9.7" iPad Pro looks awfully similar to Apple’s popular iPad Air 2. They are nearly identical in size and weight, since both devices sport a 9.7" Retina Display with detailed 2048 x 1536 screen resolution, housed in Apple’s signature unibody design, complete with 4:3 aspect ratio. While some tablet makers offer 16:9 aspect ratios for a more cinematic viewing experience, Apple’s 4:3 design choice has proven to be great for reading applications and it helps the iPad stand out in a crowded tablet market. If you look below the surface, though, you’ll notice that the iPad Pro offers a few advantages over its cosmetically similar running mate.
For starters, while the iPad Air 2’s storage capacity starts at 16GB, the iPad Pro’s entry-level model doubles that offering with 32GB of storage. Storage isn’t the only advantage here, though. The iPad Pro also features a more robust A9X 64-bit processor, Apple’s True Tone Display technology for optimal white balance and brightness output on its oxide TFT screen, four built-in speakers that offer enhanced audio enjoyment, a Smart Connector for easily interfacing accessories like the aforementioned Smart Keyboard Case, along with a front 5-megapixel FaceTime camera and a rear 12-megapixel iSight camera with True Tone flash. This impressive camera array is even an upgrade from the cameras found in the larger 12.9" iPad Pro. Before you dismiss taking photos with an iPad of this size, I get it—who wants to be the guy using a 9.7" screen as a viewfinder? I think you will be pleased with the results if you do. Photo quality was generally excellent, as was video recording, which supports up to 4K resolution. The iPad Pros are also Apple’s only tablets to support their version of a stylus, simply called “Pencil,” an accessory I’ve grown quite fond of and will be discussing in detail shortly.
Smart keyboard cover
I’m not sure how I feel about keyboard cases. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no stranger to using a keyboard with a tablet but I usually opt for separates here. I’ve been fine pairing a separate Bluetooth keyboard for typing and a cover to protect the screen but, again, I would like to consolidate if possible. I’m carrying too many devices around, with too many batteries and too many chargers. What immediately struck me about the Apple Smart Keyboard Cover was the way it looks—superficial, I know—but I was impressed that it closely resembled Apple’s standard Smart Cover, which is a good thing. The keyboard is specifically designed for the iPad Pro. It doesn’t add too much bulk to the design and it conveniently folds into the cover when not in use. This means if I’m just holding the tablet in-hand and using the iPad’s multi-touch display, the keyboard isn’t exposed at all. The keyboard only becomes visible if I place the tablet on a table in landscape viewing mode. For me, this is a big deal—I like my cases to be slim and discreet, while maximizing their potential. From a design standpoint, Apple got this right.
Connectivity was also impressive; the keyboard connects to the side of the tablet magnetically and communicates with the tablet via Apple’s integrated Smart Connector, which is also located on the side of the tablet. Even better, that same connector powers the keyboard, so there’s no need to charge the keyboard separately. That’s one less charger to worry about! While small in appearance, the keyboard offers a surprisingly comfortable typing experience. I have large hands and I quickly grow tired of inputting data on tiny keyboards, but that wasn’t the case here. I was able to type for hours with a reasonable amount of comfort. The one feature I missed, from a notebook computer, was backlit keys; thankfully, this wasn’t much of an issue because the iPad’s display offered plenty of light. However, a backlit option would make an already great keyboard perfect. As to be expected, when connected, the Smart Keyboard Cover gives you full access to the iPad’s buttons and ports, and it supports automatic sleeping and waking of the tablet when opening and closing the cover.
Not your typical stylus
Calling Apple’s Pencil a “stylus” really doesn’t do it justice. And while Pencil sounds too simple, it’s a very fitting descriptor. Writing with a pencil is one of the more naturally coordinated things we do; it flows smoothly and we don’t have to overthink the process; that’s pretty much the way this Pencil works, too. The Pencil feels great in-hand and has a nice heft. Unfortunately, writing was my only real interaction with it. That’s fine and all, I made do using it at office meetings and jotting down notes, but there’s no doubt I wasn’t utilizing the Pencil’s full potential. When using the Pencil with the built-in notes app, skilled artists can bring artwork and sketches to life, thanks to its pinpoint accuracy; sadly, I am no such artist. My half-legible text did appear especially crisp, though.
The Pencil conveniently connects to the iPad via Bluetooth, and pairing was about as straightforward as it gets. I simply removed the end cap from the Pencil, connected it to the iPad’s Lightning connector, and the two paired automatically—that’s it. The Pencil can charge directly from the iPad or you can use the included adapter to charge it with your iPad’s wall adapter and cable. Battery life is rated at 12 hours, which appears to be fairly accurate; using it over the course of a week, I charged it just once and that was after using it straight out of the box. My one fear was losing the Pencil. Considering it uses Bluetooth technology, having a way to track it would be helpful because it doesn’t mount directly on the iPad. My advice would be to find a secure place in your bag or briefcase and keep it there when not in use. The Pencil doesn’t work on every iOS app, but it is supported by the iPad’s preloaded Notes and Mail apps, although the latter is for adding attachments to emails. Thankfully, there is variety of Pencil-friendly third-party apps can be found in Apple’s extensive App Store.
Once the iPad Pro finished restoring from my iCloud and was ready to go to work, I was immediately struck by its speed. At the time of review, the iPad Pro was running iOS 9.3.2, the same as my iPad Mini, which is fast in its own right, but the iPad Pro proved to be even more nimble as it roared through menus and apps. Even smaller tasks launched surprisingly fast, like unlocking with my fingerprint or launching Siri. It’s clear that Apple’s A9X chip and M9 coprocessor are capable of flying through iOS’s streamlined interface without a hiccup. Swiping-in from the right side of the screen, I could choose to run two supported apps at once and even display them side-by-side—this too was effortless. In fact, I can’t remember a time during the entire review period where the iPad seemed taxed. Even during what I would consider to be moderate gaming, the iPad Pro performed like a boss.
Speaking of entertainment, the aforementioned speakers proved to be one of the iPad Pro’s most underrated features. I consider myself fortunate to have a home office; unfortunately, it also doubles as my terrace. Living in NYC, things can get pretty loud out there. While watching a video or movie in my downtime, the speakers performed really well, delivering clear and intelligible audio, allowing me to leave my headphones indoors. Headphones—yet another thing I don’t have to lug around, except where personal listening is required. I’ll spare my fellow subway riders from having to suffer through my iTunes playlist. Simply put, four speakers are better than two; they’re great outdoors and would be equally great in a conference room.
More speakers improve sound!
Another honorable mention goes to Apple’s True Tone display. Using the four built-in ambient sensors, this display technology automatically adjusts the color temperate of the screen based on the ambient lighting. The goal is to absorb light the same way a piece of paper does, creating a more natural viewing experience. After living with this setting enabled for a few days, it became my preferred viewing choice for all media types. I wish my other displays offered this feature. If you’re concerned that all of this power will take a toll on battery life, it’s worth mentioning that the 9.7" iPad Pro features a 27.5-watt-hour battery that is designed to offer up to 10 hours of web surfing on the Wi-Fi model discussed in the review. This estimation seems right; if you’re gaming or doing a lot of streaming, you can expect this number to be smaller.
Not just for business users
One of the outstanding takeaways from my time with the iPad Pro is how fun it is to use. While it won’t completely replace my notebook computer, I have been using it a lot less these days. The display size is ideal for my daily commute, offering both privacy and functionality. If you want a larger display, I also recommend you take a look at the larger 12.9" version. Whether you’re looking for a Wi-Fi-only version or one with LTE support, B&H offers multiple options and we can help you decide which Pro is right for you. If you’re wondering what happened to that iPad Mini I love so much, well, I gave it to the kids. It’s still a life saver for long car trips, but Papa’s getting himself a brand new bag—an iPad Pro, Smart Keyboard Case, Pencil, and drawing lessons.
Best part is that in terms of smoothness and pure power of this device, the latest Galaxy Tab S3 cannot even match the new iPad.