iPad Pro 9.7 review: An iPad Air in everything but name ... and price

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We review the iPad Pro 9.7, a great classic tablet with an inexplicable price hike(Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag)

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Apple is still hell-bent on rebranding the iPad, as stagnant sales indicate that customers aren't drooling over tablets the way they used to. iPad Air sales stalling? Let's make a huge one that's kinda like a Surface! Uh oh, that one isn't setting the world on fire either? Here's a smaller version of that big one! Apple's increasingly cluttered iPad lineup today gives us an upgraded successor to the iPad Air 2 with a new name, a few new features and a questionable US$100 price hike. Apparently being the best tablet isn't enough anymore; Apple wants to frame the iPad as a do-it-all 2-in-1 as its path back to world-beating relevance.

Like the iPad Air 2 before it, the iPad Pro 9.7 is a great tablet. It's the exact same size and weight as the Air 2, but with more powerful internals (the same A9X chip from the larger 12.9-inch iPad Pro). It has a terrific display, including a nifty feature that adjusts its tone based on the colors in your ambient environment. It even (unnecessarily, perhaps) gets the same great rear camera from the iPhone 6s.

The iPad Pro 9.7 also now supports the Apple Pencil and Apple Smart Keyboard that launched with its big brother late last year (though there's naturally a new, smaller keyboard cover for this model). You could always use third-party keyboard covers with the iPad lineup, but this is the first time we're seeing Apple go all in on iPad as faux laptop to position it as an alternative to the Surface.

All of these upgrades would make perfect sense for an iPad Air 3, which is essentially what this is. Coming 18 months after its predecessor, things like updated processing power, a neat new display feature, better cameras and upgraded accessory support sound like perfectly logical upgrades for the Air lineup. What isn't logical – and what many customers may find mildly insulting – is thinking a new name and a few incremental upgrades warrant a $100 higher price tag.

This isn't a $499 iPad Air – it's a $599 iPad Pro! And "Pro" is better, right?!

In Apple's defense (sort of), the iPad Pro 9.7 does jump up to 32 GB base storage, from the 16 GB entry-level tier in the older iPads. But we don't think that's enough to justify the price increase. Android phone and tablet makers have been starting at 32 GB flash storage for years, at the same price points as Apple's 16 GB equivalents. Sparing customers the pain of using a 16 GB device in 2016 should be a long-overdue gesture, not something we pay extra for.

And it's not as if the stylus and keyboard accessories are part of this more expensive package. They're still separate purchases, ringing up for $99 and $150, respectively (by contrast, Microsoft's stylus is included with the Surface Pro series, and its more advanced keyboard cover costs $20 less than Apple's). That puts the total minimum price to get a Surface-like iPad Pro 9.7 setup – tablet, keyboard and stylus – at $850. Or $50 less than a MacBook Air.

We do like this iPad Pro 9.7 better than the larger iPad Pro, just because its size makes more sense. iPads are still, first and foremost, tablets; the larger Pro's size misleadingly communicated "I'm a laptop" – while its functionality and software still screamed "I'm a tablet." It ended up as something that wasn't particularly easy to recommend as either.

While iOS has gotten better for productivity in several ways, including split-screen multitasking, we don't see either iPad Pro as being in the same class as the Surface Pro 4 or other high-end Windows 10 2-in-1s. The lack of a trackpad means you'll often be tediously reaching up to the screen for simple things like scrolling through a web page, selecting text and opening an app.

Apple would have us believe that trackpads are part of the old computing world that's on its way out. That may or may not be the case, but the fact is trackpads and other cursor input save you from reaching your arm up to a screen over and over. That isn't a natural gesture; it can quickly get uncomfortable.

We have other issues with mobile OS-running faux laptops, like sandboxed apps and no direct access to the file system – which often makes getting content from one app to another tricky, if not impossible. Not everyone is a power user, but when you're spending power user money, we like those options to be there.

Some people will indeed be able to use the iPad Pro series as their laptop. Sometimes I wish I could – it would make for a fun, ultra-portable, modern-feeling work device. But I use way too much Photoshop, Lightroom and text expander apps (among many others) for this to even be an option. And yes, I've tried their iOS equivalents and no, I don't consider them to be even close to viable replacements for my workflow.

The key is, if you are one of the people who can use the iPad Pro as a laptop, then you likely could have also been using every iPad for the last few years as a laptop – only without an active stylus, and with a third-party keyboard instead of an Apple-made one. Despite the marketing shift, the Pro series is only an incremental step forward in the iPad as 2-in-1 narrative.

With this first pair of iPad Pros, Apple also made a mistake that Microsoft made – and quickly learned from – back in 2012 and 2013. When using the Apple keyboard, the tablet itself is fixed in one position, with no adjustments or flexibility. So whether you're using it on a desk or in your lap, the screen sits at the same angle. On lap, I find it to be too vertical. Contrast this with today's Surfaces, which have flexible kickstands, letting you prop up their screens at whatever angle you see fit. I find it incredibly hard going back to a 2-in-1 that misses the mark on such a fundamental issue.

Along similar lines, the iPad Pro also doesn't give you a good place to stash the Apple Pencil when you aren't using it. On a Surface, your stylus magnetically latches onto the side of the tablet, but the closest you can get with the iPad Pro is magnetically snapping the pencil onto the front right side of the keyboard cover, which doesn't do you any good while using it as a laptop.

Ultimately Apple's iPad Pro strategy seems to be more about getting people to start thinking about the iPad as a 2-in-1 than it is being a great laptop or 2-in-1 today. If you want a real, full-fledged laptop or laptop alternative – and your needs will ever go beyond basic word processing and other simple tasks – go with a MacBook Pro or Air, Surface Pro 4 or Surface Book, which all run full desktop software. iOS just isn't that kind of operating system ... not yet, anyway.

What if you just want a pure tablet, and aren't worried about the laptop crossover aspect? Is the iPad Pro 9.7 worth the upgrade? Well, it is terrific as a tablet, but you're probably just fine sticking with the (now $200 cheaper than this model) iPad Air 2. When using it strictly as a tablet, the iPad Pro 9.7 is so similar to the Air 2 that I often forget which one I'm using. Accessories aside, the biggest differences between the two are more horsepower, a better rear camera and the new True Tone display.

If the performance tempts you, just remember that the iPad Air 2 is still a very fast tablet – this isn't like mobile devices from a few years ago, when every new model made the last one look slow as molasses. As for camera quality, you can hit up our iPhone 6s review to revisit the excellent shots you'll get from the new Pro 9.7, but we aren't sure why many people would need that good of a camera in a large-ish tablet – especially if it's contributing to Apple's mildly insulting price hike.

Battery life gets a little bump over the iPad Air 2. In our benchmark, where we stream video with brightness set at 75 percent, the iPad Pro 9.7 dropped 12 percent per hour. The iPad Air 2 dropped 14 percent per hour, and the original iPad Air (2013) matched it at 12 percent per hour. No major changes there to warrant an upgrade.

The True Tone display is a very cool new feature, which accurately adjusts the screen's white balance to match your ambient environment – it better simulates how light would reflect off of paper. This supposedly makes reading more comfortable. I can't say my eyes felt any more comfortable here or any less comfortable switching back to any other device, though, so it might be wise to see True Tone as more of a neat, thoughtful little feature than something you'll want to buy an expensive new device just to get.

Overall display quality is better than the iPad Air 2, with the same resolution but better contrast. This isn't something you're likely to notice much unless you put them side by side, though, so this is another tick in the nice bonus, but not reason to upgrade column.

As time goes by, upgrade-worthy features are harder and harder for mobile device-makers – including Apple – to come by. Smartphones and tablets will continue to evolve, but today that evolution is more of a gentle trickle than a wave.

That industry-wide shift is at the heart of the iPad Pro series. The iPad, and tablets in general, hit good enough for most people form at least two or three years ago. Since then the most interesting and relevant evolution in this space has come from Microsoft's Surface line – a pain point that appears to be influencing Apple's new strategy.

In most cases, we think those who own the iPad Air 2 and maybe even the original iPad Air are just fine hanging onto them. And if you own an older (pre-2013) iPad and are thinking about upgrading, ask yourself if you really need the official keyboard and stylus support (keeping in mind all iPads work with Bluetooth keyboards). If not, then save the money and get the $399 iPad Air 2.

Apple's investors – and perhaps the company's own pride – want to see never-ending growth in the iPad line, waning tablet demand be damned. So what we end up with is a company reaching more and more, hoping to return the iPad to the glory of its first four or five generations (while, perhaps as a bonus, sticking it to Microsoft by eating into some Surface sales). The iPad Pro 9.7 is a great tablet, the best classic tablet you can buy today, but the new features aren't remotely essential and the 2-in-1 aspect feels a little forced, with software that doesn't fully support the laptop form factor. A great tablet that, for most shoppers, isn't worth its new higher price.

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro is available now, starting at $599 for 32 GB storage. Its optional Apple Pencil and Apple Smart Keyboard cost $99 and $149, respectively.

Product page: Apple

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