Editors' note, Oct. 31, 2018: Apple has announced-- a brand-new 11-inch model that starts at $799 (£769, AU$1,229) and a redesigned 12.9-inch version that now starts at $999 (£969, AU$1,529). The remains available, for now, and still starts at $649 (£619, AU$979), but the 9.7-inch model has been discontinued. The review of that smaller model, first published Mar. 30, 2016 and last updated on Mar. 21, 2017, follows.
Take last year's largest-ever iPad, shrink it down to the more traditional 9.7-inch size, add an even better camera and screen, and you've got the new 2016 iPad Pro. It starts at $599, £499 or AU$899 for the 32GB Wi-Fi model -- and it's the iPad I'd buy if I were in the market for a new tablet right now.
But if I already had an iPad Air 2, I'd hold off unless I really needed the drawing features enabled by Apple's excellent Pencil stylus (sold separately for $99, £79 and AU$165). I'm writing this on the 9.7-inch iPad Pro with its Smart Keyboard sitting on my lap. On a plane. The keyboard's comfy. It's not backlit, but I can guess the keys by touch pretty well. The display is beautifully crisp and vibrant. And it runs a magic mix of work tools and fun stuff. I can read easily. I can play games. I can watch movies. It's extremely convenient.
I've used the Air 2 and a Belkin keyboard case as my go-to for a while now. It's a compact, convenient combo. And I type on the iPad. Lately, a lot. I use it for taking quick notes, or as a security blanket when my laptop's somewhere else. It comes with me to work.
But the iPad still, despite Apple's insistence on it being the future of computing, isn't a laptop replacement. I can't bring it to a press conference and make it my one machine to cover the event. I can't run the camera-tethering software I need, or easily communicate in a window with my teammates via Google Chat (though I can with Slack), or write and edit and publish stories from my in-browser content tools. I can't even do my corporate expenses on my company's Java-based accounting system. Maybe I could come up with some way it could meet my needs, but it wouldn't really do it the way I'm used to. And that's the point, really. My tools don't always line up with the iPad's tools. The iPad, and its vision of the future of computing, remains stubbornly separate from the Mac, and less multipurpose than a Windows device.
All of those frustrations seem to to belie "Pro" moniker on this iPad. And yet, if I were to pick the iPad that came closest to perfection, it would be this one. It's a portable dream. The tiniest little productivity tool Apple makes. It's got performance, better sound and display, and -- what am I looking for that's really missing?
Nothing, except I want the iPad to be more like a laptop. Just a bit.
Last year's iPad Pro, the 12.9-inch one, was crazy-big -- the biggest iPad to date. I felt like I was carrying a sheet of glass everywhere. But it had some good features, supporting the fantastic-but-expensive pressure-sensitive Pencil stylus, quad speakers and side-connected keyboard accessories. This iPad's got all of those, and even more, in the same-size body as the older Air 2.
Weirdly, this smaller iPad has a few key improvements over the massive 12.9-inch iPad Pro, and they're pretty significant:
Better cameras: Its cameras are entirely better: a 12-megapixel rear camera that can record 4K video (with real flash, no less) and a 5-megapixel front camera with Retina Flash give the 9.7 Pro the same cameras as the. Does that matter? It does if you're using the iPad as a camera. You might mock the idea of taking pictures on an iPad, but having top-notch cameras on a tablet has no downside. (And for those of us who use the camera as an on-the-fly document scanner, it's definitely an upside.)
Better screen: The iPad Pro's display is fantastic, too. True, it's the same resolution as the older iPad Air 2, but it's gotten markedly better glare reduction, brightness boost and Apple's weird-but-strangely-good-for-reading TrueTone automatic color adjustment. Almost like an automatic and more subtle version of iOS 9.3's Night Shift, this iPad continually adjusts its color temperature to match your environment. It's not annoying, and it's so subtle that it's easy to forget it's working unless you toggle this feature off in settings. Seriously, the antiglare, brightness and color-temperature-adjusting improvements make this iPad far better as an outdoor -- or even indoor -- device.