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By Jason Snell

9.7-inch iPad Pro Review: Chocolate or vanilla?

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

Having a choice is fundamentally a good thing. Yes, give someone too many options and they may collapse under the strain of the Tyranny of Choice, but One Size never really did Fit All. Better to have a few options to choose from.

As a laptop user I’ve always found myself a bit outside the mainstream. I opted for the MacBook Air over the Retina MacBook Pro, and even within the Air line, I opted for the 11-inch model over the 13-inch. What I’m saying is, I appreciate that my choice isn’t just between chocolate and vanilla.

These past few years Apple has been diversifying its mobile product lines, expanding beyond a single, mainstream product to include variations that appeal to customers who want something a bit different. The iPhone 6 Plus gave people who wanted more battery and screen space the ability to get it; the iPhone 5S (and now the iPhone SE) serve people who want a smaller and cheaper model. The iPad mini was a nice shrunken-down variation on the classic iPad; the 12.9-inch iPad Pro offered a much larger, richer iPad experience.

Now here’s the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, but this isn’t Apple adding another device that’s nibbling at the edges. This is the flagship of the iPad line, undoubtedly the best-selling iPad model for the next year, full of impressive features (as well as a few curious omissions) and in a size that’s exactly what people expect from an iPad.

What’s in a name?

With the introduction of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, Apple takes a page from its approach to naming Macs by classifying the iPad product line based on features, with various sizes within each product line. To be an iPad Pro is to be a top-of-the-line iPad with the fastest processors and support for Apple Pencil and the Smart Connector. Just as you can choose between the MacBook and the MacBook Pro, and then within the MacBook Pro you can choose between a 13- and 15-inch model, you can choose between the 9.7- and 12.9-inch iPad Pro. (Presumably the slots currently filled by the iPad Air 2 and iPad mini will one day just be 9.7- and 7.9-inch iPads?)

Once you start thinking about it in the context of other products, the naming scheme makes more sense, but it’s still a bit odd, and the ungainly nature of the screen sizes doesn’t help matters. (This would be a lot easier if we could call these 10- and 13-inch iPads, but tech companies have learned the hard way that rounding up on your tech specs will get you in trouble. Perhaps one day the bezel around these devices will vanish and their screens will be big enough to call them something simpler.)

The staggered release of these first two iPad Pro models has also muddied the waters a bit, because each model has features that the other lacks. Consider the plight of Old Mister Moneybags, a top-hatted gentleman with an unlimited bank account and a desire for the finest iPad in all the land. He sends a member of his staff to the local Apple Store to purchase that device, but that staff member is going to leave Old Mister Moneybags disappointed.

The new 9.7-inch iPad Pro has the same processing power as the larger model, an upgraded camera, True Tone display, and can show a wider range of colors on its screen. But the 12.9-inch model has that bigger screen, twice the RAM as the 9.7-inch model, and support for fast charging and USB 3 transfer speeds that the smaller model doesn’t offer.

Perhaps in future years, these two iPad Pro models will be released simultaneously, and this sort of mishmash of features won’t happen. But for now, if Old Mister Moneybags’ staff member wants to keep their job, they’ll need to buy one of each and hope that the boss gives them a commendation for original thinking.

Pro features, more or less

The most notable new feature of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is the True Tone Display, which is not as much a feature of the display itself as the two four-channel light sensors near it that detect the color temperature of your surroundings and allow iOS to adjust the color temperature of the display accordingly. This is a subtle but pleasant effect, optionally warming the tone of your screen when you’re in a warmly lit room.

It’s a very Apple feature, integrating hardware and software to solve a problem nobody knew they had. But if you’ve ever turned on your iPad or iPhone at night in a room lit only by warm lights, you have probably been shocked by the blue-tinted whiteness of the screen. True Tone reduces or eliminates this effect, and I wish my 12.9-inch iPad Pro had it.

More broadly, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro cares about color, in that it can display a wider range of color than any previous iOS device. It’s basically using the same enhanced color space Apple added to the 2015 model retina iMacs, and if you work in video or photography you will find numerous colors that are more accurately rendered on this display than on any previous iPad.

And the 9.7-inch iPad Pro also cares about photography taken right on the device itself. With the previous generation of iPads, it seemed that Apple had finally embraced the idea that people take pictures with their iPads, and made the onboard cameras better. But they were still way behind the camera technology on the iPhone. That’s no longer true—the 9.7-inch iPad Pro has the same camera tech that you’ll find in the iPhone 6, right down to the slight bump on the back of the device. It’s a 12 megapixel camera with flash (for the first time on an iPad!) and support for 4K video. It’s a very good camera, just as it was on the iPhone 6S. And the front-facing camera is also 5 megapixels, as on the 6S, so the iPad selfie game has been seriously elevated.

But that’s not all! The 9.7-inch iPad Pro also offers a bunch of tech that debuted with the 12.9-inch iPad Pro: the top-of-the-line A9X processor with M9 motion coprocessor (it’s slightly less than twice as fast at single-threaded operations as the iPad Air 2), support for the Apple Pencil, and the new Smart Connector that enables the Smart Keyboard accessory. It’s also got four speakers, and while they don’t sound quite as good as the ones on the larger model, they’re much better than the ones on the iPad Air 2—most notably because you can now watch a movie with stereo sound coming out of both edges of the iPad, rather than just the side with the home button on it.

Size matters not…?

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a remarkable piece of hardware, with a huge display and PC-class specs. I love mine. But it’s also not a mainstream product. It’s for people who want more, who aren’t satisfied with what the regular iPad can give them. It truly fits the name iPad Pro.

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro, on the other hand… It’s got pro-level features, to be sure, but it’s also designed to appeal to people who already know what an iPad is, and are comfortable with that. It’s the same size as the original iPad (albeit a whole lot thinner and lighter!) and all the other “full-sized” models that have come after it. This is the sweet spot, the top of the bell curve, the iPad that will appeal to the most people.

It’s a size that has some big advantages. It’s much easier to carry, less bulky and heavy, than the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. You can hold the 9.7-inch iPad Pro in one hand and sketch on it with an Apple Pencil held in the other one. Its Smart Keyboard is thinner and lighter than the larger model’s, too. The screen’s not huge, and if you’re using Split View while typing on the software keyboard you will feel cramped. I found myself missing the full-sized software keyboard on the 12.9-inch model, too.

But again, that’s why they make different flavors of ice cream. For some people, the 12.9-inch iPad’s strengths counteract its additional weight and bulkiness. But my gut feeling is that for most people, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is plenty of device on its own. It’s a “regular iPad” that’s been substantially upgraded, not just in terms of processor speed, but with the addition of Pencil and Smart Keyboard support, not to mention the upgraded cameras and display.

For most people who love their iPads and want an upgrade, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro will be a great upgrade. If the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is mint chip, the 9.7-inch model is chocolate or vanilla. And who doesn’t like chocolate ice cream?

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