When Apple launched the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, it was a device I definitely wanted to try, but didn’t expect to keep. That gorgeous screen was more tempting than I’d expected, but it didn’t sell itself to me as a replacement for the smaller version, and in the end I decided I couldn’t justify keeping both.
The 9.7-inch version is a very different proposition. I absolutely love my iPad Air 2, a device that gets used for both consumption and creation, and the smaller iPad Pro retains the exact same form-factor while adding to its capabilities. For simplicity, I’ll skip the size references from now on and simply refer to it as the iPad Pro.
But will those enhancements be enough to make the upgrade worthwhile? I’m posting my first impressions today, and will report back again after around a week’s use. As ever, I’ll update in between if I have anything notable to say, but in this case I think that’s unlikely …
The iPad Pro form factor is almost indistinguishable from its predecessor at first glance. Dimensions are identical to the millimetre, and weight identical to the gram. All iPad Air 2 cases should fit perfectly.
But there are a few visual differences. You have speaker grilles at both end of the iPad – though these are not symmetrical. At the Lightning port end, there are 12 holes on each (down from 14 in the iPad Air 2), while at the other end there are 7 per side.
The ugly black radio cutout on the LTE version of the iPad Air 2 is gone, replaced by a much more subtle version of the iPhone 6/s cutout line.
There’s also the iPhone 6-style camera bump, though I’m pleased to report this doesn’t make it wobble when placed on a flat surface.
I hooked up my iPad Air 2 to my Mac, did an encrypted backup to iTunes (which copies most settings and passwords, though annoyingly not quite all) and then restored to the iPad Pro, a process that took just ten minutes or so.
There were readers last time who felt I really should have tried the Apple Pencil, as it was a key feature of the original iPad Pro. But as I explained then, while I absolutely get that the Pencil will be key to many – perhaps even their primary reason for purchase – it’s an irrelevance to me personally.
I never handwrite anything. Absolutely everything I write – from a quick reminder to myself to a novel – is either typed or dictated. And I have zero drawing ability. If I tried to draw a circle it would probably look like a rectangle. My creative urges are satisfied by photography and creative writing.
So, in short, I didn’t try the Pencil then and won’t be doing so now. Zac is your man for that.
One iPad Pro feature that did grab my attention, though, was ostensibly one of the more minor ones: the four-speaker system.
I use my iPad as a Netflix device in bed, using the TwelveSouth HoverBar 3 for the ultimate in laziness. No need to hold the iPad or balance it on my knees – just position it directly above my head and have it, well, hover there. But with the iPad Air 2 in the landscape orientation, both speakers are on the right.
That’s the very epitome of a first-world problem, I know. You can’t expect audiophile quality from tablet speakers, stereo sound isn’t relevant for the average movie or TV show, and the volume is more than adequate. But there have been occasions when the unbalanced sound was just ever so slightly annoying.
There have also been a few occasions when the iPad is sat on a table top to allow more than one of us to watch a movie or TV show on the iPad, and for those times a little extra volume would be nice. So the idea of four speakers, balancing sound from left and right, and twice the volume for those table-top viewing times, was appealing.
I cranked both up to maximum and played the same music tracks through both, and the difference was incredible. I didn’t have a sound meter to hand, but Apple says the iPad Pro speakers are twice as loud as those on the iPad Air 2, and I believe it.
I had mixed expectations when it came to the screen enhancements. Let’s start with the wider color gamut. I loaded a bunch of the same photos onto both iPads, and then compared them side-by-side. You can see one example above, iPad Air left, iPad Pro right.
I have to say that what immediately stands out is that the iPad Pro presents much more saturated colors. That gives a superficially more pleasing impression, but – in my view – at the expense of fidelity to the real-life colors. My guess is that the majority of people will greatly prefer the iPad Pro screen, while photographers will be less keen. For now, you can put me in the ‘less keen’ camp, but we’ll see once I’ve used it for a few days and am more used to it.
Apple says that the iPad Pro screen is 25% brighter than the iPad Air 2. I could see how that might be of benefit if using the iPad in sunlight, but – resisting comments about UK weather – that’s not something I tend to do. The brightness of the iPad Air 2 had always been more than good enough for me. I typically use it set to around 50%, and turn it down further at night.
But outdoor use seemed worth testing – and there the difference was huge, admittedly under semi-overcast skies. With both iPads set to maximum brightness, the iPad Air 2 was readable but not pleasantly so; the iPad Pro was comfortably readable.
I don’t think the visual difference is relevant indoors, but if you use your iPad in the open air, you’ll definitely appreciate the extra brightness of the latest model. Personally I would have pegged it at a much bigger difference than 25% – but more on this in a moment.
However, even indoors, I can see a definite benefit to the much brighter screen: with the backlight power setting much lower for the same brightness, that ought – in theory – to boost the battery life. That’s something I’ll be testing in the coming week.
Apple also says that the reflectivity of the screen is 40% lower than the iPad Air 2 – and there’s no doubt at all about that. The difference is immediately obvious.
What I’ve done in the photo above is put a white-background browser window into full-screen mode on my 27-inch Apple Thunderbolt Display so that there’s a strong white screen to be reflected. You can see that the iPad Air 2 screen on the left reflects quite a lot of it, to the extent that you can see lines of text, while the iPad Pro screen has dramatically reduced reflections.
This, I think, is the other reason that the iPad Pro fared so much better in my outdoor brightness test, making it look more like twice as bright rather than the 25% Apple cites.
The final screen enhancement is what Apple calls True Tone. A light sensor measures the color temperature of the ambient light, and adjusts the screen temperature to match.
For example, fluorescent lights and some LED lighting tends to be extremely white, while tungsten and halogen bulbs are typically much more yellow. We don’t tend to notice these differences because the brain is extremely good at automatically adjusting – it knows what we are looking at, so compensates to make it look right. But when you have a separate light source with a different color temperature to the surrounding light, it can look wrong. Typically, in domestic lighting, a normal iPad screen will tend to look slightly blue in tone.
I wasn’t ever conscious of this, but as soon as I put the two iPads side-by-side and looked at them in a variety of different lighting – daylight, halogen and LED – the difference was very clear. You can see in the photo above the iPads are under a halogen light, which has a yellow-orange temperature. The iPad Air 2, top left, looks distinctly blue in this light, while the iPad Pro, bottom right, looks much closer to true white.
So, first impressions of True Tone are excellent.
The iPad Pro has an A9X chip, which Apple says delivers 2.4 times the CPU performance and 4.3 times the graphics performance of the older model.
I don’t really do much on my iPad that would benefit from this kind of performance kick. In the main, my iPad is used for Internet, ebooks, Netflix and writing. So while the benchmarks look impressive, I’m not expecting to notice any real-life differences. I will, though, fire up a few games over the next few days, and try some photo editing in Lightroom, to see whether I’m wrong.
The 12MP camera and 4K camcorder are irrelevant to me: I have literally never in my life taken a photo or shot a video with an iPad. I will, though, risk the scorn of all around me by doing so over the next few days and reporting back in an update.
The iPad Pro is also effectively a dual-SIM device: it has both the familiar SIM slot plus an embedded virtual SIM. This isn’t something I’ll be testing in the course of this diary, but I can definitely see that coming in very handy when travelling, allowing me to use a local SIM for cheap data without the hassle of swapping the physical one.
There’s no doubt that the iPad Pro is a better device than the iPad Air 2. The question is whether the improvements justify the upgrade?
If you currently have an iPad older than the Air 2, then the iPad Pro is a very nice upgrade indeed. You’ll get all the Air 2 goodies, and then some. If you have the budget, I’d say you may well want to make the jump. (If you don’t, there are some excellent deals on both the original iPad Air and Air 2 in Apple’s Amazon store.)
For iPad Air 2 owners, though, my initial view is that it depends. If you like to draw or handwrite, the answer is an obvious yes. Apple Pencil support will be the killer feature for many, and if the 12.9-inch model is too big for your tastes, then you’re likely to rush out to buy the smaller model.
The Smart Connector isn’t yet a killer feature, though. I frequently use my iPad with a keyboard, but I’m perfectly happy with my Brydge Bluetooth keyboard. Sure, it’s nice not to have to charge a keyboard, but that’s so infrequent I don’t see it as a big deal. However, I’m sure Apple has additional plans for the Smart Connector, so it may well become a bigger deal over time.
There are three other reasons it may be a worthwhile upgrade. First, if you use your iPad in the great outdoors, the combination of brighter screen and dramatically reduced reflectivity makes a huge difference. The same may be true if you’ve ever felt frustrated by the maximum volume of the Air 2 – the iPad Pro speaker system really does deliver a lot more sound. Finally, if you’re an iPad photographer or videographer, the camera upgrade alone would make it worthwhile.
But for most Air 2 owners, I would say it’s not a massive upgrade. The True Tone adjustment is a nice feature, but not one you’re likely to miss if you’ve never experienced it. The wider color gamut so far appears to me to show up simply as greater saturation. Again, I think most will like that, but the Air 2 screen is excellent in its own right and you’re not going to miss the Pro screen unless you’ve tried it.
Myself? I love the speakers, the reduced reflectivity is very pleasant and I am more impressed than I expected to be by the True Tone feature. Given I hardly ever do any photo editing on the iPad, I can probably live with the over-saturated colors. In all honesty, it’s a pretty expensive upgrade for some relatively minor improvements, but my iPad is my most-used gadget after my MacBook Pro, so I’m happy to spend some money on it.
Especially as my iPhone screen may be getting smaller … I’ve just taken delivery of my iPhone SE, and I suspect I might keep it – but first impressions of that will have to wait until tomorrow! I’ll also do another iPad Pro diary piece at some point next week.
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