Apple iPad Pro 9.7-inch review – for artists and designers

  • Price When Reviewed: WiFi-only: 32GB, £499; 128GB, £619; 256GB, £739. WiFi + Cellular: 32GB, £599; 128GB, £719; 256GB, £839.

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This is a long-term review after months of use of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro for designers and artists – whether you’re a hand-drawn illustrator, a graphic or digital/UX designer, 3D artist, creative director or other creative pro. For a more general review of the iPad Pro, see our sister site Macworld. Also, read our 12.9-inch iPad Pro review.

The iPad Pro 9.7-inch is an update to the iPad Air 2 – you could even call it the iPad Air 3. But what makes it an iPad Pro is support for the wonderful Apple Pencil stylus (plus it’s more powerful and has four speakers for better sound on those few occasions you won’t be using headphones with it).

I've looked at it as a UX designer and creative director, and also getting the thoughts of our in-house designers, and artists including Hattie Stewart (who was kind enough to let us take photos of her drawing on it) and Dan Mumford and more.

iPad Pro 9.7-inch review

Before spending some time with this new iPad Pro, I wasn't convinced it was of interest to designers and artists beyond something nice to watch films on on a long flight. Most of us would much prefer the larger drawing and editing surface of its older big brother, the first iPad Pro with its extra three-inches of screen - so why would we even look at something smaller?

The answer lies is the same reason you might carry around a Moleskine rather than an A3 pad, a phone (or, in my case, a phone and a DxO One) rather than an SLR, or a small set of bike tools rather than a full kit. It's just a lot more practical to take with you more often. And being, on average, around £200 cheaper than the 12.9-inch version, it's a more realistic purchase if your expectations are lower in what it does for you.

Whether the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is right for you depends on what you want to do with it. The price and size of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro give you the expectation that this is something you can produce finished work on, as you would a laptop. And for artists using the likes of Procreate, this is perfectly possible.

Using Apple's Pencil, which has the lightness and balance of a Blackwing 602, you can draw and paint with tremendous deftness – and there really isn't a digital drawing tool that can match it. Yes, the slick surface initially feels weird as there’s no friction as with paper, but you soon get used to it – and then you’re drawing effortlessly.

As we noted in our 12.9-inch iPad Pro review  with artist Pete Fowler (below), the larger model has less appeal for designers, and vector-based and 3D artists. While I'm sure it would be possible to create tools as good as Illustrator, Photoshop or Mudbox that would run on the iPad Pro – if you stripped them back and focused them on particular types of creativity – they just don't exist currently. And despite Adobe saying it's working on apps for designers that can produce finished work on, it’s latest new tool – Adobe XD, which seems ideally suited to being an iPad app – is initially for the Mac only as it’s aimed at current users of Sketch.

This is less of a problem for the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. Due to its price, you more easily accept it’s just for roughs: sketches, comps and wireframes that you – or someone else – will turn into final designs on a desktop computer. And it’s size means you’re more likely to have it on you when inspiration strikes.

(You might be thinking here, what about the iPad Mini (below on top of the 9.7-inch ansd 12.9-inch iPad Pros)? Should I wait for an iPad Pro Mini. I’d say no, as its screen is just too small for decent sketching).

iPad Pro 9.7-inch review: What’s new

So what else in new about the 9.7-inch iPad Pro? It’s got the same processor as the 12.9-inch model – which is an upgrade to the one found in the iPad Air 2 – but half the RAM (2GB rather than 4GB). What this means in real terms is very little unless you play a lot of games – we didn’t see much difference in responsiveness between Procreate on an iPad Air 2 and the new iPad Pro. But if we start to see more full-spec pro creative apps appear, performance – as on the desktop – will become a lot more important

However unlike the larger iPad Pro, you might well play some games on the 9.7-inch model. Or watch TV shows on a train without being worried about everyone seeing what your watching – and the inevitable sex scene that starts as soon as a prudish-looking person sits down next to you. Or draw plans for remodelling your house with your architect. Or pull it out of your bag at the Secret 7-inch launch party as some illustrators want to try drawing on it.

One option not found on the 12.7-inch iPad Pro is the option of a metallic pink back (with a white front) that Apple calls Rose Gold (below). I’m not a fan but Hattie loved it – so I’m grudging going to accept that for having it as an option is a good thing.

iPad Pro 9.7-inch review: Screen

The screen is wonderfully detailed, bright and accurate – for which we’ll turn to the expertise of display expert Raymond Soneira of DisplayMate Technologies. Prepare to get nerdy.

Although Apple’s latest iPad looks similar to the iPad Air 2, it contains major improvements in colour, reflectance, and brightness, says Raymond in a report. But, as with all displays, there’s room for improvement.

Raymond was especially impressed with the new iPad Pro’s colour accuracy. While the 12.9-inch iPad Pro got edged out by Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 last year in terms of noticeable colour differences, the smaller iPad Pro has retaken the throne. “It is visually indistinguishable from perfect, and is very likely considerably better than any mobile display, monitor, TV or UHD TV that you have,” Raymond wrote.

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro also set a record among tablets and smartphones for low screen reflectance – an often-overlooked quality that helps the screen remain legible in bright ambient light. Although the iPad Air 2 was already a top performer in this category, the new iPad Pro does even better, thanks to an anti-reflection coating that kept out all but 1.7 percent of ambient light in DisplayMate’s tests.

Despite Soneira’s high praise for the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, he noted display tech can always get better. A major challenge, he said, is preservation of image quality and readability in bright light, where colour saturation gets lost. Future innovations could include “tunable Quantum Dots, special phosphors, fluorescent films or discrete Blue, Green and Red LEDs in order to implement the necessary large colour gamuts.”

DisplayMate’s tests also took into account the iPad Pro’s much-trumpeted True Tone display feature, which automatically adjusts white point and colour balance based on ambient light to look more like physical paper. Raymond didn’t seem so enthused about this feature, saying he’d like to see a slider to make the effect more or less pronounced.

Raymond also reviewed Apple’s Night Shift feature, which reduces blue light as the evening goes on, though the feature isn’t likely to help with sleep as much as Apple claims. Soneira previously told our sister site Macworld that these features may not accomplish much beyond a placebo effect and subconscious behavioural changes, and has written his own piece on what consumers can do when using displays at night.

iPad Pro 9.7-inch review: Accessories

The Pencil might cost £79, but it's a no-brainer if you want to use the iPad Pro for art or design. It's not the only accessory Apple offers for the iPad Pro. There are silicone covers for the back and magnetic covers for the front – in a choice of fetching colours – but the most interesting one is the Smart Keyboard.

This wraps around the iPad Pro to keep it save on your travels, then uncoils as a normal stand or with a keyboard. I wasn’t impressed with the 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard – that feels like it needs a proper backlit keyboard like the Logitech Create, even though that’s ugly. But a thin keyboard just fits with the 7.9-inch model, even though you can’t type as fast with it.

iPad Pro 9.7-inch review: Conclusion

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a professional’s tool that only really works for you if you’re a particular type of creative pro (i.e. an illustrator who draws in Procreate or similar). By spanning your professional and home lives by being easier to bring everywhere with you – and costing less – the 9.7-inch iPad Pro has greater appeal to a wider range of Digital Arts readers.

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