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iPad Pro 9.7-inch Review: A Dazzling Tablet, but Still No PC

When he unveiled the new, superfast, normal-sized iPad Pro onstage last week, Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller said something really weird:

“There are over 600 million PCs in use today that are over five years old. This is really sad! These people could really benefit from an iPad Pro.”

What does the old-PC statistic have to do with the iPad Pro? He might has well have said, “87 percent of Americans don’t eat enough vegetables. These people could really benefit from an iPad Pro.”

An iPad is not a PC. Never has been. There are so many things that you can do only with a real computer:

Now, the Microsoft Surface is a different story. It’s an actual PC. It runs actual Windows—with a desktop, multiple windows, real USB jacks—and actual Windows programs. It’s got all five of the things a real PC has that an iPad doesn’t.

Even so, Apple has been making steady strides toward closing the gulf between an iPad and a real computer. First, in November, it introduced the enormous iPad Pro with a folding keyboard cover that’s a lot like Microsoft’s:

Last week, it introduced a 9.7-inch (standard-sized) version of the same thing. It’s a smaller iPad Pro, accompanied by its own keyboard screen cover. That takes care of item 4 (“type on real keys”).

Apple also released a new adapter that lets you plug all kinds of interesting PC-like gadgets into the iPad (more on that shortly), so that’s difference number 5. 

And on the Pros, you can split the screen between two apps. Not all apps can be split like this, and the mechanism to trigger this feature is completely hidden and nonintuitive. But it can be done.

So all of this brings up two questions. First, how is the new, normal-sized iPad Pro? Second, is using it as a PC replacement as silly an idea as it sounds?

Of course, “normal-sized” isn’t Apple’s official terminology. The new device is known as the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. But it is, in fact, the size of the regular iPad—the iPad Air 2, which remains on sale, and which looks identical.

The original iPad Pro came out last November—an expensive ($800 and up, plus $170 for the keyboard cover), absolutely enormous, nearly 9-by-12-inch cafeteria tray of a tablet. So the normal-size one, in a way, is the little brother.

What makes an iPad a Pro model? These elements:

* A much, much faster processor. According to Apple, these tablets are faster than 80 percent of the laptop models sold in the last 12 months. The iPad Pros are really fast. Videos don’t stutter, exporting is fast, animations are fluid.

* A better screen. The screens on both Pros are stunning and flawless. The one on the 9.7 Pro is actually better than the one on the big Pro, because it’s capable of displaying an even wider range of colors.

Also on the 9.7-incher, there’s a great new enhancement that Apple calls the TrueTone display.

The backstory: When you look at a piece of paper, it always seems white, no matter what kind of lighting is in the room—but to a camera, it might seem cooler (bluish) or warmer (yellowish) depending on the light.

The 9.7-inch Pro can automatically adjust its own screen colors to match the ambient light. Reading feels a lot more natural on a “white” background that behaves more like a sheet of real paper. This is a clever feature that really means something.

(Apple’s screen color-temperature team is on a roll lately; a new feature of iOS 9.3 for iPhones and iPads, wittily called Night Shift, makes the screen warmer in the before-bed hours. Science suggests that the blue light of our screens disrupts melatonin production in our brains, making it hard to fall asleep if we’ve had screen time before bed. Night Shift is designed to eliminate that disruption.)

* Better photography. Only on the 9.7‑inch iPad: the same excellent 12‑megapixel camera that’s on the iPhone 6s. It can capture 4K video and Live Photos, which are basically photos with three-second videos attached.

More usefully, the 9.7-incher inherits the iPhone’s selfie-screen flash. At the moment you take the shot, the screen lights up to illuminate your face—at a brightness high enough to matter (three times the screen’s usual maximum). Better yet: It samples the ambient room light, and adjusts the color of the screen’s “flash” to give your face the best flesh tones. It works fantastically well.

* Four speakers. Man, they are loud and clear. Close your eyes, and you would not think you’re listening to a tablet.

Treble and midrange from the top of the tablet, bass out the bottom; when you turn the tablet 90 degrees, the four speakers automatically reassign so that high frequencies still come out the top.

* Optional screen cover. This screen cover has no batteries or power switch, and requires no “pairing.” It’s pure origami: You can fold it one way to reveal the keyboard, another way so that it’s a stand for watching videos, and a third way so that it’s a protective screen cover.

Unfortunately, the iPad doesn’t have an adjustable kickstand like the Microsoft Surface’s. You can prop the iPad at any angle, as long as it’s 55 degrees.

The iPad’s keyboard cover is rigid enough to use on your lap. It’s not the Rock of Gibraltar, but you won’t complain unless you have restless-leg syndrome.

As you’d guess, the keyboard has very shallow keys; the whole idea is for it to fold up very flat. But the keys really do move when you type. Most of the common Mac keyboard shortcuts work on the keyboard, for Undo, Copy, Paste, and so on. Amazingly, the standard app switcher even appears when you press Command-Tab, just as on the Mac —

— so you can hop among apps without lifting your hands from the keys.

Now the bad news: The smaller iPad gets a correspondingly smaller keyboard cover. The keys are tiny, and the spaces between them are tiny, and the Return and Tab keys are the size of carbon atoms. 

You can learn to type on this thing. But that won’t be on Day One unless you’re a spider monkey.

* The Apple Pencil. “Who wants a stylus? You have to get ‘em, put ‘em away, you lose ‘em. Yuck,” said Steve Jobs in 2007.

That’s still the problem with the Apple Pencil, a hollow plastic stylus that costs another $100.

It’s an extremely responsive stylus; the ink never lags behind your movement. You can rest your wrist on the screen as you draw, no problem. You can also draw with your finger. And you can press harder for thicker lines.

You can even draw with the side of the Pencil, for very fat strokes.

You can use the stylus as a pen, pencil, marker, or eraser in the iPad’s built-in Notes app. The stylus also works in a few other apps, like OneNote, Zen Brush 2, TouchCast Studio, Hudl (team coaching), Evernote, and 53’s beautiful Paper app.

Unfortunately, this pen requires a battery (it lasts 12 hours on a charge). The top cap pops off (until you lose it), revealing a Lightning connector; you insert it into an iPhone or iPad to charge it.

And because the top is the charger, it’s not an eraser, like the one on the Surface’s pen.

Finally, Apple focused exclusively on the act of using the Pencil, and put no thought at all into storing it. There’s no place to carry it on the iPad, or even in the keyboard cover. It doesn’t attach magnetically during your work session, as on the Surface Pro 4. And it doesn’t even have a pocket clip, flat edge, or anything else to stop this perfect cylinder from rolling away from you.

In other words, Steve Jobs was kind of right about the hassle of keeping and losing a stylus.

What about peripherals?

OK, so what about Difference #5 (between laptops and iPads)—the ability to attach external gadgets?

Apple was kind enough to send me one of the very first Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapters ($40), a badly misnamed accessory. Yes, yes, you can connect a camera to your iPad with this thing—but it’s a regular old USB 3 jack, so it also lets you plug in things like a keyboard, external trackpad, flash drive (for photo transfer only), MIDI instrument like a keyboard, microphone, game controller, or USB hub.

In fact, if you add Apple’s USB Ethernet adapter, you can even plug in a wired Ethernet network connection, for greater speed and security than WiFi can provide. Weeeeeird!

Two things make this adapter a different beast from the old USB Camera Adapter. First, it’s now USB 3, meaning that the speeds are many times greater. Second, it contains a pass-through Lightning jack (the iPad’s charging connector). For the first time, your iPad can be charging while you’re using a USB gadget.

As it turns out, a lot of useful USB devices don’t work except when the iPad is plugged into power. And here’s the weirder part: Some of them don’t work on the 9.7 iPad except when you’re using the larger, 12.9-inch iPad’s wall adapter!

I tried a bunch of different USB devices. I got some of them to work: Ethernet, a MIDI musical keyboard, a flash drive containing a DCIM (camera pictures) folder, an Apple Magic Trackpad, and an Apple keyboard.

But some required power, and some required the larger iPad’s power adapter.

A mouse (maybe obviously) didn’t work.

600 million lost opportunities

What differentiates the Pro from the regular iPad is greater speed, better screen and speakers, the keyboard cover, and the stylus.

For that, you pay a 50 percent price premium over the iPad Air 2, which remains in the lineup. A 32-gigabyte iPad Air 2 goes for $400, versus $600 for the 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

The Pro is also available in 128-gig and 256-gig versions for $750 and $900. Of course, you’ll probably want that keyboard cover, which adds a stunning $150 to the price.

There’s even a cellular version, which adds yet another $130, but lets you get online anywhere. (There’s no cellular version of the Microsoft Surface.)

In the end, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is a great tablet—a spectacular travel companion. You cannot believe how fast it is, how sensational its audio and video, how long its battery goes (10 hours). If you’re in the market for an iPad, get one; you’ll absolutely adore it.

But what about that business of the 600 million people with aging PCs?

For them, buying an iPad doesn’t make any sense. For one thing, in no universe is an iPad a PC replacement. All of the steps Apple has taken toward PC-ness, like the keyboard cover, the USB adapter, and the limited split-screen capabilities, have limitations and compromises; none come even close to making the iPad Pro a full-blown laptop.

For another thing, if you’re a longtime Windows PC person, you’d have to buy all new apps if you got an iPad.

I hate to break it to Apple. But if it is indeed sad that so many people have old PCs, and they want something thin and mobile to replace them, the obvious choice is not an iPad. 

It’s a Microsoft Surface Pro.

David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech; here’s how to get his columns by email. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. He welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below.

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