Apple iPad Pro vs. iPad: Which 9.7-inch iOS Tablet is Best?

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Apple offers two tablets with 9.7-inch screens. The first-generation iPad Pro is almost certainly the more capable of the two, but also costs almost twice what 2017’s iPad does. Do the extra features justify the additional money? Read on to find out.

iPad Pro

iPad Pro vs. iPad Build and Design

The decision between these two probably won’t come down to their form factor, as they’re practically identical. From the front, they are identical, as both are 9.4 by 6.6 inches. The Pro is slightly slimmer, though, at 0.24 in. instead of 0.29 in., and it weighs a tiny bit less, at 0.96 pounds instead of 1.03 lbs.  

The only reason these differences matter is that they mean that some cases designed for one model won’t work with the other.  They won’t be noticed in regular use, and both models are equally portable.

The 2017 iPad comes in Silver, Space Grey, and Gold. The iPad Pro does too, and adds Rose Gold as an option.

iPad Pro vs. iPad Display

Apple put similar screens in these two iPads as well. Both are 9.7 inches, and have a 2048 by 1536 pixel resolution, giving each a 264 ppi pixel density.

iPad 2017

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro has a fully-laminated display and an anti-reflective coating. The new iPad does not. This means the Pro screen is less reflective, but the difference isn’t dramatic. Smooth glass screens are going to create reflections, and there’s only so much Apple can do about it.

Another tweak in the more expensive model is the “True Tone” display, which subtly changes the colors on the screen to match the surroundings. It’s something we expect when we use paper, and Apple has brought it to computers. It’s a nice touch, but only that.

What is a very significant difference between these two is that the newer iPad can’t be used with the Apple Pencil. It just doesn’t have the right technology built into the screen. This pressure-sensitive stylus only works with the Pro models, including the 9.7-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro.

Some of the improvements included in the iPad Pro 9.7’s display make it moderately better. That said, the tech built into this device for the Apple Pencil make it the only option for those who want to use this accessory.

Ports, Buttons, Speakers, and Cameras

Both the 2017 iPad and the iPad Pro have Lightning ports, which means that each can use the array of accessories designed for this connector, like HDMI adapters. There are even add-on flash drives to make for their lack of removable memory card slots.

iPad Pro with Apple Smart keyboard

The iPad Pro has a secondary port built into its right edge designed for the Apple Smart Keyboard. This is a handy accessory, but there are rival add-on keyboards for the budget iPad that are about as good.

The buttons on these two tablets are essentially identical, which is somewhat surprising. Apple built its fingerprint scanner into the Home button on the mid-range iPad, just as it is on the Pro device, instead of saving money by leaving this feature out. This biometric security system is very convenient, and nice to have in both models.

The latest 9.7-inch iOS tablet has half the speakers of its sister model: two instead of four. They manage to put out a decent amount of sound, but because both speakers are on one edge, the audio for movies and TV is distinctly off center. That’s not an issue with the iPad Pro, as it has dual speakers on opposite edges.

Apple built a 12-megapixel camera into the back of the smaller iPad Pro, with ƒ/2.2 aperture. The iPad has an 8 MP camera with ƒ/2.4 aperture.  In our experience, pictures made with the Pro are noticeably better.  What’s more, the more expensive model is the only Apple tablet with a flash.

While the iPad Pro’s 5 MP front-facing camera has a significantly higher resolution than the 1.2MP one in the mid-range device, this makes less of a difference in real-world use. These cameras aren’t for selfies, but rather video chatting, where the resolution is controlled more by available bandwidth than the camera.

These two have identical Lightning ports and buttons, but the Pro does come out better in speakers and cameras.

iPad Pro vs. iPad Performance

The 2017 iPad has a 1.84 GHz Apple A9 processor, while its more expensive sibling uses a 2.16 GHz Apple A9X chip. The ‘X’ in the processor name indicates that it has a graphics co-processor designed for a tablets screen. Both these chips are dual core and have 64-bit architectures.

When we tested them with the Geekbench app, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro did better, but not by a huge margin:

Both these devices have 2 GB of RAM, but their storage options are slightly different. The new iPad is available with either 32 GB or 128 GB of built-in capacity, while Apple offers the Pro with those two, plus a 256 GB option. Increasing the amount of storage adds $100 for each jump in capacity.

Software

There’s no difference in the system software or the bundled applications that come with Pro and non-Pro models.

Pixelmator on iPad Pro

At the time of this writing, both the iPad and the 9.7-inch iPad Pro can be upgraded to iOS 10.3.1. Apple extends operating system upgrades to its tablets for years, so users of each of these can safely assume they’ll get iOS 11, 12, etc.

The only possible difference in this category is the slightly speedier processor in the Pro means that it will probably do a better job of running the versions of iOS released in three or four years, when these models are starting to become obsolete.

Wireless

Each of these models is available with just Wi-Fi, or with Wi-Fi and 4G LTE. Adding cellular-wireless data increases the price by $130.

The Wi-Fi tech offered by the Pro is no better than the more affordable version. Both have 802.11a/ b/ g/ n/ ac, and are dual band: 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Each has Bluetooth 4.2.

The iPad Pro does have slightly better 4G support, as it includes LTE Advanced over 23 bands, while the iPad has standard LTE over 21 bands.

Battery Life

Apple promises that both the the new 9.7-inch iPad and the iPad Pro will last up to 10 hours while surfing the web on Wi‑Fi, watching video, or listening to music on a single charge. We tested both devices using our own method, in which we ask the tablet to continuously stream video over Wi-Fi until the battery is completely drained.

In this torture test, the 2017 iPad lasted 13 hours 27 minutes, actually beating out the iPad Pro’s 11 hours 5 minutes.

The mid-range model outlasted its high-end counterpart because it has a 32.4Wh battery, bigger than the 27.5Wh one in its sibling.

iPad Pro vs. iPad Final Thoughts

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro came out ahead in almost every category, but the differences are generally minor. And the 2017 version of the iPad actually has a longer battery life.

Therefore, our recommendation for virtually everyone is to choose the $329 iPad over the $599 iPad Pro, as the modestly-better features don’t justify the additional $270 in cost.

The exceptions are those who want to use the excellent Apple Pencil, or those who expect to take many pictures with their tablet. Both these groups should seriously consider the more expensive option.


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