iPad Pro 9.7-inch Hands-on: Mini But Mighty

Apple's 12.9-inch iPad Pro is getting a little sibling. Apple introduced a 9.7-inch version of its tablet today (March 21), with an eye toward attracting users who favor a smaller display. We went hands-on with the new device at Apple's event, and it looks like a powerful tablet, but we have doubts about it as a PC replacement.

 The 9.7-inch iPad Pro will start at $599 for a 32GB model, a $200 discount from the $799 12.9-inch version. Apple will also sell 128GB ($749) and 256GB ($899) versions of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. Apple starts taking orders on March 24, with the new tablets shipping March 31.

Apple believes there's a demand for a smaller version of the iPad Pro. Apple senior vice president Phil Schiller says the company has sold 200 million iPads with 9.7-inch screens to date. Adding that size screen to the Pro lineup allows Apple to reach customers who want a more portable device.

The screen size is definitely more manageable than the larger iPad Pro, but the trade-off is a smaller keyboard. The keys have plenty of travel, but during our hands-on time it felt like typing on a netbook because there's just not a tone of real estate.

There's more to the iPad Pro's screen than just its size. The new model promises 500 nits of brightness, making it 25 percent brighter than the similarly sized iPad Air 2. The new tablet also improves color saturation by 25 percent over the older 9.7-inch iPad.

The iPad Pro will support iOS 9.3's Night Shift feature, which will automatically adjust the tablet's screen to cut down on the bright blue light toward the end of the day, so that your tablet doesn't keep you up at night with a brighter display. 

Apple is also introducing a True Tone Display feature that uses two four-channel ambient light sensors to detect the color temperature of light and improve the display's accuracy. That feature is sure to appeal to people who use the iPad Pro for design and sketch work, and demand a more realistic-looking background. In our hands-on time, the iPad Pro's display seamlessly turned to a warmer color background when we enabled this mode.

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro improves on the cameras in the original. The rear camera has a 12-megapixel sensor and can shoot 4K video, a definite upgrade over the 8-MP camera in the larger iPad Pro. This is an important feature 

Otherwise, the specs of the new tablet largely match its predecessor. The new iPad Pro has an A9X processor and adapts the 12.7-inch model's four-speaker set-up that produces some pretty impressive sound. During out hands-on time, the iPad Pro let us swiftly switch between apps and also use two apps side by side, similar to the Surface Pro 4.

The new iPad Pro will support the $99 Apple Pencil. Apple is also creating a $149 version of its Smart Keyboard accessory sized to fit the new 9.7-inch design. I used the Pencil in the Pro Create app and drew horrible-looking scribbles, but at least they rendered smoothly.

Apple also adjusted the rest of its iPad lineup, adding a $1,099 256GB version of the 12.7-inch iPad Pro. It cut the prices on the iPad Air 2 by $100, with the 16GB version of that tablet now starting at $399.