Apple 9.7-Inch iPad Pro Review: Tablet vs. Laptop Showdown – Wall Street Journal

Quick homework assignment: Jot down the answer to the question, “What do I need my PC to do?”

Take your time. Depending on how you answer, you’ll be buying either a full-fledged laptop or a skinny iPad.

Last week, Apple
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made a bold assertion when unveiling its new 9.7-inch iPad Pro. The 600 million people currently using a Windows PC that’s at least five years old would find the new iPad to be the “ultimate PC replacement,” says Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of world-wide marketing.

I almost spit out my iced coffee. Sure, next, I’ll just drive a tricycle to work. Except then came the price: $600 for the tablet, plus $150 for the keyboard case. That tallies up to the most affordable “laptop” Apple’s ever sold.

The $100 Apple Pencil turns the iPad into the ultimate note-taking device.
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It’s a different ballgame than the $900 jumbo iPad Pro released in November. This smaller tablet competes directly on price with midrange Windows laptops. As I’ve said time and time again, $600 is the least you must spend to avoid a sluggish, cheaply built lemon.

So I took Apple’s challenge. Pitting the iPad Pro against a $600 11.6-inch Dell Inspiron laptop—and even a $430 Toshiba
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Chromebook 13—I found it to be capable of many common PC tasks, though there can be significant trade-offs in usability and comfort.

A real laptop is still the ultimate PC replacement, but you may find the iPad Pro’s strengths outweigh its traditional computing weaknesses. It all hinges on what you wrote down in response to that all-important question.

When an iPad Pro Is Enough

Obvious: The new iPad is better than the old iPad. Not obvious: When it comes to the basics—taking notes, Web browsing, listening to music, video calling—the iPad Pro is better than most laptops. Seriously, an always-on computer the size of a toaster tray is twice as fast as laptops twice its size.

This is the first iPad available in a rose gold hue.
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With Apple’s A9X processor and 2GB of RAM, the Pro was snappier at surfing the Web and handling multiple browser tabs than the Dell, which runs Windows 10 with a Core i3 processor. (Even a $700 Core i5 Dell trailed the iPad by a minute at exporting 1080p video.) Microsoft
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’s own most comparable product, the $500 Surface 3, was so sluggish and behind on battery life it immediately fell out of the running. The Toshiba Chromebook, on the other hand, was as snappy as the iPad Pro when scrolling and handling multiple websites.

While the new Pro’s 9.7-inch display can look cramped next to the larger laptops, it is crisper and easier on the eyes. The new True Tone screen—which reduces the bluish tint in some lighting to look more like white paper—is nice when reading a book or sifting through that never-shrinking inbox.

The under-1-pound iPad pumped out louder and fuller sound through its dual speakers than either of the 3-pound laptops I tested, and the front-facing camera made for clearer video calls than Dell’s webcam.

All that, plus you never have to reboot it and it gets longer battery life. I was able to work on the iPad for about 7 hours before it gave out. In our battery test, which loops series of websites with brightness set around 65%, the iPad lasted 8.5 hours, an hour longer than the Dell and Toshiba Chromebook (though 2 hours less than my trusty MacBook Air). If the Pro wants to be more laptop than tablet, however, it needs a charging port rearrangement. You try working with a wire sticking out of the side of the screen!

Apple’s new True-Tone display makes the screen look more natural and less blue.
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Of course, it’s first and foremost a great tablet. You can use the 12-megapixel rear camera to film 4K videos of your puppy eating toilet paper, but you can also use it for truly “pro” actions you never would’ve thought of. I snapped a photo of an insurance claim form with a $4 app called ScannerPro, filled in the text fields with a $10 app called PDF Expert, signed my name with the Apple’s $99 Pencil stylus, then wirelessly printed out the completed form. Wireless printing isn’t a problem for iPads, though it remains a pain on Chromebooks.

For us unartistic folk, that Pencil turns the iPad into a killer Moleskine.
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Unlike the larger Pro, the 9.7-inch screen feels just right in the crook of your arm when jotting down meeting notes. (One gripe: I’m constantly losing the Pencil in my bag. Surely the most valuable company in the world can figure out a decent holder.)

When You Need a Real Laptop

Despite all that’s good about the Pro, it suffers from a major problem: It is faster than you can actually work on it. That is, while it has raw power, it lacks the tools to let you easily and comfortably do more—tools we take for granted on real laptops.


Typing on the claustrophobic Smart Keyboard tailored to fit the 9.7-inch screen is like sitting in the middle airplane seat, elbows pulled together. (The 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s spaciousness allows for a much more comfortable keyboard.) Not only are the keys cramped, they aren’t backlit—a trait that’s more necessity than luxury if you have to work in dim locations. The screen only adjusts to a single angle, and good luck using it on your lap without it toppling over.

Though the iPad Pro’s keyboard connector beats dealing with pesky Bluetooth connections, I was far more productive when I attached the $150 Brydge Air. A rip-off of the MacBook keyboard, it solves most problems—thanks to shortcut keys, you don’t even have to touch the screen to adjust volume or brightness.

The iPad Pro has other hardware challenges, too. While the $600 Dell comes with 128GB of storage, the iPad starts with a measly 32GB. You can get up to 256GB—for $900. And unlike the laptops, which have three USB ports each, the iPad lacks even a single one. (Apple’s new $40 USB dongle, which allows you to attach Ethernet adapters, microphones and USB hubs, could be a decent workaround.)

The less immediately solvable issue is iOS. You can now place apps side by side, but multitasking is still very much a work in progress. You can’t put two of the same app windows side by side—say two Safari pages or Word documents—and many apps, like Google Docs, don’t support the feature at all. I could work much faster on my Chromebook and Windows laptop because I could easily rearrange apps and windows without constantly touching the screen. There are many cases where a trackpad is still better than a finger.

With iOS 9, you can place apps side by side but you can’t place two of the same app next to each other.
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The lack of a file management system is another massive roadblock. On a traditional laptop, we just know where our stuff is—how to save it, find it, share it, etc. In iOS, when I want to email a PowerPoint presentation, I can’t just attach it from the Mail app. I have to go into the PowerPoint app, search for the document, tap the share button then send it over to Apple’s Mail app. And don’t get me started on handling PDFs!

Also, some of the best software lacks features on the iPad. For instance, Quicken doesn’t let you write checks or pay bills. Google Docs is missing my editor’s favorite feature: word count.

The iPad’s iOS and apps are simply too close to a phone operating system for the Pro moniker to sit well. Bottom line: Apple needs to find the happy middle ground between mobile devices and desktop systems.

Can you replace your PC with the 9.7-inch iPad Pro? Absolutely. Is it the “ultimate” replacement? Absolutely not. The iPad is a different kind of computer—simpler, more versatile and portable than a laptop. A real laptop, however, can help you get traditional work done faster. For now.

Write to Joanna Stern at joanna.stern@wsj.com or on Twitter @joannastern

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