Apple goes small to get bigger

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro has a True Tone display, which adjusts automatically to match the ambient light around the user for a more natural and accurate view. The smaller iPad Pro can also be paired with a smaller Smart Keyboard for easy typing.
The 9.7-inch iPad Pro has a True Tone display, which adjusts automatically to match the ambient light around the user for a more natural and accurate view. The smaller iPad Pro can also be paired with a smaller Smart Keyboard for easy typing.PHOTO: APPLE

The new 4-inch iPhone SE and 9.7-inch iPad Pro are seen as drivers of upgrade cycle

As expected, an Apple event last week proved to be a low-key affair, with the tech giant announcing "only" the new 4-inch iPhone SE and smaller 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

While both were not unexpected, they are powerful products at attractive price points, said tech research firm Cowen and Co's managing director, Mr Timothy Arcuri.

The iPhone SE (price starts from $658) is basically an iPhone 5s souped up with iPhone 6s' technologies, while the 9.7-inch iPad Pro (starts from $898) is like the original iPad Pro but in a smaller form factor.

"The announcements demonstrate Apple's ability to successfully manage its product portfolio," said Mr Thomas Husson, vice-president of research company Forrester.

"The new compact iPhone, with the powerful features of the iPhone 6s at a more affordable price, should help Apple hit its volume goals until the release of a more disruptive new device to be launched a couple of months after its developer conference in June," Mr Husson said.

The period between March and September is usually a lull for Apple, as consumers wait for the next flagship iPhone to make its appearance in September.

Mr Jan Dawson, chief analyst of independent consulting firm Jackdaw Research, told the New York Times that the lack of must-have new features in Apple's recent products has hurt sales growth, as many customers decided that their older models were good enough and postponed upgrades.

"In a way, you see both devices that Apple (launched on March 21) as drivers of an upgrade cycle," Mr Dawson said.

For iPad Air user Tarin Teo, 25, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is an upgrade she has been waiting for after skipping the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, which was too big to carry around.

"Having a 9.7-inch iPad means I can put it in most of my handbags," said the lifestyle reporter.


iPad Pro (9.7-inch): Apple's best iPad

The Apple iPad Pro won Editor's Choice and Readers' Choice for Best Tablet in this year's ST Digital Awards with its impressive 12.9-inch display and speedy performance. Last week, Apple announced a smaller 9.7-inch model. I tested the 256GB version.

DESIGN

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro is essentially a downsized version of last year's iPad Pro.

It has the same smooth aluminium solid unibody chassis and chamfered edges, and exudes a similar premium feel.

Like its bigger cousin, it has four speakers - one at each of the four corners of its chassis. During audio playback, the balance adjusts automatically to provide a consistent audio output whenever you change the orientation of the device.

  • TECH SPECS

  • PRICE: $898 (32GB Wi-Fi) to $1,618 (256GB Wi-Fi + 4G, version tested), available tomorrow.

    OPERATING SYSTEM: iOS 9.3

    PROCESSOR: A9X chip with 64-bit architecture, M9 motion co-processor

    DISPLAY: 9.7 inches, 2,048 x 1,536 pixels

    CAMERA: 12-megapixel rear camera, 5-megapixel front-facing camera

    WEIGHT: 437g (Wi-Fi), 444g (Wi-Fi + 4G)

  • RATING

  • FEATURES: 5/5

    DESIGN: 5/5

    PERFORMANCE: 5/5

    BATTERY LIFE: 4/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 4/5

    OVERALL: 5/5

It measures 6.1mm thick, same as the iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 4, and 0.8mm thinner than the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. At 444g (for the Wi-Fi + 4G model), it weighs the same as the iPad Air 2, and is 279g lighter than its 12.9-inch sibling.

Its svelteness makes it easier to handle, compared with the bigger iPad Pro. It can also be slotted easily into the tablet compartment of laptop bags.

While I love big screens, I find the 9.7-inch screen a good size for a tablet.

PERFORMANCE

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro uses the same A9X chip as its bigger sibling. However, the Geekbench 3 benchmark software shows some differences: The 9.7-inch's A9X chip is a 2.26GHz unit with 1.92GB of system memory, while the 12.9-inch Pro has a 2.16GHz processor and 3.89GB of system memory.

In terms of Geekbench 3 scores, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro achieved 3,076 in the single-core test and 5,291 in the multi-core test, losing out to the 12.9-inch's scores of 3,236 (single-core) and 5,491 (multi-core). But it is way ahead of iPad Air 2's scores of 1,812 (single-core) and 4,544 (multi-core).

But in real-life tests, I found no lag when editing 4K videos using iMovie, and editing photos using Photoshop Express and Lightroom.

Graphic-intensive games, such as Infinity Blade III and Warhammer 40,000: Freeblade, played smoothly and without lag as well. And the graphics looked sharp and gorgeous.

DISPLAY

This iPad's 9.7-inch (2,048 x 1,536 pixels) screen is Apple's first True Tone display. It uses four-channel sensors to automatically adjust the display's white balance to match the ambient light around you, so you can get a more natural and accurate view.

When inside a room lit by an incandescent bulb, the display automatically turns to a more yellowish hue with True Tone activated. When True Tone is switched off, the screen turns more bluish.

The display is further aided by the new Night Shift feature in iOS 9.3, which uses the tablet's digital clock to automatically adjust the display's colours to reduce blue light, which is known to hamper sleep.

The display is supposed to be 25 per cent brighter and 40 per cent less reflective than that of the iPad Air 2. The difference in brightness was apparent when I compared both side by side. However, you can still see yourself on the screen.

It has the same wide colour gamut as the iMac with Retina 5K display. This makes it easier for photographers or graphic designers to get their colours right when they are editing their works on the iPad.

The only downer is that the display lacks the 3D Touch support found in the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus.

CAMERA

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro has the same rear 12-megapixel camera and 5-megapixel front-facing camera found in iPhone 6s and 6s Plus. So, it shoots 4K videos and Live Photos. Image quality is on a par with that of its iPhone 6s cousins.

The rear camera protrudes slightly, so the tablet does not lie flat, unless you use a case.

While I am not a fan of using a tablet to take photos, I have found it useful to take photos during meetings and briefings to capture presentation slides. The new, better camera will certainly help in this aspect.

The front-facing camera has finally been upgraded. Friends and family will be able to see you in full high-definition glory during FaceTime web chat. You can also take good selfie shots with this tablet.

BATTERY

In our intensive battery test (looping a 720p video with Wi-Fi switched on and the display at full brightness), it held on for 8hr 10min before the battery went flat. The bigger Pro lasted 9hr 15min.

With my daily routine, which involves the occasional checking of e-mail and browsing articles with News or FlipBoard apps, as well as reading a digital book or magazine before sleep, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro needed to be charged only once every two days.

ACCESSORIES

With the smaller iPad Pro, you need a smaller Smart Keyboard ($228).

The keyboard's magnetic strip has three metallic contacts that connect to the Smart Connector on the side of the Pro. As it is a direct connection and draws power from the iPad, you do not need to charge it or pair it using Bluetooth. Simply connect and type away.

It has the same key layout as the bigger Smart Keyboard for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, with the same water- and stain-resistant woven fabric on top. However, there is still no backlight and you can dock the iPad at only one angle - 45 degrees.

The keys are smaller and not as well spaced out as those on the bigger keyboard. But typing on it was still relatively typo-free for me. You can also put the keyboard on your lap and type without difficulty.

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro also supports the Apple Pencil stylus ($148). And it works exactly - and as fluidly - as it did on the bigger Pro.

• Verdict: With its superb display, great performance and increased portability, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is the best iPad Apple has made.


iPhone SE: More powerful in some ways


One-hand texting is comfortable again with the iPhone SE, which uses the same 4-inch display as the iPhone 5s. PHOTO: APPLE

DESIGN

The Apple iPhone SE looks just like the iPhone 5s, with the same 7.6mm-thick aluminium body with chamfered edges.

In fact, you can use your old iPhone 5s cases on the iPhone SE.

But there are subtle physical differences. The edges are matte instead of shiny, and the colour of rear Apple logo now matches the phone colour in stainless steel.

Talking about colours, the iPhone SE is now available in rose gold (version reviewed) in addition to the usual silver, space grey and gold.

  • TECH SPECS

  • PRICE: $658 (16GB), $828 (64GB); all without contract, available tomorrow

    PROCESSOR: A9 with 64-bit architecture, M9 motion co-processor

    OPERATING SYSTEM: iOS 9.3

    SCREEN: 4-inch Retina display; 1,136 x 640 pixels

    CAMERA: 12-megapixel rear camera, 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera

    WEIGHT: 113g

  • RATING

  • FEATURES: 4/5

    DESIGN: 4/5

    PERFORMANCE: 4/5

    BATTERY LIFE: 4/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 4/5

    OVERALL: 4/5

Button placement is also similar to the iPhone 5s, with round volume buttons on the left-hand side and the power/wake button on the top right. This takes some getting used to, as I have been using the iPhone 6 Plus and 6s Plus - where the power/wake button is on the right side.

The iPhone SE uses the same 4-inch display as the iPhone 5s. It lacks the 3D Touch support found in iPhone 6s and 6s Plus. As I've been used to a 5.5-inch display for a time, the 4-inch display just looks so tiny now.

That said, one-hand texting is comfortable again. No more having to use another hand to reach for that top corner icon. Putting it into - and getting it out from - my front trouser pocket is easier.

PERFORMANCE

With its upgraded A9 processor, the iPhone SE is a speedy phone that is almost on a par in performance with the iPhone 6s.

In the Geekbench 3 benchmark tests, it scored 2,546 (single-core) and 4,403 (multi-core). Those scores are similar to that of the iPhone 6s (2,535 - single-core; 4,410 - multi-core). But the iPhone SE is around 2.5 times faster than the iPhone 5s (1,081 - single core; 1,937 - multi-core).

Graphics-intensive games, such as Implosion and Warhammer 40,000: Freeblade, played smoothly and without lag.

But I wish the display were bigger, as I find the virtual controls too small for my fat fingers.

Also, the iPhone SE still uses the first-generation Touch ID and I found it to be slower than my iPhone 6s Plus by around 0.5sec during unlocking.

CAMERA

The iPhone SE uses the same 12-megapixel rear camera as the iPhone 6s, with the ability to shoot 4K videos and Live Photos. But the camera does not protrude

Like the iPhone 6s, the iPhone SE lacks the optical stabiliser of the 6s Plus. In terms of picture quality, the iPhone SE is right up there with the iPhone 6s Plus. Colours and skin tones look natural with great details.

Autofocusing is speedy and it snaps pictures and videos quickly. Those who have been using the iPhone 5s will really sense the difference in speed and quality.

But the iPhone SE uses the same 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera of the iPhone 5s. So, selfie photos lack the details of the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus.

BATTERY LIFE

In our intensive battery-life test where a 720p video is looped at full brightness and full volume, and with Wi-Fi on, the iPhone SE lasted 6hr 42min. In comparison, the iPhone 5s lasted 6hr 45min while my iPhone 6s Plus lasted 7hr 10min.

In normal use, the battery mileage varies. With my daily routine, which consists of frequent checks of e-mail, messages, Facebook and Instagram updates, the iPhone SE still has around 33 per cent battery life left before I go to bed.

• Verdict: The iPhone SE might be the most powerful cheapest iPhone to get. But it is also the smallest one. Getting it depends on you preferring a small display or not.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2016, with the headline 'Apple goes small to get bigger'. Print Edition | Subscribe