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Apple's 9.7-inch iPad is languishing. Once the flagship of the iPad fleet, the original full-size form factor has been at best in line with — sometimes behind — the smaller iPad mini and was most recently relegated to second fiddle behind the powerful, more versatile 12.9-inch iPad Pro. That could change on Monday.
When Steve Jobs took the wraps off iPad in 2010, he called the 9.7-inch, iOS-powered tablet "magical and revolutionary," a testament to Apple's industry-leading design and engineering prowess. It was Cupertino's first foray into slate-style computing and at $499 came at a price point nestled in that Goldilocks zone between iPhone and Mac.
Two years later the 7.9-inch iPad mini launched alongside a fourth-generation iPad to address trends in a consumer market showing signs of slowdown. The diminutive iPad introduced new features like a fresh design and support for Siri, something not included with the full-size iPad 2, which at the time was still on sale as Apple's entry-level model.
It took only one update cycle for mini's specs to catch up with its larger-screened stablemate, and in October 2013 the company announced iPad mini 2 with Retina display and an A7 system-on-chip also used to power the first iPad Air.
Cut to 2016 and sales of the aging 9.7-inch lineage, led by iPad Air 2, are lagging behind the cheaper, equally capable iPad mini 4. The latest data suggests price played a role in shifting customer sentiment, but from a consumer perspective, iPad Air 2 offers little to differentiate from iPad mini 4 aside from a larger multitouch canvas.
After more than two years of rumors Apple unveiled the mammoth 12.9-inch iPad Pro last September. Unlike the iPad mini that came before it, the Pro isn't an iteration on a theme (in this case an iPad Air suffering from gigantism), but a complete rethinking of iOS as a platform.
Most notable is an accessory ecosystem developed around — and in tandem with — Pro's robust internals.
Apple Pencil, an advanced pressure- and tilt-sensing stylus, boasts incredibly tight integration with Pro's high-resolution Retina display thanks to an array of specialized components. To reduce latency, for example, iPad Pro's touch sampling subsystem juices scan rates to up to 240Hz when it detects Pencil's digital fingerprint. The device launched to such insatiable demand that it remained out of stock for months.
iPad Pro represents a new class of iPad, one that far surpasses any previous evolutionary rung in Apple's tablet ladder. And with a step-up model to push development, the company has a chance to restore the next-in-line 9.7-inch form factor to flagship status.
The next-generation 9.7-inch iPad is expected to benefit from the usual trickle-down effect applied to past iPad releases. That means Apple will likely borrow heavily from iPad Pro's parts bin, with current rumors pointing to the inclusion of an A9X system-on-chip variant and supporting circuitry, a four-speaker audio system and the new Smart Connector.
One of the more exciting prospects is compatibility with Apple Pencil. For that to happen, however, Apple will need to squeeze a specialized sensing array behind iPad's Retina display. The engineering challenge is made no less onerous by a 6.1 millimeter-thick chassis already short on internal volume.
While most of the expected upgrades will be internal, recent leaks suggest Apple's iPad Air 2 successor will also get an aesthetic reworking. Along with quad speaker ports, rumors hold that Apple is building in a flash for iPad's rear-facing camera. The unit is also said to be slightly thicker than current models, again due to the addd requirements for Pencil.
(Not) Pro bono
Branding has not yet been revealed, but the new iPad is thought to launch under the "Pro" banner. If Apple continues with convention and lets iPad Air 2 stick around, the 9.7-inch Pro could hit store shelves starting at $599 for a 32GB version.
In any case, new hardware and accessory support moves the stalwart 9.7-inch form factor up a slot in terms of raw capability. That also means potential customers could have some tough decisions to make come next week. It's no longer just a question of big and small, now it's about features. At least until next year.
Apple is widely expected to debut a new 9.7-inch iPad model at its "Let us loop you in" event on Monday. AppleInsider will be on the scene providing live coverage starting at 10 a.m. Pacific, 1 p.m. Eastern.