System Performance

Like the larger iPad Pro, the 9.7" iPad Pro uses Apple's A9X SoC. Apple is never very forthcoming with details like the clock speed for the CPU, GPU, and amount of DRAM. What we can determine about the SoC is that Apple has maintained the 2.2GHz maximum clock speed from the larger iPad Pro, while reducing clocks on the GPU and dropping to 2GB of LPDDR4 RAM.

The RAM situation on the 9.7" iPad Pro is somewhat surprising for a few different reasons. In their always-excellent teardown, the iFixit crew discovered that the smaller iPad Pro only had one Samsung 2GB LPDDR4 memory chip. This explains how Apple scaled down from 4GB to 2GB - the larger iPad Pro had two chips - but it also means that Apple has changed the amount of memory bandwidth available to the A9X SoC as well.

9.7" iPad Pro Logic Board (Image Courtesy iFixit)

To date, all Apple X-series SoCs have shipped with a larger 128-bit memory bus, and until now, Apple always fully populated that bus. So the 9.7" iPad Pro is an outlier in that regard, as this is the first time we've seen an X-series SoC with only the first 64-bit half wired up to a single memory chip in this fashion. In that respect it's a surprising decision from Apple, in part because of the importance of memory bandwidth in feeding the large, powerful GPUs on the X-series SoCs.

Consequently there is going to be more to the 9.7" iPad Pro than just the original Pro in a smaller chassis. The 9.7" iPad Pro should match the larger model in anything that depends heavily on CPU speed or memory bandwidth, while falling behind to some degree in GPU-bound tests. The 12 cluster PowerVR Series7XT GPU inside A9X will be having to make do with less memory bandwidth, though offset to some degree by the lower resolution of the screen.

With the above in mind, I quickly benchmarked the 9.7" iPad Pro on a couple of our memory bandwidth benchmarks. The results are somewhat inconclusive.

Geekbench 3 Memory Bandwidth Comparison (1 thread)
  Stream Copy Stream Scale Stream Add Stream Triad
9.7" iPad Pro 17.1 GB/s 11.5 GB/s 12.9 GB/s 12.8 GB/s
12.9" iPad Pro 20.8 GB/s 15.0 GB/s 15.3 GB/s 15.1 GB/s

I say "inconclusive" because although the 9.7" iPad Pro consistenly scores lower in Geekbench 3's memory bandwidth benchmarks and other memory benchmarks, it's never a 50% drop as we get on paper. In practice these numbers are far from the maximum memory bandwidth A9X is capable of, and I suspect that the CPU paths simply aren't wired in such a fashion that they can fully saturate A9X, especially given the fact that it's the GPU that needs the bandwidth more. So although we see some impact of the narrower memory bus in dedicated memory bandwidth benchmarks, these can't paint a very clear picture. It's going to be our high level GPU performance benchmarks that really give us an idea of the impact of reduced memory bandwidth.

Kraken 1.1 (Chrome/Safari/IE)

JetStream 1.1

WebXPRT 2015 (Chrome/Safari/IE)

With the 9.7" iPad Pro having the same two 2.2GHz Apple Twister cores as the 12.9" model, it's no surprise to see the two neck and neck in our browser tests. In Jetstream 1.1 the two achieve the exact same score, while in the other two tests the 9.7" model is a bit slower, but with the gap being small enough to attribute to testing variance. With A9X Apple moved back to a dual-core CPU from A8X's tri-core CPU, with the move to TSMC's 16nm FinFET process allowing peak clock speeds to go up by 700MHz. Because JavaScript performance is mostly bound by a device's single threaded performance, A9X came with a significant performance uplift during web browsing. Given that the 12.9" iPad Pro offered the best web browsing performance of a mobile device, bringing that performance to the 9.7" iPad makes for a notable improvement over the performance of the iPad Air 2.

3DMark Sling Shot 3.1 Extreme Unlimited - Graphics

3DMark Sling Shot 3.1 Extreme Unlimited - Physics

3DMark Sling Shot 3.1 Extreme Unlimited - Overall

The 9.7" iPad Pro does well in 3DMark's graphics test, but like Ice Storm it doesn't do well in the physics test. It seems that this test is programmed in a similar way to Ice Storm, and in that sense I'm not sure how representative the physics test is of real-world performance because with an actual mobile game you wouldn't use highly random memory access and data structures with heavy memory dependencies when it would perform very poorly on your target devices. In any case, you can see that the 9.7" iPad Pro places third overall, with the 12.9" model at the top of the chart and the Pixel C coming right behind it.

GFXBench 3.0 Manhattan (Onscreen)

GFXBench 3.0 Manhattan (Offscreen)

GFXBench 4.0 Car Chase hasn't made its way to iOS yet, and so for now we're still using GFXBench 3.0 Manhattan for iOS devices. Given that the iPhone 6s is the only phone that hits Vsync in this test, it's still a very relevant benchmark in how it represents the level of visual fidelity that a mobile game can currently have on high end devices while still performing well. In the off screen test we can see the impact of the 9.7" iPad Pro's lower clocked GPU combined with the reduced memory bandwidth,, with the smaller iPad performing around 37% lower than that of the 12.9" iPad Pro. The on screen test tells an interesting story though. Both models of the iPad Pro have roughly the same performance at their native resolutions in this test, which could indicate that Apple was targeting the same performance relative to the display resolution when configuring A9X and its memory, in order to manage heat and energy usage in a smaller iPad Pro.

Basemark ES 3.1 / Metal Onscreen Test

Basemark ES 3.1 / Metal Offscreen Test

While I didn't have enough data to use BaseMark ES 3.1 at the time of my iPhone SE review, we've since tested enough older devices to deploy it. One could think of this as the successor to BaseMark X, which we retired some time ago before we officially deployed a new mobile test suite for 2016. Once again, both models of the iPad Pro sit above the other tablets on the chart. The iPhone 6s places first in the on screen test due to its relatively low resolution, but without that there the iPads would hold the top two spots in both tests. 

NAND Performance

Something that Apple publicized with their A9 and A9X SoCs is improved NAND performance. NAND performance isn't discussed very much in reviews, but it's a very critical aspect of device performance and issues with it tend to cause a device's performance to crash months down the line rather than right off the bat, which makes it something of an invisible problem if you don't look for it during a review. We've seen previously that Apple has been using their own SSD controller in the current generation of iOS devices, and the 9.7" iPad Pro continues this.

Internal NAND - Sequential Read

Internal NAND - Sequential Write

For this review I was sampled the 256GB model of the 9.7" iPad Pro. Because SSDs exploit parallelism heavily to improve performance, a 256GB iPad could improve NAND write performance over the lower-capacity models if it has a greater number of dies. In this case we see that sequential read performance improves a bit, while sequential writes improve dramatically as expected. There's not a lot to say here, as Apple has an enormous lead over the competition in this area.

Intro and Design Battery Life and Charge Time
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  • UtilityMax - Friday, June 3, 2016 - link

    The thick and bulky Surface Pro 4 is hardly a tablet..
  • damianrobertjones - Tuesday, June 14, 2016 - link

    I have no issues using it as a tablet and I also own an ipad mini 4.
  • ragingfighter - Wednesday, July 13, 2016 - link

    I think the surface pro line depending on how one uses it makes it a competitive choice as opposed to a new Apple tablet. Many people go for the higher-end storage of the surface tablet and that regard it's price is ridiculous when you start talking $1500 for a tablet to me at the feats the purpose for $1500 you can get yourself an amazing laptop. Still would have more memory at least by double maybe even triple and the specs will be as well if you opt for mid tier say 128 GB storage solution if you have an external hard drive plugged in because it has USB three you can save yourself a lot of money. In that regard it's a small use of what the surface provides as an option and also it's an idea of saving money that makes it viable choice. Obviously the recovery partition and the operating system take up a lot of space in comparison to something like iOS or even the android platform built in storage does take a bit of a beating because of it but if you can use everything on a portable hard drive that's plugged in the USB three and run the surface and such in the way it will make the base cost far less and much more approachable. I just think in general tablets beyond I would say $800 becomes problematic specifically because you get into an upper mid tier of what a laptop can offer you for $800 and beyond and you get a lot still you can still have a decently portable laptop with a decent amount of power. Laptops though in this price range and below take a hit in quality and the most important aspect and that is the screen usually this price point or below have very crappy screens the color and their sharpness and infidelity are really not phenomenally up there. When you get in the laptops beyond $1000 point you start getting sharper queen or technology implemented into them. I feel it is important when it comes to a comparison of options out to complete a task. It comes down to really what is cost-effective for your workflow how much you need portability and how much of a solution a tablet aspiring to be a laptop killer a replacement can become Closest tablet to achieve such your feat is the Microsoft surface.
  • ragingfighter - Wednesday, July 13, 2016 - link

    Though I am a Mac user I must admit that in regards to any kind of a portable keyboard Apple they dropped the ball when I came to the iPad keyboard. It is a step behind Microsoft smart cover keyboard one because it's not backlit but also because of the way out the bun travel is smaller and the buttons are smaller not necessarily a favorite for everybody. The biggest design thing that I think Apple completely messed and I have to give kudos to Microsoft is the built in stand. I'm not a super fan of windows though I know how to use Windows and use a Windows it is nowhere near my primary platform which is the Mac. But I have to give credit to Microsoft where credit is due the surface pro line is and where the tablet but even I have to met there are many different kiosks I have been to where the tablet has malfunctioned during time of demoing it is much more rare to see an iPad completely not work for kiosk purposes that it is for surface tablet I've seen their tablets not even turn on even with the power cord extend it to them plugged in fully lights show it is fully charged but outside of doing a direct comparison to the different pros and cons of each wall smart enough to know what fits our needs the best for me and iPad is a good tablet and it doesn't basically what I needed to and for others the Microsoft surface pro line suits their needs as well. Trust me we want to open a can of apples and Microsoft comparisons here. Just say they're equally respectable types of tablets based on their own individual merits the only reason I bring up the prior points in general are because a tablet should have a stand and not needing a case to provide such or solution is a very added and welcome bonus the people on a surface tablet. Myself I don't want to surface tablet but I will give them credit for that addition
  • Meteor2 - Thursday, June 2, 2016 - link

    I'd like to see the Pro 4 in the charts where possible, please. They are aiming at similar users. I'd love to see the Dell 7275 tested though, as it looks (and feels, after using one for an hour) in many ways better than the MS Pro.
  • blackcrayon - Monday, June 6, 2016 - link

    Why would you think a 9.7" iPad Pro is aiming at similar users as a Surface Pro 4?
  • damianrobertjones - Tuesday, June 14, 2016 - link

    The word 'pro' is being used. Blame Apple.
  • Tikcus9666 - Saturday, June 4, 2016 - link

    In the UK the ipad pro 9.7" with 128GB is priced only £100 less (or a few £, if you opt for cellular version) than the Surface Pro 4 entry level with m3, 4GB and 128GB.

    I think comparison is very valid, also for a "Pro" device, to be considered as a "Pro" device we need more than web benchmarks, and battery life..... until it runs photoshop, lightroom, muse, sony vegas to name a few, it aint replacing a PC for real Pro's
  • tipoo - Wednesday, June 1, 2016 - link

    I've been curious - it has less memory bandwidth than the 12.9", but not halved, despite half the pinout width and half the DRAM capacity. Does the chip reintroduce the L3 cache? That could explain it.
  • Ryan Smith - Wednesday, June 1, 2016 - link

    No. It has half the memory bandwidth. CPU benchmarks just don't show the full effect.

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