Must-have Pro features on smaller iPads? It's a business no-brainer — as long as Apple can get the technical bits in line.
If rumors are any indication, it looks like we may well see Apple's Pencil and Smart Connector broaden their device compatibility in just a few weeks. The company's magnetic connector and digital pen could soon appear alongside the newest model of its 9.7-inch iPad tablet — though whether that tablet bears the name "Pro" or "Air 3" is yet to be determined.
The benefits of expansion
We've heard murmurs about the dissolution of the "Air" nomenclature in favor of unifying Apple's tablets under the "Pro" line; if true, it removes concerns about cannibalizing the features of the beefier 12.9-inch model. Instead, users will pick the screen size that best fits their uses, just as it is with the Mac and iPhone lines.
Adding the Pencil to smaller iPads is a no-brainer: People love the Pencil. Artists love the Pencil.
From my viewpoint, it's one of the smartest decisions Apple could make to increase its iPad ownership numbers. Adding the Pencil to smaller iPads is a no-brainer: People love the Pencil. Artists love the Pencil. When more iPads support the Pencil, more iPads end up in loving homes. And while I'm still of the opinion that the 12.9-inch iPad is the best tablet for drawing and writing with the Pencil, that doesn't mean a smaller iPad can't work well as a sketchbook or idea starter.
The Smart Connector, while less marketable (in part due to the relative lack of accessories currently available) also has potential when applied to a smaller screen: I applaud Federico Viticci for his love on-screen typing, but pounding away at a virtual keyboard isn't something that many users want to do.
Adding these features to a smaller iPad may well be a business no-brainer; that said, it's also a decision that has steep technical challenges.
The problem with going smaller
Unsurprisingly, there are going to be technical limitations in trying to cram features like the Smart Connector, quad speakers, and the Pencil's display technology into a smaller shell. Among other technical tweaks, The Pencil needs the faster touch screen refresh rate to accurately provide a lag-free experience. The quad speaker system and the Smart Connector both need internal space. There's also a question of use when it comes to Apple's magnetic connector: what does a 9.7-inch Smart Connector Keyboard look like?
If Apple adds the feature to the smaller iPad, I doubt users will just be expected to use the 12.9-inch accessories (most of which come in around 12 inches wide). That means there's a team at Apple engineering another keyboard; hopefully it's one with full-size keys, but the smaller iPad's 9.4-inch landscape width doesn't give you a whole lot of room. There are plenty of third-party iPad Air Bluetooth keyboards out there for inspiration, but few of them are truly pleasant to type on. In contrast, my Logitech Create, when paired with my iPad Pro, feels as close to a MacBook Air keyboard as I've ever seen with an iPad accessory.
Even if Apple can solve the keyboard conundrum, there's battery optimization to think about: The Smart Connector pulls off the iPad Pro's internal battery to power accessories, as does the Pencil when it needs a charge. Will a 9.7-inch iPad be able to provide the juice for these extra accessories without compromising Apple's steadfast 10 hour battery life guarantee? Knowing the company, there's no way a new iPad would ship without it — but it's a technical hurdle Apple will need to overcome before a smaller iPad Pro with all the features of its big sibling can become reality.
Return to reality
The reality of the smaller iPad Pro may be steeped in compromise: We may only get the Pencil with the 9.7-inch iPad this year, or get the Smart Connector without the larger iPad Pro's speaker technology. We might not get as much RAM internally, or a slower processor than the iPad Pro's blazing A9X chip. Heck: The rumors may be dead wrong, and we may not get a smaller iPad Pro model at all.
Whatever the new iPad looks like and ships with, remember that Apple's in the business of selling devices that work for your daily needs: You wouldn't want a 9.7-inch iPad Pro with all the features of the 12.9-inch model but a six-hour battery, or a smaller iPad that overheats when playing games. If the company doesn't ship your perfect tablet this spring, there's probably a very good technical reason for that choice.
But if Apple can indeed wrangle those technical issues, a smaller iPad with Pro features would not only be welcome — it might make quite a few consumers take another look at the viability of iPad as a machine for their daily needs.