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Apple's smaller iPad Pro is the 9.7-inch iPad we've always wanted

And this time, we're getting a 256GB option.

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Last year's iPad Pro was, without question, the most powerful tablet Apple had ever made, but let's be real: Its size made it a complete nonstarter for some people. That's why the folks in Cupertino took all the things that made the iPad Pro a pro and shoved them into a smaller chassis for everyone else to use. Heading into the event, I was skeptical about how well this would work, but I didn't need to be. After playing with the new, smaller Pro, I realize it's actually the iPad Air 2 sequel I was hoping for. Well, in most ways, at least.

Gallery: Meet the 9.7-inch iPad Pro | 15 Photos

All of the iPad Pro's broad strokes can be found here, from the powerful A9X chipset to the four-speaker setup to the Smart Connector for accessories like Apple's magnetically connecting keyboard. The Apple Pencil also works here. Arguably, it works even better, because the 9.7-inch Pro feels like a clipboard when you cradle it in hand. Speaking of feel, I'm astonished Apple squeezed nearly all of the big Pro's components into a body that's basically no bigger and no heavier than last year's Air 2. No matter how much I try, I can't give up the traditional iPad form factor for something bigger, and now I don't have to.

iPad Pro 2016 Hands-on

Then there's the screen, which matches the original Pro in terms of how nicely saturated it is. Sadly, because the demo room Apple set up was well-lit, I couldn't get a feel for how its auto-color-temperature-adjusting TrueTone feature works. The other potential upside to pairing the existing (and already very fast) A9X chip with a smaller screen is a bump in performance -- the silicon doesn't need to light up as many pixels. It's tough to get a feel for the performance difference between these two devices, but either way, the 9.7 absolutely flies. With any luck, I'll get to put one of these things side-by-side with a full-size Pro and see exactly how the performance stacks up. Oh, and there are are some visual differences here too -- Apple dumped the plastic panels that help with connectivity from the cellular models, instead going with a more subtle antenna band. Meanwhile, that 12-megapixel camera was plucked out of the iPhone 6s, signature lump and all.

All that said, there are some lingering curiosities. For one, using Apple's first-party Smart Keyboard case to peck out quick messages and notes was a little more painful than I'd hoped. After all, the keys are a hell of a lot smaller on this version than on the original, which was meant for use with a 12.9-inch display. As Apple pointed out several times during its keynote this morning, the iPad Pro has found a niche as an "ultimate PC replacement," but that might be a tougher argument to make with this more compact approach.

Apple also hasn't clarified what the introduction of this smaller Pro means for the iPad Air brand. Because the 9.7-inch Pro is almost physically identical to the Air 2, I wouldn't be surprised if the Air line was just supplanted completely. Then again, with the Air 2 now priced at $399, the cost difference might mean Apple keeps the Air 2 around as its introductory full-size iPad. The trick lies in how Apple decides to divvy up its hardware innovations, and only time will tell.

Get all the news from today's iPhone event right here!

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