iPad Pro vs Surface Pro: 2017 showdown

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iPad Pro vs Surface Pro: 2017 showdown

Both devices aim to be laptop killers, but which one is worthy of the title?

Apple has always been fairly consistent in its design of the iPad, landing on a hit format early on that has remained popular with fans. However, with the launch of the iPad Pro, Apple was keen to demonstrate that its humble tablet is capable of much more than browsing the internet and watching videos – that it has the potential to evolve from a companion device into a genuine laptop replacement.

With Apple having recently refreshed the iPad Pro range, we decided to put that claim to the test, pitting its new model head-to-head against another device gunning to replace your laptop, Microsoft's similarly refreshed Surface Pro.

Microsoft's fifth-generation Surface Pro is the most refined yet, having trimmed away most of the fat of the old models and made noticeable improvements to battery life and the detachable keyboard.

With both devices vying for the same thing – an audience that wants the functionality of a laptop paired with the portability and flexibility of a tablet – which one will come out on top? 

Here's a quick rundown of the specifications before we dive into the key criteria of this head-to-head review.

iPad Pro vs Surface Pro at a glance

  Apple iPad Pro Microsoft Surface Pro
Price range $979 – $1,849 $1,199 – $3,999
Screen size 10.5in or 12.9in 12.3in
Screen resolution 2,224 x 1,668 (10.5in), 
2732 x 2048 (12.9in)
2,736 x 1,824 pixels
Screen sRGB coverage 96% (10.5in) 94%
Screen max. brightness 528cd/m2 (10.5in) 437cd/m2
Screen contrast ratio 1,504:1 (10.5in) 1,297:1
CPUs 2.36GHz 6-core A10X  Intel Core m3-7Y30,
Core i5-7300U or
Core i7-7660U
RAM 4GB 4/8/16GB
Storage 64/256/512GB 128/256/512GB/1TB
Battery life test 12 hrs 59 mins (10.5in) 11 hrs 30mins
OS iOS 10 (10.3.2) Windows 10 Pro
Ports Lightning port,
headphone jack
1 x USB 3.0,
1 x mini DisplayPort,
headphone jack
Dimensions 251 x 174 x 6.1mm (10.5in), 
306 x 221 x 6.9mm (12.9in)
292 x 201 x 8.5mm
Weight 469/477g (10.5in WiFi/4G),
677/692g (12.9in WiFi/4G)
786g

Next: Design, display, stylus and keyboard

Design

Apple's refreshed iPad Pro range deviates little from the design of the originals. It has all the telltale iPad features you'd expect, such as the characteristic home button, curved frame, and front and rear cameras.

The only the only significant difference with the smaller model is the new screen size. By cutting away some of the bezel on the 9.7in model, Apple has been able to fit in a larger 10.5in screen into a frame that is only 10mm taller and 2mm wider than its predecessor. At 469g, it is also only marginally heavier than the 9.7in, but it’s thinner (6.1mm vs 7.5mm) and we felt the overall weight balance was a little more comfortable. The 12.9in model is significantly bigger (677g), of course, though it’s still a svelte 6.9mm thick.

The Surface Pro is a noticeably different beast. It is thicker (8.5mm) and heavier (786g) and, as a result, slightly more difficult to wield as a tablet. The lack of curved edges also makes the Surface Pro look chunkier than its rival. However, this is largely to accommodate for ventilation for some serious internal hardware options – entirely forgivable for a device that is still easy to carry around an office. It is also a beautiful machine, using a striking magnesium body finished in metallic-grey, with a chrome windows logo on the back.

The Surface Pro does have an ace up its sleeve in the form of a truly excellent built-in kickstand. It provides enough strength to easily hold the device at any point on its arc, and because it doesn't use notches, its movement is smooth and adjustable with one hand. The kickstand means the device can stand on its own, so you don’t have to carry around a keyboard if you don’t need it. With the iPad Pro, you are only able to prop up the tablet with the detachable keyboard.

Both are excellent designs, so the winner here depends on how you use it. If you want to use it primarily as a tablet, the iPad Pro is better. But if you want a versatile device, the built-in kickstand makes sense.

Verdict: Surface Pro

Display

As is to be expected with Apple products, the iPad Pro boasts an excellent screen, offering superb viewing angles and an impressive 96% coverage of the sRGB colour gamut. The LED backlit Retina display features a 2,224 x 1,668-pixel resolution, with an impressive max brightness of 528cd/m2 and an excellent contrast ratio of 1,504:1.

Apple's trump card is the ability to set the display to 120Hz and have it automatically adjust refresh rates depending on the capabilities of the app running. It’s a wonderful addition that not only makes the screen feel far smoother and more responsive, but helps to significantly reduce eye strain.

The Surface Pro's screen is similarly impressive, offering 2,736 x 1,824-pixel resolution and wide viewing angles. Maximum brightness (437cd/m2) is down a little from the iPad’s, while the contrast ratio (1,297:1) is noticeably lower – and side-by-side it can’t quite match the deep blacks and bright whites of Apple's tablet.

One issue is that Windows 10 does not scale particularly well with higher resolutions. With many installed applications, such as Adobe Creative Suite, we have encountered text that was blurry or difficult to read, or objects that were too small. There is a fix, but it can require no small amount of tweaking to Windows 10 display settings.

Verdict: iPad Pro 10.5

Stylus

Microsoft Surface Pen has been given a beefy upgrade with the refresh, now boasting 4,096 levels of pressure. Although it feels thicker than the previous Pen, its magnet for attaching to the Surface Pro has been significantly strengthened. While we can't really say how good it is for artists, the combination of the stylus and PixelSense display, along with superb palm detection and accuracy, make this one of the best writing experiences we've had with a tablet.

The iPad Pro's stylus is similarly impressive, able to take advantage of a rich suite of design apps available through iOS. It is also superbly accurate and responsive, and now shines with the ProMotion 120Hz display of the iPad Pro.

One issue is that while they both perform admirably, they don’t allow for the finesse that artists or designers will want – and for everyone else, they don’t really add much in utility value to the typical laptop experience.

That’s problem given they both cost extra – $145 for the Apple Pencil, and probably a similar amount for the new Surface Pen, which currently isn’t even available in Australia.

Verdict: iPad Pro 10.5

Keyboard

For devices aiming to convince you to ditch your laptop, it’s baffling that both sell a keyboard separately. What is particularly jarring are the asking prices – $235 for the 10.5in iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard, $245 for the 12.9in iPad Pro and $249 for the Surface Pro’s Signature TypeCover (with Alcantara fabric). The standard TypeCover is likely to be cheaper, but like the new Surface Pen, it’s not available in Australia yet.

With this annoyance aside, their potential as a laptop replacement hinges on the performance of the keyboard, and fortunately both devices provide compelling detachable keyboard covers.

The iPad Pro opts for a keyboard that doubles as a traditional tablet case, and, as mentioned above, is needed to prop the screen up. It is covered in a tough fabric that is easy to clean and robust enough to be weather resistant, though feels a little strange when you first use it and may require some getting used to.

Attached to the cover is a full low profile Querty keyboard, which due to some nice key spacing and decent travel time makes typing an absolute breeze. The issue is that it's a fairly unremarkable keyboard at over $200, and in fact has a number of issues that make it seem heavily overpriced. It only has one screen angle, which is too laid back for our liking, making typing overly difficult if you don't have access to a table. It also lacks a touchpad, which is somewhat of an oversight, and no backlighting.

These limitations are accentuated next to the Surface Pro type cover, which is the product of years of trial and error. The keyboard is seems identical to the Surface Pro 4’s excellent TypeCover. The board itself is thicker and sturdier than the iPad’s. It also has an excellent trackpad that takes advantage of Microsoft's Precision Touchpad software for an incredibly smooth experience.

While both devices opt for a magnetic strip for attaching a keyboard, the Surface Pro attaches in a way that angles the keyboard up so that you have an elevated surface from which to type. It’s a lovely piece of design that makes typing a more comfortable experience, akin to traditional laptops and keyboards.

Like other laptops within this price range, the Surface keyboard is also backlit with some beautiful white LEDs, whereas this is missing on the iPad’s board. Not only does this make it possible to type in the dark, but it also adds that extra lick of luxury. There's also a range of colours available, whereas the iPad's keyboard is only available in black. 

Verdict: Surface Pro 4

Next: performance, battery life and features

Hardware & performance

Following this year's refresh, the iPad range is now packing a beefy six-core A10X processor clocked at 2.36GHz, although three of those are high performance cores and do most of the heavy lifting. You have the choice of 64GB, 256GB and 512GB storage, and the standard options of Wi-Fi or WiFi and Cellular (4G). All models come with 4GB of RAM.

The Surface Pro range continues to offer a variety of specifications to suit most needs, making the iPad Pro selection feel rather limited. Microsoft offers six different configurations, with options for Core m3, i5 and i7 processors; 4GB, 8GB or 16GB of RAM; and 128GB, 256GB, 512GB or 1TB solid state drive.

While the last generation A9 was no slouch, we were still staggered by the performance of the A10X in our benchmarks, scoring 9,380 in our multicore tests and 3,930 for single core. That's almost double the performance of the iPad 9.7 – and more importantly, roughly on par with the Core i7 Surface Pro, comfortably ahead of the 7,544 multicore score of the Surface Pro’s Core i5 model, and smashes the Core m3 model (5,342).

That's not the whole story, however, as the generous amount of RAM afforded by some Surface Pro models means that it is far more suited to multitasking, making it an attractive device for business users.

In terms of desktop benchmarks, the top end Surface Pro scored 60 overall, which is good for a mobile processor and far ahead of similar 2-in-1s such as Dell's XPS 13 convertible.

The iPad Pro's monster A10X processor is scarily good, and is more than a match for the Surface Pro's chips. Yet in everyday use cases, the Surface Pro – or at least the mid- and high-end models – are better multi-taskers and better suited to running demanding apps. 

Verdict: Surface Pro

Battery

The iPad Pro is also incredibly power efficient given that staggering performance output, with the 10.5in model managing just shy of 13 hours in our benchmark tests. The Surface Pro meanwhile managed a similarly impressive 11 hours 30 minutes, which is a substantial improvement over the Surface Pro 4.

The Surface Pro still uses a priority charging connector, while the iPad Pro uses a more versatile Lightning connecter – although that’s the Apple device’s only port, whereas the Surface Pro has a USB 3 port too.

Overall, there is very little between the two devices. Both are more than capable of supporting a full day’s work away from a power socket, but the iPad Pro gets the nod here due to its better test result.

Verdict: iPad Pro

Features & OS

Setting aside its looks and hardware, the most fundamental difference between the two devices is the operating system. The Surface Pro comes equipped with Windows 10 Pro, a fully-fledged desktop OS, and while iOS 10 is a leading mobile operating system, it can't compete in the laptop environment.

This naturally has a massive impact on what tasks you'll be performing. You can expect to have the exact same experience with the Surface Pro as you would with a traditional Windows PC or laptop, while the iPad simply can't provide the same utility as macOS.

The iPad does have some redeeming qualities, such as the inclusion of a 'Split View', which helps with multitasking, and it has access to a healthy library of third-party apps. However, the 50/50 split only really works with 12.9in iPad Pro – with the 10.5in model,  there simply isn't enough screen space for the iPad to scale each app, and they typically appear as a 75/25 split or vice versa.

We are also awaiting the launch of iOS 11, which will be coming to the iPad 10.5. This will substantially improve the capabilities of the iPad as a business device, including an app switcher, drag and drop content sharing, improved document scanning, and all new Siri functions. You can read more about iOS 11 here, but suffice to say it's a step toward bringing the mobile OS more in line with its macOS counterpart.

However, until iOS 11 arrives (and probably after too), the Surface Pro wins hands down because of its genuine desktop OS.

Verdict: Surface Pro

Next: price and final verdict

Price and options

Both devices have a range of price options available, depending on the configuration you want.

The 10.5in Wi-Fi-only iPad Pro starts at $979 for 64GB storage, ranging up to $1,429 for 512GB. The 12.9in Wi-Fi-only model ranges from $1,199 for 64GB to $1,649 for 512GB. Cellular (4G) capability adds $200 to the price of any model, and you also get an option of four different colours.

Microsoft offers a much wider spread of models and prices, starting from $1,199 for a Core m3 processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB storage. If you want more grunt and storage, the $1,999 model offers a Core i5, 8GB of RAM and 256GB SSD. The top-of-the-range $3,999 model includes a Core i7, 16GB and 1TB, but if none of these suit, there are six different configurations to choose from. 4G is currently not available, but it’s apparently coming, for those who prefer not tether with their phone.

So, overall, the iPad Pro will generally work out cheaper, but the Surface Pro offers a greater range of configurations – and more choice is always a good thing. And with the Surface Pro, you are getting a genuine laptop replacement, while the iPad Pro is still essentially a tablet – albeit a very powerful one.

However, we can’t stress enough our disappointment in both companies that the keyboards and pens are significant extra costs.

Verdict: Surface Pro

Conclusion

While both devices are great in their own right, only the Surface Pro is capable providing that all-round hybrid experience that customers want from a laptop replacement.

The iPad remains first and foremost an Apple tablet, a device capable of performing perfectly well without optional extras. It has an excellent screen, great build quality, and a healthy selection of apps. However, the inclusion of a keyboard provides only a quasi-laptop experience, which is handicapped by its mobile OS. It has the power, but little to back it up.

Compare that to the Surface Pro, with which a keyboard becomes a necessity to get the most from the device. That excellent TypeCover offers the sort of typing experience you would expect from a top-end ultrabook, and at a desk you will soon forget you are using a tablet sat on its side. And with the potential for some serious hardware configurations, backed up by a full Windows 10 experience, it is by far the better option for replacing a laptop.

Final verdict: Surface Pro

This comparison is based on an article that originally appeared at IT Pro.

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