iPad Pro vs Surface Pro: 2017 showdown

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iPad Pro vs Surface Pro: 2017 showdown
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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

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