Businesspeople need a computer that can perform whether they are in an office or an airport terminal. Microsoft and Apple have each recently released tablets designed for mobile professionals.
Both the 12.9-Inch iPad Pro and the Surface Pro 4 have large displays, speedy, processors, loads of storage, and can be turned into laptops with optional keyboards. How do these two stack up? Read on to find out.
Build & Design
Professionals like large screens because they’re easier to work on for long periods, and both of these tablets are big. The first iPad Pro has the larger screen, so it’s taller and wider. It’s just a hair thinner than the Surface Pro 4 and a bit lighter as well.
To get specific, the Microsoft’s offering is 11.5 x 7.9 x 0.3 inches (292mm x 201mm x 8mm) and 1.7 pounds (783g). Apple’s is 12.0 x 8.7 x 0.3 inches (306 x 221mm x 7mm) and 1.6 pounds (713g).
But this is a situation where the specifications don’t tell the whole story. When being held and carried around, the iPad Pro feels like it’s a bigger tablet than it really is. Not heavier — it feels surprisingly light, lighter than the SP4 — but it gives the impression of being very tall and wide. And something similar happens to the Surface Pro 4’s thickness: in the hand, feels much thicker than it actually is.
Both Microsoft and Apple offer add-on keyboards for their respective models, as these are large enough computers that they can be laptop alternatives. Their expansive displays make them very useful, but neither is anywhere near as portable as smaller tablets that are designed for consumers.
The appearance of each of these is well suited to professionals, with black glass and metal predominating. However, this assumes the buyer picks the “space grey” iPad, rather than the gold or white versions.
The Surface Pro 4 has a very useful built-in stand that can prop the screen up at a range of angles. This is a definite advantage for the Microsoft product, as most users of Apple’s devices are going to need to buy an add-on accessory to handle this task.
The displays in the Surface line of tablets used to be larger than the ones in every iPad, especially after Microsoft moved to the 12.3-inch (31.2cm) screen in the Surface Pro 4. But that changed when Apple chose a 12.9-inch (32.8cm) display for its latest.
Although it’s the industry standard, comparing the diagonal measurements of two screens is a poor way of showing the actual differences between them. A better method is square inches. The Surface Pro 4’s display is 69.8 sq. inches, while the iPad Pro’s is 80.2 sq. inches. The difference isn’t subtle: the iPad’s display looks and feels a lot larger.
Virtually anyone who is going to be using a computer for a full workday wants the largest screen they can get. No one likes to feel cramped, and more room to work with makes just about everything easier, as long as the space is used efficiently.
Both these tablets support side-by-side multitasking, so two applications can be displayed simultaneously, but each has an advantage over the other. The iPad’s is obvious: when two apps are sharing a screen, bigger is always better. The 12.9-inch display is almost as large as two iPad Air 2 screens next to each other, making it easy to, for example, write a Word document while referring to an Excel spreadsheet.
The Surface Pro 4’s advantage is in flexibility. While iOS enables applications to share the display, at this time it doesn’t support two windows from the same app appearing on screen next to each other. So, for example, it’s not possible for Safari to put two web pages up simultaneously, or Excel to show two spreadsheets. Microsoft’s offering, of course, handles this beautifully, and Windows can display more than two applications at the same time, but three or more on a 12.3-inch screen can be very crowded.
When the workday is over, the iOS device makes a better TV than its rival. Both have screens large enough to make watching movies and TV shows enjoyable, but the iPad Pro is large enough that a couple of people can easily watch together.
Aside from the difference in size, these two screens are quite similar. For example, Microsoft’s offering has 267 pixels per inch, while Apple’s has 264. Both offer good viewing angles. Our review of the iPad Pro said that “Colors are vivid and strong”, and our review of the SP4 said “Colors are startlingly accurate and balanced.”
Buttons, Ports, & Speakers
Both the devices offer biometric security, but very different methods. The newest Surface uses built-in cameras to recognize the face of its authorized user. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro has a fingerprint scanner integrated into its Home button. Both systems work quite well.
Speaking of the Home button, Microsoft thankfully brought the Start menu back in Windows 10, so the SP4 had no need of the Windows button that was a feature of earlier Surface devices. Otherwise it — and the new iPad — have the usual buttons for power and volume control.
In the area of removable memory, Microsoft’s offering comes out ahead because it has a microSD memory card slot. This is a convenient (albeit occasionally expensive) way to add up to 200GB of additional storage, and easily and securely move files between computers.
The Windows device has a standard USB 3.0 Type-A port, rather than the newer USB-C port. Apple, of course, used its proprietary Lightning port. Either of these port types can be used to connect flash drives and microSD card readers.
The iPad can connect to an external monitor through its Lightning port, while the SP4 can do the same through its Mini DisplayPort. Both require an optional adapter to handle this. There are also wireless options for both devices.
Microsoft put a pair of front-facing speakers on its product, which in our review we said provided “clear and robust audio,” Apple went for an alternate design with four speakers mounted on the sides of tablet. Our review said these can put out “a quite respectable amount of sound.”
The Surface Pro 4 comes with the Surface Pen, which is very convenient for those who want to use this tablet for sketching or taking hand-written notes. It’s main purpose, however, is to allow users of this tablet to work with software that wasn’t designed for touchscreens. Apps that were written with tiny on-screen controls meant for a cursor and mouse can be nearly impossible to use with a fingertip, so the small tip of a stylus is necessary.
The Surface Pro 4 can also support USB and Bluetooth accessories, like a mouse. There is no mouse support with any iPad.
The Apple Pencil is an optional $99 accessory because it’s only needed by artists who want to draw and paint on the iPad Pro. All iOS software is fingertip friendly.
Artists will surely find that having to buy a stylus for the iPad Pro a disadvantage, but needing to pull out the Surface Pro 4’s stylus/pen to control applications designed for a laptop is at least as big a disadvantage, and to more people.
Neither one of these tablets comes with a keyboard, but each of their respective makers offers one designed to turn their device into a 2-in-1 laptop.
The Microsoft Type Cover is the fourth that this company has made, and that experience shows: it’s well designed and well suited to converting the Surface Pro 4 into a notebook.
In our review of the Apple Smart Keyboard, we called it “a good offering… for a first try.” Fortunately, other companies are stepping in to produce keyboards for the iPad Pro.
The Surface Pro 4 comes out ahead in this area, at least until more iPad Pro keyboards are available.
Every version of the 12.9-inch Apple iPad Pro runs on a 2.26 GHz dual-core Apple A9X 64-bit processor. We tested this with the Geekbench 3 benchmarking tool, and it scored about 5400 on the multi-core portion.
Microsoft offers several versions of the Surface Pro 4, starting with one that has a Intel Core m3 2.2GHz processor as well as ones with sixth-gen 3.0GHz Core i5 and 3.4GHz Core i7 chips. These are all sixth-generation Skylake dual-core processors. The m3 version scored around 4650 on the Geekbench 3 multi-core test, the i5 about 6300, and the i7 around 7150.
Comparing these numbers, Apple’s offering solidly out-scored the m3-based SP4, but those who are willing to pay for a Core i5 or i7 version can get significantly better performance.
There are 4GB, 8GB, and 16GB versions of the SP4, while the only option for the iPad is 4GB of RAM. More RAM is better, but comparing amounts between iOS and Windows devices is an apples vs. oranges situation; software written for the iPad uses much less RAM, so the 4GB in the iPad Pro is a really immense amount, perhaps equivalent to the 16GB version of the Surface Pro 4.
Microsoft offers versions with 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, and 1TB of built-in storage, while Apple makes 32GB, 128GB, and 256GB versions of its tablet. While Windows takes up more of its storage space than iOS does, this is still an area that Microsoft comes it ahead.
An in-depth comparison between Microsoft’s operating system with its collection of third-party software versus Apple’s mobile OS and its third-party applications is beyond the scope of this review, but we would be remiss if we didn’t at least make some broad generalizations.
Windows has always had a focus on business users, and it emphasizes power and flexibility over simplicity. The new version, Windows 10, is well suited to the Surface Pro 4, as it was created to power both tablets and laptops, with different modes depending on whether a keyboard is attached or not.
As this has been the OS most companies chose for decades, there is a wide array of enterprise-grade software of every type, from databases to Adobe Photoshop to Microsoft Office. However, much of this was not written to be touchscreen friendly, with numerous small on-screen elements that require the Surface Pen to use.
Windows users have to be careful about viruses and spyware, something that iPad users don’t have to deal with, at least so far, thanks to Apple’s tight control over its OS and app ecosystem.
iOS grew from an operating system written for the iPhone, and so it started with a focus on consumers with some enterprise features added on. In recent years, however, Apple has worked to make the iPad line more corporate friendly, and the latest version, iOS 9.x, added side-by-side multitasking and greater support for external keyboards, like the Apple Smart Keyboard. It emphasizes simplicity at the expense of leaving out features that aren’t needed by a majority of users.
The OS and associated applications are all fingertip friendly, which is why the Apple Pencil is an add-on intended for drawing, sketching, and painting.
There’s more third-party iOS enterprise software than many might realize, most notably Microsoft Office and the 100 enterprise applications IBM developed in cooperation with Apple. That said, even the most powerful apps are essentially scaled-back versions of their Windows equivalents.
What it breaks down to is, lots of businesspeople find an iPad simpler to maintain and more convent to use than a Windows tablet, but others find that iOS devices don’t have all the capabilities they want or need.
The Surface Pro 4 includes Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac MIMO and Bluetooth 4.0. There are no versions with built-in 4G LTE as of this writing.
The 12.9-inch iPad Pro also sports Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac MIMO, and it has Bluetooth 4.2. In addition, Apple offers a version with integrated 4G LTE, allowing easy, ubiquitous access to the Internet, for an extra fee, of course.
Although many people are happy to use their phone as a mobile hotspot, this can’t match the convenience of having it built in, so the iPad Pro comes out ahead in this area.
This iPad has an 8 megapixel rear-facing auto-focus camera, and so does the SP4. Given their size, neither one of these is a particularly good way to take pictures, but it’s sometimes convenient for one’s computer to have a camera.
Microsoft put a pair of cameras on the front of its tablet to enable Windows Hello, a biometric facial-recognition system that works quite well. This device’s main front-facing camera has a 5MP resolution and is more than capable of handling Skype and other video-conferencing applications.
Although it has a lower resolution, the same is true of the 1.2MP camera on the iPad Pro. For the most part, the limitation on the quality of video streaming is bandwidth, not the number of pixels offered by the camera.
When it comes to the basic functions of front- and rear-facing cameras, these two devices are in a tie, but the Surface Pro 4’s face-recognition system is a nice bonus.
The Surface Pro 4 is a powerful tablet, and this puts real strain on its battery. It lasted a bit over 7 hours of moderate but continuous use. In our “torture test”, continuously playing video, it lasted less than 3.5 hours.
In a similar torture test, the iPad Pro is good for over 8 hours of use. Mixed web and video use stretches that time out 11 or so hours.
A business-oriented mobile computer really needs to be able to last a whole business day on a single charge, and only the iPad Pro can offer that. Conversely, the SP4 might struggle to last a full intercontinental flight.
The Surface Pro 4 uses a proprietary power cable. The iPad Pro is charged through its Lightning port. It also requires a transformer, but this is smaller than its rival’s.
The Apple 12.9-Inch iPad Pro‘s main advantage in this competition is its very large display that makes side-by-side multitasking easy, as well as the simplicity and tablet-focus of iOS,, plus the tablet’s long battery life. On the other side of the coin, third-party iPad applications are not as powerful as Windows ones.
The rival Microsoft Surface Pro 4‘s advantages include its ability to run business applications written for previous versions of Windows, and also its well-designed add-on keyboard, even if this costs an extra $130. The downside is that Windows computers take a lot more maintenance, especially in the area of virus protection.
The good news is that professionals who would like to use a 2-in-1 tablet have some great options, including both the Apple iPad Pro and the Surface Pro 4. Many of those who want to use the iPad as their primary computer will be able do so, though they may occasionally find themselves having to turn to another device when they run into something their tablet isn’t up to. The SP4, on the other hand, can be a true laptop alternative, albeit one that’s a bit more tied to an electrical socket than is ideal.
The 12.9-Inch iPad Pro starts at $799 for the version with 4GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. The 4GB/128GB model is $949, and one with 4GB/256MB is $1099. Adding 4G LTE to any of these increases their cost by $130.
The Surface Pro 4 has more complicated options:
- Intel Core m3 with 4GB RAM and 128GB, $899
- Intel Core i5 with 4GB RAM and 128GB, $999
- Intel Core i5 with 8GB RAM and 256GB, $1,299
- Intel Core i5 with 16GB RAM and 256GB, $1,499
- Intel Core i7 with 8GB RAM and 256GB, $1,599
- Intel Core i7 with 16GB RAM and 256GB, $1,799
- Intel Core i7 with 16GB RAM and 512GB, $2,199
- Intel Core i7 with 16GB RAM and 1TB, $2,699
The Apple Pencil is a $99 optional accessory, while the Microsoft Surface Pen is bundled with the SP4.
The two most equivalent models are the iPad Pro with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage that sells for $949 and the Surface Pro 4 with the same RAM and storage that costs $999, giving Apple a narrow advantage. However, for some artists that savings will be offset by the need to buy a stylus.
But really, the two are close enough in price and functionality that one is not a significantly better value than the other.