Apple and Microsoft each offer a full-size tablet that can be turned into a 2-in-1 with an optional hardware keyboard. The designs for the Microsoft Surface Pro and the Apple iPad Pro are quite different, but it’s their software that truly separates them.
To be clear from the onset, neither the latest Surface Pro nor the second-generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro is tremendously superior to the other, but each is a better fit for different groups of people. Read on to find out which of these groups you belong to.
iPad Pro vs. Surface Pro Build & Design
Apple chose to put a larger display in its computer, but the iPad Pro doesn’t really have a bigger chassis. It’s 12.0 by 8.7 by 0.27 inches, compared to the 11.5 by 7.9 by 0.33 inches of the latest Surface Pro. Apple’s offering works out to be less than 1 cubic inch larger than its rival. Microsoft’s device is 1.7 pounds, just 0.2 lbs. heavier than Apple’s.
As tablets go, these are equally bulky devices. But as laptop alternatives, they are super-slender featherweights, even with their add-on keyboards.
Speaking of which, the Microsoft Surface Pro Type Cover adds 0.2 inches to the thickness of the tablet, and 0.7 pounds. The Apple Smart Keyboard adds 0.3 in. and 0.75 lbs. The only third-party clip-on alternative for the Windows device is the Brydge 12.3, while users of the iOS model can also choose from the Logitech Slim Combo, Brydge 12.9, or the ZAGG Slim Book.
The Surface Pro does have a feature that gives it a definite advantage: its kickstand. This allows the computer to be easily propped up at almost any angle. Most of the add-on cases and keyboards for the iPad mimic this, but nothing beats having the feature built in. There is a trade off: this kickstand is why Microsoft’s offering isn’t significantly smaller than Apple’s.
Upon hearing that the iPad Pro has a 12.9-inch screen and the Surface Pro has a 12.3-inch one, it’s reasonable to think that the Apple device has a display that’s just slightly bigger. Reasonable, but not correct. A diagonal measurement of a screen is a very inaccurate way to judge its size.
Apple’s tablet has 80.3 square inches of display area, while Microsoft’s has 69.8 sq. in. This means the iPad Pro’s screen is 15% larger than the Surface Pro. Place the two devices next to each other and the difference is quite noticeable.
Part of the reason is the difference in aspect ratio. The iOS device has a squarer 4:3 ratio, while the Windows one is a thinner 3:2 one. As a result, when held horizontally, the iPad has close to an inch of additional space all across the top.
Microsoft’s screen has a 2736-by-1824 resolution, while Apple’s screen is 2732 by 2048. The latter’s additional pixels are for the extra screen space, as both devices have almost the same pixel density, 267 ppi vs. 264, respectively.
iOS doesn’t mice or trackpads, while Windows does, of course, This means iPad Pro users will need to get accustomed to touching the display much more than they are used to when typing on an add-on keyboard.
Ports, Buttons, Speakers, and Cameras
The Surface Pro has a microSD memory card slot, a full-size USB Type-A port, a Mini DisplayPort, and a Surface Connect port for charging.
The iPad Pro has a Lightning connector, which handles charging but can also do all the jobs of its rival’s ports, just not all at once. There are Lightning-compatible microSD card readers and flash drives, and Apple makes a HDMI adapter for this connector as well. This is all more hassle than Microsoft’s options, though.
A hardware Windows button is not included in the Surface Pro, but a Home button is still a requirement on the iPad, and this does double duty as a biometric fingerprint scanner. Its rival has a front-facing camera for facial recognition, which is a bit more convenient.
Both these machines have proprietary connectors on one edge designed for their clip-on keyboards. There are also power buttons and volume buttons on each machine.
The Windows computer has a pair of speakers that are decent for listening to music while working, or watching video when near the device. The iOS model has four speakers and can put out noticeably more sound. It’s not going to take the place of a dedicated audio system, but two people can watch a movie on this tablet without having any problems hearing.
Apple’s put a 12 megapixel rear camera in its offering, and a 7 MP front-facing one. Microsoft’s device has an 8 MP rear- and 5 MP front-facing cameras. Thanks to more pixels, a flash, better aperture, and other factors, the iPad can take somewhat better photos.
Pen and Pencil
Microsoft bundles the Surface Pen with its tablet, while the Apple Pencil is an optional $99 extra. But the difference goes deeper than that, because virtually all Windows users will need a stylus, while most iOS users won’t.
With few exceptions, Windows apps were designed interaction via a mouse or trackpad, and therefore include lots of small controls. These tiny on-screen icons are very hard to use with a fingertip, requiring a stylus instead. All software for the iPad Pro was developed for fingertip control from the start.
Still, having a pressure-sensitive active pen is a bonus for Surface Pro users who want to write on their tablet, and Microsoft has been working to make more use of it, with moves like building Web Notes into Windows 10.
The news isn’t all bad for iPad Pro users. The larger display makes for a better drawing, painting, and sketching experience, and the iOS stylus has lower latency than its rival.
iPad Pro vs. Surface Pro Performance
The Microsoft Surface Pro (2017) uses a dual-core Intel Core 7th-generation processor, either a 2.6GHz Core m3, 3.5GHz Core i5, or 4.0GHz Core i7, depending on cost.
The only option for the Apple 12.9-inch iPad Pro (2017) is an Apple A10X Fusion processor that sports six cores: three 2.38 GHz ones for performance tasks, and three slower cores that draw less power when running non-demanding software.
Using the Geekbench 4 benchmarking application, the Core m3 version of Microsoft’s tablet had a significantly slower score than Apple’s device of the same price. The Core m3 version didn’t do as well either, and it costs at least $200 more. The Core i7 version does outperform its rival, but it starts at $900 more than the iPad Pro.
Geekbench 4 performance benchmark (higher scores indicate better performance):
All that said, we don’t believe that benchmarks are the best way to determine real world performance of any computer in day-to-day use. For example, opening Microsoft Excel on a Surface Pro m3 takes roughly the same amount of time as opening Apple Numbers does on an iPad Pro. While there are undoubtedly tasks for which a faster processor is an advantage, don’t think the Geekbench score means Apple’s machine does everything 50% faster than Microsoft’s.
The Surface Pro can be configured with 4 GB, 8 GB, or 16 GB of RAM, while the sole option for the iPad Pro is 4 GB. Comparing amounts of RAM across operating systems isn’t simple, as Windows and its associated applications require more than iOS and its third-party software. For Windows, 4 GB of RAM is just enough, 8 GB is a generous amount, an 16 GB is a great whopping ton. By contrast, 4 GB is a more than generous amount of RAM for an iOS device.
The base iPad Pro comes with 64 GB of storage, and people willing to pay more can upgrade to 256 GB or 512 GB. The base Surface Pro has 128 GB of storage, and that goes to 256 GB, 512 GB, and 1 TB. Advantage Microsoft, though getting up to 1 TB costs close to $3000.
When contrasting the Surface Pro and iPad Pro, the disparate operating systems are where the rubber really hits the road. The differences can be summed up as: Windows was created to power desktop PCs but has been modified over the years to run on touchscreen computers without mice and physical keyboards, while iOS was created to run on phones but has been modified for larger screens and physical keyboards. Or in an even quicker comparison, iOS is simpler but Windows is more powerful.
Microsoft’s operating system has many fans, and for good reasons. It’s a very capable OS with a huge range of software. But people who have been using it for decades are so accustomed to its problems that they don’t see them anymore. A large percentage of that third-party software can not be controlled with a finger, requiring a stylus or trackpad, for example. And as a further hassle, every Windows computer absolutely must have virus protection software, and this needs to be updated every day.
Apple’s operating system isn’t nearly as powerful as Microsoft’s, but for many people that’s a strength not a weakness. iOS does what a large majority of people need, and it’s less complex by not trying to handle everything. iOS also very secure; it was national news last year that the FBI couldn’t crack an iOS device. But some people really need more functionality, and while steadily adding to its capabilities Apple has made some parts its mobile operating system a bit disorganized.
Let’s take the disparate versions of Microsoft Word as examples. The Windows version is extremely powerful, and quite complex. That’s great for a businessperson who’s using it to compile a company’s annual report, but this cornucopia of features is overwhelming to a student who just wants to type a five-paragraph paper. By contrast, the iOS version includes everything businesspeople or students need to write reports and papers, but the absence of some advanced features makes it too limited for some executives and scientists.
iOS 10 is the latest version of this operating system available, but iOS 11 has already been announced, and it will bring significant enhancements to the iPad, such as an improved application switcher and upgraded file system.
The iPad Pro supports 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, as does does the Surface Pro, so they can connect to Wi-Fi hotspots equally quickly. Incidentally, neither includes an Ethernet port but adapters are available for both.
Microsoft’s device includes Bluetooth 4.1, while its rival uses Bluetooth 4.2. The newer version is faster and uses less power, but this won’t make a difference to the average user because there are few accessories that support v4.2.
At this point, only iPad Pro buyers have the option to build in 4G LTE cellular-wireless data access ($130), giving very convenient nearly ubiquitous Internet access. Microsoft says a version of the its tablet with LTE is coming later this year.
Intel has made great strides in reducing the power drain from its processors, and the Kaby Lake chips in the Surface Pro (2017) are faster while using less current than any of their predecessors. Thanks to these, even owners of the Core i7 version of this tablet can get 6 or so hours of real world use, enough to get through a work day with a bit on conservation. Users of the Core m3 version should expect 8 hours with moderate use.
Apple’s A series processors have always sipped electricity, and the iPad Pro benefits from this. In our real world testing, this model lasted 12 hours or more on a single charge, enough for long work day and then displaying a movie afterward.
iPad Pro vs. Surface Pro Final Thoughts
There’s no better device for showing off all the capabilities of Windows 10 than the Microsoft Surface Pro (2017). Its vast array of powerful third-party software is a real advantage over its rival. Plus, a kickstand gives it a better design, there are larger storage options, the stylus is handy, and its ports are more convenient.
The 12.9-inch Apple iPad Pro (2017) is large enough and fast enough to be an ultra-portable computer for someone on the go, while requiring almost no maintenance. It has a larger screen than its rival, generally faster performance, and significantly longer battery life. Third-party iOS software is better suited for use on a touchscreen, and there are more options for keyboards and cases.
For the price conscious, the $799 version of the Surface Pro has a Core m3 processor, 4 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of storage. The equivalently-priced iPad Pro has an Apple A 10X Fusion processor, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage. One has a much faster processor, the other more storage, so neither is a significantly better value.
The Surface Pro is definitely the best option for Windows fans, as well as businesspeople who really need all the power of Microsoft’s operating system plus associated apps, and are therefore wiling to put up with the extra complexity and hassles.
Anyone who’s been heavily using an iPhone or smaller iPad for years should seriously consider making an iPad Pro their primary computer. It’s also right for consumers and businesspeople who want an easy-to-use device, as long as they understand its limitations.