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iPad Pro vs Surface Pro for your business: what they are, why they matter

After some years of owning the tablet market with the iPad, and nay-saying the idea of a powerful tablet designed to aid productivity, Apple has announced the iPad Pro. This is not so much a copy of Microsoft's Surface Pro as a tribute act. And that is good news for all business users.

Both the Apple iPad Pro and the Microsoft Surface Pro are tablets that can also be your laptop. They offer power PC functionality in a thin-and-light tablet shell, with an optional keyboard case and a digital pen. Both manufacturers claim that their products could be your only computer, sufficient for work on the road, in an office and on the couch. (See also: 8 great uses for an iPad Pro.)

In this article we compare the iPad Pro and the Surface Pro as business tools. We have spent a lot of time with all three Surface Pro devices, but have only had brief hands-on time with the nascent iPad Pro. As a consequence we won't be making any bold claims on behalf of either device.

But we will look at iPad Pro vs Surface Pro for your business in terms of display, software, specifications and performance, pen, price and value, build quality and more. Before giving our verdict on which business tablet will be best for you.

Read on for our iPad Pro vs Surface Pro for your business comparison review (it is all on one page). Or jump to the relevant section for you:

  1. iPad Pro vs Surface Pro for your business: display
  2. iPad Pro vs Surface Pro for your business: software
  3. iPad Pro vs Surface Pro for your business: pen
  4. iPad Pro vs Surface Pro for your business: price and value
  5. iPad Pro vs Surface Pro for your business: specifications and performance
  6. iPad Pro vs Surface Pro for your business: design and build
  7. iPad Pro vs Surface Pro for your business: verdict

iPad Pro vs Surface Pro for your business: display

The Surface Pro 2 has a 10.6in screen that is simply too small to use as a laptop, in our view. For any serious work at least. The upgrade to 12in with the Surface Pro 3 is a step in the right direction, but the iPad Pro at 12.9in is about right in our opinion.

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The iPad Pro has a resolution of 2732x2048 compared to the 2048x1536 of previous iPads. Pixel density remains roughly the same at 264ppi, which makes for a very sharp and sizeable display.

The Surface Pro 3 has a resolution of 2160x1440, which equates to 216ppi on a 12in screen. The difference in sharpness is negligible - you won't be able to notice a difference in that respect when comparing the Surface Pro and the iPad Pro. (No-one is sure what size screen the putative Surface Pro 4 will have; rumours suggest 14in, but it could be anything from 12- to 14in.)

The existing Surface Pro 3 has an IPS touchscreen and an active capacitive stylus, using N-trig technology. It's capable of detecting 256 levels of pressure (more than enough). Indeed, it is a great display. Great for work, great for play.

We haven't yet clapped eyes on an iPad Pro, but Apple doesn't really do bad displays on its iPads. Expect a high class screen. With no further evidence we are going to call this a draw.

iPad Pro vs Surface Pro for your business: software

This is the killer point. And for a business user, we would strongly argue that the Surface Pro has the edge here - mainly because we would suggest that . Having full-blown Windows on the Surface Pro means you can do anything that you can do on a desktop PC or a laptop. You can attach USB peripherals, including a mouse or a hard drive, and you can connect a second monitor. (Indeed, this is a big plus for Surface Pro: you could connect it to a standard monitor and keyboard and use it as your desktop PC.)

More importantly, you can install any software that is available for Windows. And as a Windows device you can pop the Surface Pro on to your network and manage it as part of a fleet, just as you would any laptop. (See also: Windows 10: Pros and cons for enterprise - why your business should move to Windows 10.)

But let's look at the positives from the iPad Pro's point of view. iOS 9 is an operating system that's dedicated to a mobile device and therefore has no impossibly small buttons and controls that are designed to be used with a keyboard and mouse. It, and all of its apps, are dedicated for use on a tablet. And you will want to use your Pro as a tablet.

Surface Pro 3

It is not all gravy for iOS 9 and the iPad Pro in this regard. Developers will be cursing Apple for introducing yet another screen size and resolution for the iPad Pro, forcing them to redesign yet again. But existing iPad apps will scale and run on the new version.

Windows 10 on the Surface Pro improves the experience of switching between laptop and tablet modes, and will in time also improve the selection of tablet-style apps available in the store. But there is no mistaking the fact that if you want to run tablet-optimised apps on your portable computer, the iPad is the better option.

But if you want to use your Surface Pro or iPad Pro as a laptop, go for the Surface. In Windows' favour is the vast catalogue of desktop software which will run happily on a Surface Pro. iPad owners can now get Microsoft Office and some Adobe apps have come to their tablets, but Surface Pro users can install the full versions of Office, Photoshop, AutoCAD and everything else.

The only thing to say is that as an iPad you may be limited as to what software you can install on the iPad Pro, but that does reduce the likelihood of a malware infection. (See also: How to migrate to Windows 10: How do I move employees' PCs and devices to Windows 10?)

iPad Pro vs Surface Pro for your business: pen

The Surface Pro has a bundled digital pen which is great for sketching and drawing. The Surface Pen has three buttons, one of which launches OneNote even if the Surface is asleep.

Apple's Pencil is also active and has in-built sensors and a battery. It's an optional extra unlike the bundled Surface Pen, and can also detect force and tilt angle. As we haven't yet had a chance to test it for ourselves, we can't say which is best, but it's sure to be a close call. Both have very low latency and are about as close to 'real' drawing as you can get with a digital screen. The question really is: do you need a pen for your tablet? Apple never used to think so.

iPad Pro vs Surface Pro for your business: price and value

The cheapest Surface Pro 3 costs £639, which includes the Surface Pen, but not the keyboard (that's £110 extra for any Pro 3). This model has a Core i3, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. The most expensive has a Core i7, 8GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. That's £1,549. Remember that although you get the Pen for free, you have to pay £109 for the Type cover.

The 32GB iPad Pro costs $799 in the US, but the Pencil could cost as much as £79 inc VAT. Strong rumours suggest that the iPad Pro will retail for £599 in the comparable price £678 for the entry-level model. But we wouldn't be surprised to see Apple doing its usual trick of matching pounds for dollars, and making the iPad Pro a couple of hundred quid more expensive. The Smart Keyboard is likely to cost £129 inc VAT, adding further cost.

Opt for the 128GB iPad Pro and you'll pay at least £100 more if not £120 extra. Add another £100 for the cellular model, which is available exclusively in 128GB guise.

iPad Pro vs Surface Pro for your business: specifications and performance

iPad Pro specifications:
  • iOS 9
  • Apple A9X 64-bit processor
  • 4GB RAM
  • Up to 128GB SSD
  • 12.9in Retina display (2732x2048, 264ppi, 4:3) multitouch display
  • Lightning port
  • 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, dual-channel
  • Bluetooth 4.2
  • 8Mp iSight camera, 1.2Mp FaceTime camera
  • Four speakers with auto orientation
  • Optional Apple Pencil
  • Battery life up to 10 hours (web browsing)
  • 305x220x6.9mm
  • 713g (723g cellular model)
Surface Pro 3 specifications:
  • Windows 10 Pro
  • Intel Haswell Core i3/i5/i7 processor
  • Up to 8GB DDR3 RAM
  • Up to 512GB SSD
  • 12in ClearType full-HD (2160x1440, 216ppi, 3:2) multitouch display
  • USB 3.0 port
  • 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • Mini DisplayPort
  • 2x 5Mp cameras (front and rear)
  • Stereo speakers with Dolby sound
  • Surface Pen
  • Battery life up to nine hours (web browsing)
  • 292x201.3x9.1mm
  • 800g

What does this all mean in reality? Well, the Surface Pro 3 is, we know, a stunning piece of engineering. The Surface Pro 3's specifications are truly impressive. Each model comes with a fourth-generation Intel Core processor, either i3, i5, or i7. This is paired with either 4GB or 8GB RAM, and storage options range from a 64GB SSD through 128GB, 256GB to 512GB. Our test model is a Core i5 model with 4GB RAM and 128GB storage. And, of course, it runs the full Intel version of Windows 10 Pro.

iPad Pro multitask

In use the Surface Pro 3 is zippy and fast. Even under load and attempting multiple processes it feels exactly as fast and capable as should a PC with this powerful specification. And the benchmarks bear this out.

In the PCMark7 benchmark the Surface Pro 3 managed a score of 4864. This is a very healthy score, a full 200 points ahead of the 13in MacBook Air with which the Surface Pro 3 will be most closely compared. It's definitely in the top echelon of portable PCs.

We haven't yet had chance to test the iPad Pro. And in some respects the comparison isn't all that important: as outlined in the software section, running iOS 9 and iPad apps is all the iPad Pro needs to do. This device will do so with aplomb. The Surface Pro has greater storage options, but we would trust Apple's claims that the iPad will last longer away from the mains.

Overall we would say that this is a good time to be in the market for a tablet that is also a laptop. These two devices will be powerful, and portable.

iPad Pro vs Surface Pro for your business: design and build

the Surface Pro 3 is built around a 12in display. We'll have already discussed the display in detail, but the first thing you will notice is that this is a big tablet. It doesn't feel too big, however.

One of the benefits of that bigger display is that there is more space in which to fit the Surface Pro 3's excellent components, and so the more powerful Pro 3 is actually thinner than its predecessor, and indeed any similar full-spec Windows PC. The Surface Pro 3 measures 292 x 201.3 x 9.1mm, although that thickness figure increases to around 16mm with the Type cover included. Either way it's the thinnest Core PC ever made.

Microsoft says the Surface Pro 3 weighs only 800g. We measured our Core i5, 128GB Surface Pro 3 at 813g. Add in the Type Cover and the weight goes up to 1110g on our scales. With the Cover and Pen the weight goes up to 1128g.

This is truly impressive engineering. Microsoft has squeezed into a lightweight slate a powerful PC. For a power laptop the Surface Pro 3 is truly ultraportable. It will slip into your bag or briefcase as easily as any laptop or netbook we have used.

Build quality is universally excellent. Despite the light weight the Surface Pro 3 feels strong. It has a metallic feel, but the texture bears many of the characteristics of plastic. The back is a silver-effect finish, with a simple 'Surface' logo. All the way around the sides is a similar finish, with the thin airvent gap that we have seen on previous Surface devices. It's possible this is required for airflow purposes, but it does tend to be a magnet for bits of filth and dust. Connectivity ports, on/off switch and volume controls live around the edges. The camera aperture is at the top of the back side (in portrait mode).

The Surface Pro 3 is thinner and lighter than previous Surface Pro models, and the larger 12in screen makes for comfortable reading and viewing. The already impressive kickstand can now be secured at any angle rather than the two of the previous model, and the optional Type Cover features a double-fold hinge that allows you to lock it to the display's lower bezel for easier working with the Surface Pro on your lap. We'll talk more about the Type Cover later, but the Surface line's deserved reputation for innovative design continues.

Surface Pro 3

On our model the kickstand/Type Cover combination makes for the ultimate in versatility. You can position the Surface in just about every position from flat to the desk to bolt upright. And the keyboard can sit flat or at a slight incline, like a desktop keyboard. Using the Surface Pro 3 on my lap is my most comfortable experience of working on my lap, but I still prefer to use it on a desk. Regular commuter/workers should consider the Surface Pro 3, however.

Around the front, the Surface Pro 3 is a single sheet of virtual end-to-end glass. The Windows symbol sits to the right in landscape mode or at the bottom in portrait. Switch on the screen and you'll see that the bezels are impressively small for such a thin and light PC.

We can't fail but be impressed with the build quality and design of the Surface Pro 3. It is the thinnest and lighest of thin-and-light PCs, a truly portable, powerful PC. A uniquely versatile device. But that doesn't mean it is the one device to rule them all.

The Surface Pro 3 is a perfectly servicable laptop, and a perfectly servicable tablet. It is sufficiently thin-and-light to work as an okay tablet, but the large screen size - critical for laptop use - means I'd always reach for a iPad mini or Nexus 7 for consumption purposes such as reading an e-book or watching a video. I just don't have the arm strength to want to use the Surface Pro 3. And leaving aside occasions when I am required to work without a desk, I'd always choose a full-size laptop for work purposes where possible. It's just that little bit better.

The iPad Pro follows the general design principles of the iPad Air 2, but on a significantly larger scale. Its general layout, material, edging and so on all match, while the positioning of the buttons, the Lightning and headphone ports and the Touch ID-equipped Home button are the same as on the smaller iPad Air 2.

Our Apple-focused Macworld US colleague Susie Ochs, who tried the iPad Pro out at the San Francisco launch event, found the device a pleasure to hold and use: "The iPad Pro is so much bigger [than the Air 2] but doesn't feel unbalanced or awkward. I could hold it easily, but - and I realise you'll make fun of me for this, and that's okay - I sort of wished it had a kickstand like the Surface Pro." The words of an Apple fan, reader.

Aside from the increase in screen area, there are some key design differences, each corresponding to a functional difference.

One is that there are four speakers, as opposed to the twin speakers on the iPad Air 2 (and those positioned too close together to have any real beneficial effect). This results in far more volume output, of course, and Apple says the device is also smart enough to adjust audio balance between the four units to maintain a consistent performance as you hold the iPad in different ways.

We didn't get a chance to test this properly in the noisy demo room, so our verdict on whether this is a neat gimmick that can compensate for a hand over a speaker grill, or a more significant change to the way we experience media and games, will have to wait.

There is a new type of connector on the lefthand side of the iPad Pro. Apple calls it the Smart Connector, and it's designed to fit the new Smart Keyboard accessory. We don't yet know if third parties will produce their own accessories to fit the Smart Connector, but we'd have thought it's distinctly likely.

At this stage it is impossible to make a true comparison of these two devices in terms of their build and design. We do wish the iPad had the Surface's kickstand, however. They are both high end, and highly portable.
At 221x306x7mm, and weighing only 713g, the iPad Pro is big for a tablet, tiny for a proper computer. At 201x292x9mm and 813g the Surface Pro is both bigger and smaller, but definitely heavier.

iPad Pro vs Surface Pro for your business: verdict

We are not in the business of writing off the iPad Pro just yet. But it is hard to argue against the Surface Pro. A staggering engineering achievement, which pours a power PC into the chassis of a tablet. You can run it as you would any Windows PC, making it a truly powerful business tool.

The jury is still out on the iPad Pro. It is a build up tablet, with a similar design and build to that of the Surface Pro. That should mean marginal gains in terms of portability and battery life. So the question is whether iOS 9 will be a fully functional productivity tool for your business. (See also: 8 great uses for an iPad Pro.)