Both Apple and Microsoft came to the convertible tablet market in a big way in the last half of 2015. While the Surface Pro 4 is, as the name implies, Microsoft’s fourth attempt in this segment, it is new territory for Apple with their iPad Pro.
The truth is, we are looking at two very physically similar devices here, that being large sized tablets with detachable keyboards and a stylus. The similarities do not stop there, but there are some significant differences as well – let’s dive in to explore in our iPad Pro vs Surface Pro 4 comparison.
At first glance, you will see many similarities in the overall form and function of the iPad Pro and the Surface Pro 4. The first thing you’ll notice is their size, we are not talking about pocket sized tablets here, these are devices with displays in excess of 12-inches. Your iPad Air 2 or Google Nexus 9 will feel small in comparison, and your 7-inch tablet will be absolutely dwarfed by these large tablets.
Because there is a delay in shipping our iPad Pro keyboard and stylus, we will compare these tablets today as just tablets, We’ll revisit this shootout at a later point when we can bring you the full experience for these devices. That said, we have the Surface Pro 4 keyboard in hand, as well as the included stylus, and they make for stellar accessories.
On the Apple side of things, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro has very few features that will distinguish it from other iPads. Look for the familiar Home button with built-in fingerprint scanner, the same placement for power and volume buttons, the cameras live in the same positions and the Lightning port remains on the center of the bottom edge.
Changed in the iPad Pro is the addition of extra speakers. You’ll still find dual speaker grills straddling the Lightning port on the bottom edge, but you’ll now find matching speaker grills along the top as well. When you tip the iPad Pro on its side, you will be pleasantly greeted with effective stereo sound. We fired up Asphalt 8 as a test, it provided definite stereo sound as we enjoyed engine noises in ways we’ve not heard on a tablet before.
The final new entry to the iPad Pro design is a magnetic three-pin connector. Housed on the left hand edge, which will be your bottom edge in landscape orientation, the connector is designed to attach the optional new Apple Smart Keyboard.
The Surface Pro 4 offers a little different design when we start looking closer. Where the iPad Pro is seemingly set up to operate in portrait orientation, the Surface Pro 4 clearly defaults to a landscape position. The 12.3-inch display has a small row of sensors, including the front facing camera, along the top of the landscape oriented layout. Front facing speakers grace both sides near the top.
Perhaps the most distinguishable feature of the Surface Pro 4 is the built-in kickstand. The lower back half of the rear panel on the tablet swivels out to provide a stand with a great range of mounting angles. The power and volume buttons live on the same edge, located in the equivalent position as the volume rocker on the iPad Pro.
A headphone jack is alone on the left edge of the device, while a full size USB port, a Mini DisplayPort connection and the proprietary, magnetically connected, reversible power plug share the right edge. The bottom of the tablet has a recess that includes the magnetic mounting points and six-pin connector for the Surface Pro 4 Cover, which doubles as a keyboard.
While there is something to be said for performance and the ability to be productive, the true standout feature for both of these tablets is their displays. The iPad Pro has that 12.9-inch panel clocked in at 2732 x 2048 resolution. On the other side, the Surface Pro 4 packs in 2736 x 1824 pixels of resolution on a 12.3-inch panel. The final result is a pixel per inch count of 264ppi for the iPad and 267ppi for the Microsoft tablet.
If the specs do not speak to you, let me just say that these tablets are a pleasure to look at. They offer great brightness levels and control, excellent color saturation, crisp clean images and those pixel counts mean you won’t be distracted by any jagged edges on your display. At this size, however, you may find that holding the devices in hand result in a slightly overwhelming experience. Make sure you have a stand and the ability to sit back for watching your favorite movie.
The large display, however, is not always an issue. Here is where we enter into the new paradigm in Apple’s mobile computing, iOS 9 is equipped with new multi-tasking features, ultimately resulting in a single app only using a portion of your display. This means that when you are not doing something that is full-screen, you can get in there and take advantage of the extra screen real estate by having two apps running at the same time.
Introduced along with the new iPad Pro 9.7, iOS 9.3 introduced Night Shift, a blue light filtering technique to help prevent lost sleep due to late night tablet usage. The iPad Pro 9.7 includes a step further, with True Tone technology that further adjusts color temperatures on the smaller tablet, but in this case it is to optimize the viewing experience, not so much fro blue light reduction purposes.
Microsoft, on the other hand, has equipped the Surface Pro 4 with the full Pro release of Windows 10. As such, the computing experience automatically includes the windows interface, where each app, program or folder is a totally size adjustable window that can be positioned anywhere on the display. The same rule applies here, if you are doing something truly full-screen, you may have to sit back a little to comfortably take it all in, aside from that, get in there and enjoy.
Truth be told, these are what we might call ‘happy problems.’ Having to extend your arm a little to take in these beautiful display panels should not detract from the experience, just something I had noticed. In the end, it truly is a pleasure to look at these devices, consuming media, if only a photo slideshow, is a treat, and the extra size adds a new level of capabilities when trying to be productive.
As the latest flagship devices out of these respective companies, the iPad Pro and Surface Pro 4 are easily some of the most powerful tablet computers around. No matter which you choose, you will experience a fast and fluid interface, great app load times and the ability to run the best mobile games around. These are still predominantly mobile devices at heart, so you’re not going to be trading in your gaming rig for these tablets, but they are pretty slick in their own right.
The iPad Pro ushers in a new chipset for iOS powered devices. The new A9X processor, backed by the new M9 motion coprocessor, team up to produce speeds nearing double the last generation of iPads. Compared to the iPad Air and the iPad Mini 2 and 3, the iPad Pro is claiming 2.5x speed improvements out of the CPU and a more impressive 5x boost in graphics processing. Have I mentioned yet that consuming media on this tablet is possibly the best media consumption experience we’ve ever seen?
Considering the optional detachable keyboard and the new multi-tasking capabilities in iOS 9, we must take a moment to compare the iPad Pro to a normal desktop or laptop computer. I type now on an Intel Core i5 powered laptop with 6GB of RAM, a modest computer by today’s standards. Without going into serious testing, I am left doubting that the iPad Pro could handle the same multi-display configuration while playing multiple Full HD videos simultaneously. My point is, for half the price, I have a more capable machine in the laptop.
After bashing the iPad Pro as a full desktop/laptop replacement, I feel I should boost it back up again. We’ll be pitting it against Android tablets in the future, but for now allow me to say that I am having a hard time thinking of a green robot powered device that is going to keep up. The iOS vs Android battle has a new standard, time for the likes of Samsung, HTC, Sony and more to step up their game.
While not the focus of our topic today, please keep in mind that the newer iPad Pro 9.7 packs the same processor and graphics as the larger iPad Pro, even with half the amount of RAM, it is a compelling tablet with enough power to handle all your needs, but the more compact size for in-hand usage. Check it out for more info.
If you’ve shopped for a new desktop or laptop in the last few years, you’ve seen the flagship consumer level processors out of Intel, the Core i3, i5 and i7. In this latest generation of processors, Microsoft has chosen to skip the i3, instead equipping the entry level Surface Pro 4 with a new Core m3 processor. From there, however, the same i5 and i7 processors found in your laptop are installed in the Microsoft tablet.
Backing up the Intel processors in the Surface Pro 4 are integrated graphics cards. The Intel HD Graphics 515 starts things off, with the Intel HD Graphics 520 stepping up and the Intel Iris Graphics at the top. The end result is the ability to connect your Microsoft tablet to multiple external displays at Full HD and beyond resolution and run things like you would from your laptop or desktop.
Again, keep in mind that the Surface Pro 4 is still a tablet. One day that will simply be a designation of form factor only, but for now it still signifies reduced overall performance and capabilities as compared to a similarly priced laptop, but just barely, and far less than a similarly priced desktop computer. We still think this is a stellar Windows 10 experience, but stay tuned for our full review to get all the details.
Finally, the Surface Pro 4 has an optional dock that we should mention. This dock simply connects into the power port, meaning no extra connections or cables to worry about around the device. From there, you can attach up to two external monitors, an Ethernet cable and take advantage of the 4 USB ports to turn your tablet into the core of a full desktop computing experience. The low end Surface Pro 4 model gets the job done, the high end model provides a great experience, you may even forget this is all just a tablet.
With a mind to keep users going for all day computing, both the iPad Pro and the Surface Pro 4 rock fairly large batteries. Instead of focusing on specs just yet, allow me to talk experience.
We’ve been enjoying mixed usage on the iPad Pro, including web browsing, taking photos, playing games and watching videos. The display brightness has been set to 100%, not because we need it, but because we are trying to maximize our battery drain to give you a worst case scenario battery life measure. Needless to say, we’ve kept WiFi and Bluetooth turned on as well. Through a few cycles now we are getting about 6 hours of active usage on a charge.
Apple claims the iPad Pro, as with all of the iPads, will enjoy up to 10 hours of active use on a charge. Web browsing, poking around on your favorite app and some video consumption at moderate display brightness levels should take you this long to kill the battery, but you’ll have to stay away from your favorite games, the camera and any other high-power apps if you need to truly get through the day.
The Surface Pro 4 promises a little less battery life, claiming up to 9 hours of life while watching video. We have averaged about 5 hours on a charge so far, but it is critical that we mention our 3 hour experience. You recall that this tablet is equipped with a full size USB port, as such, you may connect peripherals that require USB power. In our particular case, we were running a USB 3.0 external portable hard drive. This 7200rpm drive does a little more than just sip the juice, and the Surface Pro 4, while more than capable of performing the actions, suffered in battery life for it.
Running through our normal web browsing, writing up an article for the site, some video playback and a little bit of gaming, we were looking for a charge before lunch. But do keep in mind one important thing, this was the full Windows 10 experience using a connected Bluetooth mouse and USB keyboard. We even installed some of our favorite old games from their .exe setup files and an old release of Office 2007 via USB connected disk drive, but we’ll talk about that in the software section later.
Before I go too far into the particulars of the camera experience on these tablets, please keep in mind that they are very large devices. Physically hauling these tablets around and holding them in place for a quality photo may prove difficult. If that doesn’t scare you off, be prepared for some excellent mobile photography.
Starting with the Apple tablet, the iPad Pro is equipped with the same 8MP main camera sensor as you’ll find on the best of iOS powered devices. As such, I could lazily point you toward our iPad Air 2 or iPad Mini 4 reviews and comparison pieces. We’re talking about the same sensor and camera features here, but there is one main difference, the display.
The sheer size of the iPad Pro enables the tablet to offer an unexpected service, significantly magnifying smaller objects or text when viewed in the camera app. You see what I mean in the photo above, the 2-inch toy car measures nearly 5 times that as viewed on the iPad display. There are less expensive magnifying tools out there, but this is still a handy use.
The camera app on the iPad Pro is identical to that of the other iPads, including normal and HDR photos, panoramas, slow mo video as well as 1080p normal video capture and more. I must admit that the multi-focus facial detection is handy for group photos as well. This is a proven camera setup and one of the best found on a mobile device today, you will not be disappointed.
If you are looking for a tablet for some quality photo and video capture, the newer iPad Pro 9.7 bumps things up to a 12MP rear shooter capable of 4K video recording.
The Surface Pro 4 does not claim the same prestige for its camera. While also measuring in at 8MP with 1080p video recording capabilities, we were underwhelmed by the camera app and by the resulting photos. Let’s be fair, under the right conditions you can produce a quality photo, but it is obvious that Microsoft wasn’t focusing on making a photography device here.
On the front side, however, the Surface Pro 4 packs a mighty little 5MP shooter that provides video conferencing image quality on par with my dedicated HD webcam. Hat tip to Microsoft for this one.
We’ve been facing off these two tablets at a fairly even level thus far today, but the thing is, they are devices that live in two completely different worlds. iOS 9 on the iPad Pro is still a mobile oriented experience. Windows 10 Pro on the Surface Pro 4 is best likened to your laptop or desktop computer.
Without the attached physical keyboard, Windows 10 frequently encounters programs or websites that struggle with, or even fail to operate when relying on touch input. As for iOS 9, a lack of a mouse cursor means you have no choice but to reach up to touch the display, dramatically limiting the number of ways you can use the device.
Looking at the iPad Pro, iOS 9 really is a solid operating system. We have been enjoying this OS since it was made available as a beta release earlier this year. Apple took the time to not only catch up to Android in many regards, but overtake Google’s Android OS for some multi-tasking capabilities.
The experience is fast and fluid on the iPad Pro, you’ll speed through loading your favorite apps and have no lag when enjoying your favorite audio or video entertainment. The same set of base apps and services are found here as on other iPads, but apps have not been reconfigured to better utilize the larger display.
I mentioned earlier the size of the icons on the home screens, as you can see in the image, the icons are over half-inch across and spaced nearly an inch and a half apart. Yes, that Nexus 5 fits four icons across the same space as two icons on the iPad Pro, no camera tricks involved. The middle device is the iPad Mini 3. This leaves a first impression that the large display is, to quote myself from a private team conversation, “ridiculous.”
Indeed, holding the iPad Pro in hand, the OS does not shine in a visual sense. In fact, at this size, you will notice image and font blurring and even tearing as you scroll a page. This is apparent in the OS as on the web and in your favorite game. Rest assured, reaching out your arms so that the display is a little further away, these concerns become less noticeable. It really is like sitting too close to a theater screen, no matter how good the screen, sitting too close is possible. Once you move back a few rows, everything gets better, and on Apple’s big tablet, I might even say that things start to look great.
I mentioned above that the iOS 9.3 update added Night Shift, adding to the viewing experience by making low light situations easier on your eyes to handle.
Heading over to Windows 10 on the Surface Pro 4, your first impression will be that of a new laptop computer. No funny business here, just pure Windows 10 Pro. Get yourself all setup using one of several cool on-screen keyboard layouts, then begin the process of installing your favorite apps and services.
Where the iPad Pro produces icons and a layout that is very big, the Surface Pro 4 is somewhat the opposite, keeping everything fairly small on the display. Touch input is surprisingly accurate, considering you often feel as though you’ve touched two links or buttons at the same time. From there, the OS is fast, smooth and responsive.
Being that the Surface Pro 4 uses what you might call a desktop OS, it is a little difficult to compare straight across with the mobile OS of the iPad Pro. App load times are comparable, programs operate smoothly and only once was I able to overwhelm the machine, recklessly loading dozens of high quality photos. Once I hit the end of the device’s RAM use tolerance, everything crashed, Windows refreshed, no restart, no blue screen, just took me back to the desktop with no open programs.
Speaking of performance, I must compare to the choppy scrolling experience on the iPad Pro, at no point have I experienced text or image blurring or tearing on the Surface Pro 4. I mean, if you go fast enough you can still see display draw duplicates or artifacts, but the text and images are still intact.
Windows 10 comes equipped with a Tablet mode. It is a single button to toggle between the desktop and tablet interface, but as we’ve discussed before, the tablet interface has a few too many shortcomings for our liking, I’ll just keep it on desktop mode.
As a quick note, let me mention that the experience on the Surface Pro 4 changes dramatically when you attach the keyboard. Holding the tablet in hand is a pleasant experience, especially using the stylus as input, that does not let you down or feel like it compromises to operate via touch input alone. With the keyboard attached, you automatically and very comfortably treat the device as a little laptop,
In the end, these are two very capable tablets, whether you opt for iOS 9 or Windows 10 you will be able to handle all of your normal day to day tasks and get some work done while you are at it. This is the part, however, that I remind you that there are far more app options in the Apple App Store than in the Windows Store. You will need to rely on old-school .exe applications to get the most out of the Surface Pro 4.
Pricing and final thoughts
Are you looking for the latest and greatest tablets on the market? You have stumbled across two of the best here today. They may serve different purposes, where the iPad Pro excels at media consumption and the Surface Pro 4 is a productivity workhorse, but you are in good hands with either device.
Did I mention that these are two of the best tablets available today? You know what that means, they have price tags to match. You can get started with these devices for around $800, but the price quickly goes up with optional upgrades and accessories. Let’s look at the list.
(SSD in Surface Pro 4)
|iPad Pro||Surface Pro 4|
Intel Core m3, 4GB RAM
Intel Core i5, 4GB RAM
|128GB + LTE||$1079||N/A|
|256GB||N/A||$1299 - $1499
Intel Core i5, 8GB - 16GB RAM
$1599 - $1799
Intel Core i7, 8GB - 16GB RAM
|512GB||N/A||$1699 - $1899
Intel Core i5, 8GB - 16GB RAM
Intel Core i7, 16GB RAM
Intel Core i7, 16GB RAM
|Detachable keyboard||$169||$129.99 - includes touchpad
$159.99 - includes touchpad and fingerprint scanner
|Other||Surface Dock with 2 Mini DisplayPort and 4 full size USB ports - $199.99|
The iPad Pro has a more modest upgrade path, you will need to decide how much internal storage you need, and perhaps consider cloud storage options regardless. From there, the optional keyboard and stylus add a significant chunk of money to the purchase. While there are not yet any third-party stylus options with this level of functionality, you may consider a more basic Bluetooth keyboard to save some money. We’ll go into this in more detail when our review units arrive.
For now, let me say that the typical iPad Air 2 or iPad mini 4 user may enjoy the upgrade to the iPad Pro, but are not really getting anything more than a larger display. This is a top-notch device for persons that want to take the art of drawing and hand writing to a digital experience. This is also a great device for persons that are visually impaired or lack dexterity in their hands and fingers, providing large buttons and text that is easy to see and tap on without needing high levels of precision.
We still need to get our hands on those accessories before we truly judge the iPad Pro as a productivity device, but for now, the lack on input device, minimal external display support and other wise mobile experience leads us to doubt its capabilities. We hope to be proven wrong.
With a top end price of over three thousand dollars, I bet you are wondering if we think the Surface Pro 4 is worth it. While we cannot say for certain that this is the best option for everyone, we have little doubt that you will regret your purchase decision. You can certainly find less expensive Windows tablets that focus on mobility, and less expensive comparatively powered laptops or desktops for your stationary experience, but if you need both, few Windows devices come close.
As a hybrid, convertible or two-in-one device, whatever you want to call it, the Surface Pro 4 truly offers functionality and a level of finesse hard to find elsewhere. If I really had to choose, I would say that a student or person otherwise always on the move would find the Surface Pro 4 a worthwhile upgrade over a laptop. If you sit at a comfy desk and rarely take your computer on the go, save some cash and get a laptop.
Update August 2016: With a great number of hours logged on these devices, we still respect and enjoy them, both have proven quality and durable devices. Let’s take a moment to talk about how we find ourselves using these devices.
Starting with the iPad Pro. This big iPad is a tablet, and just a tablet. I could not rightly say which bag is currently storing the keyboard and stylus, and I haven’t used them in months. Using a third-party stand, the iPad often rotates some photos as it adorns a far corner of my desk, otherwise, it is still a great big display for entertainment, gaming and similar type tasks, but all by hand. I thought this tablet would prove too large for prolonged hand-held usage, but you get used to it fast enough. Let’s not pretend though, I reach for the iPad Pro 9.7 first every time I desire an iOS fix.
The Surface Pro 4 is still a pretty great device, but you know where it suffers? Hand-held use. In contrast to the iPad Pro, I usually have the keyboard affixed to the Surface Pro 4 and the stylus snapped to the side. The Surface Pro 4 sits closer to me on the desk, ready to work the odd time I need another screen to quickly look something up, or, more likely, need to run to the other side of the house to share some fun info or print something off of the big USB printer.
The Surface Pro 4 has become an active part of my workflow, and has become my device of choice when hitting the road. Unless I’ll be gone long, then I rely on my Chromebook – this choice is based on battery life, the Surface Pro 4 still gets no more than 4 hours of life under normal use, a figure I can double in battery saving mode, but that’s not my point. The Chromebook, however, rocks about 11 hours on a charge if I don’t watch any video.
But I said something about a poor in-hand experience – something that obviously has not changed about this tablet, something that we never liked to begin with, is the sharp corners of the edges of the tablet. While not as big of a deal as I’m making it sound, the fact is, I have the new Huawei MateBook in house right now, a tablet with very nice rounded edges. If it were not for this active comparison of an equally capable tablet, I’d never have complained, but as it turns out, I will avoid actually picking up the Surface Pro 4 while the MateBook is in reach.
Finally, what you’ve all been waiting for, which is better, the iPad Pro or the Surface Pro 4?
Have I mentioned yet that your intended usage should ultimately determine which of these devices is best for you? This has never been more true for my time comparing tablets. However, unlike previous comparisons where I’ve completely left the decision up to you, I truly feel that the Surface Pro 4 is the smarter purchase here today.
Overall, the extended functionality and versatility of the Surface Pro 4 leads me to recommend it over the larger iPad Pro. Do keep in mind that if you are thoroughly entrenched in the Apple ecosystem, the iPad Pro may still be better for you, but if you are coming into this with no previous experience or loyalties, go for the Surface Pro 4 – even without the keyboard, it still feels more productive and provides a great entertainment experience.