iPad Pro vs. Surface Pro

Which uber-tablet meets your needs?

Photo of iPad Pro with the icons of the featured apps on screen. Hand holding Apple Pencil hovering above one of the apps.

It would be easy to dismiss Microsoft's Surface Pro as an "also ran" in the mobile category, but doing so would overlook how the natural evolution of tablets is bringing the competition back to Microsoft. As much as Microsoft has failed to connect with mobile technology, it is still the clear leader in the enterprise. And, as Surface has evolved, it has become entrenched as one of the go-to hybrid tablets.

But, is it as good as an iPad Pro?

Overall Findings

iPad Pro

  • Operating system optimized for mobile.

  • Awesome with apps designed for touch.

  • Secure out of the box.

  • The curated App Store means that all apps are vetted before becoming available for download.

  • Comparing similar models, iPad Pro has more raw power.

  • Liquid Retina display; 7-megapixel front-facing camera and 12-megapixel rear-facing camera.

Surface Pro

  • Runs Windows and desktop applications.

  • Greater flexibility and open file system leave Surface Pro more open to attack.

  • Takes a performance hit because the operating system isn't optimized for mobile.

  • Easy to upgrade the processor, RAM, and storage.

  • PixelSense Display; 5-megapixel front-facing camera and 8-megapixel rear-facing camera.

Apps: Mobile vs. Desktop Apps

iPad Pro

  • iPadOS is optimized for mobile.

  • Runs mobile versions of software, including Office.

  • The App Store has many mobile-optimized alternatives to desktop applications.

Surface Pro

  • Runs the Windows desktop operating system.

  • Install desktop versions of Office and Adobe Photoshop.

  • Apps that run well on Surface Pro in laptop mode don't run as smoothly when the device is in tablet mode.

Rather than look at specs and compare benchmarks, let's just jump straight to the number-one deciding factor between the Surface Pro and the iPad Pro: Apps. For most of us, when we buy a computer, what we really care about is what we can do with it — in other words, the software we can run on it.

The Surface Pro runs a full version of the Windows operating system, which not only gives it more customizable features and access to an open file system but also access to more powerful software, including the full desktop versions of Office and Photoshop.

Where the iPad Pro shines is having apps that are specifically designed for a touch-based computer. Much of the software that runs on Windows is designed for a mouse or touchpad. This may not be a big deal if you're using the Surface Pro smart keyboard, which includes a touchpad, but a big reason to buy a Surface Pro is to use it as a tablet as well as a laptop. Unfortunately, not all software will run as smoothly when you're using your fingers.

Ultimately, the software you use comes down to what you need. If you absolutely need to use software that is only available on the Windows platform, then which device is "better" becomes moot: You need a Windows device. But, Apple's App Store is filled with great alternatives, and you can do a lot in a web browser these days. So, where Windows still has a definite advantage in the enterprise, at home, iPad is king.

Security: Can't Beat iPad out of the Box

iPad Pro

  • Secure out of the box.

  • Apps must pass a security check before they're available for download.

Surface Pro

  • Open file system leaves Surface Pro more vulnerable to attack.

  • Antivirus software strongly recommended.

Security is a priority for all of us. The idea that a computer can be hijacked and files or data held for ransom should be enough to worry anyone.

In terms of malware like viruses and ransomware, the iPad is a much more secure device. Windows offers more flexibility in terms of an open file system, but this very openness makes Windows computers more vulnerable to attack. The iPad places each app — and that app's documents — in its own environment, an environment that no other app can access directly. As a result, the iPad cannot really be infected by a virus, and the files on the iPad cannot be held hostage.

Apple's curated App Store is also a boon for those worried about security. It's possible for malware to slip past the App Store police, but it's rare, and such malware is often caught within weeks. The biggest malware threat to the iPad comes through the web browser, where a web page may pretend to hold the iPad hostage. To thwart these "attacks," simply close the web page or the web browser.

Performance: iPad Pro Offers More Bang for the Buck

It's easy to list out a bunch of technical specifications and benchmarks, but in truth, specifications don't matter as much when comparing a device running a mobile operating system with another device running a desktop operating system. The Surface Pro is also more of a laptop than a tablet, with options allowing you to upgrade the processor, amount of RAM memory, storage, etc.

At the top end, the 2017 Surface Pro runs on a super fast i7 processor, includes 16 GB of RAM memory for applications and has 1 TB of SSD storage. It also has a $2,699 price tag, which means you could buy three iPad Pros and still have some money left over.

And while the top-end Surface Pro is overkill for most people, the low end is underkill, especially considering the $799 entry price. This Surface Pro costs the same as the entry-level 12.9-inch iPad Pro, but A10x processor in the iPad Pro will run circles around Intel Core m3 in the low-end Surface.

Here's where it gets interesting. The 4 GB of RAM memory on the iPad Pro gives plenty of elbow room for apps and makes multitasking very smooth. The same 4 GB of RAM on that entry-level Surface Pro will slow the whole tablet down even with only a single piece of software open. This is where the differences in the operating systems play a huge role.

The same can be said for the amount of storage. The 128 GB in that low-end Surface may sound like a lot compared to 32 GB on the iPad Pro, but ultimately, it will be much more cramped. Simply put, software on the Surface Pro will take up more room than on the iPad Pro. 

If you are thinking about going with the Surface Pro, you will want to target the Intel Core i5 with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage at a minimum. This brings the cost up to $1,299, but ultimately, it will give you a couple of more years of use compared to the lower-end model, which will make up for the price difference. 

This model also compares well to the iPad Pro. The iPad Pro may have more raw processing power, but the Intel Core i5 processor should be enough for most people. The next step up the ladder is the i7 Surface Pro, which costs $1,599 but should run a little faster than the newest iPad Pro.

How Good Does the Surface Pro Look Compared to the iPad?

One thing Apple consistently does a great job of is pushing the boundaries of the display. When they introduced the Retina Display, they revolutionized high-density pixels in our mobile devices. Now most smartphones and tablets are crystal clear.

Apple did it again with the 9.7-inch iPad Pro introduced in 2016. The True Tone display offers a wide gamut of colors that supports Ultra HD. It also alters the colors on the screen based on ambient lighting to give it a more realistic reaction when transitioning between sunlight, indoor lighting or shade. And the 2017 iPad Pro models take this a step forward by displaying a 600-nit level of brightness, which basically means the Pro's screen can display more light, which results in a better picture.

The 12.9-inch and 10.5-inch iPad Pro models easily win the display award, but in truth, you probably wouldn't notice it unless they were held side-by-side with the Surface Pro, which has a very good display as well.

The iPad Pro also comes with a better set of cameras. The iPad's 7-megapixel front-facing camera is slightly better than the Surface's 5-megapixel camera, but it is the back-facing camera that really sets the iPad Pro apart. The Surface Pro has an 8-megapixel back-facing camera capable of shooting HD video, while the 2017 iPad Pro models have a 12-megapixel camera similar to the one found on the iPhone 7. It is also capable of shooting 4K video.

What About the Keyboard and the Stylus?

A big focus of Microsoft commercials showing off the Surface tablet is the smart keyboard that connects to it. Unfortunately, while the keyboard connects great with the Surface Pro, it doesn't come with it. And while the Surface Pro 4 came with the Surface Pen, the 2017 Surface Pro doesn't come with either of these accessories. 

The odd part here isn't so much that the Surface Pro doesn't come with a keyboard or stylus as it is that Microsoft makes such a big deal of having those options. The iPad Pro also has a smart keyboard and the Apple Pencil, which is a high-tech stylus. Neither of those comes with the iPad Pro, but similar to the Surface Pro, they can make great accessories.

Overall, we would recommend skipping the smart keyboard when making your initial purchase. You might be amazed at just how much you can get done using only the on-screen keyboard. If you require a lot of typing, the smart keyboards can be a good addition, but if you balk at spending $150 for a keyboard, don't buy them. Both the Surface Pro and the iPad Pro will work with most BlueTooth keyboards.

The same goes for the stylus. While artists will want to buy them immediately, most of us will find a cheap stylus will work just as well for our modest needs.

Which Is a Better Deal?

The entry-level 10.5-inch iPad Pro starts at $649, which is $150 cheaper than the entry-level Surface Pro. However, this isn't exactly an even comparison. The iPad Pro is much faster than the Intel Core m3 Surface Pro, but the Surface Pro has a larger 12.3-inch display. 

The fairest comparison is the Intel Core i5 Surface Pro with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage to the 12.9-inch iPad Pro with 256 GB of storage. The iPad Pro may end up being faster and has a slightly larger display, but they are both pretty close in specs... except for the price. The iPad Pro with this configuration costs $899, which is a pretty big saving compared to the $1299 Surface Pro.

Apple has long been known for having rather steep prices for its line of laptop and desktop prices, but the iPad has consistently been one of the best deals in tech since its release. Every release seems to raise the bar in terms of performance in a laptop, and the price remains under $1000 for most models.

Which Should I Buy?

If you are still on the fence, the simplest way to make a choice is to decide what you are most looking for in a device. If you mainly want a laptop, the Surface Pro 4 with the additional smart keyboard will offer the benefits of a laptop (including running Windows software) that can also be used as a tablet. On the other hand, if you are mainly wanting a tablet, the iPad Pro will offer the absolute best tablet experience at a more affordable cost. You can pass those savings on to the purchase of the smart keyboard to make the iPad Pro a very capable laptop as well.

But the biggest factor is Windows vs iOS. Even if you like the better security and cheaper price tag of the iPad Pro, if you absolutely must use software that only runs on Windows, the Surface Pro is the only choice. If open access to files or plugging in flash drives is a big deal, the Surface Pro wins. But if you aren't tied to Windows software, the iPad Pro provides more power at a cheaper price, has a better display and has superior cameras.