iPad Pro vs. Surface Pro

Which uber-tablet meets your needs?

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?

iPad Pro vs Surface 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 they're available for download.

  • 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.

These are excellent devices. They give you solid performance and many customization options for working or playing on the go. You also have access to hundreds of apps in the companies' respective app stores. And, the price points for iPad Pro and Surface Pro are more or less comparable, depending on the device configuration you select.

The most considerable difference between these two tablets comes down to Windows vs. iPadOS. If you want a true tablet that's secure, iPad Pro is a fantastic choice. If you need to run the full desktop version of apps like Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop, check out Surface Pro. Of course, the devil is in the details.

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 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 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 laptop and a tablet. 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 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, the 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 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. Malware can 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

iPad Pro
  • Optimized for mobile.

  • Better value in lower-end models than Surface Pro.

  • Runs apps designed for mobile, which take up less storage space.

Surface Pro
  • More a laptop than a true tablet.

  • Many customization options means that you can easily get the device you want.

  • Runs apps designed for desktop, which take up more storage space and require faster processors and more RAM.

It's easy to list a bunch of technical specifications and benchmarks, but in truth, specifications don't matter as much when you're comparing a device running a mobile operating system with a device running a desktop operating system. The Surface Pro is more a laptop than a tablet, so you have many customization options, including upgrading the processor, boosting the RAM, and adding storage.

At the top end, the 2017 Surface Pro runs on a super-fast Intel Core i7 processor, includes 16 gigabytes (GB) of RAM for applications, and has a 1-terabyte solid-state disk for storage. It also has a price tag of around $2,699, which means you could buy three iPad Pro tablets and still have money left over.

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

Here's where it gets interesting. The 4 GB of RAM in the iPad Pro gives plenty of elbow room for apps and makes multitasking smooth. The same 4 GB of RAM in that entry-level Surface Pro will slow the whole tablet down, even if you're running just one application. This is where the differences in operating systems play a huge role.

The same can be said for the amount of storage. The 128 GB in that low-end Surface Pro may sound like a lot compared with 32 GB in the iPad Pro, but the software takes up more room on the Surface Pro than on the iPad Pro because it's desktop software, not software optimized for a mobile device.

If you are thinking about going with the Surface Pro, target the Intel Core i5 processor with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage—at a minimum. This configuration brings the cost up to $1,299 but ultimately gives you a few more years of use than you'd get with the lower-end model. This extended use makes up for the price difference.

This model also compares well with the iPad Pro. The iPad Pro may have more raw processing power, but the Intel Core i5 processor in the Surface Pro should be enough for most people. The next step up the ladder is the Surface Pro with an Intel Core i7 processor, which will set you back $1,599 but should run faster than the latest iPad Pro.

Display and Cameras: Apple Continues to Push Boundaries

iPad Pro
  • True Tone display offers an amazing range of colors and supports ultra-high definition (HD)

  • Offers 600-nit–level brightness.

  • 7-megapixel front-facing camera.

  • 12-megapixel rear-facing camera capable of shooting 4K video.

Surface Pro
  • PixelSense Display is solid.

  • 5-megapixel front-facing camera.

  • 8-megapixel rear-facing camera capable of shooting HD video.

Apple consistently pushes the boundaries of device displays. When Apple introduced the Retina Display, it 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, which it introduced in 2016. The True Tone display offers an amazing range of colors and supports ultra-HD. It also alters the colors on the screen based on ambient lighting to generate a more realistic reaction when transitioning between sunlight and indoor lighting or shade. The 2017 iPad Pro models take this display technology a step forward by offering 600-nit–level brightness, which means that the iPad Pro display generates more light, resulting 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 the difference unless you held an iPad Pro side by side with the Surface Pro, which has a good display, as well.

The iPad Pro also comes with a better set of cameras. Its 7-megapixel front-facing camera is slightly better than the 5-megapixel camera in the Surface Pro, but the back-facing camera sets the iPad Pro apart. The Surface Pro has an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera capable of shooting HD video, while the 2017 iPad Pro models have a 12-megapixel camera. It's capable of shooting 4K video.

Keyboard and Stylus: It's a Toss-Up

iPad Pro
  • Doesn't come with a smart keyboard but works with many Bluetooth keyboard models.

  • Doesn't come with a stylus, but the Apple Pencil is a nice—though expensive—addition.

Surface Pro
  • Doesn't come with a smart keyboard but works with many Bluetooth keyboard models.

  • Unlike the Surface Pro 4, doesn't come with a stylus.

A big focus of Microsoft commercials showing off the Surface tablet is the smart keyboard that connects to it. Unfortunately, that keyboard doesn't come with the Surface Pro. Also, where the Surface Pro 4 came with the Surface Pen, the 2017 Surface Pro doesn't.

The iPad Pro also has a smart keyboard and the Apple Pencil, which is a high-tech stylus. Neither peripheral comes with the iPad Pro.

Overall, we recommend skipping the smart keyboard with either device when making your initial purchase. You may be amazed at just how much you can get done using the on-screen keyboard. If you do a lot of typing, though, the smart keyboard is a nice addition, although it will set you back $150. The iPad Pro works with most Bluetooth keyboards.

The same goes for the stylus. Artists will want to buy them immediately, but the rest of us will probably find that a cheap stylus works just as well for our needs.

Price: iPad Pro Is a Better Deal

iPad Pro
  • Lower entry-level price.

  • Comparing the 12.9-inch iPad Pro with 256 GB of storage against the Surface Pro with Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of storage, the iPad Pro is considerably less expensive.

Surface Pro
  • Entry-level Surface Pro has a larger display.

  • Comparing the 12.9-inch iPad Pro with 256 GB of storage against the Surface Pro with Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of storage, the Surface Pro offers similar performance to the iPad but at a higher price point.

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

The fairest comparison is the Surface Pro with Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage with the 12.9-inch iPad Pro with 256 GB of storage. The iPad Pro is faster and has a slightly larger display, but the specs for the two devices are pretty ... except for the price. The iPad Pro with this configuration costs $899, which is a pretty big saving over the $1,299 Surface Pro.

Apple has long been known for having rather steep prices for its line of laptops and desktops, but the iPad has 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 $1,000 for most models.

Final Verdict: It All Depends on What You'll Do With It

It may sound evasive, but whether you choose the iPad Pro or the Surface Pro truly depends on what you plan to do with the device. If you primarily want a laptop, the Surface Pro with the additional smart keyboard is the way to go: It runs Windows and desktop software, offers more configuration options, and can be used as a tablet. If you mainly want a tablet, the iPad Pro offers the best tablet experience at a lower cost. It's optimized for mobile but, with a smart keyboard, can convert to a capable laptop.

The biggest factor is Windows vs. iPadOS. Even if you like the better security and lower 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 superior cameras, and is more secure out of the box.


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