Microsoft Surface Pro (2017) vs. Apple iPad Pro (2017): Best Productivity Tablet
With both the iPad Pro and the Surface Pro being well established designs with several generations on the market and very little changing through design ID or features, this section will focus on my general experiences and impressions of various aspects of the build quality and hardware. I will touch on tablet-only sensibility, the screens, stylus integration, the keyboard attachments, connectivity, and the operating system and software lineup.
For my purposes, both the iPad Pro and the Surface Pro are less useful as tablets than they are with the keyboard and pen/pencil. If you chose to use them in the tablet-only form factor, there are some clear differences between the Apple and Microsoft designs worth keeping in mind.
First, the value of the kickstand integrated into the Surface Pro cannot be overstated. For a media consumption situation, this feature allows you to watch comfortably hands-free on your lap, a table, desk, airplane, etc. Without the cover or keyboard on the iPad Pro it can only lay there, flat on its back, unless you trust some other prop-up mechanism.
Though preferences will vary from person to person, the iPad Pro 12.9-in feels HUGE. The screen is gigantic and the feel of holding it as a tablet seems wildly counter to how I use detached hardware. The 10.5-in version of the iPad Pro is a perfect peak size for using one handed or even with two hands as your thumbs stretch across the screen area. The Surface Pro is somewhere in the middle, slightly too big but not as obnoxious feeling as the iPad Pro.
Nothing today can get Microsoft over the hump that is its history. iOS is simply built for touch first, and though MS tried it with Windows 8, the community and users rejected it. As a result, using Windows 10 in a tablet interface is workable, but not pleasant. Buttons are small, text input seems rougher, applications aren’t finger-friendly. The iPad has the benefit of ONLY existing as a tablet, with accessories and productivity being tossed in the mix years later, and that means everything was built for touch. It shows.
I will give Microsoft credit for including Windows Hello capable face recognition login on the Surface Pro – it works surprisingly well. It is fast and helpful in both laptop and tablet mode where typing a password on the touch screen can be a pain. Without integration of a finger print scanner on the screen or bezel, this is a fantastic replacement feature.
Overall, the experience on both sets of hardware in terms of “feel” were comparable. The iPad Pro might scroll a bit smoother in Safari than Windows 10 does in Edge, but the improvement in responsiveness on the Intel hardware thanks to SpeedShift integration has closed the gap considerably.
Screen quality is superb across all three devices. The Surface Pro uses a 12.3-in 2736x1824 IPS display with a pixel density of 267 PPI. The color quality is superb and I have had zero complaints after weeks of using it. However, the iPad Pro devices are in a different league. The 12.9-in model has a 2732x2048 3:2 resolution with a comparable PPI of 264 and the 10.5-in is 2224x1668 with the same 264 PPI. Both are IPS panels but offer DCI-P3 color reproduction and 120 Hz refresh rates, double that of the Surface. Though the real-world impact might be minimal for now, the animation smoothness of the iPad Pro models released this year was noticeable at first glance. Keeping in mind that much of my time is spent measuring and evaluating screens and PC hardware, I am more attuned to the change than most, but the color and speed give the edge of the iPad Pro without debate. The Surface Pro screen is better than 99% of the rest of the laptops and tablets on the market, but again, Apple is a very different kind of competitor.
Though both want to call it something more, the Surface Pro and iPad Pro have optional stylus that complement the capability of touch and keyboard with high performance, high quality hand writing capability. In my testing with both, that consisted of taking hand written notes at meetings, drawing diagrams for reviews, but little to no artistic capability, they are equally matched and usable. I found the responsiveness on the iPad Pro hardware to be dependent on the applications being used. For example, the integrated Notes app show less input latency than OneNote. On the Windows 10 machine though I saw no difference across the programs I tried, with OneNote included in that category. The inclusion of the eraser on the Surface Pen is preferred over having to change software options to eraser mode with the Apple Pencil.
Battery life is solid for both, though the charging method is very different. We have all likely seen the dumb-looking Apple-pencil charging option from the bottom of the iPad Pro; and while I agree it is both idiotic in appearance and dangerously enabling snapping off the connector, the convenience of charging quickly without having to access other cabling or hardware is a big advantage. The Surface Pen uses a AAAA battery which might be hard to find if you happen to run dead at a conference.
Attaching the stylus to the Surface Pro shows that even though I think depending on magnets for external attachment is a poor long-term decision, the capability on the Surface Pro is worlds ahead of the non-option that Apple provides on the tablet itself. Not only that, but neither of the official covers or keyboard accessories improves the story: you are going to be forced to keep track of your Apple Pencil separately.
Speaking of keyboards, let’s dive into the debate around that part of the story as well. Both official keyboard options are combined keyboards and cover, protecting the screen when closed and offering input when opened. The setup and tear down process for the keyboard on the iPad Pro is complicated, requiring you to fold the cover in a particular way and then attach the magnetic end to the connection on the keyboard itself. It’s not hard, but it is a hassle compared to the flip open method that the Surface Pro uses.
Using the keyboard on the Surface Pro is surprisingly good. Detachable keyboards get a bad rap for years of mediocre usability but they have progressed impressively over time. The Surface Pro Signature Type Cover has a soft fabric finish, a fingerprint reader for security, and a key throw that is deeper than you would expect. I typed several stories for PC Perspective on it and found the layout agreeable and the experience pleasant. It’s not going to match the capability of something like the classic Lenovo notebook keyboards but it gets much closer than I had expected when starting out.
The iPad Pro keyboards share the same design between sizes, but my overall impression of them is very different. On the 12.9-in version I found it wobbly and unbalanced, with the smaller surface area of the keyboard and hinge combo seemingly outmatched by the weight and scale of the 12.9-in tablet. Setting it on my lap proved problematic with several breakdowns and I always felt like it might tip over any moment, even on a desk or countertop. That’s a shame too because once I was typing, using the keyboard on the Apple Smart Keyboard was…good. Very good in fact. The keys did feel slightly too small and further apart than they should be, but I had no issues typing longer form content if the device itself was solidly planted.
The Smart Keyboard on the 10.5-in iPad Pro had the same positive traits, but was much more stable on my lap and on a table. Thanks to the improved weight/size to surface area ratio, this combination felt more secure and usable for longer periods of time, with no collapses in my testing. And though the keys were the same size, they are closer together, providing a more comfortable typing experience. I was very capable of long form writing with the iPad Pro 10.5-in and keyboard, surprising even myself with the outcome.
It is worth noting that the Microsoft Type Cover has a built-in touchpad as well, while the iPad Pro keyboards do not, requiring you to interact with the device through the touchscreen exclusively. While I do believe that reaching from your keyboard to the screen can be cumbersome and slow down productivity in many cases, because the software is built for touch first, the overall impact on my daily usage was minimal.
Connectivity is an interesting discussion because while the iPad Pro doesn’t have any other than the Lightning port itself, the operating system and application environment account for that by simply making it impossible to WANT any. If you were hoping to store your data on a thumb drive to bring to your iPad Pro you are going to be disappointed – be prepared to upload it to a cloud service like Dropbox or Google Drive and utilize it accordingly. The Surface Pro might win this one by default, but it still has a surprisingly little amount of external connections. With just a USB 3.0 port, mini DisplayPort, and a headphone jack, users that want to have external mice, headsets, storage, or anything else not Bluetooth enabled, should be prepared to get a splitter or Surface Dock.
I could probably write about the differences in the operating system and application ecosystem between these two computing devices for days and not touch on everything that should be covered. Instead, I’ll offer up some impressions and generalizations on how I felt after using both configurations (the Surface Pro and the iPad Pro 12.9-in) for several weeks.
It is clear that Windows 10 is built for productivity and that the Surface Pro is still a PC at heart. Multi-tasking is ingrained in the OS while Apple’s iOS is still struggling to find how to integrate that capability reliably and universally across the platform. I know that iOS 11 will change a lot in this regard, so I am eager to play with that when it is finally released to the public – it may change some of this section of the review and will be worth revisiting.
We all know what Windows 10 offers for consumers and enterprise: access to everything you could want including MS Office, Chrome, clients for nearly all communication applications, and more. iOS has much of this same software, including something like Microsoft Office, but the experience using it is very different across the two systems. I would claim that the iOS integrations of something like Office and OneNote are inferior on the iPad Pro due to file system limitations and the inability to access other hardware through connectivity or network capability. The Gmail app, as another example, is faster in iOS than the Chrome-based web client in many cases, but it is also buggy and finicky by comparison.
If you are a content creator, the ability to install full Photoshop, Premiere, run Excel sheets or Access databases, in an environment you understand and inherently trust with your work, Windows 10 still makes the most sense.
The Apple iPad Pro does have some advantages here, especially in the world of media consumption and mobile connectivity. Playing back streaming content or using services like Netflix is easier to access on a per-app basis on iOS than going to a website on Windows. And if you are already a part of the iPhone or iPad family, using an iPad Pro as your primary computer means you get to access iMessage and FaceTime.
In my view, and with my workflow, it’s clear that Windows 10 and the Surface Pro have the edge. With all the changes to iOS 11 that Apple is touting, it is possible we could see this shift in the other direction, but Apple has a lot of ground to cover if it wants make iOS and the iPad Pro a true productivity powerhouse.