When does a tablet become a computer? It’s a difficult question to consider; the delineation between phones and tablets sits at 7 inches even (measured diagonally), but even those lines have begun to blur — the “phablet” has become a category in and of itself, rendering such labels effectively archaic. 2-in-1 foldable tablets make for workable laptop replacements, and as the tech powering these devices grows smaller, so too does our insistence upon forcing gadgets into restrictive conceptual cages.
Microsoft’s Surface Pro has long been a harbinger of this paradigm shift, pushing expectations when it comes to computing power in a tablet. The new Surface Pro, unveiled today, aims to carry on that tradition and keep Microsoft’s Surface series of devices in the spotlight. Meanwhile, Apple’s iPad Pro looms large as possibly the standard for tablet computing. Both computers are sizable, straddling the line between tablet and laptop, and both are powerful, but the question remains: Which is superior? We dig in.
12.9-inch iPad Pro
|Size||12 x 8.68 x 0.27 inches||11.5 x 7.9 x 0.33 inches|
|Weight||1.57 pounds||1.69-1.73 pounds, depending upon processor|
|Display||12.9-inch LED-backlit multi-touch display||12.3-inch PixelSense display|
|Resolution||2,732 x 2,048 pixels (264 ppi)||2,736 x 1,824 pixels (267 ppi)|
|Operating System||iOS 10||Windows 10|
|Storage||32, 128, 256GB||128, 256, 512GB SSD or 1TB PCIe NVMe|
|Processor||A9X chip with 64‑bit architecture, M9 coprocessor||7th generation Intel Core m3, i5, i7|
|RAM||4GB||4GB, 8GB, 16GB LPDDR3|
|Camera/Webcam||Front 1.2MP, Rear 8MP||Front 5MP, Rear 8MP|
|Connectivity||Wi-Fi, 4G LTE, HSPA+, Bluetooth 4.2||Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2, LTE later this year|
|Sensors||Three-axis gyro, accelerometer, ambient light sensor, barometer, and Touch ID fingerprint sensor||Ambient light sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, Windows Hello face sign-in|
|Battery||Up to 10 hours of surfing the Web on Wi-Fi, watching videos, or listening to music||Up to 13 hours of battery life|
|Ports||Lightning, headphone jack||USB 3.0, microSDXC reader, Surface Connect, headphone jack, Mini DisplayPort, Cover port|
|Price||$799, or $1,079 with cellular||$799 to $2,699|
|DT review||4.5 out of 5||Hands-on|
In late 2015, the iPad Pro began to make news when its A9X SOC processor ranked alongside those considered far more powerful in a number of benchmark tests. Reviewers proclaimed the imminent end of laptop computing as we know it, and crowned the Pro a vanguard of the coming era. In a number of ways, that holds true; the iPad has earned acclaim for its performance, delivering potent processing power and gorgeous graphics despite its slim frame.
Still, those predictions largely turned out erroneous, as further tests placed the iPad toward the middle of the pack, beating out most tablets but lagging behind devices toting Intel i-series chips like Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book Clipboard. The Surface Pro 5 is (unsurprisingly) packing more power than all of the above, with 7th-generation Intel processors that the iPad can’t hope to match.
Depending which model of the Surface you decide upon, you’ll be getting between 128 and 512GB of SSD storage, which you can even upgrade to 1TB of PCIe NVMe for blazing fast access to data, and the Surface boasts between 4 and 16GB of LPDDR3 RAM memory. The iPad’s standard HDD storage and its 4GB memory just can’t compete. Simply put: if you’re worried about power, there’s no competition.
Winner: Surface Pro
Display and design
The screen on the iPad Pro is so beautiful you’ll want to cry. At nearly 13 inches, it sounds unwieldy, but the advantages outweigh the drawbacks; in particular, watching videos, movies, and TV is awesome — it’s like watching on a laptop without all the restrictions that come with an attached keyboard. And, at a whopping 264 pixels per inch, the picture is always crystal clear (as long as you’ve got a solid network connection, of course). Similarly, playing games is awesome, but you’re limited to App Store offerings.
The iPad’s display feels like it’s built specifically for artists, and the Apple Pencil feels like a natural addition. Pressure sensors in the iPad and the Pencil automatically respond to your touch, adjusting the width and depth of lines accordingly. Using the Pencil, you’ll notice nearly zero lag, giving the experience a surreal feeling, and it conveniently plugs directly into any Lightning port for quick charging.
The iPad makes for a great computer in some ways, but in some ways it’s also extremely limiting. Not all apps play nicely with iOS, and there’s no real file explorer to utilize. The iPad doesn’t come with a keyboard, and worthy ones cost upwards of $100. As an addition to your lineup of gadgets, it’s the bee’s knees. As a replacement for your main workstation, it’s a bit lacking.
The Surface Pro isn’t quite as svelte or convenient, but it’s got way more to love; Microsoft is calling it “the most versatile laptop on the planet,” and if the Surface ends up meeting its potential, it’ll be tough to argue. The 10-point PixelTouch multi-touch screen offers 267 pixels per inch over 12.3 inches of real estate, so it should look every bit as handsome as the iPad’s. The 3:2 aspect ratio — typical of Surface devices — works especially well with many design apps, and makes side-by-side app use a breeze and the 48-core Intel Iris Plus graphics found in the i7 models are truly beautiful.
The screen will support both the Surface Pen and the Surface Dial, making it the first laptop to do so. Microsoft has redesigned the Surface Pen, and claims that it will be twice as responsive as the Apple Pencil. If that’s true, the Surface Pen will be (by far) the best stylus of all time. Unfortunately, the Pro doesn’t come with the Pen or the Signature Type Cover, the latest iteration of Microsoft’s native keyboard — the Type Cover will run you a cool $160 extra on its own.
If you do decide to splurge on the keyboard, you shouldn’t be disappointed — it’s available in a number of cool colors and it’s lined with the suede-like Alcantara that’s become standard for Surface accessories. It’ll be interesting to see how the Dial works with a smaller screen; on the Surface Studio, it was a designer’s dream, but it could prove obtrusive on the laptop. Only time will tell.
The built-in kickstand and 165-degree hinge mean you can set up the Surface for easy viewing or put it in Surface Mode for design purposes, and the two cheaper models don’t even require a fan to stay cool. It’s a stretch to declare a clear victor without experiencing the Surface Pro for ourselves, but if Microsoft follows through on their promises, it’ll be an incredible piece of tech.
Winner: Surface Pro
Battery, ports, and connectivity
All our experience points to Apple’s 10-hour battery estimate being accurate. Considering that most people will primarily be playing games or watching media on the device, this is a win. Microsoft promises 13.5 hours of battery life for the Surface Pro; for a tablet, this would be great, and for a computer, it’s pretty damn good. However, Microsoft has overstated battery life figures in the past.
It’s good to see that Microsoft decided to buck recent trends and include a litany of ports on the Surface, including a USB 3.0 port, a Mini DisplayPort, and the multi-purpose Surface Connect port. The iPad’s got a Lightning port for charging and connecting to computers, a headphone jack, and… that’s it. Not that most people expect a ton of options on a tablet, but if you’re considering the iPad as a laptop replacement, that could be a deterrent.
Both devices have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, of course, and while the iPad is LTE-enabled, Microsoft claims that the Surface will get the same treatment later this year. If LTE capability is important to you, hold off on pre-ordering the Surface Pro until more information becomes available here.
Price and availability
Obviously, the iPad is available now, and the Surface isn’t. Pricing for the iPad is relatively straightforward — you can drop $799 on the regular version, or $1,079 on the LTE-enabled device. That said, if you need full laptop functionality, you’ll probably need to drop a couple more Benjamins on a keyboard, so expect the price to be around $1,000, minimum.
The Surface Pro won’t be out until mid-June, and prices vary wildly depending upon which model you want. The base version — toting an Intel m3 chip, 128GB of SSD storage, and 4GB of RAM — will run you $799, while each more powerful iteration raises the bar by $200-$300, up to a maximum of $2,699. The same qualifier applies here — buy a keyboard, and you’re looking at another extra $200 or so.
Still, most people will want the Surface Pro, unless they’re extremely impatient (or invested deeply into Apple’s ecosystem). It provides more bang for your buck, and as an actual laptop, you won’t be limited to App Store software.
Winner: Surface Pro
Both of these machines are capable of doing all your basic laptop stuff — surfing the web, watching Netflix, word processing, etc. — and they’re both equipped with jaw-dropping displays that deserve your attention. The iPad works well in a number of scenarios, and really shines as a design tool when paired with the Apple Pencil.
Still, Microsoft’s new Surface Pro is designed to do all of that (and more), just more effectively. Surface Dial compatibility and the new Surface Pen update mean that the 2-in-1 is a divine design device, an artist’s dream with a high ceiling when it comes to graphical output. And, on top of that, it’s a really good computer, carrying enough power in its bowels to compete with regular laptops.
If you need a tablet right now, buy the iPad Pro — you won’t be disappointed. But if you can bear to wait for a month, or if you’re looking for a more versatile package, there’s no contest; Microsoft’s new Surface Pro takes the cake.