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iPad Pro vs. Surface Pro: 5 ways to choose

Apple's and Microsoft's top tablets aim to replace your laptop, but can they? Here's how to find out.

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The 12.9-inch iPad Pro (left) and the 12.3-inch Surface Pro. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's a battle as old as time itself... or at least dating back to 2015 when Apple launched the iPad Pro seemingly to take on Microsoft's Surface Pro and prove an iPad can be both a tablet and a laptop.

While non-Pro iPads can be used with Bluetooth keyboards and passive styli, the iPad Pro is designed for use with Apple's own Smart Keyboard and active Pencil, placing it in direct competition with Microsoft's two-in-ones. And although both tablets might be "Pros" and there's certainly some feature overlap between them, there are things that could definitely push you one way or the other. Here are five ways to discover which one is right for you. 

1. OS: The beginning (and possibly the end) of the discussion

For many, the iPad Pro's mobile operating system makes it a complete non-starter compared to the Surface Pro running on full Windows 10 Pro. Having Windows 10 means you can run full versions of traditional Win32 software as well as Flash and Java apps and much more that Apple's iOS simply can't. With iOS you're limited to what's available in Apple's App Store. While that app catalog is in the millions, you might not find mobile equivalents for the full desktop software or legacy applications you need. (Ironically, you can't even develop iPad apps on an iPad.)

That said, there are benefits to being locked into the App Store, not the least of which is security. Apple approves all apps before they're available in the store, so getting malware is unlikely. It's something that Windows is attempting to replicate with its new Window 10 S operating system on the Surface Laptop.

Plus, virus executables that might come in through a link in your email simply won't install. And, if there is a security risk, Apple can respond by pushing an iOS update to all devices for a mass upgrade.

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The Surface Pro runs on full Windows 10 Pro. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

2. The changing multitasking landscape

Apps aside, iOS can't handle workflow the same way Windows 10 can on the Surface Pro. Being able to have two, three, four or more apps open on one screen and quickly switch between them, but also move text, images or data between them is something you take for granted with a desktop OS. But with iOS, this sort of multitasking is limited.

Also, unlike Windows 10, iOS offers no file or folder management (though there are third-party apps to help). This does simplify use for some, it can ultimately be frustrating for professionals who routinely need direct access to files for uploading, editing and sharing or simply organizing.

However, with the launch of iOS 11 this fall, the iPad Pro will get greater multitasking support and a new Files app for accessing local and cloud-stored files. It's still unclear exactly how much access you'll have, but we'll post an update as soon as we test it ourselves. The enhanced multitasking includes the ability to drag and drop text, images and files between apps; a new customizable Dock for quickly opening frequently used apps and documents from any screen; and improved app switching and split-screen viewing. 

Windows is getting its own update in the fall that will include cross-platform tools like Timeline that lets you jump back into a website, file or app and pick up right where you left, even if you were on an iOS or Android device to start. It will also have an app called Windows Story Remix that can mix your photos and videos with 3D objects and your own handwriting done with Windows Ink to automatically create themed videos. 

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3. Accessories that matter: Keyboards, styli and pens

If the OSes and their different capabilities didn't steer you toward a model, maybe the keyboards and styli will. After all, a large part what makes these "Pro" models are these accessories and oddly neither of them are included with the tablets.

For the Surface Pro, Microsoft's basic Type Cover is $129 or there are the fancier color versions covered with Alcantara fabric for $169. Apple's Smart Keyboard is $159. Both give you a good typing experience, but the Surface Pro tablet's built-in hinge makes for better positioning and, more importantly, the Type Cover has a trackpad.  

As for writing and drawing on their screens, the performance is nearly indistinguishable between the two new tablets: Both are excellent and greatly improved from prior models. The iPad Pro's 20-milisecond latency is attributable to the new display's 120Hz refresh rate. For the Surface Pro, it's the updated Surface Pen that takes the credit with support for 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity and 21ms of latency.

Other things to consider: Apple's $99 Pencil has a slightly better feel on the iPad's screen, but the Surface Pen, also $99, has different tips to change the feel if you want. The Pencil charges via a Lightning connector, while the Surface Pen has a single AAAA battery that lasts up to a year. In place of a charging connector, Microsoft's Pen has an eraser on top and a programmable button on the barrel. It's up to you if you value the Pencil's streamlined design and easy charging more than the Surface Pen's extra features.

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The Surface Pro's keyboard has a trackpad the iPad Pro's keyboard lacks. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

4. Plenty of ports vs. many, many dongles

The Surface Pro comes prepared to connect to peripherals. There's a Mini DisplayPort for an external monitor, a full-size USB 3.0 port for, well, anything that plugs into one of those, and Microsoft's Surface Connector that powers the tablet can also connect to the Surface Dock, which has two Mini DisplayPorts, Gigabit Ethernet, four USB 3.0 ports and an audio out. There's also a microSD card slot.

With just one Lightning port on the iPad Pro you'll need to buy adapters to connect to an external display, Gigabit Ethernet, an SD card reader or add a USB 3.0 port. The iPad Pro's magnetic Smart Connector is currently used only for the Smart Keyboard cover. 

5. Speed vs. battery life

Specs


Apple iPad Pro (12.9-inch, 2017) Microsoft Surface Pro (2017)
Price Starts at $799 ($649 for 10.5-inch) Starts at $799
Display 12.9-inch, 2,732x2,048 resolution (264 ppi)
12.3-inch, 2,736x1,824 (267 ppi)
Processor A10X Fusion chip Intel Core m3, i5 or i7
RAM 4GB, 1600MHz 4GB, 8GB or 16GB
Storage 64GB, 256GB or 512GB 128GB, 256GB, 512GB or 1TB
Wireless Dual-band 802.11ac; Bluetooth 4.2 Dual-band 802.11ac; Bluetooth 4.1
Ports Lightning connector, Smart Connector 3.5mm headphone jack Full-size USB 3.0, microSD card slot, Surface Connect connector, 3.5mm headphone jack, Mini DisplayPort
Cameras Front: 7-megapixel; Rear: 12-megapixel Front: 5-megapixel; Rear: 8-megapixel
OS iOS 10 Windows 10 Pro

The Surface Pro comes in multiple configurations that start at $799 and go up to $2,699 for one with an Intel Core i7 processor, Iris Plus Graphics 640, 16GB of memory and a 1TB SSD (we reviewed a $2,199 Core i7 version with 512GB of storage). With the iPad Pro you can pick between different amounts of storage and two screen sizes. The smaller 10.5-inch model starts at $649, while the 12.9-inch, which is more comparable in size to the Surface Pro, starts at $799. (None of these prices include a keyboard or stylus, either.) 

The Surface Pro might seem like a no-brainer here for performance, but the fact is the iPad Pro's new A10X Fusion chip is designed for intensive tasks -- from huge spreadsheets and presentations to 3D modeling and 4K video editing. And remember, the hardware is optimized for App Store apps. Regardless of the new iPad Pro you buy, you're going to get the same performance, which can't be said for the Surface Pro. You can check out benchmark results at the end of this story to see how a new iPad Pro matches up against a Surface Pro with a Core i7 processor and 16GB of memory.

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The iPad Pro's speedy app performance and extreme battery life help you get work done all day long.

Sarah Tew/CNET

People have come to expect a long battery life from tablets and that's pretty much because of the iPad. The thing is, Windows 10 tablets haven't really been any better than the average ultraportable laptop when it comes to runtime.

In our video streaming battery rundown test, the iPad Pro lasted 15 hours and 38 minutes. The Surface Pro, on the other hand, tapped out at 8 hours and 25 minutes. It's pretty clear if you need the most battery life possible in a high-performance tablet, you're better off with the iPad Pro.

Still undecided? Consider these, too

It's worth mentioning that the iPad Pro's cameras are the same as the ones you'll find in the iPhone 7, complete with optical image stabilization and 4K-resolution video capture. That makes it a better choice for anyone looking to turn a tablet into a single device for shooting, editing and uploading video on the go. Along with that, the iPad's True Tone display has a wide color gamut -- DCI-P3 -- for digital cinema-standard colors. The Surface Pro's display can be calibrated for accurate colors, though. 

Don't really need the detachable keyboard after all? Consider the 12-inch MacBook (for Apple fans) or the Surface Laptop (for Windows lovers). Both are top-notch superslim laptops with great trackpads -- and the Surface keeps its sibling's touchscreen, too.  

In the end, despite the iPad Pro's capabilities -- current and planned -- the Surface Pro comes closer to the features of a traditional laptop. On the other hand, there's a good chance you simply don't need a traditional laptop experience anymore and a powerful tablet with a good keyboard is plenty (even if it doesn't have a trackpad). 

Note: The tests below were done with a 2017 iPad Pro and a 2017 Surface Pro with a Core i7 processor and 16GB of memory.

Geekbench 4 (Multi-Core)

Apple iPad Pro (2017)
9194
Microsoft Surface Pro
8845

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance.

3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited

Microsoft Surface Pro
107057
Apple iPad Pro (2017)
53873

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance.

Streaming video playback

Apple iPad Pro (2017)
938
Microsoft Surface Pro
505

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance.