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iPad Pro vs. Surface Pro 6: Which tablet is the best laptop replacement?

Here's how to find out if the top tablets from Apple and Microsoft have the performance you need to replace your laptop.

apple-ipad-pro-2017-063

The 12.3-inch Surface Pro 6 (left) and the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Thinner, lighter and with a more versatile design than a traditional clamshell notebook, Apple's iPad Pro and Microsoft's Surface Pro tablets can easily replace a laptop in your life when paired with the right accessories. 

However, while they are "Pro" competitors and there is some feature overlap between these top tablets from Microsoft and Apple, there are things that could definitely push you one way or the other. To that end, I've broken down five things to consider if you're trying to choose one to meet your needs. 

Also, if you're shopping for either the iPad Pro or Surface Pro 6, you don't have to worry too much about it being immediately replaced with a new model in the next few months. Apple released an updated Pencil-enabled iPad Mini in March along with a 10.5-inch iPad Air that is very similar to the now discontinued 10.5-inch iPad Pro from 2017. The Surface Pro 6 was announced last October, so it's unlikely to get a full update anytime soon. 

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

For many, the iPad Pro's mobile operating system makes it a complete nonstarter compared to the Surface Pro running on full Windows 10 Pro. Having Windows 10 means you can run full versions of traditional Win32 software 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 fully develop iPad apps on an iPad.)

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The Surface Pro 6 runs on full Windows 10 Pro. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Multitasking 

Apps aside, iOS can't handle workflow the same way Windows 10 can on the Surface Pro 6. Being able to have two, three, four or more apps open on one screen with differently sized windows and quickly switch between them, but also move text, images or data between them is something you take for granted with a desktop OS. Also, while Apple does just about anything to get you to stick to its devices, Microsoft continues to work on ways to let you jump between working on an iPhone or iPad (or Android device) and Windows 10

With iOS 11 and 12, working between open apps has gotten better. For instance, the Files app gives you access to local and cloud-stored files and you can drag and drop text, images and files between apps. But working with multiple apps is still basically limited to having two apps open side by side, filling the screen. You can then drop a third app on top of those, but it has to be from your dock. 

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Gestures are required to juggle the windows and open and switch apps or just get to the home screen. If you already have an iPhone without a home button you may already have these mastered, but otherwise it'll take time and practice to get them straight. It works, but it's all simply not as easy or as efficient as working in MacOS. 

Accessories that matter: Keyboards and pens

If the OSes and their different capabilities didn't steer you toward a model, maybe the keyboards and styluses will. After all, it's their accessories that make them stand out from plain ol' tablets. And oddly neither of them are included with the tablets.

For the Surface Pro 6, Microsoft's basic Type Cover is $129, or there are the fancier color versions covered with Alcantara fabric for $169, although Microsoft does have bundle pricing. Apple's Smart Keyboard for the 12.9-inch is $199. 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 touchpad.  

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Drawing on the Surface Pro 6 is a great experience. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

As for writing and drawing on their screens, the performance is nearly indistinguishable between the two tablets: Both are excellent and improved from prior models. Apple's $129 Pencil has a slightly better feel on the iPad's screen, but the Surface Pen, $99, has different tips to change the feel if you want. Also, while the Surface Pen works on any Surface PC, the first-gen Pencil won't work with the current iPad Pro and the second-gen Pencil isn't backward compatible. 

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 USB-C 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. 

Speed vs. battery life

Specs


iPad Pro (12.9-inch, 2018) Surface Pro 6 (2018)
Price Starts at $999, £969, AU$1,529 Starts at $799, £784, AU$1,349
Optional keyboard $199, £199, AU$299 $129, £125, AU$200
Optional stylus $129, £119, AU$199 $99, £60, AU$140
Base configuration plus keyboard and stylus $1,327, £1,287, AU$2,027 $999, £969, AU$1,689
Display 12.9-inch Retina display, 2,732x2,048 resolution (264 ppi) 12.3-inch PixelSense display, 2,736x1,824 resolution (267 ppi)
Processor A12X Bionic 8th-gen Intel Core i5, i7
RAM Not disclosed 8GB / 16GB
Storage 64GB / 256GB / 512GB / 1TB 128GB / 256GB / 512GB / 1TB
SIM card support for cellular model Nano-SIM; eSIM None
Wireless Dual-band 802.11ac, Bluetooth 5.0 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.1
Ports USB-C, Smart Connector Mini DisplayPort, Surface Connect, Surface Type Cover port, MicroSDXC, USB 3.0, 3.5mm headphone jack
Cameras Front: 7-megapixel TrueDepth with support for Portrait mode and Portrait Lighting, rear: 12-megapixel Front: 5-megapixel with support for Windows Hello, rear: 8-megapixel
OS iOS 12 Windows 10 Home
Dimensions (HWD) 11 x 8.5 x 0.23 inches 11.5 x 7.9 x 0.33 inches
Weight 1.4 lb, 0.63 kg 1.7 lb, 0.77 kg
Battery life Up to 10 hours Up to 13.5 hours

The Surface Pro comes in multiple configurations that start at $799 in the US and go up to $2,299 for one with an Intel Core i7 processor, integrated Intel UHD Graphics 620, 16GB of memory and a 1TB SSD (we reviewed a $1,199 Core i5 version with 256GB of storage). 

With the iPad Pro you can pick between different amounts of storage and two screen sizes. The smaller 11-inch model starts at $799, while the 12.9-inch, which is more comparable in size to the Surface Pro, starts at $999. (None of these prices include a keyboard or stylus, either.) 

Microsoft's tablet might seem like a no-brainer here for performance, but the fact is the iPad Pro's A12X 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 the 2018 iPad Pro matches up against a Surface Pro 6 with a Core i5 processor and 8GB of memory.

People have come to expect a long battery life from tablets and that's pretty much because of the iPad. The thing is, the more powerful the iPad gets and the more efficient Intel's processors are, Windows 10 tablets have edged closer on battery performance

In our video streaming battery rundown test, the iPad Pro lasted 13 hours, 16 minutes. The Surface Pro 6, on the other hand, tapped out at 11 hours, 11 minutes. 

Still undecided? 

In the end, despite the iPad Pro's capabilities, the Surface Pro comes closer to the feel and features of a traditional laptop. On the other hand, there's a good chance you simply don't need a traditional laptop experience or desktop OS for your life and work and a powerful tablet with a good keyboard is plenty (even if it's expensive and doesn't have a trackpad). 

Microsoft Surface Pro 6

The better laptop replacement

Sarah Tew/CNET

The latest Surface Pro tablet doesn't make any radical design changes, but the performance jump makes it viable as a mainstream performance laptop replacement.

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Read full review

Apple iPad Pro (12.9-inch, 2018)

The better tablet

Sarah Tew/CNET

The iPad Pro is in many ways the pinnacle of tablet hardware design, but its high price and software limitations narrow its appeal to creatives willing to bend to its current compromises.

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Read full review

Don't really want a tablet after reading all of this? Consider the new MacBook Air (for Apple fans) or the Surface Laptop 2 (for Windows lovers). Both are top-notch superslim laptops with great trackpads -- and the Surface keeps its sibling's touchscreen, too.  

Note: The tests below were done with a 2018 iPad Pro and a 2018 Surface Pro 6 with a Core i5 processor and 8GB of memory.

Geekbench 4 (multicore)

Apple iPad Pro (12.9-inch, 2018)
18098
Microsoft Surface Pro 6
11983

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance.

3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited

Apple iPad Pro (12.9-inch, 2018)
104375
Microsoft Surface Pro 6
72213

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance.

JetStream Javascript test

Apple iPad Pro (12.9-inch, 2018)
273.94
Microsoft Surface Pro 6
89.701

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Streaming video playback

Apple iPad Pro (12.9-inch, 2018)
796
Microsoft Surface Pro 6
671

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance.