2015 is the year of the pro if Apple’s and Microsoft’s newest star tablets are anything to go by. Both the iPad Pro and Surface Pro 4 paid us a visit so we put them head to head to see which one has the edge.
Both companies have established distinctive form factors for their respective product categories over the years. The iPad Pro shares all the hallmarks of its smaller siblings like the iPad Air 2, with a centrally positioned Touch ID-capable home button, minimalist, rounded metal body and Lightning connector – the biggest difference is the Pro’s sheer size.
Apple’s newest iPad is a veritable behemoth in tablet terms, with a footprint that is near enough double that of the Air. Despite its massive size however it retains an impeccably thin profile and still feels sturdy in the hand, or rather hands, as at 713 grams, you’ll need arms like Arnie for prolonged one-handed use.
The Surface Pro 4 meanwhile does a nice job of offering up a larger screen in a device that packs almost exactly the same dimensions as last year’s Pro 3. It too features an all-metal body, but with harder edges and couple of extra ports.
As well as the obligatory power and headphone slots, we’d chalk one-up for the Pro 4 in the way of connectivity off the bat, as it can also accommodate a secondary display and thanks to a full-sized USB 3.0 port any peripheral you’d typically throw into a fully-fledged PC, from a flash drive to a 3D scanner. You can buy a myriad of connectors for the iPad’s Lightning connector, but if you’re going the official Apple route, thing will get expensive quickly.
The signature integrated kickstand lets you prop the Pro 4 up at any comfortable angle without having to fork out for an extra case, which is something of a prerequisite with the sizeable iPad Pro as working with it flush on a table for prolonged periods can easily cause neck strain.
On the flip side the native on-screen typing experience offered up by Windows is so comparatively weak that the excellent new Type Cover accessory is effectively a necessity, adding just under £110 to the price tag of the Pro 4 if you plan on getting any writing done.
The equivalent Smart Keyboard for the iPad Pro is also solid (despite app-specific compatibility being hit and miss) and will undoubtedly increase productivity too, but that costs even more than the Type Cover and the on-screen experience is competent enough on iOS that you should be able to manage without one without too much trouble.
Screen and multimedia
Both devices pack big screens that are just as useful for creating media as they are for consuming it; although when it comes to watching movies we’d have to hand it to the iPad thanks to a set of four seriously good integrated speakers along its edges. The Pro packs the larger 12.9-inch Retina display whilst the Pro 4 a smaller, but perfectly formed 12.3-inch PixelSense panel.
The iPad pushes slightly more pixels with a resolution of 2732×2048, but at 2736×1824, the Pro 4 technically wins out in terms of pixel density (267ppi vs 264ppi). At normal viewing distances however, just know that both screens look pin sharp and handle both colour and motion exceptionally well (we’d give the Pro 4 the edge with regards to contrast though).
The real comparison falls to their abilities when paired with their respective styluses. The price of the Pro 4 includes the newest Surface Pen out-the-box, whilst the Apple Pencil is an extra £79; a sting considering that for many it’s the reason to buy a Pro in the first place.
Whichever slate you choose, the stylus experience can vary wildly not just from device to device, but from application to application. The iPad features a number of great apps for use with the Pencil highlighted within a dedicated section on the App Store, whilst it’s a little harder to tell which apps are Surface Pen-friendly (we’d recommend Autodesk SketchBook if you’re looking on the Microsoft Store). Both devices also pack native apps that have enough features to get digital artists started though.
Beyond that it’s a more familiar experience on both and a more obvious divide. On Apple’s side of the fence we would have liked more icons on each home screen considering the amount of screen real estate on offer, but we can’t fault the robust App Store and ease of use offered up by the interface.
The Pro 4 comes running the latest release of Windows 10 Pro, which is a significant improvement over Windows 8 and 8.1 from a usability standpoint, however side by side with iOS there’s a lot more going on and it can get confusing. The saving grace is Tablet Mode, which tries to simplify things a touch when you’re swiping around and using the Pro 4 more like a conventional tablet than a full-blown computer.
But that in itself is a key differentiator; the Pro 4 is a fully fledged Windows 10-optimised PC with proportions and features (like the Surface Pen) that enable it to go toe to toe with the iPad Pro. Whilst the App Store still easily trumps the Windows Store, the Surface can run any Windows application, not a cut-down or modified mobile version.
Companies like Adobe have built powerful touch-optimised experiences for iOS sure, but the Surface negates the need to rely on such apps or the need to choose between touch, stylus or mouse and keyboard when it comes to user interaction. If you want to get serious tasks done, there’s little doubt that you’ll have a lot more luck with the Pro 4 in this instance.
In order to offer such flexibility the Surface Pro 4 also packs PC-level internals, with sixth generation Intel Core M3, i5 and i7 processors on offer along with tons of RAM and internal storage skews to choose from (not to mention support for expandable memory via microSD card). However part of the Surface’s bulk comes from the fact that such beefy silicon has to rely on a fan cooling system.
The nature of iOS and its roots in mobile mean that the demands on the internal hardware are less, and yet the A9X chip twinned with some excellently optimised software means that despite not running full desktop-class applications, you can still be a power user when it comes to specific skills. The Pro takes tasks like 4K video editing in its stride and has a greater penchant for gaming to name two.
Going back to the Apple Pencil and Surface Pen, the iPad’s stylus experience feels more refined with the ability to pick up more of the subtleties of sketching and drawing with an actual pencil, brush or pen. The Surface Pen has excellent latency and 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity, but palm rejection isn’t as reliable and nuances like adjusting the angle of the Pen don’t affect how it responds on the display as you’d find with the Pencil on the Pro.
The last big make or break aspect for these slates is battery life, with the iPad lasting near enough to the quoted ten hours of use per charge, which should be enough for the average digital artist. The Surface meanwhile can muster six and half hours of mixed use, but significantly less when strained by tasks like 3D gaming, which is hasn’t been optimised for. Just know what your needs are before laying down cash here.
Devices like the Apple iPad Pro and Microsoft Surface Pro 4 highlight just how narrow the divide has become between the worlds of desktop and mobile computing. That said each has strength in its roots, with Apple’s Pro excelling at specific tasks like content creation, multimedia and gaming.
The Surface Pro 4 meanwhile can’t perform any of the iPad’s best skills as well as the iPad can, but thanks to the combination of powerful hardware and its full-featured operating system, it can do a far broader range of tasks to a seriously high standard, particular for a mobile device.
The other big thing to consider is the cost of accessories, which are what really make the experiences these devices offer worthwhile. If you just buy the iPad Pro on its own, you’ve essentially got a giant, powerful iPad Air 2, but add in the Apple Pencil (£79) and the Smart Keyboard (£139) and you’ve a powerful tool for digital artists. You just have to be sure that up to £218 on top of the Pro’s £679 to £899 price tag is worthwhile for such a specific skill set.
The same can be said for Microsoft’s top tablet too which really does need the Type Cover to offer the best experience it can. That said, even with the additional cost, you can do so much more with the one-two punch of hardware and software Microsoft has married together in the Surface Pro 4 and that’s something the niche talents of the iPad Pro simply can’t match.
Update 27/11/15: Updated to more accurately define the differences between these two devices and provide greater clarity over the experiences they offer.