This holiday shopping season, both Microsoft and Apple have tablets that they claim can replace your laptop.
And I can tell you that if you’re looking for a great-looking, gigantic tablet to get stuff done, it’s hard to go wrong.
But that doesn’t mean both tablets are created equal — it’s all about what you need them for.
Here’s why I think the iPad Pro is great, but also why I’d recommend the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 for most users this holiday season.
On the surface (har har), both the iPad Pro and the Surface Pro 4 look super similar, with giant screens and fold-out keyboards. Over the course of my testing, coworkers would routinely get the two confused.
Both devices have great displays. And if size matters, the iPad Pro (left) has a 12.9 inch screen, while the Surface Pro 4's display clocks in at 12.3 inches. As far as battery life, Microsoft claims over 7 hours, which seems a little high. Apple claims the iPad Pro gets 10 hours of battery, which seems about right.
In fact, compared to your standard-issue iPad, the iPad Pro is simply massive. It's not heavy, so you can hold it in one hand if you really like. Just be advised you lose a little bit of portability.
And they both have optional-but-not-really keyboards that double as tablet cases. The Surface Pro 4's Type Cover is $129, and the iPad Pro's smart keyboard is $169.
It's kind of funny, actually. On traditional laptops, the keyboards and trackpads on Apple's MacBook are basically always worlds better than any given Windows laptop. But the Surface Pro's backlit keyboard and trackpad are just shy of MacBook level in quality...
...but the iPad Pro's Smart Keyboard is a little cramped. And it doesn't have a trackpad at all, so you have to use touch to get around the operating system. As an added bummer, it doesn't have a 'Home' button, so you have to reach up off the keyboard to really navigate around the iPad.
Both of them flip up to be laptops. The iPad Pro's keyboard case folds up to support it, while the Surface Pro has a kickstand that folds out of the back. It means the Surface Pro can lean all the way back for different viewing angles, which is handy.
But the whole 'kickstand' approach means that neither the iPad Pro nor the Surface Pro 4 sit neatly on a lap. So much for 'laptop.' This wasn't a huge issue for me, personally, but be aware.
For precise input, both Apple and Microsoft have turned to the once-maligned stylus. The iPad Pro supports the $99 Apple Pencil stylus, while the Surface Pro 4 comes with the Surface Pen.
The Microsoft Surface Pen is pretty great. It's light and comfortable to hold for long periods. And if you turn it over, you can use the back as an eraser, which is a nice feature for klutzes like me.
But so long as we're going head-to-head, the Apple Pencil is a really well-balanced writing instrument that feels much closer to holding a 'real' pen. It's better, but not vastly.
Plus, the best way to charge an Apple Pencil is via the iPad Pro's own Lightning charger port. I like to think of it as a rocketship taking off. (The Surface Pen takes an AAAA battery, and neither stylus needs much power in the first place.)
Speaking of ports, this is where the iPad Pro kind of falls short. It has no USB ports, just the standard Lightning connector you see on all Apple devices for syncing and charging, plus a new 'Smart Connector' where the keyboard plugs in.
The Surface Pro 4, however, has at least one USB port, and a MicroSD slot for more storage. The Surface Pro's charging cable also has an additional USB port that can power devices up.
But enough about that. Small differences aside, they're both solidly-made, good-looking tablets. The software is the big difference. The iPad Pro, for instance, runs Apple iOS 9, with split-screen apps that take advantage of the massive screen real estate.
You can even have two apps open, with a video in the corner. The iPad Pro's hardware is robust enough that it never seems to slow down, even with all of this going on. It's a surprisingly beefy little (big) machine.
The good news is that just about every app works with iPad Pro's split-screen view. The bad news is that you can't have two of the same app open, which is a bummer if you're trying to have two browser windows open, or compare two photos or Microsoft Word documents.
Meanwhile, the Surface Pro 4 runs a full-fledged version of Windows 10. The good part there is that you can have as many apps open as you want. And Windows helps assist you by automatically splitting the screen evenly between as many as four apps.
As for what you can actually do with these tablets...well, that's the thing. The iPad Pro has access to the entire Apple App Store, which means all the apps you (probably) know and love are on there. Apps like Evernote, Microsoft Word, and even business apps like Join.me have gotten updates to take advantage of the Apple Pencil and the iPad Pro's massive screen size.
It also supports a bunch of great sketching and photo-manipulating apps, like Pixelmator, UMake, or FiftyThree's Paper, which make it totally great to take notes on and draw with.
But the big catch is that it ONLY supports apps. If you can do everything you need to do in apps today, then the iPad Pro is a fantastic way to do it.
Plus, not every iPad Pro app has as many features as the desktop versions of the same. So whenever I tried to get work done on the iPad Pro, I ended up having to go back to the Surface Pro 4 to finish the job, anyway.
But since the Surface Pro 4 runs a full version of Windows 10, it can do all the note-taking and sketching stuff I like to do on a tablet, but also 100% of the work I need to do on a laptop.
The Surface Pro 4's weak link here is the Windows Store app market. Because Microsoft's smartphone game is so weak, lots of developers choose to develop for Apple platforms instead.
And while you can easily use stuff like Google Hangouts on the Surface Pro 4, even though there's no app, by way of the standard Chrome web browser...
...the iPad Pro is definitely going to be able to run the Next Big Thing in touch-friendly, mobile apps. Today's iPad Pro is powerful, but extremely limited. That said, apps are getting better all the time, which means that the iPad Pro could be the first draft of something great.
But for the vast majority of cases, the Surface Pro 4 is a brilliant, lightweight, high-performance little beast of a machine that can run just about everything you need to get through the day. For me, personally, it's been just shy of the perfect computer.
One final note: I tried two Microsoft Surface Pro 4's, both of which had massive hardware issues that rendered them unusable. Microsoft says it was an issue with the units sent to reviewers like myself, and that the version you can buy in stores doesn't have that issue. We're taking Microsoft at its word, but if you have issues with your Surface Pro 4, let us know.
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