Microsoft’s Surface lineup is unfairly maligned in some quarters. While it may have started weak, it got pretty damn good around the third iteration. I’d certainly buy one now. Most of the problems stem from two key places: Microsoft’s continued insistence in advertising the Surface and its Type Cover as things that belong together, yet are actually separate when you go to buy them; and originally splitting the Windows OS with an RT version. Microsoft only rectified the latter mistake relatively recently; the non-Pro version of Surface is now x86-based as well.
Microsoft has now shown how serious it is about hardware with its new, high-end Surface Book, a laptop Microsoft is directly comparing with Apple’s MacBook Pro with Retina Display. A bit lost amid the press coverage for that surprise model is the Surface Pro 4, the latest version of the company’s tablet hybrid, and an initial glance indicates it’s the best one yet. Does it have what it takes to go up against the similarly priced Apple iPad Pro, now that Cupertino is finally making a larger iPad with an optional keyboard? Let’s take a look and find out.
The Surface Pro 4 isn’t a marked departure from the third-generation model. The new one measures 11.5 by 7.93 by 0.33 inches (HWD) and weighs 1.73 pounds. Microsoft increased the display size from 12 to 12.3 inches, with resolution at 2,736 by 1,824 (267 PPI) and a 3:2 aspect ratio, and reduced the bezel depth by a similar amount. In comparison, the iPad Pro measures 12 by 8.68 by 0.27 inches and weighs 1.57 pounds, and has a larger 12.9-inch, 2,732-by-2,048-pixel (264 PPI, 4:3 aspect ratio) display to compensate for the larger height and width. So Apple still wins a bit on getting the tablet slimmer and lighter.
The iPad Pro gets an upgraded A9X processor, although we don’t yet know about a lot of the details underneath the surface. The Surface Pro has a range of sixth-generation (Skylake) Intel Core i3, i5, and i7 processors, with configuration options from 4GB to 16GB of RAM. Both products offer the latest wireless technology, including 802.11ac Wi-Fi support at both 2.4GHz and 5GHz, and Bluetooth 4.2.
This is the largest differentiator between the Surface Pro and the iPad Pro. The Surface Pro 4 runs full-blown Windows 10, just like the Surface Pro 3 did; it’s probably the biggest case you can make about why this comparison should be against the MacBook Air instead of the iPad Pro. Windows 10 also, in our opinion, a better all-around OS than iOS is; like many people, we still can’t imagine ourselves multitasking on an iPad, even with iOS 9’s new split-window mode. Regardless of what you think of Macs, OS X is still the main desktop and laptop OS, not iOS, so it’s not exactly a fair fight to pit Windows 10 against iOS to begin with. This bleeds down to the keyboard choice (which I talk more about below); the Surface Pro 4’s Type Cover has a glass trackpad to control the Windows 10 cursor, whereas the Smart Keyboard doesn’t; with iOS, you touch the screen for everything.
By definition, the different OSes mean different app selections: Take your pick of Windows 10 programs or iOS apps. The former means full-blown versions of Adobe Photoshop, Avid Pro Tools, and any other pro software you can think of, whereas the latter means less-capable, if sometimes more intuitive, iOS versions. We’re tired of people degrading iOS based on whether it’s meant for “professional” media content creation, or just consuming content; of course it’s meant for content creation as well. It’s just different, and if you’re a working professional, you may know you need desktop-class apps and should be looking at a MacBook Pro. Or the Surface Pro 4.
The iPad Pro has an 8MP camera with an f/2.4 aperture, a five-element lens, and a variety of software enhancements like face detection and exposure control. It can record 1080p video at 30fps and has a 120fps slow motion mode with stabilization. The iPad Pro’s front camera is 1.2MP and f/2.2 with 720p video recording. The Surface Pro 4 has a 8MP rear-facing camera as well, but the front-facing camera bumps up to 5MP. Both the iPad Pro and the Surface Pro 4 play music in stereo out of built-in speakers, with two on the Surface Pro and four on the iPad Pro.
The iPad Pro starts at $799 for a 32GB version. $949 gets you 128GB, and $1,079 adds an LTE cellular radio to the 128GB model. You can get all three versions in silver, space gray, or gold. The Surface Pro 4 starts at $899, but you already get 128GB at that price. You can configure the Surface Pro 4 more like a regular PC, with Core i3, i5, and i7 options, and RAM ranging from 4GB to 16GB as mentioned above, and storage options go all the way up to 1TB. The Surface Pro also has a USB 3.0 port, which lets you connect external drives.
The Surface Pro also comes with the Surface Pen; Apple’s pen is optional. But still to our utter puzzlement, the Type Cover is another $130 on top of the Surface Pro 4’s base price. Apple’s Smart Keyboard is also optional (and more expensive at $169), but Apple doesn’t picture the iPad Pro with the keyboard in almost every single photo and makes it clear that it costs more. Microsoft continues to make you search and search to figure out that the Type Cover is optional, which is a problem that has plagued the Surface lineup since day one.
Both Microsoft and Apple are playing up the versatility of these machines, including the ability to draw on the capacitive touch screen and type comfortably on the optional backlit keyboards. While we still have some bones to pick with Microsoft’s overall Surface strategy and marketing, the Surface Pro 4 looks like a killer Windows 10 tablet; just buy it with the keyboard and plan on spending over $1K. If you’re already an iPad fan and want to run iOS apps on a larger screen, the iPad Pro is a killer option as long as you don’t mind the lack of a true multi-window OS.