Surface Pro and iPad Pro – incomparable

0.12 of a pound less in weight. 0.6 inches more in display area.

That’s all that separates the iPad Pro from the Surface Pro (lightest model of each). Add in the fact that both feature the modifier “Pro” in their name, and that they look kind of similar, and it’s hard to not invite comparisons, right? (Of course, what tablets in 2016 don’t look like tablets?)

Over the past few weeks, several reports have suggested that perhaps Apple’s Tablet Grande and Microsoft’s collection of tablet and tablet-like devices may have affected at holiday quarter sales of tablet-like devices from the other. Given what I’ve said above, I’ve surely even suggested that I might cross-shop one with the other when shopping. But man, that would be a mistake.

I’m not going to throw any more numbers at you to try and explain why the iPad Pro and Surface devices aren’t competitors, and shouldn’t be cross-shopped. Okay, only a few more; but it’ll be a minute. Before I do, let’s take a step back and consider the two product lines we’re dealing with.

The iPad Pro is physically Apple’s largest iOS device, by far. But that’s just it. It runs iOS, not OS X. It does not include a keyboard of any kind. It does not include a stylus of any kind. It can’t be used with an external pointing device, or almost any other traditional PC peripheral. (There are a handful of exceptions.)

The Surface Pro 4 is Microsoft’s most recent tablet. It is considered by many pundits to be a “detachable” tablet, which it is – if you buy the keyboard, which is not included. (As an aside, inventing a category called detachables when the brunt of devices in the category feature removable, but completely optional keyboards seems slightly sketchy to me.) Unlike the iPad Pro, the Surface Pro 4 does include the stylus for the device. You can also connect almost any traditional PC peripheral to a Surface Pro 4 (or Surface 3, or Surface Book.)

Again, at this point, you might say, “See, look how much they have in common. 1) A tablet. 2) A standardized keyboard peripheral. 3) A Stylus.”

Sure. That’s a few similarities, but certainly not enough to say they’re the same thing. A 120 volt light fixture for use in your home and a handheld flashlight also both offer a standard way to have a light source powered by electrical energy. But you wouldn’t jumble the two together as one category, as they aren’t interchangeable at all. You use them to perform completely different tasks.

The iPad Pro can’t run any legacy applications at all. None for Windows (of course), and none for OS X. There is it’s Achilles heel; it’s great at running iOS apps that have been tuned for it. But if the application you want to run isn’t there, or lacks features found in the Windows or OS X desktop variant you’d normally use (glares at you, Microsoft Word), you’re up the creek. (Here’s where someone will helpfully point out VDI, which is a bogus solution to running legacy business-critical applications that you need with any regularity.)

The Surface Pro offers a contrast at this point. It can run universal Windows platform (UWP) applications, AKA Windows Store apps, AKA Modern apps, AKA Metro apps. (Visualize my hand getting slapped here by platform fans for belaboring the name shifts.) And while the Surface Pro may have an even more constrained selection of platform-optimized UWP apps to choose from, if the one you want isn’t available in the Windows Store, you’ve got over two decades worth of Win32 applications that you can turn to.

Anybody who tells you that either the iPad Pro or the Surface Pro are “no compromise” devices is either lying to you, or they just don’t know that they’re lying to you. They’re both great devices for what they try to be. But both come with compromises.

Several people have also said that the iPad Pro is a “companion device”. But it depends upon the use case as to whether that is true or not. If you’re a hard-core Windows power user, then yes, the iPad Pro must be a companion device. If you regularly need features only offered by Outlook, Excel, Access, or similar Win32 apps of old, then the iPad Pro is not the device for you. But if every app you need is either available in the App Store, you can live within the confines of the limited versions of Microsoft Office for Office 365 on the iPad Pro, or your productivity tools are all Web accessible, then the iPad Pro might not only be a good device for you, but it might actually be the only device you need. It all comes down to your own requirements. Some PC using readers at this point will helpfully chime in that the user I’ve identified above doesn’t exist. Not true – they’re just not that user.

If a friend or family member came to me and said, “I’m trying to decide which one to buy – an iPad Pro or Surface Pro.”, I’d step them through several questions:

  1. What do you want to do with it?
  2. How much will you type on it? Will you use it on your lap?
  3. How much will you draw on it? Is this the main thing you see yourself using it for
  4. How important is running older applications to you?
  5. How important is battery life?
  6. Do you ever want to use it with a second monitor?
  7. Do you have old peripherals that you simply can’t live without? (And what are they?)
  8. Have you bought or ripped a lot of audio or video content in formats that Apple won’t let you easily use anymore? (And how important is that to you?)

These questions will each have a wide variety of answers – in particular question 1. (Question 2 is a trap, as the need to use the device as a true laptop will lead most away from either the iPad Pro or the Surface Pro.) But these questions can easily steer the conversation, and their decision, the right direction.

I mentioned that I would throw a few more numbers at you:

  • US$1,028.99 and
  • US$1,067.00

These are the base prices for a Surface Pro 4 (Core m3) and iPad Pro, respectively, equipped with a stylus and keyboard. Just a few cups of Starbucks apart from each other. The Surface Pro 4 can go wildly north of this price, depending upon CPU options (iPad Pro offers none) or storage options (iPad Pro only offers one). The iPad Pro also offers cellular connectivity for an additional charge in the premium storage model (not available in the Surface Pro). My point is, at this base price, they’re close to each other, but that is a matter of convenience. It invites comparisons, but deciding upon these devices based purely on price is a fool’s errand.

The more you want the Surface Pro 4 (or a Surface Book) to act like a workstation PC, the more you will pay. But there is the rub; it can be a workstation too – the iPad Pro can’t ever be. Conversely, the iPad Pro can be a great tablet, where it offers few compromises as a tablet – you could read on it, it has a phenomenal stylus experience for artists, and it’s a great, big, blank canvas for whatever you want to run on it (if you can run it). But it will never run legacy software.

The iPad Pro may be your ideal device if:

  1. You want a tablet that puts power optimization ahead of everything else
  2. Every application you need is available in the App Store
  3. The are available in an iPad Pro optimized form
  4. The available version of the app has all of the features you need
  5. All of your media content is in Apple formats or available through applications blessed by Apple.

The Surface Pro may be your ideal device if:

  1. You want a tablet that is a traditional Windows PC first and foremost
  2. Enough of the applications you want to run on it as a tablet are available in the Windows Store
  3. They support features like Snap and resizing when the app is running on the desktop
  4. You need to run more full-featured, older, or more power hungry applications, or applications that cannot live within the sandboxed confines of an “app store” platform
  5. You have media content (or apps) that are in formats or categories that Apple will not bless, but will run on Windows.

From the introduction of both devices last year, many people have been comparing and contrasting these two “Pro” devices. I think that doing so is a disservice. In general, a consumer who cross-shops the two devices and buys the wrong one will wind up sorely disappointed. It’s much better to figure out what you really want to do with the device, and buy the right option that will meet your personal requirements.

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