The iPad Pro vs Surface Pro 4: which one comes out on top?

When Apple announced the iPad Pro, they positioned it essentially as the equivalent of the Windows hybrid machines that Microsoft and its OEM partners have released since the advent of Windows 8 and a more touch-friendly Windows environment. Microsoft even joined Apple's event and highlighted how Office Mobile running on an iPad Pro makes for a more productive device. Many industry pundits and bloggers have been quick to jump on the bandwagon and lump the iPad Pro in with the big boys.

We challenge all of these assertions.

We'll be providing on-going coverage of why a mobile device like the iPad Pro simply isn't the same as a full-on Windows 10-based machine. For now, though, we'll take a quick look at where the iPad Pro falls rather short of being in the same class as the best example of the type, Microsoft's Surface Pro 4.

The iPad Pro is larger than its tablet predecessors, that's certainly true. It utilizes a digitizer and pen (or Pencil, in Apple's vernacular) that's more precise and responsive than the capacitive styluses that have long been available for iOS devices. And, it has a first-party keyboard that pairs more directly than the hundreds of third-party Bluetooth keyboards that you've been able to pick up at retailers for years.

However, does a larger screen, a dedicated keyboard, and a Pencil really turn an iPad into the same thing as a Surface Pro 4? We certainly don't think so, and here are just a few areas where the Surface Pro 4 qualifies as a real PC and the iPad Pro definitively does not:

  • Desktop-class processors ranging up to the Core i7 vs. the iPad Pro's mobile ARM processor
  • RAM up to 16GB vs. the iPad Pro's 4GB maximum
  • Storage up to 1TB vs. the iPad Pro's 128GB maximum
  • USB port for easily connecting a broad array of industry-standard devices
  • Dedicated docking solutions that dramatically expand peripheral support
  • Multi-monitor support up to two external monitors (a total of three independent workspaces)
  • Built-in microSD card support with support for external application installation
  • Complete support for all third-party input devices, including keyboards, mice, trackpads, joysticks, etc.

In short, the iPad Pro remains a mobile device with all of the requisite limitations. That's fine for what it is, but comparing it directly to a PC like the Surface Pro 4 seems a bit silly.

Operating System
iOS is a simple and easy-to-use mobile operating system that a novice can pick up and start using relatively quickly. It's become less "intuitive" (if it ever was such a thing) as time has gone on, with additional complexity in terms of its "multitasking" capabilities and an ever-growing list of features and gestures that makes pulling out the manual more and more necessary. Nevertheless, iOS remains an OS that is easier to use simply because it's focused on doing significantly fewer things.

iOS is not, however, a fully-baked operating system that provides the full range of capabilities of what we've always considered to be a "personal computer." Yes, we're in a "post-PC" world by some definitions, or at least a "PC-plus world" where a PC is not the central or only device for many people. Smartphones are leading the way as the most popular devices, as they've grown larger and more capable, and although tablet sales have dropped off they remain a viable first or at least second device for people with very basic computing needs.

But there's a whole host of things that iOS cannot do, or cannot do well, compared to a real operating system like Windows 10:

  • Support multiple users with complete application and file security
  • Manage local and shared files that are accessible to all applications
  • Remotely manage a machine with capabilities including remote control
  • Virtual machine support for running multiple operating systems simultaneously
  • Fully support all input device types, including mice, trackpads, graphics tablets, game controllers, etc.
  • Utilize the incredible universe of hardware such as multifunction devices, scanners, audio and video peripherals, etc.
  • Access the vast array of network resources available at home and at work
  • Fully integrate with the robust enterprise applications that drive organizations
Try managing this kind of file storage complexity on an iOS device.
Try managing this kind of file storage complexity on an iOS device.
This is the footprint of a machine that can utilize any PC peripheral known to mankind.
This is the footprint of a machine that can utilize any PC peripheral known to mankind.

Apple introduced very simple multitasking capabilities in iOS 9.X, with the iPad Air 2 and iPad Pro providing the most complete support. On those devices, you can run (only) two applications side-by-side in a manner that's similar to Windows 8/10 "Snap," but that's also limited to applications specifically written to support the feature. You can also run apps in a strip along the right side on more iPad versions, but it's really just a beefed-up "recent apps" capability.

Simply put, while iOS can now technically multitask, it's a rather pale comparison to Windows 10. Any app can be snapped in Windows 10, up to four on one screen depending on the display resolution. All apps can run in the background on Windows 10, fully multithreaded and utilizing a selectable number of a machine's cores. Support for a real desktop mode with windows applications means the ability to do many things at once is limited only by the system's available memory.

iOS Slide Over, a sort of glorified recent apps list.
iOS Slide Over, a sort of glorified recent apps list.
iOS Split View, which if kind of like Windows 10 Snap but limited to apps that are written to support it.
iOS Split View, which is kind of like Windows 10 Snap but limited to two apps that are written to support it.
With Windows 10 on the Surface Pro 4, Snap up to four apps--any apps you want.
With Windows 10 on the Surface Pro 4, Snap up to four apps--any apps you want.

For the longest time, Apple denigrated the very notion of multitasking, calling it a virtue that iOS forced users to do one thing at a time. They've switched gears once again, as Microsoft has demonstrated the value of hybrid devices that can play like tablets and work like real PCs. Now, they're admitting that multitasking has its merits, but offered up a rather limited version of it. Regardless, iOS multitasking is in a completely different class from the Surface Pro 4, and there's some value in pointing that out.

The iPad Pro will have access to hundreds of thousands of excellent mobile apps when it ships. Up to a point, those apps will make it easy to consume media, access social networks, play relatively simple games, and dip a toe into using the tablet as a productivity device.

However, there's a reason why the industry-standard term "application" was shortened to "app" when mobile devices started becoming popular. In virtually every case, mobile apps are mere shadows of their PC equivalents. They tend to perform the most basic functions only, and completely lack the power and depth of full-fledged applications.

Consider just a few examples:

  • Complete office suites, e.g., Office 2016
  • Database applications, e.g., Access 2016
  • Photo editing applications, e.g., Adobe Photoshop
  • Video editing applications, e.g., Adobe Premier
  • 3D rendering applications, e.g., AutoCAD
  • Financial management, e.g., QuickBooks
  • Development environments, e.g., Visual Studio

In each case, the iOS equivalent (where it exists) is nothing but a stripped-down shell capable of performing only the most rudimentary functions. You can create and edit very simple documents, photos, and video, and perhaps access and update financial and other business information. However, you can't create complex documents, perform extremely complex edits on photos and video, nor run a business on an iPad Pro.

Word 2016 has roughly 4,293 times as functionality as Word Mobile.
Word 2016 has roughly 4,293 times the functionality of Word Mobile on iOS.
Word Mobile on iOS enables some light editing, and that's about it.
Word Mobile on iOS enables some light editing, and that's about it.

If there's one area where the iPad Pro matches or exceeds the (even somewhat) equivalent Surface Pro 4, it's the price. When you compare the iPad Pro 128GB to the similar Surface Pro 4 Core m3 version (the most relevant comparison), you might find the total investment to be a bit surprising:

iPad Pro, 4G/128GB WiFi: $949
Apple Smart Keyboard for iPad Pro: $169
Apple Pencil for iPad Pro: $99
Total: $1,217

Surface Pro 4 Core m3, 4GB/128GB: $899
Surface Pen: Included
Surface Pro 4 Type Cover: $130
Total: $1,029

Even the significantly more powerful Surface Pro 4 Core i5 version costs less than the iPad Pro:

Surface Pro 4 Core i5, 4GB/128GB: $999
Surface Pen: Included
Surface Pro 4 Type Cover: $130
Total: $1,129

The iPad Pro is really more like the Surface RT
If there's any recent Microsoft machine that the iPad Pro compares to more directly, it's the now-defunct Surface RT--at least, in terms of app support. The Surface RT was more of a PC-like hardware experience, with support for a wider range of peripherals, but it utilized an ARM processor and only supported Windows apps (not the full-featured Win32 apps that require an Intel X86 processor). Microsoft offered a full version of Office that ran on the Surface RT, but otherwise Microsoft's original tablet suffered the same software limitations as the iPad Pro.

In the final analysis, the iPad Pro is an improvement over its predecessors in some ways, that much is true. A larger screen makes iOS "multitasking" more comfortable, the iPad Pro will certainly be more suitable for handwriting and drawing, and, well, it's bigger. But comparing it to a machine like the Surface Pro 4 just seems illogical to us. Anyone who asserts that you can be fully productive on a mobile device like the iPad Pro is missing huge swaths of the market and ignoring so much that PCs have been capable of doing for decades.

In many ways, in fact, the iPad Pro is less functional than PCs released a decade ago. It's even a lesser machine than the far less expensive Surface 3. Adding a "Pro" on the end might fool the uninitiated and those who don't fully utilize their PCs, but anyone who does real work on a machine--marketing professionals, developers, engineers, etc.--would quickly find the iPad Pro to be more of an amateur's machine.

Stay tuned for more on this topic.

Share This Post:


Here are four pen nibs for your Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book Pen

Google ends Chrome support for Windows Vista and XP next year