Apple iPad Pro vs Microsoft Surface Pro 3: How the mighty hybrids compare
Anyone following the launch of the iPad Pro at Apple’s 9 September event might have experienced a slight sensation of déjà vu – that they’d seen this somewhere before, and that it wasn’t entirely original. There’s good reason for that. Microsoft already has a very similar product on the market, and has done for some time: the excellent Microsoft Surface Pro 3.
The iPad Pro has many things in common with the Surface Pro 3: it’s designed to be used as a tool for work, it has a keyboard that doubles as a cover and attaches magnetically, and a stylus accessory for writing, sketching and painting on-screen.
But despite the similarities, these are two very different devices that take drastically different approaches to the problem of designing a hybrid tablet for work. Here’s what we know so far about how the two tablets stack up.
Apple iPad Pro vs Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Design and size
Apple has made quite a statement with the size of the iPad Pro, and instead of simply matching its rival, it outdoes it with a 12.9in display compared to the 12in Surface Pro.
From a distance, both look similar. The screen aspect ratio is a practical 4:3 on each tablet, leading to a roughly similar shape. The iPad is the larger device – by 1.3cm across and 2cm from top to bottom – but it’s thinner and lighter than the Surface Pro 3. Not that I’d ever accuse the Surface Pro 3 of being overweight.
A closer look reveals significant design differences, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the chassis design. Without its keyboard, the iPad Pro is very much a pure tablet. You have to hold it in two hands or crooked in one arm to support it. Want to use it on a desk? You’ll have to buy the Smart Keyboard, which incorporates a stand.
The Microsoft Surface Pro 3, however, has a built-in kickstand, and its hinge works at any angle, so you can prop it up and type with it at a shallow angle, adjust it more steeply and stand it up for a presentation or movie-watching session. You don’t need the optional keyboard if you don’t want it.
As far as its appearance is concerned, the iPad Pro adopts a soft approach, with curved edges and corners, while the Surface looks more businesslike, with angular, beveled sides that slope sharply away from the screen surface.
It isn’t just the way it looks, though, that makes it better for work. The Surface Pro’s USB port, microSD slot and mini-DisplayPort video output also make it a far more flexible machine for work. The iPad Pro has only the one data connection: its Lightning port.
Declaring a winner in this category is easy, as long as you assume the “Pro” moniker in both cases means the devices are intended to be used by professionals. I’m going to hand this one to the Surface Pro 3. It’s more practical, and has clearly been designed from the ground up to be used as a working machine, while the iPad Pro is, at its heart, still just a big iPad.
Winner: Microsoft Surface Pro 3
Apple iPad Pro vs Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Keyboard
Neither Apple nor Microsoft bundle keyboards with their devices, but in both cases they should be seen as part of the product as a whole. There’s as little point buying an iPad Pro without the Smart Keyboard as there is buying a Surface Pro without the Type Cover. It just doesn’t make sense.
That means an extra investment, and Microsoft wins once again on this front, with its keyboard costing $129 to Apple’s $169 (I’m comparing dollar prices here as there are no UK prices available as yet).
In terms of design, the two keyboards share some features, but have been designed in a fundamentally different way: the iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard attaches to a magnetic docking port, just like the Surface does, and both are backlit, but in every other respect the two accessories are poles apart.
This is principally because the iPad Pro’s keyboard also acts as the stand for the tablet. One half of the Smart Keyboard has a folding portion that lets you prop the tablet up at an angle, an approach countless third-party iPad keyboard manufacturers adopt already. The problem with this is that you cannot adjust the angle as you can with the Surface Pro 3’s kickstand, and the keyboard will always lie flat.
The other difference is that the iPad Pro’s keyboard lacks a touchpad. Now this is primarily because iOS is an operating system built around touch and touch alone, but using a touchscreen that’s propped up in front of you on a desk has never been particularly comfortable, and I’m not convinced the iPad Pro is going to change that.
As far as typing on the two keyboards is concerned, that’s a little trickier to assess. However, given that the Apple keyboard borrows its key switch technology from the MacBook, I expect it to be at least a match for the Surface Pro 3’s Type Cover keyboard from an ergonomic standpoint. Nonetheless, with a touch more flexibility, and the option of being able to use a touchpad instead of having to prod the screen all the time, Microsoft’s keyboard is the winner here.