Tablet Pro Disassembly: IPad Pro Vs Surface Pro 4

Apple’s iPad Pro and Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 are similar in many ways. Both are large tablets, both plug into thin keyboard covers, and both offer a stylus for drawing and taking notes. But after spending some time on these potential laptop replacements, I found that they really are very different, especially when it comes to performance.


Every PC manufacturer has at least one 2-in-1 laptop / tablet hybrid. They offer a compelling proposition: laptop performance (with large displays and full-size keyboards) and ultraportable tablet. In this battle, we look at the current flagship devices from Apple and Microsoft – tablets that companies have designed from top to bottom as laptop replacements. (The Surface Pro slogan literally reads “A tablet that can replace your laptop . Apple CEO Tim Cook wonders why anyone would buy a PC now that the iPad Pro is out.)

  • iPad Pro (starting at $ 799): Released in November 2015, the iPad Pro with a 12.9-inch mega-size Retina display is a newcomer to this category. The full-size Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil are optional accessories, but you’ll probably want to combine both to get the full experience of iPad Pro as it was designed by Apple.
  • Surface Pro 4 (starting at $ 899): Microsoft’s fourth-generation Surface Pro was released in October 2015. Compared to previous Surface tablets, the Surface Pro 4 has slightly more screen real estate (thanks to a thinner screen bezel), more memory and storage capacity options, and an updated cooling system. It also offers an optional keyboard cover, but Microsoft includes the Surface Pen with Surface Pro 4.

According to their characteristics, they are quite close:

However, the stats don’t tell the whole story. So here’s how to use them.


When I first unboxed the iPad Pro, I was shocked at how big this tablet is. Perhaps this is because I am used to 10 “and 7” tablets (for comparison, in the image above, this is the iPad Air 2 under the iPad Pro). The Surface Pro 4 also has a large display, but it’s more compact and doesn’t look that huge. Both tablets have crisp, high-resolution displays that rival most laptops.

From an aesthetic point of view, I prefer the iPad Pro. Its rounded edges make the tablet feel better in the hand and look nicer than the boxy Surface Pro. It’s also noticeably thinner than the Surface Pro and weighs a little less, although I honestly couldn’t tell the difference in weight between the two just by holding them. (And no one else that I could not get through this ordeal.)

Both of these tablets are too large and heavy to hold in your hand for extended periods of time, so you’ll end up propping them up. While the iPad Pro looks more elegant, one design feature makes the Surface Pro’s thicker and boxer shape more palatable: the built-in kickstand. The stand allows you to use the device in tablet mode without taking your eyes off the keyboard, and you can position the display you want from any viewing angle – a feature that many laptops sorely lack. This flexibility allows the surface to be used at a shallow angle, ideal for drawing, or at a steeper angle for confined spaces, such as a small tray table on an airplane. In contrast, the iPad Pro only has one fixed position on the keyboard, although you can reconfigure the keyboard so that the tablet sits in front of the keyboard for watching videos or presentations.

Surface Pro 4 also features a full-size USB port, mini DisplayPort, and a microSD card slot. This means you can easily expand your storage space (which is already larger than an iPad), connect a mouse or other peripherals to the device, and connect an external monitor to the tablet.

So while the iPad Pro is prettier and more comfortable to use, the Surface Pro 4’s more flexible design and additional ports give it an edge in this area.

Pen versus pencil

While Microsoft’s stylus, called Surface Pen , and Apple’s stylus, Apple Pencil , have the same function, there are subtle, important differences between the two.

A little background so you know where I’m from: I’m a little obsessed with what I write on screens. The first laptop I bought about 12 years ago was a Toshiba Portege M200 tablet with a 12-inch screen that could be rotated and folded back into tablet mode for use with the included stylus. Most of the gadgets I’ve bought since then support the stylus. (This is how my mind works. Whenever an idea or desire to create comes up, I grab a pen or a tech version of one.) My current laptop is the Surface Book, a more robust version of the Surface Pro. My phone is a Galaxy Note 5. I am using my second iPad, and I also used a couple of styluses with those tablets. So I’m expecting a lot from the stylus, and I’m happy to report that the Surface Pen and Apple Pencil are the best I’ve ever used.

Stylus docking station. The Surface pen uses strong magnets to attach to the sides of the tablet, making it more comfortable than you think. A few months ago, I tested a Surface Pro 3 that lacked this docking feature and kept losing my pen. The iPad Pro doesn’t have this docking feature, perhaps because the Apple Pencil is an optional accessory, but I think that’s an oversight. Apple could at least have a holder built into the keyboard.

Battery: One end of the Apple Pencil unscrews to reveal a lightning connector to charge the stylus’s 12-hour Li-ion battery. The Surface Pen has a user-replaceable AAAA battery. If an iPad Pro user and Surface Pro 4 user run out of stylus power, the Surface Pro user will work approximately 30 minutes earlier than the iPad Pro user – provided they have a spare AAAA battery nearby. Otherwise, the Surface user won’t have much luck while the Apple Pencil is being charged via an iPad Pro or Lightning charger. This is just one feature to consider depending on your charging needs and battery philosophy.

Design: both pencil and nib are comfortable to hold. The Pencil is longer, sleeker, slightly thinner and bright white, while the Surface pen has a metallic finish and feels a little heavier. People with big hands or long fingers will love using the larger Apple Pencil (it’s like using a brush), while the Surface pen is the same size as a standard pen, with a satisfying weight.

The Surface Pen takes the pen-and-pencil analogy even further. It has a pen clip, and you can use the top as an eraser in OneNote and in drawing programs. This is a real time saver, especially if you keep looking for the eraser icon in whatever program you use. The button at the top also allows you to quickly take a screenshot and send it to OneNote, while the other button on the handle right-clicks.

Performance: Perhaps the most important question is how well the stylus interacts with the tablet? On both the iPad Pro and Surface Pro 4, I did a little sketching in OneNote, sketching in Autodesk Sketchbook, and sketching in other apps to figure it out. In both cases, I was very pleased. Palm recognition on both tablets is excellent, as is accuracy (which I tested with a grid in OneNote). I didn’t notice any significant difference in latency between the two, although some web browsers suggest the Pencil has lower latency. I found both tablets to be really responsive.

The Apple Pencil was slightly more pressure sensitive than the Surface pen, which Microsoft says has 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity (Apple didn’t say how many pressure levels the iPad Pro supports). I found it easier to change the strength of the lines on the iPad Pro from very weak to very bright when I was doing the rough sketches. In the image below, a black and white sketch was taken on an iPad Pro, and a color sketch was taken on a Surface Pro 4.

I also had more options with the Apple Pencil. I chose to write on the iPad Pro with a pencil over the Surface Pro 4 and pen. The sensors on iPad Pro measure not only the amount of pressure you apply, but also the angle at which you hold your Apple Pencil. Tilting the Apple Pencil creates a shading effect that is almost the same as using a real pencil over paper. The Surface pen doesn’t have this option, but it does offer some customizations in Windows, such as turning the on-screen pointer on or off, or telling the pen that you’re left-handed.

The Surface Pro 4’s screen is slightly inferior to it – you can see a slight indentation on the screen when you press on it with the stylus, whereas the iPad Pro has a very rigid screen. There is a little more friction with the Surface grip. I think neither is better than the other, but gives a slightly different feel to the stylus and screen. Don’t get your hopes up, though: it’s not like writing with a pencil or pen on paper. It still feels like you’re painting on glass.

This is a draw. The Surface pen is more functional and practical, with an eraser button, tablet connectivity and battery replacement, while the Pencil is slightly more responsive. If you’re a digital artist, you’ll probably prefer the Pencil, but the Surface Pen is quite capable as well.

Keyboard cover

None of the tablets can be a good replacement for a laptop without a keyboard. I’ll get to the point and just say that Apple’s Smart Keyboard is a disappointment.

Not a complete disappointment. The keys have a pleasant, slightly concave shape to minimize errors. Its fabric is splash-proof. There is no lag when typing because iPad Pro connects to the keyboard using the new Smart Connector rather than Bluetooth. It is relatively lightweight and protects the screen well.

Compare it to the Type Cover on the Surface Pro 4, though, and the iPad Pro’s lid lags behind. When you enter text on the Apple Smart Cover, you get the impression that you are pressing soft keys and interacting with a tablet keyboard, not a real laptop keyboard. Meanwhile, the Type Cover has a backlit glass trackpad and a row of function keys. The Type Cover keys are slightly larger than the Apple Smart Keyboard. They have good travel (1.4mm to be precise) and crispness thanks to the Type Cover scissor key mechanism.

I am typing about 70 words per minute on my mechanical keyboard. In typing tests, I hit 62 wpm on the Surface Type Cover, compared to 57 wpm on the Smart Cover.

The winner is definitely the Type Cover for this; it looks most like a laptop keyboard. Note, however, that none of the tablets with keyboard covers are comfortable to use on your lap. Tablets are too heavy compared to keyboards to be comfortably positioned or balanced in your lap, unless you’re using a tray or other surface underneath the device.

Performance as a laptop replacement

The biggest challenge for me was using these tablets as my primary laptop. I admit my bias here because I use Windows as my primary OS, whereas on iOS I only do certain things (namely, research / read and play games). Whether the iPad Pro can replace your laptop will depend on your workflow and the tools you need to use.

Working over the Internet: My work is mostly done in a browser, so you might think it doesn’t matter if I’m using a mobile OS or a desktop OS. In fact, while I work, I use several Chrome extensions and bookmarklets as shortcuts and other productivity tools. Since iOS doesn’t support them, I found that I needed to find workarounds to get things done (for example, copy and paste the links to our story planning site, not just click the bookmarklet). I didn’t have this problem with the Surface Pro 4 because it works with the full desktop version of Chrome.

Multitasking: The Surface Pro 4 does a better job of multitasking as well. In iOS 9, no more than two apps can be open on a screen, while the Snap feature in Windows 10 displays up to four windows at a time. You can resize program windows in Windows to your liking. However, both screens are too small to open more than two windows side by side. If you usually work with one or two windows at the same time, iOS 9 on iPad Pro is great for multitasking. However, the Windows desktop is more versatile.

I also need a mouse for long hours at the keyboard. As much as I love the responsiveness of the touchscreen , the mouse is much more comfortable in your hand for constant scrolling and navigation. So I was struggling with the iPad Pro without trackpad and mouse. (You keyboard ninjas don’t mind, though.)

Apps: I can definitely see a lot of people using the iPad Pro as their primary work device – depending on which apps they need to use. For example, writing a blog post in Apple Notes or Google Docs online from iPad Pro is as easy as from any ultraportable laptop. The iPad Pro shines in the app arena because iOS has no shortage of apps for productivity, creativity, or entertainment. Even apps available on both platforms tend to be more reliable on iOS.

On the other hand, Surface Pro 4 runs full versions of Photoshop and other desktop applications. Heck, you can even run Android on Surface Pro 4, or even fire up Steam and play some games.

Battery life and performance: The iPad Pro outclassed the Surface in several important ways, especially when it comes to battery life and heat. I was able to use the Surface Pro 4 all day long with web browsing, watching a few videos, and using Microsoft Office, but I had to plug it in at night to recharge it the next day. The iPad Pro lasted the same amount, but if I forgot to charge it overnight, it still had enough power until the next day. (Battery tests by Laptop Magazine show the iPad Pro outperforms the Surface Pro 4 by 4 hours when browsing the Internet continuously.)

For this test, I used a Surface Pro 4 with 8GB of RAM and a Core i5 processor compared to a 32GB iPad. Even with double the RAM, some intense apps (Age of Empires: Castle Siege ?!) caused the Surface Pro 4’s fan to rise and the tablet got noticeably hotter, as if it was about to give up. The iPad Pro stayed cool when using the same apps and lasted several hours longer than the Surface Pro 4 in my unofficial tests.

Bottom line: Surface Pro 4 is the best laptop replacement, iPad Pro is the best for digital artists and iOS hobbyists

While the iPad Pro is large enough to replace a laptop, it still looks more like a tablet than a true laptop replacement. It’s optimized for fun and creativity. The Surface Pro 4, meanwhile, runs a full desktop operating system and has the best keyboard and laptop features like connectivity ports. However, it doesn’t work as well as the iPad Pro as it does the tablet. For example, you need to put Windows 10 in tablet mode so that the on-screen keyboard appears automatically when you click on a form field or browser address bar, which is annoying. But if you put it into tablet mode, you no longer have the classic Windows Start menu or desktop, which is just as annoying.

I would recommend the iPad Pro to serious digital artists or anyone who knows they can only get away with mobile apps or a mobile browser for work. (Or those who want to play as much as work.) The iPad Pro is the best tablet . However, Surface Pro 4 is the best laptop and a better value for most people. It combines the more power of a laptop with the flexibility to detach the screen from time to time for use as a standalone tablet. It would be different if the iPad Pro was running OS X, but the Surface Pro 4 is the best laptop replacement right now.

Or you could get both, which would be overkill, but then you could use your iPad Pro as a second monitor for your Surface Pro 4. Who needs a laptop now?


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