Apple took the iPad to a new place in the fall of 2015, adding a keyboard and stylus along with the 12.9-inch display of the iPad Pro. Their second attempt at this productivity tablet comes in the iPad Pro 9.7, as an update to the iPad Air 2. If productivity tablet with detachable keyboard is the name of the game, we are left with no choice but to pit it against our current favorite device in the category, the Surface Pro 4.
Microsoft dove headlong into this 2-in-1 convertible tablet market a few years back. Now on their fourth iteration in the Surface line, the Windows 10 Pro powered tablet ranges from a solid performing device with its entry level specs, to a powerhouse with the top end options.
With the best of both worlds on hand, let’s dive into our iPad Pro 9.7 vs Surface Pro 4 shootout.
On the basics of it all, we are looking at two mid-sized tablets here, both with simple magnetically connected detachable keyboards and the ability to operate fully with or without said keyboard. Apple stuck with a metal back, Microsoft went plastics, but both have the latest in front glass technology with bright and crisp displays.
Apple’s iPad Pro 9.7 follows very closely in the footsteps of previous iterations in the 10-inch iPad line. With just a few updates from the iPad Air 2 before it, we would only really like to highlight the new placement of the bottom edge firing speakers, paired by two new speakers up on the top edge, the two-tone LED flash and the now protruding camera sensor. Aside from those, it would be hard to choose between the two at first glance.
In addition to the above, what you do get in the iPad Pro 9.7 is a full glass front interrupted only by the bottom center mounted round Home button with embedded fingerprint scanner and the updated, but still tiny front facing camera in the center of the top bezel. Volume rockers on the right side, power button and 3.5mm headphone jack up top, Smart Keyboard connector on the left edge and a Lighting port on the bottom. The full metal back wraps forward to meet the glass and you get a pretty standard looking tablet out of the deal.
On the Microsoft side, the Surface Pro 4 rocks a larger 12.3-inch display, this plastic backed device, with a vented design along the edge, it a little more rough around the edges, but in an industrial design sort of way. It is obviously that making a tool to get the job done was made a priority over making a pretty tablet – we think this was a good approach, even if we don’t have the most photogenic device around.
A big difference in these two tablets is that the Surface Pro 4 was designed primarily to operate in the landscape orientation. When viewed in portrait mode, your front facing camera lives on the right side of the display, connector for Surface Cover keyboard lives on the left edge with full size USB, Mini DisplayPort and reversible power/dock connector on the bottom edge.
Use the built-in kickstand to prop the tablet up in landscape orientation and everything starts to make sense. Particularly the now top left and right mounted front facing speakers, providing fairly decent stereo sound.
With all this in place, the power and volume rockers live on the edge in the top corner with the 3.5mm headphone jack just around the bend on the short edge. Jump around to the back to find a top center mounted rear facing camera. It’s not magic, but it works.
A headphone jack is alone on the left edge of the device, while a full size USB port, a Mini DisplayPort connection and the proprietary, magnetically connected, reversible power plug share the right edge. The bottom of the tablet has a recess that includes the magnetic mounting points and six-pin connector for the Surface Pro 4 Cover, which doubles as a keyboard.
In terms of the display, I wonder what matters more to you folks, size or pixel count? Either way, the iPad Pro 9.7 has a, well, 9.7-inch display at 2048 x 1536 pixels of resolution and the Surface Pro 4 comes in with 12.3-inches and 2736 x 1824 pixels. I’ll save the PPI fans the calculations, that’s 264PPI on the iPad, 267PPI on the Windows tablet.
Of course, there is more to the story, with the iPad Pro 9.7 boasting new display tech that bumps brightness by a few points, color gamut by another few points and packs auto color temperature controls. The Surface Pro 4 has a nice display, but reading off the specs lacks that panache of that iPad spec sheet.
While the size of the Surface Pro 4 makes it a little more difficult to consume a movie with device in hand, the iPad Pro 9.7 offers up a much more comfortable size for close-up viewing. Herein lies the main difference in these units, forgive me for putting a full shootout conclusion so soon, but the iPad Pro 9.7 is by far the better tablet for in-hand use and the Surface Pro 4 excels at being a light-weight, ultra-portable laptop.
Apple started down a new path for their tablet when they introduced the larger iPad Pro and a more productive take on their operating system. iOS 9 is equipped with multi-tasking features, ultimately resulting in a the ability to use two apps at a time, if you don’t include the picture-in-picture floating video player.
The key software enhancements that make this Pro tablet a pro tablet are the support for the Smart Keyboard and the Apple Pencil smart stylus. We’ll get into this more in the performance section below, but on the surface of it all (no pun intended), the only other real differences in this version of iOS relate to the camera software and the True Tone color temperature calibration. Otherwise, you’ll be hard pressed to find other differences from your iPad Air 2.
Microsoft has equipped the Surface Pro 4 with the Pro release of Windows 10. There is the new Tablet Mode that we don’t much care for, but you really do just have another Windows powered PC on your hands here. We don’t think that’s a bad thing.
With Windows 10 comes all of the great multi-tasking features that you know on your computer, all apps and programs run in their own window on the screen, go ahead and re-size and reposition as best suits your needs. Undoing a lot of the changes found in Windows 8, expect a more familiar Windows experience in Windows 10.
Touch input is the most important part of Windows 10 on the Surface Pro 4. Including some enhancements to better accept tap and drag as well as single and double click actions by hand, the Surface Pro 4 works with the Surface Pen, a smart stylus that goes beyond just pressure sensitive touch input.
With two buttons that can perform multiple functions, the Surface Pen largely bridges the gap between the Windows PC experience and the touch input of a modern tablet. In short, the mouse level accuracy without the mouse makes Windows 10 a great operating system on the Surface Pro 4.
If device performance is important to you, both the iPad Pro 9.7 and the Surface Pro 4 have something to offer. Let me first say that the iPad Pro 9.7 comes in just one performance configuration, but the Surface Pro 4 has a number of configurations across a range of performance levels.
Taking things down a notch from the larger iPad Pro, the iPad Pro 9.7 includes 2GB of RAM, instead of 4GB, and the same A9X chipset with M9 graphics coprocessor results in slightly reduced speeds over the larger tablet. Placed side-by-side it is hard to see the differences, but placing the iPad Pro 9.7 beside the iPad Air 2 puts it all into perspective, this is a greatly improved tablet from Apple.
In terms of real world performance, the iPad Pro 9.7 is one of the smoothest tablets around. Sure, most devices these days are faster than the internet connection they’re connected to, but we’ve been consistently loading heavier apps as much as 20 seconds faster than on the iPad Air 2, do that a few times per day and you’ll save over 10 hours per year – time I’ll spend playing with the now 240fps slow-mo video capture.
Microsoft has always offered the Surface line with options, this time around you’ll find variations ranging from the entry level Intel Core M3 processor with 4GB of RAM all the way through Core i5 offerings to the Core i7 with 16GB of RAM at the top. Prices go from iPad Pro territory all the way up to Macbook Pro pricing, if that’s a reference you can understand, if not, we’ll talk price later.
We have the base model on hand, which we consider the best to use in order to make these sorts of comparisons a fair fight. Intel’s processing power keeps the Surface Pro 4 ticking along as quick as the iPad Pro 9.7, you will find that OS in both tablets have animation delays here and there, but the hardware is able to keep up through it all.
In typical fashion, at least for us, we punched through our normal social media, websites and games to see how things compared. Once you get past the OS window animation speeds, web pages navigate at similar pace and our go-to tester Asphalt 8 loaded just a hair faster on the Surface Pro 4.
What it really boils down to, if you are looking for a reason to consider one of these tablets over the other, device performance is not where you would want to make that decision. That is, unless you want to step things up on the Surface Pro 4 options, without a doubt, the Core i7 unit with 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD make for an experience the iPad Pro 9.7 cannot match.
Speaking of factors that will help you decide between purchasing one or the other of these two tablets, battery life is not a toss up as to which will last longer. Providing upwards of 5 hours of screen-on time, the Surface Pro 4 will keep you productive for only part of your work day. The iPad Pro 9.7 is a different story.
Your device usage habits will greatly affect your overall battery life on any mobile device. Surfing the web with your display brightness turned down consumes far less battery than playing Asphalt 8 on full display brightness. A good mix of use, including a couple hours gaming, a few hours on the web, watching a video or two and being social has garnered upwards of 9 and a half hours on average for us with the iPad Pro 9.7.
Connecting to the Smart Keyboard reduces your battery life, but you should not have issue getting a full business or school day of screen-on time with your new iPad.
Tablet photography has turned a new leaf. We’re not talking about the Surface Pro 4 here folks, that’s just a poor excuse for a camera on a device very much not suited to photography, no, we’re speaking of the iPad Pro 9.7.
Equipped with a 12MP rear facing camera, capable of shooting 240fps slow-mo video or up to 4K video at 30fps, and an LED flash, the iPad Pro 9.7 shares the basic spec sheet as many top phones today.
This is not to say that the iPad Pro 9.7 takes the best photos around, but as far as tablets go, it’s pretty hard to beat. Aside from that, look for all the same tools and options in the camera app as previous iPad offerings, with one more inclusion, a new Live photo capture that records a short video clip of the scene when you take a still photo.
The Surface Pro 4 sports a less impressive 8MP sensor with up to 1080p video capture. Let me keep it real, this is not that tablet you want if photography is your purpose. Microsoft’s tablet is a fine machine, but if you need to find a fault, this is it.
Now that we’ve thoroughly belittled the Surface Pro 4, getting down to business is a different story. At just 5MP, the front facing camera provides above average video, perfect for all those video conference calls you need to make for work.
iPad Pro 9.7
Surface Pro 4
9.7-inch, 2048x1536 resolution, 264ppi
12.3-inch, 2736x1824 resolution, 267ppi
6th Generation Intel Core m3, i5 or i7
32GB, 128GB and 256GB
128GB, 256GB, 512GB and 1TB SSD
Windows 10 Pro
12MP iSight rear
WiFi a/b/g/n/ac, dual channel
Wired Ethernet through optional Dock
Home button with integrated fingerprint scanner
Smart Keyboard connection pins
Proprietary power/dock port
Optional - Apple Pencil
Optional magnetically connected keyboard - no touchpad
Optional magnetically connected keyboard with touchpad
(Also available with fingerprint scanner.)
9.4 x 6.6 x 0.24 inches (240 x 169.5 x 6.1 mm)
0.96 - 0.98 lbs (437 - 444 g)
11.5 x 7.93 x 0.33 inches (292.1 x 201.42 x 8.45 mm)
1.69 - 1.73 lbs (766 - 786 g)
Pricing and final thoughts
As with our iPad Pro vs Surface Pro 4 comparison, I have no choice but to make my recommendations based on your wants and needs of a tablet. If you are looking for a hand-held tablet to take advantage of your extensive iTunes media library or purchased iPad apps, do I really need to say it?!?
On the other hand, if productivity, particularly in a more business use sense, is your goal, Windows 10 Pro is a solid operating system and the Surface Pro 4 delivers it with ease. For those that need Microsoft Word and Excel, have old apps and non-mobile games they want to keep using or are otherwise looking to capitalize on the laptop experience, you’ve found a great device to get you on the road.
(SSD in Surface Pro 4)
iPad Pro 9.7
Surface Pro 4
$729 with LTE
$879 with LTE
Intel Core m3, 4GB RAM
Intel Core i5, 4GB RAM
$1029 with LTE
$1299 - $1499
Intel Core i5, 8GB - 16GB RAM
$1599 - $1799
Intel Core i7, 8GB - 16GB RAM
$1699 - $1899
Intel Core i5, 8GB - 16GB RAM
Intel Core i7, 16GB RAM
Intel Core i7, 16GB RAM
$129.99 - includes touchpad
$159.99 - includes touchpad and fingerprint scanner
Surface Dock with 2 Mini DisplayPort and 4 full size USB ports - $199.99
Price, it’s always about the money, isn’t it? The iPad Pro 9.7 has a pretty straightforward pricing model, starting at $599 for the 32GB WiFi model, you’ll jump up to $1029 for the top 256GB model with LTE connectivity. Don’t forget the Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil are extra. In the Windows camp, a starting price of $899 quickly rockets to nearly $3000 for the top end model with all the accessories, luckily, the Surface Pen is included.
While it still may be hard yet to decide which of these tablets is right for you, I hope that we’ve given you enough info to get started. Just remember, the iPad Pro 9.7 with all the accessories is roughly the starting point of productivity of the Surface Pro 4. But if you are looking to slide one of these tablets into a small bag or even carry it by hand on the go, the iPad is much lighter and has far more available cases, covers and sleeves.
What do you say, understanding that these tablets serve different needs, which will you be spending your money on?