Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 tablet is bigger, faster and in many ways more versatile than Apple's iPad Air, so is it the better business slate? The answer really depends on your needs – and your budget.
The new Surface packs a huge 12-inch display and a handy stylus. Coupled with a keyboard and a desktop dock, it has the potential to replace your work laptop. In comparison, the iPad Air packs a 9.7-inch screen and is unapologetically a tablet. But the Surface Pro 3's impressive feature list doesn't necessarily make it the better buy, especially since it costs more than the iPad Air. A lot more.
Check out hands-on impressions of the new Surface Pro 3 – which is now available to preorder – from our sister site Laptop Mag, or read on to see how Microsoft's new business tablet stacks up to the latest iPad.
A feature-for-feature comparison is meaningless without first considering the large price gap between the Surface Pro 3 and the iPad Air. The bottom line: the Surface Pro 3 is the more expensive device.
- Surface Pro 3: The Surface Pro 3 starts at $799 with an Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of onboard storage. Next, the $999 model packs an Intel Core i5 processor with 4GB and a 128GB SSD. Several high-end variants are also available, including a $1,949 model featuring an Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. And Microsoft's Type Cover keyboard case is sold separately for $130.
- iPad Air: The iPad Air starts at $499 for the 16GB Wi-Fi-only model and is $629 for the 16GB Wi-Fi + Cellular model. The priciest model features cellular service and 128GB of internal storage for $929. All versions have the same processor: Apple's A7 chip.
A much bigger display is one of the features you'll pay for by opting for the pricey Surface Pro 3.
- Surface Pro 3: The centerpiece of the Surface Pro 3 is its huge, 12-inch display. In comparison, the Surface Pro 2 has a 10.6-inch screen. That translates into a lot more digital real estate on the new Surface Pro for screen-intensive tasks, and almost as much space as on 13-inch laptops like Apple's MacBook Air. Screen space is especially important for business users who want to do real work on their tablets. The Surface Pro 3's screen is sharp as well as large, with an eye-popping 2560 x 1600-pixel resolution.
- iPad Air: The iPad Air’s 9.7-inch screen isn’t lacking in brightness or resolution; the slate's 2048 x 1536-pixel display actually has a slightly higher pixel density than the Surface Pro 3, due to its smaller size. A smaller display isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, especially for business users who want a more portable device. And though it may feel a bit cramped for screen-intensive productivity tasks, you should have plenty of space for most iPad-optimized mobile apps.
The Surface Pro 3 runs on a desktop operating system while the iPad Air runs on a mobile operating system. Which is better depends on what you plan to use your tablet for.
- Surface Pro 3: The Surface Pro 3 runs on the full version of Windows 8.1. That means any Windows applications you run on your home or office PC will work on the Surface Pro 3. And you can run as many apps on-screen as you want, including apps such as Photoshop or the full desktop version of Microsoft Office. The Surface Pro 3 also boasts one of the best tablet keyboards around in the new Type Cover. And since the Surface Pro 3 works with all USB accessories, you can easily connect a mouse or an external monitor.
- iPad Air: The iPad Air runs on iOS7, a mobile operating system that's extremely easy to use, but simpler and more limited than Windows in many ways. For starters, you can view only one app on-screen at a time, and iPad apps tend to be more limited than full Windows programs. Regardless, the iPad has a huge and impressive library of apps to help you view and edit documents, take notes, plan your workday and manage your business's bottom line right on your tablet. Depending on your needs, those apps could be more than enough. Meanwhile, while the iPad is compatible with a variety of Bluetooth keyboards, it does not include mouse support so you’ll have to make do with touch input.
You’ll need more than a touch-screen keyboard for real productivity.
- Surface Pro 3: The Surface Pro 3 is launching with a new and improved Type Cover keyboard case. For starters, the keyboard features a better trackpad that's more responsive and 68 percent bigger. That's an important detail for business users. After all, a touch screen is good for navigating mobile apps, but you'll need more-precise pointing for serious productivity tasks like editing documents or spreadsheets. The other major change to the Type Cover makes the Surface Pro 3 easier to use when you're away from a desk. With the help of magnets, the keyboard can now be attached more securely to the tablet, so it wobbles around less when sitting in your lap.
- iPad Air: There's no official keyboard accessory for the iPad, but there are plenty of Bluetooth keyboards available from third-party manufacturers. Those keyboards come in a variety of shapes and sizes. A few can prop up the iPad using a special hinge, but most require a kickstand-equipped folio case.
The right accessories can transform your tablet into a real work machine.
- Surface Pro 3: The Surface Pro 3 includes a redesigned pen to boost the tablet's note-taking potential. And since the slate has a pressure-sensitive display, writing feels much more precise and natural than on the average tablet screen. And since the Surface Pro 3 is compatible with a desktop dock, it has the potential to replace your desktop computer as well as your laptop; just snap in your Surface and get working. The dock packs three USB. 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, an Ethernet port and an audio jack, and it can export video at 4K resolution through its Mini DisplayPort.
- iPad Air: The iPad Air doesn't come with a stylus, but thereare plenty of options. Apple's tablet lacks a pressure-sensitive display, so writing on the capacitive screen isn't as precise, though there are a few iPad pens with built-in pressure sensitivity. The iPad Air isn't compatible with a desktop dock, however, so forget about using standard USB accessories like an external hard drive. It is possible to link your iPad with an external monitor via VGA or HDMI using a special adapter from Apple.
The Surface Pro 3 and iPad Air are flagship tablets from two tech giants, but that's where the similarities stop. Microsoft says that the Surface Pro 3 is flexible and powerful enough to replace your work PC, but you'll pay a lot for the device. The iPad Air, meanwhile, is a more portable, more affordable slate with an easy-to-use interface and the best selection of mobile apps anywhere. Which tablet is right for you depends on how you plan to use it.