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Grow Your Business Technology

Apple iPad Pro vs. Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Which is Better for Business?

Apple iPad Pro vs. Microsoft Surface Pro 3, business tablets

Apple's new iPad Pro was designed for work, but it's not the only big-screen tablet for professionals. Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 has been transforming from slate to laptop for more than a year now, and it's still our favorite overall 2-in-1 hybrid for business users. Both tablets offer large displays and are compatible with pen and keyboard accessories, and both start at $799. So, does the iPad Pro — set to launch in November — have what it takes to dethrone the Surface Pro 3? 

Of course, Microsoft has another trick up its sleeve in the form of the not-yet-announced Surface Pro 4, which will reportedly be ready to be unveiled in October. But for now, let's take a close look at how the new iPad Pro stacks up to the current-gen Surface Pro tablet.

The key feature that separates the iPad Pro from earlier iPads is its huge 12.9-inch display, which finally offers enough screen space for serious productivity. And while the iPad Air 2 was the first iPad with split-screen multitasking, the Pro model's larger display makes it much more practical. The screen is also really sharp, with a superhigh resolution of 2,732 by 2,048 pixels. And it has a nice 4:3 aspect ratio, which is wide enough to comfortably view documents in portrait orientation.

The Surface Pro 3's screen is no slouch, measuring 12.2 inches with a resolution of 2,160 by 1,440p. It can't quite match the iPad Pro's hardware, but it's still a great display. Its 3:2 aspect ratio is a bit narrower than the iPad Pro's, though.

The iPad Pro runs on iOS, the same mobile operating system that powers iPhones and other iPad models. For workers, this will probably be the most polarizing fact about the device. If you depend on a particular piece of Mac or Windows software, for example, the iPad Pro might not be able to run it. On the other hand, Apple's App Store does boast arguably the best selection of touch-optimized mobile productivity apps. File management and multitasking are also more limited on iOS than they would be on a desktop operating system, though the iPad Pro does support Split View, which lets you run two apps side by side. 

The Surface Pro 3 runs on Windows 10, the latest version of Microsoft's desktop operating system. That means that the software you use at work will almost certainly run just fine on the Surface. And while previous versions of Windows felt clunky on tablets, Windows 10 has a new dedicated Tablet mode that features full-screen apps and big, touch-friendly navigation buttons. There aren't nearly as many touch-optimized apps on Windows as there are on iOS, though, which may or may not be an issue, depending on your needs.

The iPad Pro lacks a built-in kickstand, so you'll have to either prop it up against something or buy the $169 Smart Keyboard cover, which folds into a kickstand for the tablet. Even then, you only get one fixed viewing angle.

Microsoft's Surface Pro 3, meanwhile, has a kickstand built into the back of the device that can be used even without a keyboard. That's handy when you're using the tablet in cramped quarters, like on an airplane tray table. Even better, the flexible kickstand can be positioned to achieve any viewing angle you want.

Apple's new Smart Keyboard accessory (sold separately for $169) essentially turns the iPad Pro into a laptop computer, letting you hammer out emails and documents more quickly than you could on a touch screen. The keyboard magnetically attaches to the bottom of the tablet and does not need to be charged. It doesn't have a trackpad though, since iOS doesn't have mouse support. That means you'll be reaching across the keyboard to tap the screen with your finger a lot.

Microsoft's Type Cover accessory for the Surface Pro 3 is also sold separately, but for a cheaper $129. Like the Smart Keyboard, it attaches magnetically and draws power from the tablet. The trackpad beneath the standard QWERTY layout is a bit small, but it's still more accurate than a touch screen for productivity tasks like managing your email or editing documents.

The new Apple Pencil accessory, sold separately for $99, can turn the iPad Pro into a note-taking machine. It offers full pressure sensitivity and can even detect pen tilt. There's no place to stow the stylus on the slate when you're not using it, though that's typical for large, active pens. Disappointingly, the Apple Pencil also lacks buttons — a useful feature on other pens that lets you quickly access the eraser and take other shortcuts.

The Surface Pro 3's active pen, meanwhile, comes included in the box. It offers good pressure sensitivity, though it can't detect tilt. There's no slot for the pen on the tablet, but the Type Cover keyboard does come with a fabric loop that can hold the pen when it's not in use. The Surface Pen has three buttons, including a handy top button that launches Microsoft's OneNote note-taking app.

The Apple Pencil recharges via the iPad Pro's Lightning connector port. Apple says you'll get 12 hours from a full charge, and half an hour of use from a quick 15-second charge. The Surface Pen, meanwhile, runs on one AAAA battery, which can't be recharged but lasts for months, depending on how often you use it.

A desktop dock can turn a tablet into a desktop computer by linking it to a full-size monitor, as well as a desktop keyboard and mouse. Unfortunately, Apple didn't announce a dock, and we don't expect one to materialize, especially since the tablet lacks mouse support altogether. The iPad Pro is meant strictly for mobile use.

The Surface Pro 3 is a lot more versatile on that front. Microsoft sells a desktop dock for $150 that lets you easily connect your tablet to a monitor and a slew of USB accessories, as well as wired Internet and secure office networks via the Ethernet port. Even without the dock, you can attach a monitor and other accessories via the Surface Pro 3's native ports.

The iPad Pro's Lightning connector — which charges the tablet — is its sole physical port. That means there's no way to connect accessories like a keyboard or USB drive. If you want to transfer a file, you'll have to do it wirelessly via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

In addition to its proprietary charging port, the Surface Pro 3 comes with a single full-size USB 3.0 port, a Mini DisplayPort for connecting a monitor or projector, and a full-size SD card slot for expanding the slate's internal memory.

We'll have to wait to test the iPad Pro ourselves to test its longevity. Apple claims that it will last 10 hours on a charge, but battery life claims are often overstated by manufacturers.

For example, Microsoft says the Surface should get 9 hours of battery life, but it lasted just 7 hours and 27 minutes on our battery life test, which simulates continuous Web browsing over Wi-Fi. That's about 15 minutes less than the ultraportable notebook average.

We can't say much about the iPad Pro's performance just yet, though Apple claims the new A9X chip that powers the device is nearly twice as fast as the processor that powers last year's iPad Air 2. That device scored 2,694 on the Geekbench 3 benchmark test, which measures overall performance, so it will be interesting to see how the iPad Pro performs when we finally get our hands on it.

The Surface Pro 3, meanwhile, is available with your choice of an Intel Core i3, Core i5 or Core i7 processor, with up to 8GB of RAM. Our Core i5 review unit scored a respectable 5,665 on the Geekbench 3 test, providing plenty of power for even demanding work tasks.

The iPad Pro base model starts at $799 with 32GB of storage, but there's also a 128GB version for $949. The pricier model is also available with 4G cellular service for $1,079. Add $169 for the keyboard and $99 for the stylus.

The bottom-tier Surface Pro 3 also costs $799, equipped with an Intel Core i3 processor and 4GB of RAM. A variety of midrange models are available, all the way up to a Core i7 version with 8GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. The stylus comes with all versions for free, but the keyboard adds $129.

The iPad Pro is touted as Apple's answer to the Surface Pro line, and in many ways the comparison makes a lot of sense. Both slates offer big displays, keyboard add-ons and good stylus support. But for workers, there are big differences between these two devices, including their operating systems, mouse support and desktop docking capabilities. For mobile pros who need a big screen for light productivity, the iPad Pro looks like a good option. But the Surface Pro 3 seems to be the more viable hybrid, since it works very well as a desktop computer, even if it's not quite as strong as a mobile tablet due to a relative lack of good mobile apps.

Check back for our full review of the iPad Pro close to launch. In the meantime, check out our list of the best business tablets currently on the market.

Brett Nuckles

Brett Nuckles has been a working journalist since 2009. He got his start in local newspapers covering community news, local government, education and more before he joined the Business News Daily staff in 2013. He graduated from Ohio University, where he studied Journalism and English. Follow him on Twitter @BrettNuckles.