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iPad Air 2 vs. Surface Pro 3: Which is Better for Business?

iPad Air 2 vs. Surface Pro 3, tablets for business
The Surface Pro 3 sports a bigger display than the iPad Air 2. / Credit: Apple/Microsoft

Apple's new flagship iPad is the company's best business tablet yet. The iPad Air 2 packs a beautiful display, a blazing-fast processor and Apple's Touch ID fingerprint scanner for added security. So is it a no-brainer for business users in the market for a new work slate? Not quite. Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 tablet offers a bigger display, a full-size keyboard and the flexibility of running the desktop version of Windows. It's also significantly pricier than Apple's tablet. So which slate is the better portable workstation? Read on for a feature-for-feature comparison of the iPad Air 2 and the Surface Pro 3.

iPad Air 2: The iPad Air 2 sports the same 9.7-inch (24.6 centimeters), 2048 x 1536-pixel display as its predecessor. But even though the new iPad doesn't have a bigger or sharper screen than last year's model, it still delivers a better picture, since a new manufacturing process has eliminated the space between the LCD panel and the glass. Overall, the iPad Air 2 still packs one of the better displays out there.

Surface Pro 3: The Surface Pro 3's advantage is size. The slate packs a big, 12-inch (30.5 cm) screen, with a resolution of 2160 x 1440 pixels, giving you a lot more screen space to work on compared to the iPad Air 2. The Surface Pro 3 is one of the first tablets with a screen big enough to let you comfortably edit Word documents or spreadsheets, or multitask with two or more windows on screen at once. Of course, you lose quite a bit of portability with a tablet this big and powerful; the Surface Pro 3 is significantly bigger and heavier than Apple's slate.

iPad Air 2: The iPad Air 2 is powered by Apple's brand-new A8X chip, an updated version of the processor inside the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. It delivers seriously speedy performance and snappy multitasking, providing plenty of power to run apps without a hiccup.

Surface Pro 3: In terms of processing power, the Surface Pro 3 has more in common with an Ultrabook than a typical tablet. Even the most affordable configuration packs an Intel Core i3 processor with 4GB of RAM, giving you plenty of power for basic computing. The more powerful Core i7 model, meanwhile, can easily handle processor-intensive tasks like image editing and heavy spreadsheet computation.

iPad Air 2: The iPad Air 2 is the first full-size iPad with a fingerprint sensor. Apple's Touch ID sensor is embedded right in the home button, so you can hold your thumb over it to easily unlock your device. That's a big perk for business users, since it lets you keep your work slate on lockdown, with no need for cumbersome password screens. Touch ID aside, iOS is also one of the more secure mobile operating systems. There's no need to run a dedicated antivirus application, for example, thanks to Apple's strict regulation of the App Store.

Surface Pro 3: The Surface Pro 3 lacks a fingerprint sensor, but it offers all the security features of a desktop Windows computer. That means you can keep your slate locked down with a password, and run any Windows antivirus and anti-malware programs you want. Since it's a more open and flexible platform than iOS, Windows 8 does open up more security concerns, however.

iPad Air 2: One of the iPad Air 2's biggest advantages is that it gives you access to Apple's App Store, which offers what might be the best selection of mobile business and productivity apps anywhere. And iOS offers more tablet-optimized apps than Android or other competing platforms. One new perk introduced in iOS 8 is the ability to lock individual apps using Touch ID. So if you use the Mint finance app to track your spending, for example, you can block others from accessing that data using your fingerprint.

Surface Pro 3: Of course, the Surface Pro 3's has some big advantages as well. It offers the full desktop version of Windows 8, which means it's compatible with all the programs you already use on your work computer. Plus, Windows lets you view multiple apps at once, a feature that's still totally absent on the iPad Air 2. But Windows has some serious drawbacks when accessed on a tablet. It may be the most-used operating system for business, but Windows programs weren't generally made to be used on a touch screen. That's why Windows 8 introduced a new Start screen with large, touchable buttons, and easy access to touch-optimized Windows apps. But the platform's library of mobile apps can't hold a candle to the breadth and quality of Apple's lineup.

iPad Air 2: One of the perks of owning an iPad has always been the wide selection of accessories available for the device, and the iPad Air 2 is no exception. For example, there are already dozens of Bluetooth keyboards available for the device, including a few that prop up the tablet while you type. A variety of capacitive styluses are also available for the iPad Air 2, including some with pressure-sensitive tips for more natural handwriting. But don't even think about using a mouse with your iPad in search of more accurate pointing, or hooking it up to a bigger monitor; that functionality just isn't supported on Apple's slate.

Surface Pro 3: The Surface Pro 3 offers some of the best accessory lineups of any mobile device. That includes the new Type Cover keyboard dock, which is sold separately and snaps onto the slate via a series of magnets. The keys are a bit shallow compared to most full-size laptop keyboards, but that helps keep the accessory incredibly thin and light. The keyboard also features a large, responsive touchpad.

The other highlight is the included stylus that comes with the Surface Pro 3, which lets you write notes and draw diagrams right on the slate's pressure-sensitive display. The pen is integrated into the operating system; just press the button on its side to launch Microsoft's note-taking app, OneNote.

The surface Pro 3 features a full-size USB 3.0 port on the side, so you can attach all sorts of accessories, from a mouse to an external hard drive. The slate is also compatible with a desktop dock (sold separately) that adds three extra USB. 3.0 ports and two USB 2.0 ports, and makes it easy to use your Surface Pro 3 on a desk with a larger monitor.

iPad Air 2: The iPad Air 2 starts at $499 with 16GB of onboard storage. You can up that to 64GB of storage for $599, or 128GB for $699. For an extra $130, plus the cost of a monthly data plan, you can add LTE capabilities to any model, giving you a persistent Internet connection.

Surface Pro 3: The Surface Pro 3 is significantly more expensive than the iPad Air 2, starting 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. High-end variants are also available, including the $1,949 model, which packs an Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM and 512GB of storage.

Apple's new tablet is sure to draw comparisons to the Surface Pro 3 in articles like this one, but ultimately, these are two very different machines with very different strengths. The iPad Air 2 is nearly unbeatable if you want a premium tablet with a sharp display, fast performance and access to what is arguably the best library of mobile apps on any platform. But it's far from a good desktop replacement. Microsoft's pricier Surface Pro 3, meanwhile, is built with desktop productivity in mind, but it's not half as nimble or efficient as the iPad Air 2 for on-the-go productivity.

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Brett Nuckles

A former Ohio newspaper man, Brett Nuckles fled the Midwest in 2013. He now lives in Seattle, where he spends his days tinkering with smartphones, tablets and computers. He loves to think about the intersection of technology and productivity, and how to get the most out of new gadgets and apps. He's also a big fan of vegetarian food and digital painting. In his off hours he spends most of his time drawing and painting sci-fi/fantasy scenes on his PC with his trusty Wacom stylus in hand.