Hardware

iPad Pro vs Surface Pro: Which is the better choice for business?

The information you need to know when choosing between the two laptop-class tablets from Apple and Microsoft.

Image: Microsoft
Like the Microsoft Surface, Apple's iPad Pro is a tablet that wants to replace your laptop.

Both tablets have a similar list of enterprise-targeted features - the large screen size, the detachable keyboard, the multitasking and more.

But how do the two business-focused tablets measure up and why should firms consider an iPad Pro over a Surface?

Reasons to choose an iPad Pro

1. It's highly portable

The iPad Pro is extremely portable compared to both the Surface Pro 3 and the new breed of thin, lightweight laptops dubbed ultrabooks.

Even Lenovo's self-proclaimed 'lightest Ultrabook in the world' - the Lenovo LaVie Z is heavier than iPad Pro - weighing in at 1.87lbs compared to the iPad's 1.57lbs - while the Surface Pro 3 tips the scales at 1.76lbs. The iPad Pro is also more slight, 6.9mm thick compared to the 9.1mm thick Surface Pro 3.

The iPad's light weight also doesn't come at the expense of screen size - with the iPad Pro offering a 12.9in display, larger than the 12in offering of the Surface Pro 3 and only slightly smaller than that on the 13.4in Lenovo LaVie Z.

2. It's got many of the apps that matter

For years the office apps that businesses relied on were closely tied to the Windows platform, giving Microsoft a stranglehold over the enterprise market.

With that in mind, you might expect that the Surface's Windows OS would give it an advantage of the iPad Pro. But while it's still true that Windows is the defacto platform used by business for both office and line of business apps - Windows isn't as essential as it once was.

Today much of the software used by businesses is less tied to one platform - with the advent of software as a service offerings that will run on pretty much any internet-connected PC, open-source alternatives and Microsoft's willingness to make its office software available on iOS, Android and other devices.

"Microsoft seems to have got out of this mindset where it needs to control and dominate every aspect of the market," said Richard Edwards, principal analyst for enterprise IT with Ovum.

To that end the iPad Pro already has access to software that many businesses rely on - the likes of Microsoft Word and Excel and Adobe also provides a range of tools for designers in its Creative Cloud range.

"The iPad Pro's got the power of a laptop, in terms of its processors, you've got the business apps and we're also getting some high-end CAD and engineering tools," said Edwards.

3. It's simpler to use

There are those who argue the traditional Windows desktop is still too complex for the average user and contains a lot of moving parts that need to be managed by IT shops.

"The challenge for Microsoft is Surface Pro and Surface still run the Windows that your father used to know, with 200-odd services that need maintaining and updating, and is a nightmare to support," said Ovum's Edwards.

In contrast, Edwards contends that the iPad's mobile-focused OS streamlines computing - making it simpler for users to simply access the apps they want.

"Compare that with the iOS operating system where the user can't get at the file system. There is some value in the iPad Pro."

4. It betters many laptops where it matters

In a few important respects the iPad Pro comes as close or closer to matching a laptop than versions of the Surface that have been released to date.

The iPad's screen is bigger and sharper, a 12.9in, 2732x2048 display compared to a 12in, 2160x1440 offering on the Surface Pro 3, and it has a fast A9X processor that Apple claims is " faster than 80 percent of the portable PCs that shipped in the last 12 months".

While the Surface Pro 3 is also available with highly capable processors, up to a 4th generation Core i7 CPU, Apple's control over the operating system and the hardware can help it squeeze additional performance out of what would be expected of equivalent specs. On battery life Apple also claims to have the edge - claiming 10 hours versus Microsoft's nine.

"The new iPad Pro is bigger and more powerful and when compared to others and it appears to be a capable enterprise-class tablet device," said Brian Blau, research director at Gartner.

That said if, as expected, the Surface Pro 4 launches on October 6th, then Microsoft's device will obviously get an upgrade - including a rumours of a model with a 14in display.

5. People already are familiar with iPads in the tablet space

The iPad is the best-selling tablet in the world - as well as being the most popular tablet in enterprise - so there is a chance that many employees may already be familiar with using the tablet.

In contrast, the Surface and others Windows tablets have sold in more modest numbers - limiting the pool of people familiar with using Windows on a tablet.

Reasons to choose a Surface Pro

1. It plugs gaps in the iPad Pro's hardware

There are some notable gaps in the iPad Pro's hardware. The tablet has no USB ports for hooking up peripherals or memory sticks. This omission removes some of the ease of use offered by the Surface Pro 3's USB 3.0 port.

Storage is also more limited on the iPad Pro - restricted to a maximum of 128GB in contrast to the Surface Pro, which is available with 64GB, 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB of space.

2. It has a file explorer built into the OS

iOS 9 on the iPad Pro still lacks some features found in desktop PC operating systems such as Apple OS X and Windows.

Chief among the missing features in iOS, when compared to Windows on the Surface, is the lack of a similarly comprehensive local file manager. While some praise iOS for abstracting away complexity, there are a good number of business users who want the ability to delve into files stored on their device.

3. It has access to Windows huge back catalogue

Windows has built up a huge catalogue of applications over its years on the desktop - including a lot of software used by firms.

Many of the businesses looking for a single device to replace laptops will likely use some software that requires a Windows OS - a factor that favors the Surface.

"Apple still has a ways to go in terms of overall how iOS can be supported in the enterprise," said Gartner's Blau.

"The Pro does need to be more than a consumption device, it has to enable core productivity, communications, portability and also have the necessary apps and services meant for enterprise use for the device to gain broader acceptance."

4. You won't have to pay the Windows legacy tax

Beyond businesses relying on Windows software, there is also the fact that many firms are set up to manage and support users of Windows products.

Introducing a new computing platform to an organisation requires adjustment by in-house IT shops - a move that businesses may not be willing to make unless they believe the iPad Pro offers appreciable benefits over the Surface.

"If something is just marginally an improvement, the business benefits of that slight improvement is the eroded by the cost of change," said Ovum's Edwards.

5. Windows offers many options for management

For enterprises with complex management needs, the Surface Pro's Windows 10 OS offers a plethora of choices.

The OS allows users and devices to be managed by various services, providing a choice between Active Directory, Group Policy, and System Center Configuration Manager for corporate-owned devices that are frequently connected to the corporate network, or Azure Active Directory and MDM for devices that are typically mobile and internet-connected.

That choice "might actually be a bit of a distraction to some IT shops but it does allow very fine grained control, which in some large enterprises is required," said Ovum's Edwards.

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox