See why even with new iPadOS features, the Apple iPad Pro still isn’t a sure-thing laptop replacement.
Looks like Apple is getting more serious about making the iPad into a laptop replacement. At WWDC 2019, its annual developers conference, Apple introduced iPadOS, a dedicated operating system for the iPad that breaks away from some of iOS’ limitations, especially when it comes to productivity.
Apple will release iPadOS this fall as a free software update for the iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini (released earlier this year), all the iPad Pros, the 2017 iPad, the 2018 iPad and the iPad Mini 4. However, the public beta is available now if you want to start testing out the features (though updating is not without risk). We installed it on an 11-inch 2018 iPad Pro to see if the new OS has solved some old issues.
The feature that has generated some of the most interest is the addition of bluetooth mouse support. While that might sound like a big step towards turning an iPad into a legitimate laptop replacement, the reality is a bit of a letdown, as CNET’s Scott Stein recently discovered. That feature is hidden deep in the accessibility menu, and for good reason — it’s not a traditional mouse implementation, more of an extra pointing and clicking device for those who have trouble with touchscreens.
That means comparing the iPad Pro to something like Microsoft’s Surface Pro 6 to see which is the better laptop alternative is still a pitched battle. There is certainly some feature overlap, but there are also things that could definitely push you one way or the other. To that end, I’ve broken down five things to consider if you’re trying to choose one to meet your needs.
OS: The beginning (and possibly the end) of the discussion
While the iPad Pro might be getting a new operating system to make it more Mac-like, it still won’t have the flexibility of the Surface Pro running on full Windows 10 Pro. Having Windows 10 means you can run full versions of traditional Win32 software and much more that Apple’s iOS, and eventually iPadOS, simply can’t.
With iPadOS you’ll still be limited to what’s available in Apple’s App Store. While that app catalog is in the millions, you might not find mobile equivalents for the full desktop software or legacy applications you need. (Ironically, you still can’t fully develop iPad apps on an iPad.)
Apps aside, iOS can’t handle workflow the same way Windows 10 can on the Surface Pro 6. Being able to have two, three, four or more apps open on one screen with differently sized windows and quickly switch between them, but also move text, images or data between them is something you take for granted with a desktop OS. Also, while Apple does just about anything to get you to stick to its devices, Microsoft continues to work on ways to let you jump between working on an iPhone or iPad (or Android device) and Windows 10.
With iOS 11 and 12, working between open apps has gotten better. For instance, the Files app gives you access to local and cloud-stored files and you can drag and drop text, images and files between apps. Also, when iPadOS arrives, you’ll be able to connect external drives and open, copy and save files on the iPad like PDFs, videos, photos and documents. For the moment, though, working with multiple apps is still basically limited to having two apps open side by side, filling the screen.
The iPad’s Slideover feature lets you drop a third app on top of those, but it has to be from your dock. When iPadOS arrives, you’ll be able to store multiple apps in that mode and swipe between them. Gestures are required to juggle the windows and open and switch apps or just get to the home screen. If you already have an iPhone without a home button you may already have these mastered, but otherwise it’ll take time and practice to get them straight. It works, but it’s all simply not as easy or as efficient as working in MacOS.
Accessories that matter: Keyboards and pens
If the OSes and their different capabilities didn’t steer you toward a model, maybe the keyboards and styluses will. After all, it’s their accessories that make them stand out from plain ol’ tablets. And oddly neither of them are included with the tablets.
For the Surface Pro 6, Microsoft’s basic Type Cover is $129, or there are the fancier color versions covered with Alcantara fabric for $169, although Microsoft does have bundle pricing. Apple’s Smart Keyboard for the 12.9-inch is $199. Both give you a good typing experience, but the Surface Pro tablet’s built-in hinge makes for better positioning and, more importantly, the Type Cover has a touchpad.
The iPad currently doesn’t support mouse/touchpad input. That will sort of change with iPadOS. When the new OS was announced, there was some initial excitement around the discovery of Bluetooth mouse support buried in the iPad’s Accessibility settings. It is intended to assist with touch input, however. (CNET’s Scott Stein wrote all about it.) While it shows that mouse input is perhaps possible, that’s not what this is.
As for writing and drawing on their screens, the current performance is nearly indistinguishable between the two tablets: Both are excellent and improved from prior models. Apple’s $129 Pencil has a slightly better feel on the iPad’s screen and, with iPadOS, the feel gets even better. The OS will also add new annotation tools to help make the whole experience of using the Pencil more seamless.
Plenty of ports vs. many, many dongles
The Surface Pro comes prepared to connect to peripherals. There’s a Mini DisplayPort for an external monitor, a full-size USB 3.0 port for, well, anything that plugs into one of those, and Microsoft’s Surface Connector that powers the tablet can also connect to the Surface Dock, which has two Mini DisplayPorts, Gigabit Ethernet, four USB 3.0 ports and an audio out. There’s also a microSD card slot.
With just one USB-C port on the iPad Pro you’ll need to buy adapters to connect to an external display, Gigabit Ethernet, an SD card reader or add a USB 3.0 port. (Again, though, iPadOS will let you connect drives directly to an iPad and let you browse and open files without copying them over first.) The iPad Pro’s magnetic Smart Connector is currently used only for the Smart Keyboard cover.
Speed vs. battery life
|iPad Pro (12.9-inch, 2018)||Surface Pro 6 (2018)|
|Price||Starts at $999, £969, AU$1,529||Starts at $799, £784, AU$1,349|
|Optional keyboard||$199, £199, AU$299||$129, £125, AU$200|
|Optional stylus||$129, £119, AU$199||$99, £60, AU$140|
|Base configuration plus keyboard and stylus||$1,327, £1,287, AU$2,027||$999, £969, AU$1,689|
|Display||12.9-inch Retina display, 2,732×2,048 resolution (264 ppi)||12.3-inch PixelSense display, 2,736×1,824 resolution (267 ppi)|
|Processor||A12X Bionic||8th-gen Intel Core i5, i7|
|RAM||Not disclosed||8GB / 16GB|
|Storage||64GB / 256GB / 512GB / 1TB||128GB / 256GB / 512GB / 1TB|
|SIM card support for cellular model||Nano-SIM; eSIM||None|
|Wireless||Dual-band 802.11ac, Bluetooth 5.0||802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.1|
|Ports||USB-C, Smart Connector||Mini DisplayPort, Surface Connect, Surface Type Cover port, MicroSDXC, USB 3.0, 3.5mm headphone jack|
|Cameras||Front: 7-megapixel TrueDepth with support for Portrait mode and Portrait Lighting, rear: 12-megapixel||Front: 5-megapixel with support for Windows Hello, rear: 8-megapixel|
|OS||iOS 12||Windows 10 Home|
|Dimensions (HWD)||11 x 8.5 x 0.23 inches||11.5 x 7.9 x 0.33 inches|
|Weight||1.4 lb, 0.63 kg||1.7 lb, 0.77 kg|
|Battery life||Up to 10 hours||Up to 13.5 hours|
The Surface Pro comes in multiple configurations that start at $799 in the US and go up to $2,299 for one with an Intel Core i7 processor, integrated Intel UHD Graphics 620, 16GB of memory and a 1TB SSD (we reviewed a $1,199 Core i5 version with 256GB of storage).
With the iPad Pro you can pick between different amounts of storage and two screen sizes. The smaller 11-inch model starts at $799, while the 12.9-inch, which is more comparable in size to the Surface Pro, starts at $999. (None of these prices include a keyboard or stylus, either.)
Microsoft’s tablet might seem like a no-brainer here for performance, but the fact is the iPad Pro’s A12X Fusion chip is designed for intensive tasks — from huge spreadsheets and presentations to 3D modeling and 4K video editing. And remember, the hardware is optimized for App Store apps. Regardless of the new iPad Pro you buy, you’re going to get the same performance, which can’t be said for the Surface Pro. You can check out benchmark results at the end of this story to see how the 2018 iPad Pro matches up against a Surface Pro 6 with a Core i5 processor and 8GB of memory.
People have come to expect a long battery life from tablets and that’s pretty much because of the iPad. The thing is, the more powerful the iPad gets and the more efficient Intel’s processors are, Windows 10 tablets have edged closer on battery performance
In the end, despite the iPad Pro’s capabilities, the Surface Pro comes closer right now to the feel and features of a traditional laptop. On the other hand, there’s a good chance you simply don’t need a traditional laptop experience or desktop OS for your life and work and a powerful tablet — that’ll be even more capable in the fall with iPadOS — with a good keyboard is plenty (even if it’s expensive and doesn’t have a trackpad).
Don’t really want a tablet after reading all of this? Consider the new MacBook Air (for Apple fans) or the Surface Laptop 2 (for Windows lovers). Both are top-notch superslim laptops with great trackpads — and the Surface keeps its sibling’s touchscreen, too.
Note: The tests below were done with a 2018 iPad Pro and a 2018 Surface Pro 6 with a Core i5 processor and 8GB of memory.
Geekbench 4 (multicore)
Apple iPad Pro (12.9-inch, 2018)18098Microsoft Surface Pro 611983Longer bars indicate better performance.
3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited
Apple iPad Pro (12.9-inch, 2018)104375Microsoft Surface Pro 672213Longer bars indicate better performance.
Apple iPad Pro (12.9-inch, 2018)273.94Microsoft Surface Pro 689.701Longer bars indicate better performance
Streaming video playback
Apple iPad Pro (12.9-inch, 2018)796Microsoft Surface Pro 6671
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