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Apple iPad Pro vs. Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Computing hybrids face off

Microsoft gets a lot of grief for being late to the party and often following in Apple’s footsteps when it comes to innovation. This week, however, marked something of a turnaround. Looking at photos of the new Apple iPad Pro — complete with keyboard cover and active stylus — you can’t help but be reminded of Microsoft’s Surface tablets. Originally the 99-pound weakling of the tablet market, the Surface product line has grown to be a multi-billion-dollar business for Microsoft, with the flagship Surface Pro 3 being one of the strongest Windows hybrids on the market. Even Dell has opted-in to reselling Microsoft’s Surface products. So how does the new iPad Pro “super-tablet” from Apple compare? While the devices look very similar, and share many nearly identical specs, they operate very differently.

For all that Microsoft has tried to unify tablet and desktop paradigms with Windows 10, Windows is still first and foremost a keyboard-and-mouse environment — as much because of the strong desktop application ecosystem as anything else. Users of flagship applications like Office and Photoshop rely on the desktop versions of those applications for heavy-duty work. Traditional tablets are great for viewing content and lightweight editing, but suffer from a lack of true multi-window support and the input flexibility provided by a keyboard and mouse.

Microsoft’s Surface products bridge this gap by being small computers that come with a touchscreen, keyboard, and in some cases a stylus. They run a full-on copy of Windows, complete with full desktop compatibility. This is clearly a sweet spot for the company. Its attempt to build a stripped-down model without the full OS — the Surface RT — was a non-starter. It has taken a couple generations (the original Surface Pro was innovative, but couldn’t compete with other Windows hybrids), but the Surface Pro 3 is a capable of being a nearly-no-compromise Windows laptop.

Available with a range of CPUs from energy-saving i3 to powerhouse i7, and featuring an ultra-high-resolution display, the Surface Pro 3 can meet the computing needs of most users easily. The single USB connector means you’re probably best off with a Bluetooth mouse, so that you can use the port for a thumb drive or SD card reader, but there are plenty of those (I like using Microsoft’s own Arc Touch Mouse). As has become common for high-end tablets, you can connect it to a large external monitor, but Microsoft also offers a docking station for even more expansion capability.

Even though it has a similar look and similar screen (12.9-inch 2732 x 2048 compared with the 12-inch 2160 x 1440 on the Surface Pro 3), Apple has taken a dramatically-different approach to come up with the iPad Pro. It started with its very successful iPad tablet design and iOS mobile OS, and added multiple-application support, a $169 Smart Keyboard cover very reminiscent of the one Microsoft sells, and an optional $99 Pencil active stylus. The result is a powerhouse mobile computing device that can also do some solid desktop work. Unlike Microsoft’s thinly-populated mobile application store, Apple is able to capitalize on the nearly unlimited amount of App Store software to make the iPad Pro successful.

While Microsoft is doubling-down on its Intel processor reliance, having dumped its ARM-based tablet offering, Apple’s iPad Pro runs on the company’s own CPU. Historically, Apple’s chips have been optimized for low-power consumption, not maximum processing power, but with its nearly-unlimited R&D budget and mission to reduce its costs, look for Apple to push the use of its own CPU chips further up into its product line. Part of what makes this possible is the design of iOS to be a memory-and-power conserving OS from the ground up, and an exploding ecosystem of applications built to take advantage of this relatively new computing environment. Even traditional desktop leaders including Microsoft, Adobe, and Autodesk have been rapidly ramping up their iOS offerings. Complementing the lightweight nature of iOS devices and applications is the explosion in cloud computing services, which make it less necessary to have massive computing power locally.