Though Apple is a little late to the 2-in-1 party, playing the role of follower, that doesn't mean the iPad Pro can't still play a key role in the long term. But what about for you – right now? Is the iPad Pro 9.7 worth considering as a Surface Pro 4 alternative? These are two very different devices with a little overlap, and a lot of lopsided use cases.
Apple's larger 12.9-inch iPad Pro is more of a direct rival to the Surface Pro 4 than this 9.7-inch model is. This one looks pretty small compared to the Surface – in landscape mode Microsoft's 2-in-1 is 18 percent taller and 22 percent wider.
If you mostly want a classic tablet, and see things like a keyboard and stylus as more of a bonus for the occasional email, spreadsheet or word processing doc, then that fits the iPad Pro 9.7 to a T. For more serious productivity, the iPad Pro series doesn't (yet) stack up.
The smaller (Wi-Fi only) iPad Pro is 43 or 44 percent lighter than the Surface Pro 4.
You get a premium, all-metal build from either tablet.
Both tablets' keyboard accessories are sold separately. The Surface's Type Cover is more advanced, with a glass trackpad (more on that next), but Apple's stock keyboard costs US$19 more.
There are also third-party keyboards you can use with the iPad Pro, but we think Apple's is overpriced for its limited capabilities (read on).
It's hard for us to call the iPad Pro a laptop when it doesn't have a trackpad – or pointer support of any kind beyond its stylus. It's more of a faux-book, where you have to constantly reach up to swipe and tap the screen vs. just sliding your fingers a few centimeters below the keys.
It will be interesting to see if Apple adds mouse/trackpad input to iOS in the next year or two. Though we aren't going to hold our breath, it's also hard to see the Pro series ever living up to its name with touch-only software. Often old-school features and ideas are hanging around only because of our collective habits, but when it comes to productivity we could make a long list of good reasons why mouse/trackpad control isn't ready to die.
Some of the iPad Pro's third-party keyboards have backlit keys (at least in the larger model), but not Apple's own.
Adjustable screen angle in laptop mode
If you're using Apple's official Smart Keyboard for the iPad Pro, then you won't be able to adjust the screen angle. I find the fixed position to be too vertical in lap – and if you're in a reclined position the iPad might topple over on top of the keys.
Keep this in mind when you look at total cost, as the excellent Surface Pen is bundled with the Surface Pro 4. The Apple Pencil is a separate $99 purchase.
When you're using the Surface as a pen-based tablet, you can use the Pen to scribble out some chicken scratch, which Windows will (capably) translate into text. iOS doesn't have built-in handwriting recognition – you'll be using either a physical keyboard or a virtual keyboard.
You have four color options to choose from with the iPad, while the Surface itself only ships in one black front/silver back option.
You can add some personal flair to the Surface, though, with different-colored keyboards. Apple's keyboard only ships in one dark gray option.
The 12.9-inch iPad Pro has a bigger screen than the Surface Pro 4, but this iPad's screen is only 65 percent as big (as always, we measure that based on area, not diagonal).
Pixel densities are very close – and both screens look terrific. Nothing to worry about here.
True Tone display
Apple's screen has a new feature that uses sensors to automatically adjust its white balance based on your ambient environment. This isn't an upgrade-worthy feature, though, more like a neat bonus if you're already buying the iPad Pro 9.7 for other reasons.
Both tablets have IPS displays.
Facial recognition login
The Surface's Windows Hello lets you log in just by flashing your pretty mug to the camera.
Like all modern iOS devices, the iPad Pro 9.7 has a Touch ID fingerprint sensor home button.
The Surface doesn't have a fingerprint sensor on the tablet itself (for most people it's redundant due to the facial login), but you can buy a $30 more expensive Surface keyboard cover that does a fingerprint sensor. That option is more for the backwards-compatible Surface Pro 3, which doesn't support facial login.
There has yet to be a Surface Pro with cellular capabilities.
Apple wants iOS devices (and now Macs) to be as port-minimal as possible, using wireless instead.
If you have a DSLR or other camera that doesn't have built-in wireless (since we're talking "Pro" here, Apple), then you'll need to buy an adapter for the iPad – and also know that the App Store's mobile version of Lightroom won't directly support RAW images from your camera.
In our battery test, the Surface Pro 4 (somewhat surprisingly) had the slightly better result, dropping just 9 percent per hour for the Core i5 model and 11 percent per hour for the Core M model. The iPad dropped 12 percent per hour in the same test.
We think it's overkill for a tablet – especially if it's contributing to the new iPad's price hike over its predecessors – but the new iPad Pro has the same rear camera as the iPhone 6s.
Despite using mobile architecture, the iPad Pro's A9X chip is an absolute beast, with desktop-class performance (as does the Surface Pro, of course).
Just don't make the mistake of thinking desktop-class performance was the only thing the iPad needed to offer desktop-class productivity. See also: lack of trackpad, lack of file system access, lack of desktop software and sandboxed (confined/limited/hard to transfer content from) apps. These things aren't a problem if you're just using the iPad as a casual tablet, but if you're talking about replacing your laptop with it, they matter.
One big advantage of mobile processors like the iPad's A9X is that they're completely fanless. Only the Surface's somewhat underpowered entry-level model is fanless.
The iPad's 2 GB of RAM is half what its big (12.9-inch) brother has. It's also half the amount in the entry-level Surfaces – though mobile-based iOS can get by with less RAM than desktop-based Windows can.
One way of looking at this is 32 GB storage is double the entry-level tier on any previous 9.7-inch iPad. The other way of looking at it is 32 GB is something of a joke for storage on a "pro" level device that you use a laptop.
This ties into the broader theme with the iPad Pro series: right now it's only "Pro" in name – planting seeds for the future in customers' (and developers') imaginations.
The iPad's built-in memory is the beginning and end of its storage story. You can pop a microSD into the Surface to expand its available storage.
One of the Surface's few weaknesses is its selection of tablet-first apps in the Windows Store. It's far behind the iPad App Store's selection – and many of the Windows Store apps that are there haven't been updated since the Windows 8 days. We aren't making too much of a stink over this, though, because there's such an abundance of desktop and web-based software that can fill the same roles (and works well enough in tablet mode) – in addition to its far superior productivity.
The iPad Pro 9.7 just launched, about five months after the latest Surfaces.
This smaller iPad Pro starts at $300 cheaper than the Surface Pro 4, but remember that the Surface Pen is included in the box while the Apple Pencil is a separate $99 purchase. The total starting price of tablet/keyboard/stylus for the iPad is $847, while the same combo for the Surface starts at $1,029.
... and if you're curious about the bigger iPad Pro (not included in this comparison), its starting price for tablet + accessories is $1,067.