Microsoft's Surface Pro 4 has launched in the UK just one day after the iPad Pro, Apple's own attempt at breaking into the business tablet market.
Based on Intel's latest 6th-generation Skylake processors, the Surface Pro 4 runs Windows 10 Pro and combines a huge 12.3in, 2736x1824 display with 4GB to 16GB of RAM, 128GB to 512GB of SSD storage and the Surface Pro's signature full-sized USB 3.0 port.
The accompanying Surface Pen stylus has also been redesigned, incorporating an ‘eraser' on the rear tip and sensitivity to 1,024 levels of pressure, and the optional Type Cover keyboard now sports more laptop-like mechanical keys spaced further apart. The Surface Pro 4 starts at £749 for a basic model without the Type Cover.
The iPad Pro starts cheaper, at £679, but it's hardly a more modest proposal. The 12.9in display is the largest we've seen on a tablet, and it runs at a high 2732x2048 resolution. It also includes Apple's new A9X chip with an M9 motion coprocessor, which by the US firm's estimates has twice the memory bandwidth of the previous A8X, and the integrated fingerprint sensor seen in smaller iPads.
However, the iPad Pro's storage capacity options are limited to 32GB and 128GB SSDs, and it runs iOS 9 rather than a desktop OS like the Surface Pro 4 does. It attempts to make up for this with some exclusive features in iOS9, such as Android-style split screen working with two apps at once.
Prices range from £679 for a 32GB, WiFi-only model to £899 for the 128GB, WiFi and mobile data model - though the Apple Pencil stylus and Smart Keyboard attachments are sold separately, costing £79 and £129 respectively.
The two devices are set to battle for enterprise adoption, having both been designed with productivity in mind. In Apple's case, this is a first; previous iPads have been targeted squarely at the consumer market. The firm will therefore be hoping that the iPad Pro's split screen capabilities, attachable keyboard and massive screen will give it business credentials which the iPad Mini and iPad Air lines are currently missing.
While this seems likely, the notion of Apple outright usurping Microsoft in the business tablet market does not. The iPad Pro could appeal to road warriors with its superior portability; despite the larger display, its heaviest model weighs more than 40g less than the lightest Surface Pro 4, and it's also a full 1.4mm thinner.
However, the extra bulk does allow the Surface Pro 4 to squeeze in a USB 3.0 port, which allows users to share information on thumb drives or plug in a mouse to increase productivity even further. We don't know how these two devices compare on performance, but those who work with image and video editing or 3D modelling are likely to be more tempted by the Surface Pro 4's wider range of higher RAM configurations; the iPad Pro is locked at 4GB.
Whichever Intel Skylake processor is inside a Surface Pro 4 - options span the basic Core m series to the top-end Core i7 - it will also benefit from a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) chip, which adds an extra layer of security by locking down the system if intruders attempt to compromise the hardware. The iPad Pro's fingerprint scanner means it isn't lacking for security, but it is more or less matched by the Surface Pro 4's Windows Hello feature. This allows users to authenticate their login by simply looking at the 5MP front-facing camera, which will recognise their face.
The importance of Windows 10 Pro as an operating system can't be overstated either. The majority of businesses have based their IT infrastructure around Windows, which will enable the Surface Pro 4 to fit in much easier - to say nothing of its far greater compatibility with common enterprise software. iOS 9 is a great mobile OS, but that's exactly what it is: a mobile OS, and one that's thus far unproven in its suitability as a core enterprise IT platform.
The iPad Pro does have a few things in its favour, namely a longer battery life - 10 hours to the Surface Pro 4's nine - and a lower starting price, which could make it more attractive as a mass rollout device. That extra hour of charge doesn't sound like much, but could make all the difference during a long work day or on an international flight, so shouldn't be discounted either.
Even so, it's worth remembering that even the basic Surface Pro 4 includes a stylus, whereas this must be purchased at additional cost with the iPad Pro. Of course, a stylus won't be an essential accessory for everybody, but it does mean that the cheapest Surface Pro 4 and Surface Pen actually costs less than the cheapest iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil.
In fact, the Surface Pro 4 could be said to offer better overall value, even if certain models cost more than the two iPad Pro variants. This is largely due to storage space; a 128GB Surface Pro 4 is £150 cheaper than the 128GB iPad Pro, and is still £40 cheaper with the Type Cover.
SSD capacity in general is another are where the Surface Pro 4 looks like the more attractive enterprise option, with relatively roomy 256GB and 512GB options available and a 1TB model on the way. The iPad Pro's absolute maximum is 128GB, which would be good for a regular tablet, but then this is something which is meant to replace a laptop as one's main work machine. As such, 128GB will probably fill up fast, especially for those in the creative industries. To be fair, this is true of the Surface Pro 4 as well.
All things considered, perhaps Apple's brand recognition and eye for sleek design will help the iPad Pro out, but it's the Surface Pro 4 that looks - on paper - more likely to win the hearts, minds and orders of business IT buyers.
In a way, though, Apple finding decent success with the iPad Pro would be no bad thing - for Microsoft and users as well as Apple. After all, few things drive the creation of better products than a little healthy competition.
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