iPad Pro vs. Microsoft Surface Book 3: Which tablet-laptop hybrid is best?

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The 13.5-inch Surface Book Pro and the 11-inch iPad Pro with its Magic Keyboard.


Ian Knighton/CNET

For an industry centred around constant change, the traditional “clamshell” laptop design — from the MacBook Pro to the Dell XPS 13 to many, many others — has endured for a long time. But the past few years have seen imaginative hybrid devices that act as both tablets and laptops, become increasingly viable alternatives. This is after years of less-than-successful attempts to mind-meld the two, going back to the days of Windows 8 and even further.

But not all two-in-one laptops are made with the same philosophy. Some are tablets that can connect to a keyboard, and others are laptops that can transform into a tablet.

Which brings me to two modern versions I’ve tried this year. Apple’s 2020 iPad Pro and Windows’ Surface Book 3. These two luxe devices encapsulate the two different major types of hybrid, and are both viable choices in a year when work has been upended and you may be in the right frame of mind of invest in a singular work and home (and often work-from-home) device that’s more than a laptop and also more than a tablet.

iPads have long been able to connect to keyboards, but this year Apple upped the ante. The Magic Keyboard the company launched in May for the iPad Pro features not only a keyboard (duh), but also a trackpad. Starting at $299 — yes, for just the keyboard addon — it’s not cheap. But it helps make the iPad Pro a legitimate laptop replacement, in most ways, at least. The iPad Pro starts at $799.

Meanwhile the Surface Book is a unique take on two-in-one computing. Other Windows hybrids, such as Lenovo’s Yoga line, are laptops in which the display can swivel behind the keyboard to form a tablet. Instead, the Surface Book line lets you press a button and separate the fully featured laptop base from its display, which then acts as a standalone tablet. That’s a step beyond the original Surface Pro, which is much closer to an iPad — a component-packed screen with a simple sold-separately clip-on keyboard accessory.

Both devices are ambitious, and could be the future of laptops — one day. But which is right for you in 2020?

David vs. Goliath

The iPad Pro and the Surface Book 3 feel like very different devices. The iPad is a lithe, futuristic slate. The Surface Book is exceptionally designed, but it’s more of a bulky powerhouse.

One salient difference is in price. The base 13.5-inch Surface Book 3 model costs $1,599, while the 11-inch, Wi-Fi-only iPad Pro starts at $799. Add in the $300 Magic Keyboard and you’re talking about a $500 difference. But the price chasm widens with more powerful configurations. The most tricked-out iPad Pro — 12.9-inch display, 1TB storage, cellular service and including the $349 Magic Keyboard — adds up to $2,000. A 15-inch Surface Book 3 peaks at $3,400 and, with its Nvidia Quadro graphics, offers a much more PC-like level of power.

Reviewed configurations

Microsoft Surface Book 3 Apple iPad Pro
Display size, resolution 13.5 inches, 3,000×2,000 11 inches, 1,668×2,388 pixels
Pixel density 267 ppi 265 ppi
Operating system Windows 10 iPadOS 13
CPU Intel Core i7 Apple A12Z Bionic
GPU Nvidia GTX 1650 Max-Q GPU Apple A12Z Bionic
RAM 16GB 6GB
Storage 256GB 1TB
Cost $1,999, £1,999, AU$3,399 $1,299, $1599 with Magic Keyboard, £1,269/£1,569, AU$2,169/AU$2,669

The two machines have different goals. The iPad Pro is more of an ultra-portable device you can carry with you everywhere you go, and that finally works as a full-time laptop replacement, while the Surface Book shoots at being a portable desktop replacement or even a tablet-ized gaming PC.

Despite their different aims, the iPad Pro and Surface Book 3 compete over the same territory in that they’re alternatives to traditional laptops. But which gives you more reason to diverge from tradition?

The iPad Pro is still a consumption device

Do you want to look at stuff or do you want to make stuff? That’s the consumption vs. creation debate. Broadly speaking, the iPad Pro is better for the former and the Surface Book the latter.

The iPad may have Pro in its name, but it’s undoubtedly still about consumption. It’s for watching, reading and browsing. Productivity is added on top via accessories: Artists can buy the Apple Pen, office types can add a Magic Keyboard.

That’s not a knock. It’s not that the iPad Pro can “just” do these things. These things feel especially good on the iPad Pro.

Start with the screen. The Surface Book 3 (3,000×2,000 pixels) has a beautiful, sharp display, but despite the resolution, it’s outmatched by the iPad Pro (2,388×1,668 for the 11-inch model, 2,048×2,732 pixels for the 12.9-inch one). It’s not that the iPad’s screen is more resolute, it’s that its blacks are deeper and, as a result, the colors are richer. It’s also incredibly crisp.


Scott Stein/CNET

(I confess: The 11-inch iPad Pro is by far the best e-reader I’ve ever used, even if it feels peak bourgeois to recommend a $799 tablet on the basis of its e-reader qualifications.)

The iPad is also audibly more competent than the Surface Book 3. That’s mostly because the Surface Book’s speakers are soft. Very soft. The iPad Pro’s are far louder — but then again, even my phone’s speakers are. It’s a real bummer, especially considering the Surface Book’s big display. When I was reviewing the Surface Book, I would usually opt for my personal entry-level MacBook Pro for in-bed Netflix binges simply because the Surface’s are just not loud enough.

Ecosystems

Apple’s greatest strength has always been the “it just works” quality of its best products. With some exceptions, the iPad Pro feels far more fluid and intuitive to use than the Surface Book. That’s because Apple has made a dedicated operating system for the device.

Introduced last year, iPadOS is an acknowledgement from Apple that the iPad has grown out from iOS, the iPhone’s operating system, into something more robust and versatile. It added proper multitasking, a more desktop-like Safari browser and improved Apple Pen functions. A new update, iPadOS 14, is coming later this year, with more Apple Pen functions among other improvements.

As a result, the iPad Pro offers a more consistent experience than the Surface Book. It works well as both a tablet and a laptop. Microsoft’s hybrid runs on Windows 10, which works exceptionally well as a laptop but relatively poorly as a tablet.


Ian Knighton/CNET

A big part of the problem for Microsoft is its sub-par app store. The Microsoft Store has some essentials, like Netflix, Microsoft Office (of course) and Facebook’s suite of apps. It’s also got a few apps for creators. But outside of that, it’s sorely lacking.

Obviously, this matters little when you’re using it as a laptop. But it means tablet navigation is more clunky than it should be. You’ll find yourself getting to where you want to be via laptop mode before detaching, rather than using the Surface Book as a tablet to get where you want to be.

For the producers

For all of the iPad Pro’s strengths, there are a few weaknesses that hold it back from being easy to recommend as a productivity device to everyone.

Its main weakness is that some key apps don’t have complete functionality. Photoshop is an illustrative example: Adobe is gradually improving Photoshop for iPadOS, but it’s still more of a Photoshop-on-the-go complement to your main machine than a viable replacement to Photoshop on a Mac or Windows device — for professionals, at least.

I personally had this experience with Google Docs, where I do the majority of my writing. The iPad version of Google Docs works great about 90% of the time. But I can’t simultaneously write and see comments left by my editors, which means constantly switching between read mode and write mode. Or, more realistically, switching to another device.

The iPad is still evolving. New accessories and software mean it could grow by leaps and bounds. Apps like Photoshop are being improved, and there are rumors of Final Cut Pro heading to iPadOS, too. For now, you’re likely to be able to do most of your work on it — but not all.


Jason Cipriani/CNET

Feel the power

The Surface Book 3 starts at $1,599, and that nets you an Intel Core-i5 processor and integrated graphics. But one of the Surface Book 3’s strengths is that, unusually for a laptop of its size, it can be configured with a dedicated graphics card. For that reason, you’d want to go for the $1,999 model that comes with a Core i7 and an Nvidia GTX 1650 Max-Q GPU. (The 15-inch version is a bit of a harder sell, since it’s actually a little underpowered compared to competing laptops.)

This separates the Surface Book from the iPad in a serious way. Both devices are marketed to creatives, and indeed the Apple Pencil is fabulous and the Microsoft Pen is also excellent. But this CPU and graphics power allows you to do far more with the Surface Book than the iPad Pro, which is equipped with Apple’s A12Z Bionic processor. The A12Z is a capable chip, but it’s not enough to compete with an Intel/Nvidia combo.


Ian Knighton/CNET

Nvidia graphics are a boon for two groups: gamers and creatives. Gamers will be able to play most modern games on the Surface Book, even if that’s not at maxed-out settings. That’s a huge win for a 13-inch laptop. Second, creatives will be able to do light video editing on the go.

It’s not limitless power. If your creativity involves intense 3D rendering, you’ll need to shell out for the Professional grade Surface Book line, which is equipped with Nvidia’s Quadro graphics range for creatives. And despite its expense, the Surface Book is restricted a little by its low-watt CPU, a compromise Microsoft made to fit it into the display, rather than the laptop base, of the Surface Book. But it’s enough power to give it a significant advantage over the iPad Pro.


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Future vs. Now

There’s so much to like about the Surface Book 3, from little things like its exceptional keyboard to bigger things like its beautiful display. Yet slightly irrationally, I like the iPad Pro more. Its display is even better, and it has the intuitive, satisfying feeling that Apple’s best products achieve. It might, in fact, be my favorite device.

I’m more excited about the future of the iPad, and have high hopes about iPadOS turning the iPad Pro into a device that can be recommended to all professionals. But this is why I say my love is irrational: It’s still more of a complement to a laptop rather than a replacement.

The Surface Book 3 does a remarkable amount, especially for its size. If you’re after one device to center your workflow around, and have use for its tablet functionality, it’s a strong option. If you’re after a secondary, more-portable laptop you can do most of your work on, the iPad Pro is a dream machine.

If I’m betting on the future, I’d say iPad Pro. But if you want a laptop that’s not just a laptop today, the Surface Book 3 is a safer bet.

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