Battle Of The Hybrids: Microsoft, Lenovo, Dell Stiff Competition For Apple iPad Pro

When Microsoft first announced the Surface Pro back in 2012 (it launched in early 2013), many Apple fans snickered. Here was Microsoft, releasing a somewhat thick and heavy tablet that not only had a kickstand, but also an “odd” cover that doubled as a keyboard. And to top things off, the device made use of a stylus. The late Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously said in 2010, “If you see a stylus, they blew it.” 

And many people thought that Microsoft did blow it, writing off nearly $1 billion in costs related to its Surface tablets during the first year. But Microsoft forged ahead with the Surface Pro 2, and later with the Surface Pro 3 (you can read Marco’s review here). Not only were customers becoming more aware of the innovative and powerful tablet, but competitors were also taking note. 

Microsoft Surface Pro 3
Microsoft Surface Pro 3

We’ve seen Lenovo introduce the ideapad MIIX 700, which incorporates its own kickstand and an Intel Skylake-based Core m7 processor. And most recently, we've seen Apple pull a literal 180 on this design and platform approach, announcing the iPad Pro — a device that features a fabric keyboard cover similar in concept to the Surface Pro and a stylus.

The big head-to-head competition will no doubt be between the Surface Pro 4, which is set to be unveiled early next month, and the iPad Pro. But for practical purposes, today we’ll be discussing the Surface Pro 3. So let’s take a look at what both machines offer:

Microsoft Surface Pro 3
Specifications & Features

Model Surface Pro 3
Processor 4th-generation Intel Core i3/i5/i7 processors
Graphics Intel HD Graphics
Operating System Windows 10 Pro 64-bit
Display 12-inch ClearType Full HD (2160x1440) Touch Panel
Camera 5MP front-facing camera; 5MP rear-facing camera
Memory & Storage 4GB or 8GB of RAM
64GB, 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB SSD
microSD card slot
I/O Ports 1 x Full-size USB 3.0
1 x Mini Display port
Headset jack
microUSB charging port
Wireless 802.11ac Wi-Fi
Bluetooth 4.0
Battery Up to 9 hours
Weight 1.76 pounds
MSRP Base Price: $799 (Now on sale For $671)

We’ll start with the incumbent, the Surface Pro 3. Even after a year on the market, the Surface Pro 3 is still quite potent, offering up to a fourth generation 1.7GHz Intel Core i7 processor paired with 8GB RAM. You’ll also find up to 512GB of storage on the range-topping model. 

But the most impressive part of the Surface Pro 3 is probably its 12-inch display, which has a display resolution of 2160x1440 (3:2 aspect ratio). The 1.76-pound tablet features a built-in, infinitely-adjustable kickstand which makes finding the “perfect” typing angle a lot easier than with previous generations. And we can’t forget the included Surface Pen, which is a boon for everyone from simple note takers to creative types. The Bluetooth-based Surface Pen is powered by a single AAAA battery or two Type-319 coin cell batteries.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 With Keyboard Cover
Microsoft Surface Pro 3

The Surface Pro 3 is aimed at primarily at professionals, so it should come as no surprise that the tablet is running Windows 10 — an operating system that is equally kind to both touch-based tablets and and devices that rely primarily on a keyboard and mouse for input. And since after all this is a fully functional Windows PC, it has access to the entire catalog of current and legacy Windows x86 software applications.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3

On the all-important pricing front, the Surface Pro 3 covers an almost comically broad pricing spectrum. An entry-level model with a Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 64GB SSD will cost you $699 from the Microsoft Store. The most expensive model with its Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 512MB SSD will cost you a pretty penny at $1,799. But there’s an extra wrinkle in those prices — Microsoft regularly offers steep discounts on the Surface Pro 3, so if you play your cards right, you can get upwards of $300 off mid-range and higher-tier Surface Pro 3 models. With the Surface Pro 4 imminent, expect pricing to get even more competitive.

Although the Surface Pro 3 comes with a Surface Pen in the box, they retail for $49.99 should you lose your original. The Surface Pro Type Cover runs $129.99.

Apple iPad Pro
Specifications & Features

Model iPad Pro
Processor Apple A9X
Graphics Apple A9X
Operating System iOS 9
Display 12.9-inch (2732x2048) Touch Panel
Camera 1.2MP front-facing camera; 8MP rear-facing camera
Memory & Storage 4GB of RAM
32GB, 64GB or 128GB Flash storage
I/O Ports 1 x Lightning Port
Headset jack
Wireless 802.11ac Wi-Fi
Bluetooth 4.2
Optional LTE
Battery Up to 10 hours (Wi-Fi), Up to 8 hours (Wi-Fi + LTE)
Weight 1.57 pounds
MSRP Base Price: $799

On the Apple front, we have the iPad Pro . This newcomer is the Mac Daddy (no pun intended) of iOS devices, sporting a massive 12.9-inch display with a resolution of 2732x2048. Powering the iPad Pro is a potent A9X processor which is backed by 4GB of RAM. Apple says that the iPad Pro offers nearly twice the performance of last year’s A8X processor found in the iPad Air 2 and features a GPU that is twice as fast. However, we have to keep in mind that the GPU is also pushing quite a bit more pixels in the iPad Pro (the iPad Air 2 features a 2048x1536 display), so we’ll be eager to see what the actual CPU and GPU benchmarks look like once we get the tablet into our test lab.

Apple iPad Pro
Apple iPad Pro

Like the Surface Pro 3, the iPad Pro is available with fabric-covered keyboard cover, which Apple calls the "Smart Keyboard." And just like the Surface Pro 3, the Smart Keyboard is powered by the tablet using a proprietary, magnetic port. In the case of the iPad Pro, power comes from the Smart Connector (which takes the form of three small circles) on the side of the tablet.

And wouldn’t you know it, the iPad Pro can also be equipped with an optional stylus; or as the folks from Cupertino call it, the "Apple Pencil." Thankfully, the Apple Pencil has its own built-in battery, which lasts 12 hours per charge. It features its own male Lightning connector under a protective cap, which allows you to plug it into your iPad Pro to recharge (we must say, it does look odd in when charging). However, Apple says that a 15-second charge is good for 30 minutes of runtime, so at least you won’t have to look at the awkward contraption for too long.

Apple iPad Pro with Smart Keyboard

Being that this is an iOS device, you immediately have access to the millions of iOS apps that flood the App Store, both geared towards general consumers and those in the professional market — although the mix is heavily skewed towards the former. But with the iPad Pro, Apple is hoping to court app developers to create more professional-level applications which make extensive use of the iPad Pro’s more powerful processor, expansive screen real estate and the new Apple Pencil. However, some feel that the very nature of the App Store will prevent many developers from taking the plunge. 

The developers of Sketch, which make their app available on the Mac for designers at a cost of $99, simply can’t make a business case for producing a version of its popular software for the iPad Pro:

We don’t have plans for an iPad pro version at the moment. Yes, it has a beautiful screen, but there’s more to consider, such as how to adapt the UI for touch without compromising the experience. But the biggest problem is the platform. Apps on iOS sell for unsustainably low prices due to the lack of trials. We cannot port Sketch to the iPad if we have no reasonable expectation of earning back on our investment. 

Apple offers no way for developers to provide trial software to consumers and doesn’t allow a way for developers to enable upgrade pricing. The latter point means that devs either have to spend a lot of money and resources to create a substantial upgrade for an iOS app and offer it as a free update in the App Store (good for consumers, bad for developers) or just increment the version number and charge customers full price for a new version of the software (good for developers, but bad for customers). Charging customers full price for a new version of software isn’t all that much of an issue when an app costs $0.99 or $1.99, but it can be a big barrier to entry when the app costs $99 (like the Mac OS version of Sketch).

Apple iPad Pro

Now this of course isn’t going to stop software heavyweights like Adobe from pouring resources into expensive, pro-level apps for the iPad Pro, but the indie developers that gained prominence with their $0.99 apps have a lot more to lose by taking a gamble. 

The iPad Pro will launch in November with a starting price of $799 for a 32GB model with Wi-Fi. The next tier gives you 128GB of storage for $949, while a 128GB iPad Pro with Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity will set you back $1,079. The Apple Pencil is an optional accessory that costs $99. The Smart Keyboard will set you back another $169.

But while the title bout will no doubt be between the inevitable Surface Pro 4 and the iPad Pro, which should be released to the public around the same time, there are also some other contenders that we’ll be keeping an eye on in the coming months. Lenovo announced its Ideapad MIIX 700 at IFA 2015 earlier this month. The convertible was swiftly labeled a Surface clone thanks to its adjustable kickstand, 12-inch display, and keyboard cover that attaches magnetically to the tablet. The MIIX 700 even has a stylus, which attaches to the tablet’s USB port when not in use -- the resemblance is uncanny.

Lenovo ideapad MIIX 700
Lenovo ideapad MIIX 700

Powering the MIIX 700 is Intel’s Skylake-based Core m7 processor and 8GB of RAM. Prices start at $699, which puts Lenovo’s 2-in-1 right in the same ballpark as the Surface Pro 3 and the iPad Pro.

There's also yet another “Surface Pro clone” in the incubator. Late last week, slides were leaked which indicate that Dell is set to launch a new 2-in-1 tablet in October. The XPS 12 will features a dazzling 12-inch 4K display (3840x2160), Thunderbolt 3 and a Dell Active Stylus. And like the iPad Pro, the Dell XPS 12 appears to have a smart keyboard that helps prop the tablet up into laptop mode. Unfortunately, we don’t have any pricing or additional specs on Dell’s potential game changer in the 2-in-market, but we’ll find out full details soon enough.

Asus T300 Chi Hand
Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi 

Yet another option is the Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi, which brings a 12.5-inch display that matches the resolution of the Surface Pro 3. In its $899 configuration, the T300 Chi comes with a dual-core Intel Core M 5Y71 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD.

we can’t forget the Surface 3, which is smaller and less potent that in its pro-oriented brother. The Surface 3 comes with a 10.8-inch Full HD (1920x1200) display, Intel Atom x7 Z8700 processor, up to 4GB of RAM and up to 128GB of eMMC Flash storage. The 1.37-pound tablet last up to 10 hours on a charge and is priced from $499, making it a much cheaper alternative than the above mentioned tablets, although there is a steep drop-off in performance to consider as well.

Microsoft definitely didn’t create the 2-in-1 market all by itself, but it definitely made things a lot more interesting with the first generation Surface Pro. And now that we have some incredibly powerful OEMs entering the fray with similar designs, we can expect to see highly competitive tablet 2-in-1 devices enter the market over the next few months.