Surface pro vs iPad pro

  2018-09-15


Some time ago, as Apple launched the iPad pro 10.5 inches after having time to play with one I decided it would be the device that could fill the gap between my laptop (that actually belongs to my work) and my desktop PC.

Spoiler alert: it wasn’t

My original idea was to have the device serve a few different purposes:

1) As a tablet, after all I already owned a small iPad and used it mostly for netflix and small mobile things when I did not have my phone at hand. 2) As a light coding device, ideally a dumb terminal or just editor runner to code quickly, having a keyboard was a big plus as I just had to fold the cover to have a very light laptop. 3) As a way to develop my digital pics, I like to carry around a Sony Alpha 6k or even my regular phone with a decent camera app and most pics get a quick hand of lightroom.

With this in mind I read/watches several reviews for iPad pro and Surface Pro (both devices with a kb alternative at the time) and found… nothing most reviews were by artists that could make much more than I of the Apple pencil and … whatever the surface one is called.

I decided to go with the iPad, if it didn’t work for me I could always sell it (my country’s economy allows me to do this without losing money)

iPad

As a tablet

As a tablet the iPad pro is one of the best I have ever owned, the screen is the right size, the device’s weight is just right and the optional cover that acts as a keyboard and folds as a stand is very convenient (yes, the price is not convenient at all) if you do not want the keyboard the regular cover (also sold separately, because Apple) has the same fold to stand in two positions feature.

There are apps for all the popular services (Netflix, Spotify, Telegram, Twitter, Facebook, etc) and they work as well as they work on any phone. There is a broad selection of casual games.

One of the selling points of the iPad, the pencil, lacks enough apps for casual users, at least for my taste. When I first experimented with mine I expected an app a-la ms Paint to be bundled, prominent and easy to access and it was not, this made me sad. Apps like Pages (word processor) allows to draw over documents which is extra cool, but there is lack of assistence in line tracing (ie, for a document you want to draw an arrow between two things or underline and it’s not trivially done)

If you are invested in the Apple ecosystem, the iPad will be a fine addition, pics go from my phone/laptop to the tablet and a few other goodies that come with iCloud.

As a light coding device.

My first attempt at this was to write JS/HTML which were ok, I used an editor recommended to me by others that used the device for this, I did not try my editors of choice (vim and vscoe) because I did not think the first could be used properly without full control of the underlying userspace and the latter well…. is not available.

For code editing I installed Textastic for repo management I installed Working copy and for ssh into servers I installed Prompt the combo is quite good but.

My language of choice was discarded, even though I have written Go in the iPad, it is a subpar experience, I get not much more out of it than I would get from a notepad app.

Besides code completion and other formatting and linting options my regular workflow usually includes frequent access to shell to run stuff (or operate with version control, the graphic tools never were my thing) and this is impossible. I tried remote editing but this proves to be rather annoying on a device that is trying desperately to save battery. The only nice remote editing I had was on my home remote editing something on my pc and at this point I just roamed to the desk and did the job on it with a good keyboard and monitor.

The keyboard on this thing, even though decent quality in terms of key distance and feel looks like someone 3d printed the digital keyboard, included the “Change Language” icon which makes little sense on a phisical kb (it does change the layout but it’s useless in a non standard distribution).

The structure of the keyboard being based on the folded cover, even though clever and quite useful for stand, is a bit wrong for typing on a non rigid surface, when using your lap the weight of the tablet makes the whole contraption woble.

As I advanced on my coding of personal things the device became less and less useful to the point where I was working on a remote session using vim (which is not especially nice without Esc key) I noticed that this device was only useful when near internet, which was also far from ideal as one of my best coding places are planes and airports.

This was ultimately what made me give up the iPad for this as I found myself fetching my laptop too often.

As a way te develop pics.

The use of Adobe Lightroom (my software of choice to develop pictures) is quite comfortable in iOS, it would seem they put a great deal of effort into making it a table experience, but.

Apple’s need to tighly control their environment, that already bit me when using the device for coding, came back here.

When developing Pictures I took with my phone, mostly raw using Halide Cam the experience was quite seamless I just imported the pics from my photo library that was conveniently synced with the phone, edition controls on the mobile version are crafted to be very tablet friendly and the pencil adds actual value, especially when using masks.

When trying to develop pictures from my camera it was the worse experience ever. Lightroom on a regular computer (mobile version is available on all devices) allows you to import pictures from your camera directly into the Adobe Library (the other version of lightroom allows the same but to a local storage, but it only comes for PC/Mac) but when used on an iOS device you need to import all your pictures (tons of raw, often repeated pictures) into your tablet photo library (that will upload to iCloud) then open the app and import the pics then delete them from your library before they upload to iCloud… that is a pain.

A suggested alternative workflow implies going to a computer, doing the import in to Adobe cloud then edit them with your device, which works for whoever uses the iPad as an alternative screen but really sucks for someone on the move (I like to not carry a laptop when I am not going to need it).

Additionally some of the picture editing software available for iOS is not great, quite constrained, I suspect most features are tailored to what the platform offers as accelerated features.

Surface

As a tablet

First let me get the cat out of the bag, yes, this is not a tablet, it is a rather heavy windows PC devoid of a body :) I cheated a bit on the version I chose, at the time of writing this there was a version called Surface Go that is rather similar to an iPad pro in terms of physical form but I based my decision on the following:

  • Size of the keyboard, the keyboard in these things (when using the cover that is right for your size, they seem interexchangeable) has the size of the screen, so the small form factor on the Go was not very nice.
  • Processing power, since I wanted to use this to code stuff and some of my personal projects use stuff like docker I decided that it might be a good idea to get at least a core i5 with 8G of ram, not available on the smaller form factor. Windows does not have such tight control over their ecosystem to guarantee the apps will be good citizens so ill have to have some spare room.
  • Price, at the time of purchase a 12” Surface Pro with 128G of storage, 8G of Ram, a core i5 and a bundled keyboard was U$D790 which is the same as a similar iPad (with more storage but minus keyboard)

The only apps I found to have a native app that is maintained are Spotify (I love how spotify maintains their clients equally in every platform) and Netflix (this one is quite far from ideal).

I use most of the apps as browser pinned tabs, it works but is not as nice as having the app. When the keyboard is not connected the UI swithes to “tablet mode” which remove some borders, make apps full screen (though you can arrange them to be side by side, just like in iOS but less hacky) the controls remain small in most cases. A word about the controls, even though they remain small/mouse pointer sized the finger detection on windows is near magic, I hardly missclick even when pointing very small screen elements.

Changing between apps is not really a seamless experience, there is a sort of expose view that you can access by pulling up the famous windows bar (also small) but the expose thing would be nicer if I could just see icons. A nice thing about the expose is that below the apps it shows the tabs and history of your browser, assuming you use edge (yeah, edge is bad, but no worse than safari and it saves battery). I must say I really miss the multi purpose “home” button from the iPad (but I guess that is going away soon too)

The stand is a nice point for this tablet, it has a build in stand which keeps it in a standing position at various angles. It is extra nice and the hinge that keeps it in position is amazing, the only con is that if you have a cover it gets in the way.

The charger is perhaps the weakest point, this device is a disguised laptop so when connected to the power it does perform better (configurable) but also the extremely non standard magnetic connector outputs around 15v which makes this device unusable with standard USB chargers, I have a couple of anker multi port chargers and other various USB outlets around the house that are completely unusable with this thing, that is very sad, I had to buy 2 power bricks (which come with an USB port for also charging your phone) and have one on my desk and a moving one, it is enough but makes chargin it on the nightstand cumbersome, especially because the connector has a light.

In conclusion, if I wanted a tablet and only a tablet this would be far from my first choice, the only extra nice point is the ability to rage quit tablet limitations by connecting the keyboard/cover.

As a light coding device

This is easy, this is a PC, full fledged, I installed my regular tools, editors, and even a linux using Windows Subsystem for Linux windows is an aquired taste so it took some time to get friends with it as I usually don’t use windows for stuff other than playing games and have not used a windows an OS in daily base since windows 98SE.

There is not much more to cover, this blog post for instance is made with a hugo version compiled in this “tablet” and edited in vscode also on the tablet.

The keyboard is a real keyboard, the keys are real keys (looking at you macbook pro) and the distribution is standard-ish (PgUp/Dn not where I would like them) I have a real Esc key (looking at you again macbook pro) and even a touchpad, which one would think makes no sense on a touch screen device but it does one often uses it when connected to the kb.

When used as a laptop, the stand behind the screen does look like a hack to avoid cleverness like the one on the iPad but it makes the thing really rigid and remove the woblyness. Additionally the keyboard has two possitions, flat and inclined, very comfortable.

As a laptop this is really cool.

As a way te develop pics.

Again, this is a PC, I have Lightroom CC (same as in iPad for comparision purposes and because I want my library cloud stored for lack of space) connecting a camera is as trivial as using a usb cable to the full size USB port in the side of the tablet (yeah, super cool) and importing using Lightroom into the Adobe library. If one wants to work on a bigger screen there is also a display port which works as in any laptop (iPad does not allow much more than mirror when connecting through a dongle) And a microSD reader which is also cool.

When trying to use pics from my phone is a different story, All the goodies in Apple ecosystem for seamless transfer of file punish you when you leave said ecosystem, Apple seems to hate standards so there is no simple way to transfer a pic other than connecting the phone with a cable or having iTunes installed in the surface… which will not happen. So far I have been uploading them to the phone Lightroom and then using them in the Surface, far from ideal.

The Pencil from MS is decent has a few buttons and other controls to be used as an eraser and to change brushes, I like it so far, it feels a bit less smooth than Apple’s but does the job. I have an additional piece of hardware, the Dial which is not very useful in Lightroom but does ok in Photoshop and hopefully will gain more support, it is programable so you can map it to various keystrokes deppending on the app if you are keen to do it (I have not).

Photoshop is the full version unlike iOS and it works really well and if I need to I can install the non mobile version of Lightroom that gives you more control when needed.

An extra perk of the Surface, the pen stays magnetically adhered to the side of it, and that makes a bigger difference than one would think.

Conclusion

The Surface Device has many rough edges that I can overlook because I am a technical person and am used to sysadmin my own hardware, the iPad has a much nicer UX and as a tablet cannot be beaten by a Surface but cannot, in my opinion, go beyond tablet/drawing device without hitting some serious boundaries that one might be willing to let pass if tablet is the primary use, certainly Apple products are much more friendly if used only combined with other Apple products.

Surface pro vs iPad pro

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