Both Apple’s and Microsoft’s flagship tablet devices are large, powerful and elegant. But which is best for musicians?
Last year both Apple and Microsoft introduced new products representing each company’s vision for tablet computing. For Apple, it was the iPad Pro, an iPad aimed at those desiring a device more tailored towards productivity than content consumption, while Microsoft released a fourth-generation Surface Pro. Given the similarities between the two devices, and the fact that they both start around the same price, I thought it might be interesting to directly compare the two rather than discuss them individually. So in one corner is the entry-level iPad Pro with 32GB storage priced at £679$799, and in the other is the entry-level Surface Pro 4 with 128GB storage priced at £749$899. Let the battle commence!
My first reaction when picking up the iPad Pro was basically ‘whoa’! The iPad Pro is, as others have noted, essentially a big iPad Air; but it’s only when you pick the thing up — looking at pictures just doesn’t give an appropriate impression — that you begin to realise what this actually means. The iPad Pro measures 8.68 by 12 inches with a thickness of 0.27 inches, and it weighs in at 713g, which makes it slightly heavier than the very first iPad, which weighed 680g. It can feel slightly weird to hold, particularly in portrait orientation, and it seems much more comfortable sitting on a desk.
The display measures 12.9 inches diagonally with a resolution of 2732 x 2048 at 264ppi (Pixels Per Inch) and looks every bit as good as you’d expect. Existing apps run just fine on the larger screen, but they have to be specially optimised to actually take advantage of all the available pixels. Apple’s own GarageBand, as noted in the review, is able to offer three additional Tracks in Track View and can now display a smaller Tracks View when you’re in Instrument View. Korg have updated Gadget so you can now see 10 Tracks and five Scenes in landscape mode, or seven Tracks and nine Scenes in portrait — standard iPads show seven Tracks and three Scenes in landscape and five Tracks and Scenes in portrait. WaveMachine Labs’ Auria also offers support, fitting (in landscape orientation) 18 tracks on the mixer and up to 29 on the editor, compared to 13.5 tracks on the mixer and up to 24 on the editor on non-Pro iPads.
The larger display makes multitasking apps more practical, and, indeed, the reason for the slightly odd screen size is so that you can run two apps side-by-side using Split View in landscape orientation, with both displaying the full portrait interface you would see on a regular iPad. Apps need to be tweaked in order to fully support multitasking, and Split View works great if you want to, say, work with Word and Excel open at the same time. However, most music and audio apps don’t support Split View, and I think the reason for this is simply that a large percentage of those apps are hardwired to use a landscape orientation, making it harder to see how Split View could be useful. (Unless Split View could be made to work the other way around, so you’d see two landscape interfaces with the iPad Pro in portrait orientation; but I can’t see Apple going for that...)
Moving from sight to sound, the iPad Pro also features an interesting new speaker system. Where iPads have traditionally had one or two speakers next to the 30-pin or Lightning connectors, the iPad Pro has four speakers: two on the bottom as before, and now two on the top as well. Depending on the device’s orientation, Apple say that the iPad Pro will intelligently adjust the output so that, “While all four [speakers] produce bass frequencies, the top-most speakers are dedicated to higher frequencies.”
The design of the Surface Pro 4 was less surprising, as it’s more or less the same as its predecessor, although there a few differences to note. It’s ever so slightly thinner (0.33-inches vs 0.36), and ever so slightly lighter (766g vs 790g), which is just enough of a difference to give the sense of a more modern device. More importantly, Microsoft have made the screen larger (12.3-inches vs 12) without changing the Surface Pro’s footprint, so you now get a 2736 x 1824 resolution at 267ppi instead of the Surface Pro 3’s 2160 x 1440 display at 216ppi. This has been achieved by reducing the bezel around the display, and removing the touch-sensitive Windows button, which is great as this was something that got pressed more by accident than with intent.
Like the Surface 3, the entry-level Surface Pro 4 is fan-less and the volume buttons have been moved to next to the power button, which took some getting used to coming from previous Surface Pros. Since I generally use the device in landscape orientation, this change was a little annoying.
Seeing as the Surface Pro 4 runs full Windows 10 Pro, you can use it to run both modern, Universal Windows Platform apps and traditional Windows desktop software. This is just as well, since the Windows App Store still has quantity and quality problems when it comes to the selection of apps for musicians and audio engineers. There’s FL Studio Groove and StaffPad and, well, that’s about it. However, one advantage with Universal Windows apps is that they’re designed to scale to different types of devices with different screen sizes, so apps don’t need to be modified to take advantage of the larger screen.
When the Surface Pro 4 launched, there were number of issues with the device due to bugs in the firmware, which was a little disappointing. Apple are generally good at shipping devices that don’t need a period of updating when you first turn on the device, and it’s a shame Microsoft are still struggling in this regard. However, at the time of writing (in mid March) most of these glitches seemed to be resolved and my Surface Pro 4 was working well.
Internally, the iPad Pro and Surface Pro 4 both feature 4GB memory and a dual-core processor: the iPad powered by Apple’s latest A9X system-on-a-chip, and the Surface Pro 4 featuring an Intel m3. In terms of pure performance, turning to Geekbench, the iPad Pro handily beats the Surface Pro 4 with a score of 5459 vs 4897. However, if you want a faster Surface, you can of course spend more money and purchase one with an Intel i5 or i7 chip. According to Geekbench’s web site, i5 and i7-based Surface Pro 4s have been scoring around 6000 and 7000 respectively, and these models also include up to 16GB RAM as well — plus a fan.
In terms of storage, the iPad Pro starts with just 32GB, which seems a little exiguous for such a product. If you need more than 32GB, Apple offer 128GB models with or without cellular connectivity for £899$1079 and £799$949 respectively.
The Surface Pro 4 starts with 128GB, and while some will point out that Windows requires more storage space than iOS, you’re still left with 102GB out of the box (iOS, by comparison, consumes about 5GB). But unlike the iPad Pro, the Surface Pro 4 offers a microSD slot behind the kickstand, enabling you to conveniently expand the storage capacity of the device. And, if you’re willing to pay more, models with either 256GB or 512GB are also available (which also include more memory and faster processors).
iOS can now make use of external storage devices, although this is obviously less elegant as it’s something else to carry around with you, and apps have to be modified to take advantage of this. Currently, apps such as WaveMachine Labs’ Auria Pro and Steinberg’s Cubasis offer support for external storage.
A key aspect of the iPad Pro’s design is support for the new Apple Pencil, a stylus that features a male Lightning connector hidden under a magnetic cap at the base of the accessory. The Pencil is pure Apple: it’s white and looks beautifully futuristic, but, more importantly, feels pleasant in the hand. Apple may call it a Pencil, though it’s weighted in such a way that it feels like a really nice pen, and it works remarkably well with fairly decent palm rejection. The biggest rub with the Pencil is that it’s not included in the box and costs £79$99 extra.
The Pencil communicates with the iPad Pro via Bluetooth, and you pair the Pencil by simply inserting it into the iPad Pro. Should you turn Bluetooth off at any point, you’ll need to pair the Pencil again when Bluetooth is re-enabled. In addition to using the Lightning connector to pair the Pencil, it’s also used to charge the stylus. You’ll probably find yourself charging the stylus at least once a week, and Apple supply an adaptor so you can plug the Pencil into a regular Lightning cable. If you find yourself without a charger, you can also charge the Pencil by plugging it into your iPad, getting an extra 30 minutes of use time in just 15 seconds.
In terms of software support, many creative apps can now take advantage of the pencil, and Microsoft have added Windows-like inking features to the Office apps on iOS. When it comes to music apps, the support is fairly minimal at the time of writing, although Notion have a £5.99$7.99 Handwriting in-app purchase that supports the Pencil. Unlike StaffPad on Windows, where you just write directly onto the score, the Handwriting module opens a magnified area of the score below the actual score, and this is where you write. It feels a little clunky, to be honest, and the recognition is not always reliable, although it is compatible with any input device, be it the Pencil, your finger, or any other iPad stylus.
Microsoft, of course, have a head start when it comes to modern styli, dating all the way back to the introduction of the Tablet PC in 2001. As with all previous ‘Pro’ Surfaces, Microsoft include a Surface Pen in the box (additional Pens can be purchased for £49.99$59.99, and the Pro 4’s Pen improves upon the one supplied with the Pro 3. It’s slightly longer, for one thing, with a tip that has a little more resistance than before, and Microsoft also offer a pack of different tips for £10$10.
Although I loved the look and feel of the Pencil, the Pen offers a good deal more functionality, and the best thing about the new Pen is that Microsoft have brought back the eraser that featured on earlier, Wacom-powered Surface Pro models. So if you want to erase something, you simply touch the screen with the opposite end of the Pen — Apple, take note! Also, Microsoft claim you’ll get about 18 months of battery life with the Pen’s replaceable battery.
If you want a tablet primarily for notation work, the Surface Pro 4 wins hands down. That it is able to run both Universal Apps such as StaffPad and desktop apps like Sibelius — both of which take advantage of the pen — is a combination that’s hard to beat. Notion for iOS is a commendable app (look out for a full review in a coming issue), but it’s hard to beat the fluid workflow of StaffPad or the sophistication of Sibelius, or even the desktop version of Notion.
One hardware accessory that you may or may not need depending on how you’re going to be using a tablet is a keyboard cover. In addition to the Pencil, Apple are also offering the Smart Keyboard, an accessory that’s a cover, a keyboard and stand, and is available for £139$169. This communicates with the iPad Pro and provides power via a new so-called Smart Connector on the left-hand side of the iPad Pro, and is covered with what Apple describe as a “custom-woven fabric” with a “water- and stain-resistant finish”. The keys themselves are based on the switching design used in new MacBooks, so the travel on the keys is pretty minimal and it’s likely you won’t enjoy the experience of typing on it. That being said, however, it’s still possible to type at a reasonable speed given that Apple have employed the same island-style layout used on their other keyboards. The stand aspect suffers from the same problem as the original Surface tablets in that it’s not adjustable; Microsoft later solved this problem by making the built-in kickstand used on Surface Pros (since the third generation) fully adjustable.
This typing experience probably won’t be a big deal if you’re using the iPad Pro primarily to run audio apps, and some developers have been taking advantage of the keyboard for more than just text entry. For example, in addition to fully taking advantage of the iPad Pro, Algoriddim’s djay Pro makes use of the Smart Keyboard to perform a number of shortcuts for looping and cue points, as well as library navigation, search and more.
Microsoft have been offering keyboard covers since introducing the Surface product line four years ago, and are often criticised for not including one in the box given that a significant amount of the Surface Pro’s functionality can depend on it. The Surface Pro 4’s Type cover (which is backwardly compatible with the Surface Pro 3) is a huge improvement on previous efforts. Microsoft have somehow made the cover thinner while managing to improve the feel of the keys, moving to an island-style layout that has made the typing experience dramatically better. It feels almost as good as a really good laptop keyboard, and far better than the majority of others — including Apple’s Smart Keyboard. The trackpad has also been enhanced, and although it’s not quite perfect, its larger design with a smooth glass finish is surprisingly usable. At £109.99$129.99 it’s admittedly not a cheap accessory (though less expensive than the Smart Keyboard), but if you’re purchasing a Surface Pro 4, buy a Type Cover to accompany it.
As is always the case when considering computing devices, it all comes down to software, and, in a way, both devices have a problem in this department. The iPad Pro can of course run all the apps in the App Store, which will certainly benefit from the faster processor and extra memory; but the interface and experience will be the same as on any other iPad until developers tweak their apps to support and utilise the larger display. Also, many of these apps, while very good in a mobile context, aren’t very ‘pro’ on a device with such a price tag. For example, Cubasis is great, but it’s no Cubase and obviously isn’t intended to be. Once you add all the accessories, you very quickly find yourself in MacBook Air territory in terms of price, on which you can run far more capable applications.
The Surface Pro 4 has something of the opposite problem, in that while (with a couple of exceptions) the Windows Store lacks compelling Universal Windows Apps, you have the benefit of being able to run existing applications like Cubase, Live, Reaper, Reason and so on. Of course, whether the tablet form factor of the Surface Pro makes sense if you’re primarily going to be running desktop apps is another question. Because if you’re going to be running desktop apps, you’ll probably want to opt for a faster model with more memory, and, as with the iPad Pro, you quickly get into the price range of a decent laptop.
In conclusion, if you spend a good deal of time working with iOS music and audio apps and you’re happy to spend the money, the iPad Pro is quite literally the biggest and most powerful iPad to run these apps. If you want a tablet that can run full desktop versions of existing applications, and specifically if your interest is more in the notation space, the Surface Pro 4 is the obvious choice.