iPad Pro is not a laptop replacement, nor is the Surface 4, but one is closer…

Image: Microsoft | Reuters/Stephen Lam
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A longish exploration of two hybrid devices: Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 and Apple’s iPad Pro.

The short version: The Microsoft product is a decent laptop but it’s better as a tablet. The iPad Pro is also not a laptop replacement, but it’s a substantial enhancement of the tablet genre, thanks to a better/bigger screen, a very good stylus, and plenty of processing power. This leads to a brief speculation on the future of OS X and iOS.

What follows isn’t a product review in the official media sense. Here, I put my own money on the line, I play customer and take the time to let the Third Impression set in, unavoidable personal biases included. No pre-configured device, no hand-holding by a manufacturer’s rep, no direct line to a support person, no review guide, no deadline, no scramble for pageviews—it’s free as in Free Speech and Free Beer.

We’ll start with the Surface Pro 4.

The Microsoft store at the Stanford shopping center is walking distance from my office and home—and it’s never very crowded. Late last October, I amble in and, unmolested by the staff, try one of the Surface Pro 4 hybrids on display. There’s no cursor on the screen; the keyboard and touch screen seem to work but the cursor is missing in action. I signal a salesperson who agrees there’s a problem and tries to solve it by switching keyboards. No joy. ‘Ah, it’s a demo machine, you know…’ I suggest the good old restart, it works, and the gent walks away. So do I.

(To be fair, I’ve had interactions with more engaged salespeople at that same store. One in particular impressed me with his welcoming attitude and his knowledge of smartphones and accessories—and his being trilingual. I took his name and promptly turned him in to the Apple Store recruitment police.)

I come back the next day, determined to buy a Surface Pro 4. I had purchased the first Surface machine, the short-lived ARM version, skipped the Surface 2, and bought a Surface 3 last year. I now want to see how Microsoft’s latest tablet/laptop compares with the iPad Pro and the MacBook.

Skipping the demo displays, I call on a salesperson and ask for the entry-level machine and a red keyboard cover. No, I don’t need software, I have an Office 365 subscription. $1025.00 before taxes for a device that weighs in at 1,108 grams, 2.44 pounds.

Stepping up to pay, I recognize an Ingenico point-of-sale terminal that accepts Apple Pay. Instead of swiping my credit card, I present my Apple Watch and, cling, the transaction goes through. The salesperson didn’t realize the store took Apple Pay—and her face says so. On that fun note, off to the office I go.

(In passing, I’ve seen quite a few stores in both San Francisco and Palo Alto, including one where Tim Cook shops, where the staff didn’t know they took Apple Pay and have been amused, gathering their colleagues to watch my demonstration.)

Setup is easy, I’m familiar with Windows 10; I have it running on two virtual machines on my iMacs at work and home. Installing Office software and updates, no problem. The only trouble stems from an occasionally unresponsive trackpad during the succession of set-up steps where the click seems inoperative or balky.

Once on top of things, I proceed with my daily diet of research, mail, reading business plans or start-up pitches, writing Monday Notes and other screeds, and reading news sites and blogs of many stripes and countries. Only once did I get the absent cursor problem experienced at the store. A restart cured the problem, and there has been no recurrence to this day. I’ve read about hardware trouble with the Surface Pro line—Surfacegate as it’s been called—but have experienced none so far, not even power adapter issues.

For office use on a desk, the well-executed foldable stand holds the screen at a comfortable angle, but the trackpad is far from being as smooth, pleasant, and functional as a MacBook. The small size limits the range of motion, and the gamut of gestures isn’t as rich or as well-judged. The Mac’s four-finger swipe is a bit above my pay grade—I stop at three fingers—but there’s no real equivalent on the Surface Pro’s limited pad.

The high resolution screen is pleasant and reacts well to the touch, with either fingers or the bundled stylus, but with Office apps such as Word, touch is a mixed bag. The target of interaction is smaller than a fingerprint; grabbing tiny UI objects is (sorry) touch and go.

Overall, it’s a serviceable personal computer—as long as it’s sitting on the desktop, that is.

On one’s lap, things deteriorate. Adjusting the leg stand is awkward, especially when compared to a laptop that lets you set the screen angle without reaching behind the device. In my customary writing position, the keyboard cover feels flimsy and too easily detaches.

However, as a “pure” tablet—no keyboard, flat on a desk or in your hands—the Surface works really well. The Windows 10 app store offers many drawing and CAD (Computer Assisted Design) apps, and the bundled Surface stylus works well—it actually sticks to the side of the screen with a magnet—imagine that. I’ve been disappointed by the sorry procession of third-party styli that I’ve bought (and lost) for the iPad.  Bad coupling, lack of precision, lag, poor integration…

The Surface Pro 4 is a better tablet than it is a laptop, but if I had no alternative, I could lead a reasonably happy and productive life with it.

We now turn to the other “toaster-fridge,the iPad Pro (which, apparently, sold more in 6 weeks of availability than Surface Pros did in the December quarter).

Obtaining an iPad Pro wasn’t easy. Because I didn’t order on line at 12:01am on the first day, I was told it would take three to four weeks to receive my device, with an even longer wait for the Smart Keyboard and the rumored-to-be-magical Pencil. This would not work for my upcoming family vacation where we French pilgrims give thanks in Maui. After repeated pleading visits to the nearby Apple Store, a salesperson took pity and advised me to buy a less-configured iPad Pro in the “wrong” color, assuring me I’d have no trouble turning it back in because Apple’s generous holiday return policy extended to Jan. 8. More visits and groveling got me a Smart Keyboard and a Pencil. [Insert persphinctery derogation of Apple’s supposedly word-class supply chain management here.]

The gent who managed to snag a Pencil from a just-arrived shipment was duly punished when his iOS sales terminal balked at my Apple Watch. Resetting it didn’t work—a colleague had to lend his. With Smart Keyboard and Pencil, the 128 gigabyte iPad Pro cost $1274 before taxes and weighs 1,096 grams, 2.42 pounds.

Setting up the iPad Pro is uneventful—the Smart Keyboard attaches and the Pencil charges without a fuss. I proceed to my daily routine, including writing a Monday Note. On the iPad Pro, I prefer Microsoft Word to the iOS version of Pages. Creating and editing hyperlinks in Pages is particularly troublesome, compounded by an erroneous Apple Support page that directs you to the + mark in the Format Bar instead of the ¶ icon at the bottom right of the screen.

There is much to praise: iOS 9 provides split-screen flexibility which makes it possible to consult a website or to forage around my DropboxiCloud Drive, or OneDrive file stores as I write. The official keyboard features Mac-like keys such as Control, Option, ⌘ (a.k.a. Command), as well as once-heretical cursor keys. Far from the early iOS Touch UI dogma, we now have a new pragma: split-screen, a file system, and laptop-like keyboard and keys. But, unlike the Surface Pro, no trackpad.

Despite these improvements, the iPad Pro is (still) not a laptop replacement. Actually, for my uses, it’s the other way around. The new, light Retina MacBook (935 grams, 2.06 pounds) I bought when it came out last March has taken screen and lap time from my iPad.

I side with Walt Mossberg for whom The iPad Pro can’t replace the laptop totally, even among tablet lovers. And treat yourself to this Horace Dediu video, fun and serious at the same time, where he lucidly explains how the iPad Pro is a great desktop computer—that is, laid flat on the desk.

Nonetheless, I am Uncle Walt’s “tablet lover.” The tablet is an important personal computing advance, one that has opened doors for many people, and the iPad Pro opens that door substantially wider. The larger screen—it’s the size of two iPad Minis side-by-side—isn’t just more of the same, it expands the range of your work (and play). The new Pencil is the first iPad stylus that really works—it recognizes pressure levels and angle, so is perfect for drawing shadows on a sketch, if you’re so inclined. The drawing functions Apple has added to its iOS Notes app—to be used with your fingers on an iPhone—are a treat with a Pencil on the iPad Pro.

Once we realize how large and pixel-rich the screen is, how the iPad Pro can be used with two hands flat on a desk, and how the Pencil opens a new range of business graphics, artistic uses, and education applications enabled by the upcoming 9.3 version of iOS, we can see that Apple’s new tablet isn’t just another iteration of the “old” iPad formula.

Is this the beginning of a new trajectory towards toaster-fridge singularity? The mix of keyboards, trackpads, screen-touch interactions, and styli seems to want to converge into something coherent. After using my iPad Pro for a while, I find myself reaching for the screen on my MacBook—and I read online that I’m not alone.

But it’s a work in progress. Looking at Apple’s proven ability to design “desktop-class” Ax processors, the company’s preference to cannibalize itself (rather than giving others the opportunity), and the respective ages and abundance-of-bugs in OS X (old) and iOS (fresh), one senses a promise for the evolution of a hybrid device.

If only the Pencil came with a magnet to keep it attached to the tablet…

This post originally appeared at Monday Note.