Microsoft Surface Pro 3 full review

Many Apple fans were hoping for an iPad Pro this year, but it didn't happen. What they did get was a successor to the iPad Air. Here we compare the iPad Air 2 with Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 so you know which is the best device to buy.

As we said in our  Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air comparison the only facet the Surface shares with an iPad is that both are tablets. The iPad is great at many things, but a great productivity tool it is not. There's a reason why people switch to a laptop or PC to work on spreadsheets and other 'real work', and that's where the Surface Pro 3 shines.

Attach the keyboard and it's a powerful laptop running full Windows 8. So, whether you need some pivot tables or to edit photos in Photoshop, the Surface can oblige.

See also: Surface Pro 3 full review 

Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air 2: UK price

The iPad Air 2 starts at the usual £399 for the 16GB WiFi-only model. There's no 32GB model, but the 64GB Wi-Fi iPad Air 2 costs the same as last year's 32GB iPad Air at £479. For a little more, you can have the 16GB LTE iPad Air 2. You can also have the 128GB Wi-Fi only- and cellular iPad Air 2s. These cost £559 and £659 respectively.

Surface Pro 3 starts at £639 inc VAT for a Core i3 device with 64GB storage. Upgrade to the 128GB Core i5 version and you will pay out £849 inc VAT (but right now there's £100 off). The other Core i5 version has a 256GB SSD and costs £999 inc VAT with the current £110 discount). If you need a Core i7, prepare to pay hundreds of pounds more. These are laptop prices - and expensive ones at that.

Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air 2 comparison

Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air 2: Design and build

The Surface Pro 3 has a 12in screen. That's important. It's an inch and a half bigger than the older Surface Pros and it makes a heck of a difference. It's still smaller than a 13.3in laptop, but it's a lot more usable as a laptop than the 10.6in Surface Pro 2, for example.

It's just over 2in bigger than the iPad Air 2 with its 9.7in screen and has a high resolution of 2160x1440. The iPad sticks with the usual 2048x1536, so they really only differ in aspect ratio with the Surface opting for an unusual photo-style 3:2 and the iPad having a non-widescreen 4:3 ratio.

Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air 2 comparison

The Surface Pro 3 is thin for its size at just over 9mm and weighs 800g. The Air 2 is an astonishing 6.1mm thick and weighs less than 470g.

Both devices are very well built, but the Pro 3 has more features. It comes with a stylus which lets you scribble notes on the screen - the act of doing so wakes the tablet from sleep mode. It's pressure sensitive and makes a great drawing tool too, while the button can be used for various things: double-clicking takes a screenshot, for example.

The kickstand isn't limited to two positions as with its predecessors, so you can place it at just the right angle, right down to almost flat against the desk. The keyboard is cleverer too, with a bi-fold that gives it a slight angle rather than being parallel with the desk. The only downer is that you'll have to pay for the keyboard separately as it's an option: it will set you back a further £110.

Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air 2 comparison

The iPad Air 2 is a totally different proposition. It's far easier to hold in one hand and is obviously more portable than the Surface Pro 3. Its smaller screen has a higher pixel density than its rival - 264ppi vs 216ppi - but both are excellent displays.

Both are now fully laminated which makes them thinner and feel more solid (the original iPad Air sounded hollow when tapped). It also brings text and images closer to the front glass. In turn this makes them look more 'real' and also cuts down on glare. Apple has added an anti-reflective coating to the Air 2 which really helps.

Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air 2: Performance

All iPad Air 2s have the same performance as they have the same A8X processor. It's a stunner, too, having enough power to apply advanced lighting effects to video in real-time, for example. So it's eminently possible to install apps which allow you to be productive.

It's also fast in general use, which isn't to be underestimated. There's never a hint of lag while navigating iOS and apps launch in a snap. It's a great gaming device, too. The integrated GPU is capable of running games which put some consoles to shame, and it has a lot of potential for titles which will be released in the future. In the GFXBench T-Rex test, it managed 48.3fps. That's more than double the 22.9fps of the first iPad Air.

As we say in our full iPad Air 2 review, it's the new benchmark to which other tablets will have to measure up.

Performance from the Surface Pro 3 will depend on the model you buy, but suffice to say that the Core i7 models will not disappoint. It's probably worth avoiding the base i3 version if you can: the Core i5 with double the storage is worth the extra money.

Unlike traditional laptops, the Surface Pro 3 boots in just a few seconds which makes it feel more like a tablet.

Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air 2 comparison

Apple claims 10 hours of battery life, and Microsoft 9 hours. Clearly, the actual time between charges will depend on what you're using them for: playing demanding games non-stop will reduce these figures to perhaps four hours or so.

The iPad easily beats the Surface Pro 3 for photo and video quality from its main 8Mp camera. Whether this is important to you is a valid question: most people considering a Pro 3 won't be worrying about whether it will take a good shot of their favourite band at a concert. It should be a similar story for the iPad, but the Air 2 is so light that it's no wonder we see so many people using their tablet for taking videos of their grandkids (for example).

For front cameras, the Surface Pro 3 has a 5Mp camera against the iPad's 1.2Mp webcam.

Here's a photo from the iPad Air 2:

iPad Air 2 iSight camera shot

Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air 2: Verdict

So which is best? It all comes down to what you want to do with your tablet. For entertainment, web browsing, email, social networks, games, photography and video, the iPad wins. It's also a lot cheaper than the Surface Pro 3. A lot.

If you need a tablet that's also a fully-fledged laptop on which you can run business software, your only option among the two devices here is the Surface Pro 3. Kind of obvious, really. But it bears thinking about: if you don't want two devices - a laptop and a tablet - the Surface Pro 3 is the best choice at the moment. It runs Windows 8.1 Pro, so should be welcomed into any corporate environment. The iPad Air 2, on the other hand, may have Touch ID, but isn't as likely to be considered a 'work' device. The Surface Pro 3 isn't cheap, for sure, but it has the big screen, surprisingly slim dimensions and weight and will comfortably run any Windows software you care to install.

See also: The best tablets of 2014

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