What’s better, the Surface Pro or the Surface Pro clone?
We labeled the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Tablet the “Surface Pro 4 ThinkPad Edition.” Before that, we claimed the Surface Pro 4 is a “better version of 2014’s best Windows device (the Surface Pro 3).” Since the differences between the two are so slight we claimed “both are indistinguishable at a glance,” users would be just as happy with either/or, right?
Contrary to the obvious, there are slight differences that make each of these 2-in-1s better suited for different types of users. Read one to find out which is best for you.
Build & Design
As we stated in the Surface Pro 4 review and various Surface Pro 4 comparisons, Microsoft’s Windows 10 two-in-one has the best hardware on the market. It’s a “remarkably well-built machine,” with a design innovation that should be standard on all Windows 10 tablets: the kickstand. It’s magnesium build feels as great as it looks, and the tablet is solid all around. And with the Pro 4, Microsoft finally addressed the Pro 3’s one glaring design flaw by adding a magnetic strip alongside the left landscape edge that serves as a pen dock.
The ThinkPad X1 Tablet is imperceptibly thicker and heavier than the Pro 4, both with the keyboard cover attached. It has a similar magnesium build, but can likely take a few more punches than the Pro 4 given that it’s MIL_STD-810G certified. It’s an enterprise device, and Lenovo claims it has “enterprise-class serviceability,” with easy access to the battery, WWAN card, and SSD for replacement and repairs.
But its bottom-hinged kickstand is its biggest flaw. As we stated in the ThinkPad X1 Tablet review:
It’s stable in terms of propping up the X1 Tablet, but it too easily slides. The Surface Pro has a top hinge and the kickstand swings from the tablet’s center portion, giving the kickstand a more severe edge to dig in and remain in place. This is especially true with literal lap use, whereas the X1 Tablet can too easily slide off over the knees. Also, the X1 kickstand snaps shut when closed to around 25 degrees, which is conversely when the tablet is opened about 155 degrees.
There is no natural dock for its Wacom-powered ThinkPad Pen Pro outside of two external clips. One slots on the keyboard, while the other clips into the USB input. Both hold the pen securely enough, but lack the elegance of the magnetic strip.
Bottom Line: The ThinkPad X1 Tablet’s repairability and durability do a lot to make up for the kickstand design flaw. For enterprise customers, this is enough to rank the X1 Tablet over the Pro. For everyone else, the Surface Pro 4 is still the best hardware on the market.
Ports & Inputs
The Surface Pro 4 has a full-sized USB 3.0 input, proprietary magnetic charging input, Mini DisplayPort, microSD card reader, headset jack, and a smart connector on the bottom for the Surface Type Cover. This a solid selection.
The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Tablet has a similar set, with a USB Type-C input in lieu of the magnetic charger, and a Kensington lock slot. This is a better selection
Bottom Line: The ThinkPad X1 Tablet has the best selection of inputs of any device we’ve tested to date. USB Type-C is the near future, while USB 3.0 is still the present. All high-end devices not explicitly going to thin and light should have both. The Surface Pro’s magnetic dongle is slick, but it lacks utility beyond charging the Surface Pro, while USB Type-C serves multiple functions. The X1 Tablet’s lock slot is just gravy.
The Surface Pro 4 has one of the best displays on the market, with accurate colors and excellent glare resistance. Microsoft markets it as an LED “PixelSense” display, and it’s 12.3 inches with a 2736 x 1824 resolution, which results in a 3:2 aspect ratio and 267 pixels per inch.
The Lenovo ThinkPad X1’s IPS display is smaller, measuring 12 inches corner to corner. It has a 2160 x 1440 resolution, which results in a 3:2 aspect ratio and 217 pixels per inch.
Both are covered with Gorilla Glass 4 for protection, and both support 10 touch inputs as well as active pen.
Bottom Line: The Surface Pro 4 display is the better of the two. The ThinkPad X1 is no slouch, it nearly matches the Pro 4 with color accuracy, and the difference in pixel density and glare resistance is only noticeable in a head-to-head comparison. This is a case of the best and the very good.
Price & Performance
Microsoft sells the Surface Pro 4 comes in the following configurations:
- Intel Core m3, 4GB of RAM, 128GB SSD
- Intel Core i5, 4GB of RAM 128GB SSD
- Intel Core i5, 8GB of RAM 256GB SSD
- Intel Core i5, 8GB of RAM 512GB SSD
- Intel Core i5, 16GB of RAM 256GB SSD
- Intel Core i5, 16GB of RAM 512GB SSD
- Intel Core i7, 8GB of RAM 256GB SSD
- Intel Core i7, 16GB of RAM 256GB SSD
- Intel Core i7, 16GB of RAM 512GB SSD
- Intel Core i7, 16GB of RAM 1TB SSD
All run 64-bit Windows 10 Pro. The Base unit costs $899. Each step up adds $100 to $500 to the cost, with the next step up from the base Surface Pro 4 costing $999. A base unit with a Microsoft Type Cover costs either $1,029 or $1,059 with the Fingerprint ID.
The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Tablet comes in various configurations, with an Intel Core m3, m5, or m7 processor; 4GB, 8GB, or 16GB of RAM; and 128GB, 192GB, 256GB, 512GB, or 1TB SSD. Depending on the combo, it runs 64-bit Windows 10 Home or Windows 10 Pro.
As we’ve previously stated, it’s hard to pin down the exact cost of a Lenovo product due to third-party resellers and Lenovo “instant savings,” but the ThinkPad X1 Tablet base unit generally aligns a bit below the Surface Pro base price.
As of this writing, the base X1 Tablet with an Intel Core m3-6Y30MB processor, 4GB LPDDR3 SDRAM 1866MB, Windows 10 Home 64-bit, 128GB Solid State Drive (SATA3), and ThinkPad Pen Pro costs $809.10 with “instant savings,” but is listed at $899. A keyboard brings the total to $935.10, listed at $1,039.
We reviewed the base level Surface Pro 4, and a Core m7 ThinkPad X1 Tablet with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. The ThinkPad obviously performed better, as evident by its more impressive spec sheet. We expect the base units perform similarly. In terms of battery, both are mediocre, just barely achieving a full day of useage with the Core m processors. Expect the more powerful Pro 4 units to last less than a day with moderate use.
As configured, our ThinkPad review unit costs $1,689 at the time of this writing, and $1520.10 after those instant savings, both with the keyboard. That’s right around the price of a Core i5 Pro 4 with a 256GB SSD. It costs $1,429 with 8GB of RAM and a Surface Type Cover ($1,459 with Fingerprint ID), or $1,629 with 16GB of RAM and a Surface Type Cover ($1,659 with Fingerprint ID).
Bottom Line: At the base level, there’s not enough difference in performance to sway a buying decision. Moving up the line reveals that the Pro 4 has a better price-to-performance ratio. A sixth-generation Core i5 will outperform a Core m7, all other things being equal.
Features & Accessories
Lenovo loves offering ThinkPad accessories, and the ThinkPad X1 Tablet has a trio that take advantage of the tablet’s smart connector.
The Productivity Module costs $149, and it brings a full-sized HDMI port, additional USB 3.0 port, a Lenovo OneLink+ docking connector, and an additional 5-hour battery boost; the 3D Imaging module, also $149 ads a rear-facing Intel RealSense R200 3D camera, turning the X1 tablet into a 3D scanner; and the Presenter Module adds a full-sized HDMI port and an integrated Pico projector capable of projecting a 60-inch display from 2 meters.
The Surface Pro has its share of adapters and docking stations, but nothing as unique as the ThinkPad’s modules. Microsoft offered something similar with the Surface 2, including a Power Cover for a battery boost, and a Remix Cover for audio mixing, but has not expanded that line of modules to the new Pro tablets.
The ThinkPad X1 Tablet also has a fingerprint ID sensor on the right landscape display edge. But just like the Surface Type Cover’s Fingerprint ID sensor, it’s not very good. During testing , it required too many presses too many times to recognize our fingerprints.
Bottom Line: We love the ThinkPad’s modules. They are innovative, and make great use of the smart connect. Here’s hoping Microsoft offers the same for the Pro series some day. As for the lousy fingerprint sensor, Lenovo gets a pass. Microsoft charges an extra $30 for the same feature on a Type Cover, and it’s just as unreliable.
Both magnetic keyboard cover (sold separate from the tablets) are nearly identical, with similarly-sized island-style keys and a sloped design. They are two of the better mobile keyboards we’ve tested, and both feature about 1.25mm to 1.3mm of key travel, which is near the minimum for comfortable typing.
The ThinkPad keyboard distinguishes itself with the iconic ThinkPad trackpoint and buttons. For ThinkPad devotees, this makes all the difference. Everyone else will wish the X1 Tablet had a better trackpad, like the Surface Pro Type Cover’s, which has a smoother glide and slightly larger build.
Bottom Line: If the trackpoint is your thing, the ThinkPad X1 Tablet keyboard is the best. Otherwise, the Surface Pro Type Cover has a better trackpad.
Both devices ship with an active pen. The Surface Pen features N-trig tech, and is powered by a AAAA battery (included). Microsoft redesigned it from the Pro 3, making it longer, ditching the two buttons on the shaft, and adding a flat edge that magnetically adheres to the Pro 4 and adds to grip comfort. This Surface Pen supports 1,024 points of pressure, and its eraser nub acts as a quick launch for OneNote, screenshots, and Cortana.
The ThinkPad Pen Pro is Wacom-based, and is also powered by a AAAA battery (included). It supports 2,048 levels of pressure, and has the old Surface Pen two-button setup. ThinkPad users have two options for docking, either via a loop attached to the keyboard, or another that clips into the USB input.
The ThinkPad Pen Pro flows more easily than the Surface Pen, which has a more natural, pencil-on-paper, resistance. We found the Surface Pen to have better edge detection in testing, while the Pen Pro does a better shop smoothing out slowly-drawn lines. Both are balanced and comfortable to grip.
Bottom Line: The Surface Pro’s stiffer resistance, larger display, more powerful build options, and better kickstand should be enough to sway digital artists away from the ThinkPad’s double pressure support. But looking strictly at the pen experience, both are good enough that personal preference will likely play the more defining role in choosing a device.
For casual pen users, we like the Surface Pro 4 and the Pro Pen. It’s magnetic dock is slicker and more convenient, and the pen is just a bit more comfortable to hold and use thanks to its design and natural feel on the tablet display when scribbling.
Microsoft Surface Pro 4 vs Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Tablet
Both 2-in-1s are quality devices catering to a productivity-focused user that needs both power and portability. Both devices are relatively expensive, and users that need either power or portability, but not both, can pay almost half as much for a bulkier notebook or low-cost Windows 10 tablet or 2-in-1.
Comparing just the base level devices, with similar specs and a similar price tag, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Tablet is a better fit for enterprise customers, owing to its ruggedness, expansion modules, and repairability. It will likely have a lower total cost of ownership. There’s also a reason the ThinkPad brand is so revered with business users. Those that swear by the trackpoint will also appreciate the X1 Tablet more than the Surface Pro.
For everyone else, the Surface Pro is the better device. Its price-to-performance ratio is much better as you move up the line, and it has the superior design and display. We would have loved a USB Type-C input instead of the proprietary charging input, but that’s a minor quibble with an otherwise outstanding Windows 10 two-in-one.