Comparisons between Microsoft’s recently-announced Surface tablets and the Apple iPad are inevitable. When doing so, however, it’s important to consider that these devices, despite their many similarities, were designed to be used in completely different ways.
Apple created the iPad to be a content consumption device. Users are supposed to lean back and read web pages, eBooks, or their email, then watch video or look at images.
Microsoft clearly has a very different vision for the Surface. It is going to offer a physical keyboard for this tablet, and bundle it with Microsoft Office while the Intel version will support an active pen. This device is obviously intended for content creation, as users lean forward to type Word documents, spreadsheets, etc.
Even though Apple looks at the iPad as a “lean back” device, plenty of its users do not. Among the best-selling accessories for the iPad are physical keyboards; software that lets users work with Office files are strong sellers, too. The large number of iPad owners who are using this tablet as a content creation device shows that there is a demand for that type of tablet — demand that Microsoft hopes to meet.
Head to Head
While they have different target markets, physically, Apple’s and Microsoft’s tablets have much in common simply because they are the same type of device. Still, there are some notable differences as well.
That said, Microsoft has so far kept mum about some of the most important features of its Surface tablets, making a complete comparison to the iPad at this point difficult.
Keep in mind there will be two different editions of the Surface: one running Windows RT on an ARM-based NVIDIA Tegra processor, and the other with Windows 8 Pro on an X86 Core i5 chip.
The new iPad currently runs Apple iOS 5.1 on Apple’s own A5X CPU, another ARM-based chip. This has two 1GHz processor cores. The exact clock speed of either edition of the Surface has not yet been announced, so a comparison isn’t possible yet.
Both Microsoft devices are going to have 10.6-inch displays. The RT version will have an “HD” one that’s expected to be 1280 x 720. The Pro model will have a Full HD (1920 x 1080) screen. These are capacitive touchscreens with pen support confirmed for at least the Pro editor.
Apple’s latest tablet has a 9.7-inch capacitive touchscreen at 2048 x 1536, so it has a smaller display, but a higher number of pixels per inch.
There will be two versions of the Surface RT with either 32GB or 64GB of internal storage capacity. The Pro will come with 64GB or 128GB of onboard storage. Both will have microSD memory card slots that will allow users to add additional capacity.
The iPad comes with 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB of storage, and there’s no memory card slot. Microsoft’s products will have a clear advantage in this area.
Microsoft is including full-sized USB ports on all versions of its tablet, allowing users to hook up a wide range of accessories, such as keyboards and mice.
When designing its device, Apple decided to emphasize wireless connections to accessories, so there is no USB port. Instead, users are expected to type on Bluetooth-enabled keyboards, or connect to external monitors with AirPlay. Microsoft’s solution gives users more options.
The Windows 8 Pro-based model will be able to run virtually all software created for Microsoft’s main operating system. How easy these will be able to use on a touchscreen-oriented tablet is another story. Windows RT is a different issue — it’s going to be a stripped-down version designed to run on ARM-based tablets, and it will have a much smaller selection of apps designed for the Metro interface. Microsoft as said in the past that any Metro app will work across both ARM and X86 tablets, meaning the Pro edition should also have access to the same Metro apps.
There are hundreds of thousands of applications available in the iTunes App Store for the iPad. These tend to be simpler (and cheaper) than Windows software. For business users, the Surface Pro comes out ahead in this area.
Both editions of the Surface will depend entirely on Wi-Fi for an Internet connection. There will be no option for cellular-wireless service.
In addition to Wi-Fi, there are versions of Apple’s device that can connect to either Verizon’s or AT&T’s 4G LTE network. These require month-to-month payments that do not require users commit to a two-year deal, as with many Android tablets and most smartphones. This gives the iPad an advantage in this area.
Microsoft is going to offer two magnetic covers that connect to the Surface via magnets, one of which will have a physical keyboard and trackpad.
Apple pioneered attaching covers to its tablet with magnets, but it does not offer a physical keyboard. Still, there are plenty of options from third-party accessory makers, so the two companies tie in this area.
There are no official figures of how long either of the Surface models will last on a single charge, but Computerworld crunched some numbers and estimates the Windows RT version will be good for about 7.5 hours — about 2.5 hours less than the iPad.
Microsoft has been vague about pricing. It says the Windows RT version will be competitive with ARM tablets tablets; to be competitive with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 it will need to be around $400. Microsoft says the Pro model will be comparably priced with Ultrabooks, which now cost between $600 and $1000.
The third-generation Apple iPad starts at $500, but goes up to $830 depending on how it is configured.
At this point, there are still so many unknowns about the Microsoft Surface that it’s difficult to make a meaningful comparison with the iPad. The best that can be said is that those trying to decide between these two options should consider what they are planning to do with their tablet. Those looking for a serious content production device should consider a Windows-based model, while the iPad will likely be best for those who are generally content consumers.
Of course, the answers to some of the open questions about the Surface could change that. If it turns out to have a significant drawbacks, such as a short battery life or a very high price, then the iPad will remain the best tablet available.