Update: For more, you can check out our hands-on comparison of the latest Surfaces and iPads.
Microsoft's Surface brand can be a little confusing. The company pitches it as a productivity-based tablet that runs Windows, but only half of the Surfaces on the market run full Windows ... which puts a real damper on the other half's potential for productivity.
Like the original Surface RT before it, the Surface 2 runs the limited Windows RT 8.1, which only gives you the Start Screen (or Modern UI) part of Windows. Okay, there technically is a desktop, but it's only there for Office. Traditional Windows desktop apps don't have a seat at this party.
On the Surface 2, all of your software is going to come from the Windows Store, which isn't in the same league (in terms of quantity or quality) as the iPad's iOS App Store. If you want a Surface that runs Windows desktop apps, then you'll want to look at the Surface Pro or Surface Pro 2.
The iPad, of course, doesn't natively run any desktop apps either, but it's also unlikely you'd ever get the impression that it did.
Despite having a similar size of screen, the iPad Air is a much smaller tablet. It's 13 percent shorter and 16 percent thinner than the Surface 2.
The iPad Air is a certified featherweight that lives up to its name. Even the heavier cellular version is 29 percent lighter than the Surface 2. The Wi-Fi only model, meanwhile, is 31 percent lighter than Microsoft's tablet.
The iPad Air, like just about every other Apple product, is made of aluminum. The full-sized iPad's design and construction also now match the iPad mini. The Surface, meanwhile, uses the same "VaporMg" (magnesium alloy) material from the first crop of Surfaces.
Like all other Surfaces, the Surface 2 has a built-in kickstand, which now supports two different angles. The iPad doesn't have a kickstand, but you can buy covers that achieve a similar end.
The Surface's keyboard cover is a big part of Microsoft's marketing, but you can pick up third-party covers for the iPad too. Logitech and Belkin have already announced upcoming covers for the iPad Air, and other vendors will surely follow suit.
The biggest differences between the Surface's and iPad's covers are that the iPad covers don't have trackpads (the iPad doesn't support mouse input), and their design schemes don't blend quite as seamlessly with the tablet.
The iPad Air is available in two different color options, while the Surface 2 is only sold in one black & silver model.
A 10.6-in screen is a lot bigger than a 9.7-in screen, right? Well, it is bigger, but maybe not by as wide a margin as you'd think. Different aspect ratios have the iPad Air's screen giving you 94 percent as much real estate as the Surface's.
Size is close, but resolution isn't. The iPad wins that round, with the Surface 2 only giving you 66 percent as many pixels. The Surface's screen should look plenty sharp in laptop mode (where it typically sits farther from your eyes), but when used as a tablet, the iPad's Retina Display will look noticeably sharper.
The Surface's widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio basically makes it a landscape mode tablet. Its oblong screen makes it a little awkward in portrait mode. The iPad's 4:3 aspect ratio is great for portrait mode, and fits landscape use as well.
Never mind the above cores and clock speeds, because the iPad Air's A7 chip wins this battle. The Surface's Tegra 4 has plenty of zip, and its performance shouldn't be an issue, but the iPad comes out ahead there.
The entry-level Surface 2 gives you double the internal storage of the cheapest iPad Air. The Surface also lets you pop in a microSD card, something no iOS device has ever let you do.
The Surface is a bit more versatile in expanding its capabilities, as it has a USB 3.0 port. It also adds a micro HDMI port for video out.
There are adapters that let you do many of the same things via the iPad's Lightning port, but that will typically be pricier (and sometimes more limited) than USB-based solutions.
We suspected 1 GB of RAM in the iPad Air, and our hands-on benchmarks confirmed that. That's half what the Surface gives you, though we wouldn't sweat this too much (or at all) when it comes to performance.
At launch, only the iPad Air is available in a Wi-Fi + LTE model. The Surface 2 should have a cellular model coming sometime in 2014.
Both manufacturers estimate ten hours of battery life, though Apple's estimate is for web surfing, while Microsoft's is for video playback.
You probably won't do any serious photography with either tablet, but both will take solid enough photos and let you video chat in HD.
Bundled office software
The Surface 2 includes the RT version of Microsoft Office, which looks and functions almost exactly the same as its desktop equivalent. Apple's iOS version of the iWork suite just went free for the first time, and is now included with every iPad purchase.
The iPad starts at US$50 more expensive than the Surface 2. And remember the entry-level Surface also doubles the internal storage of the $500 iPad Air. Just don't forget that Microsoft's Touch and Type Covers – an integral part of the Surface experience – will set you back an extra $120-130.
Wrap-upNo single product is for everyone, and we aren't here to give you a one-size-fits-all answer. But from where we stand now, we think the iPad Air will be the better buy for most tablet shoppers. Not only does it give you a sleek new build, beastly A7 chip, and sharp display, but – most importantly – it has a
What about productivity? Well, as much as we like Microsoft's Touch and Type Covers, the iPad also has those third-party keyboard covers. And remember Microsoft's covers are sold separately anyway. We do think that the Surface Pro, with its legacy desktop apps, can have a productivity advantage over the iPad. But it's hard to argue that the Surface 2's Windows Store has a leg up on the App Store in terms of work-oriented software.
The ace up the Surface 2's sleeve is Microsoft Office. If your work or personal life centers around Office, and Apple's iWork suite just won't cut it for you, then maybe that will be enough to nudge you towards the Surface.