Microsoft’s interest in tablets goes all the way back to 2002. The original Microsoft Tablet PCs ran Windows XP, were thick and heavy, and used styluses. They didn’t sell. But now that the iPad has made the tablet a cultural centerpiece, Microsoft has a new one. It runs Windows 8, is thick and heavy, and uses a stylus. Is Surface the future of computing, or just a retread of a past failure? Read on, as we compare the specs – and other features – of the Microsoft Surface Pro and 4th-generation iPad.
Surface Pro is longer and narrower than the iPad, but the biggest difference is its thickness. It’s a beefy tablet, with a depth 4.1 mm greater than the iPad.
Microsoft’s Surface Pro is also much heavier than the iPad: by a whopping 254 g.
The iPad has higher resolution and pixel density. But Surface’s ClearType (subpixel rendering) tech can make its display look sharper than its above-average resolution would suggest.
This is the first category that Surface clearly wins – at least in terms of raw performance. Its Intel Core i5 is the same processor found in the entry-level MacBook Air.
The iPad’s A6X, though, delivers all the performance iOS requires, while taking much less of a hit on battery life.
Surface Pro’s RAM is also laptop-like, with 4 GB next to the iPad’s 1 GB.
Why does Surface's storage have asterisks? Its usable free space falls well short of the advertised 64 GB and 128 GB: 29 GB and 89 GB, respectively.
Every mobile device offers less available storage than what’s advertised (including the iPad). But Windows 8 and Surface's recovery partition take up much more space. Surface's free space is closer to the numbers in the MacBook Air (and Ultrabooks) than other tablets.
Microsoft went Wi-Fi-only with Surface. If you want mobile data, you’ll need to tether your phone or plug in a USB hotspot.
The iPad is available in both Wi-Fi-only and (more expensive) 3G/LTE models.
Don’t be fooled by the similar capacities. Surface Pro’s Intel chip and desktop operating system will drain its battery in around four hours. The iPad, with similar use, could last closer to ten hours.
If cameras are a priority, the iPad is a much better choice. Microsoft describes both of Surface’s shooters as “720p,” which probably means about 1-megapixel.
Surface Pro’s specs are Ultrabook-like, and that includes its price. If you add its keyboard (not included), you’ll be plunking down at least US$1,020.
By comparison, you can buy the 32 GB iPad (which has about the same usable storage as the 64 GB Surface Pro) along with a Bluetooth keyboard for $670.
Like the early Windows tablets – and unlike last year’s Surface RT – Surface Pro runs full-fledged Windows. Any Windows app that you can install on your desktop is fair game for Surface Pro. They aren’t all touch-friendly, but the included stylus (and an optional mouse) can help.
While Surface Pro brings the desktop PC into mobile, the iPad brings its iPhone roots into the world of personal computing. Apple’s App Store doesn’t have Windows’ advanced, productivity-focused apps (like, say, CS6). But it does have an app library that's 100 percent touch-friendly. You can also use the iPad’s apps all day without worrying too much about battery life.
This is an uneven comparison, as Surface Pro and iPad are very different devices. Apple’s tablet fits into the company’s “post-PC” narrative, while Microsoft’s is a manifestation of its “PC-plus” mantra.
If you love Windows and want a mobile device to behave much like your PC does, then Surface is the device you’ve been waiting for. If you want a tablet primarily for reading, watching movies, and playing games, then you’re probably better off with the iPad. Its lighter body, longer battery life, and touch-friendly App Store jive more with casual use.
The present belongs to the iPad, but Microsoft is taking a stab at the future. The question is whether the company can gain enough traction to be a serious player five years from now. With Samsung, Amazon, and a host of other competitors in the tablet market, Microsoft isn't guaranteed the same success it enjoys in the desktop space.
For perhaps a more appropriate battle, check out our Surface Pro vs. MacBook Air comparison.