When the Microsoft Surface RT launched last year, it was a hard sell at US$500. It ran an unproven software platform, had relatively few apps, and you had to pay an extra $120 or so to get its killer feature, the Surface keyboard cover. But with Microsoft recently dropping the Surface RT's base price, is it worth a second look? Let's see how it compares to another $300-something slate, the iPad mini.
Before we get started, remember that this is the Surface RT, which runs on a limited mobile-processor-based version of Windows 8. If you prefer the full Windows 8 experience, then you're probably looking for the Surface Pro.
We're looking at two different size classes here. The Surface is 38 percent longer, and 26 percent wider than the iPad mini. Apple's tablet, however, is 31 percent thinner.
The iPad mini is also 55 percent lighter. The Surface does offer a few perks in this comparison, but the portability prize lands squarely in the iPad mini's court. Considering it's a much smaller tablet, that's no surprise.
It's hard to complain about either device's build or materials. Both tablets are tightly constructed, with no cheap plastic in sight.
One thing to note about the Surface is its built-in kickstand. There are many iPad covers that will achieve the same end, but if you want an onboard stand, Surface delivers.
The iPad mini only gives you 62 percent as much display real estate as the Surface does. Neither tablet has mind-blowing resolution, but Surface's might look a bit sharper when Microsoft's ClearType (subpixel rendering) tech is taken into account.
Official stylus support
Just to avoid any confusion here, the Surface RT doesn't support proper Wacom-based styluses. You can use a third-party capacitive stylus on either device, but don't expect any fine input or pressure sensitivity in this part of town.
If you are looking for Wacom stylus support, the Surface Pro fits that bill, and even includes Microsoft's Surface Pen in the box.
The Surface wins this category handily. In popular benchmark app Geekbench, its Tegra 3 outscores the iPad mini's A5 by about 90 percent.
Another performance boost for the Surface, as it quadruples the iPad mini's mere 512 MB of RAM.
The Surface RT gives you a bit more storage bang for your buck, but maybe not by as wide a margin as you'd think. That's because Windows RT and its recovery partition take up so much space that the 32 GB Surface will only leave you with around 15 GB of usable storage. The 16 GB iPad mini gives you over 13.5 GB of usable storage.
The Surface does, however, have a microSD slot to help you to expand that. You can also free up a few extra gigs of internal storage by moving its recovery partition to a flash drive.
Apple offers both Wi-Fi only and Wi-Fi with mobile data (including LTE) versions of the iPad mini. Microsoft only sells a Wi-Fi only Surface.
You can pretty much ignore the Watt hour measurements listed above, because the iPad mini has the advantage in actual battery life. With average use, it will typically outlast the Surface by two or three hours.
Advantage, iPad mini. It's debatable how important a rear-facing camera really is on a tablet, but Apple's slate does give you a much higher-resolution rear shooter than the Surface does.
The Surface RT's ports give you more versatile options. Its USB 2 port opens up a whole world of possibilities, while its micro-HDMI port is a great option for video out with support for up to 1080p.
Everything you connect to the iPad mini needs to travel through Apple's proprietary Lightning connector port. There's no shortage of available accessories, but Apple's authentication requirements make it harder to find cables and accessories that are both dirt-cheap and reliable.
Microsoft has wisely centered much of its Surface marketing around the device's optional keyboard covers (the Touch Cover and Type Cover).
But to be fair, you can buy plenty of keyboard covers for the iPad mini as well. They just aren't made by Apple, and they transmit information to the tablet wirelessly rather than through physical connectors. They're also more cramped, given the tablet's more compact build.
Here's something Surface can do that the iPad mini can't. In addition to the tiny trackpads on the Touch Cover and Type Cover, you can also connect a mouse to use with the Surface RT. But since Windows RT is a touch-based operating system, this isn't necessarily a huge advantage.
This might be the most important category in this entire comparison. It might also be the most damning for the Surface.
Windows RT is, at best, standing on shaky ground. At worst, it's living on borrowed time, and headed towards an early grave. It gives you the touch-based (known as Modern or Metro UI) part of Windows 8, and little else. There's a token desktop, but it's probably not what you think it is ...
That's because the Surface RT won't run desktop Windows apps any more than the iPad mini will. Its ARM-based processor isn't compatible with traditional Windows apps that you'd run on, say, Windows 7 or XP.
The iPad mini's App Store also houses close to four times as many apps as the Windows Store does. And yes, these marketplaces are the only ways to get apps onto each device (unless your iPad is jailbroken, of course).
Flagship office suite
One potential perk for the Surface is that it ships with the RT version of Microsoft Office, which isn't full Office and is missing a few things like macros. However, Microsoft is addressing one of the biggest complaints from consumers with the addition of Outlook RT as part of the free Windows RT 8.1 update to be released later this year. So if your worklife revolves around Office, this could be worth considering.
The iPad's flagship office suite is Apple's own iWork. It's sold separately, but the prices are reasonable ($10 each for Pages, Keynote, and Numbers). The App Store also features several cloud-based apps that will run Office remotely on your tablet (OnLive Desktop and CloudOn, for example).
This is another huge factor in your buying decision. Both tablets are quickly approaching a full year on the market. That means we could well see upgraded second-generation versions of both within the next two to four months. Depending how much of a hurry you're in, we might soon be entering the "bad time to buy" zones for both tablets.
As we mentioned at the get-go, pricing is now pretty close for both tablets. US$350 gets you a 32 GB Surface RT, and $330 gets you a 16 GB Wi-Fi only iPad mini. Just remember that the difference in usable storage in those two models is less than 2 GB.
Wrap-upWe won't pretend to have a definitive answer for you, but it is pretty clear where each tablet excels.
The iPad mini gives you a far superior app store, a much more mature platform, and a much more portable form factor. The Surface gives you a bigger screen, Microsoft Office, more connectivity options, and more seamless keyboard integration.
For what it's worth, many more customers have voted with their wallets for the iPad mini than for the Surface. After all, there's a reason the Surface just got that $150 price drop. But if the Surface RT's limited app selection and faux desktop don't scare you away, we aren't going to stand in your way. Just know that, with both tablets, you might be staring down a newer, better version before long.
If you'd rather take a look at a much more versatile Microsoft tablet, you can check out our full review of the Surface Pro.