Mobile Technology

Windows RT Surface vs. third-generation iPad

Windows RT Surface vs. third-g...
How does Surface (RT) compare to the iPad?
How does Surface (RT) compare to the iPad?
View 12 Images
2 GB of RAM won't hurt Surface's performance either
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2 GB of RAM won't hurt Surface's performance either
With a Tegra 3, Surface RT should be no slouch in the performance department
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With a Tegra 3, Surface RT should be no slouch in the performance department
US$500 gets you more storage with Surface than it does with iPad
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US$500 gets you more storage with Surface than it does with iPad
No mobile data for Surface
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No mobile data for Surface
This looks like a big advantage for iPad, but it's driving a more powerful display
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This looks like a big advantage for iPad, but it's driving a more powerful display
Microsoft is being somewhat coy about the cameras in Surface
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Microsoft is being somewhat coy about the cameras in Surface
iPad is a bit lighter than Surface
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iPad is a bit lighter than Surface
Surface offers a clever keyboard accessory, while iPad has an enormous advantage in apps
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Surface offers a clever keyboard accessory, while iPad has an enormous advantage in apps
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How does Surface (RT) compare to the iPad?
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How does Surface (RT) compare to the iPad?
On a hardware level, this is the iPad's biggest advantage
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On a hardware level, this is the iPad's biggest advantage
Both tablets sport slick designs
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Both tablets sport slick designs

Update: for Apple's latest (4th generation) iPad, please refer to our comparison of Microsoft Surface vs. iPad 4.

Microsoft execs must be biting their nails. With the iPad eating into the desktop PC market, Redmond knows that it needs to establish itself as a serious player in mobile. With Windows Phone struggling, Redmond's best hope lies with its self-manufactured Surface tablets.

Surface presents an interesting alternative to the market-leading iPad. Is this Microsoft's first step in dethroning the king, or will it fare no better than the ill-fated Zune? Let's see how Surface RT stacks up next to the third-gen iPad …

Dimensions

Both tablets sport slick designs
Both tablets sport slick designs

The first thing you'll notice is that Surface is meant as a landscape tablet, while the iPad's primary orientation is portrait. Microsoft has constructed a beautiful tablet that – unlike some competitors' devices – doesn't look like a blatant Apple rip-off.

Surface RT is longer than the iPad, but more narrow. This can be traced back to its display's more oblong 16:9 aspect ratio as opposed to the iPad's 4:3 display.

Weight

iPad is a bit lighter than Surface
iPad is a bit lighter than Surface

Surface is a bit heavier than the iPad, but not by much.

Display

On a hardware level, this is the iPad's biggest advantage
On a hardware level, this is the iPad's biggest advantage

This is a huge advantage for the iPad. Its market-leading Retina display blows the Surface's screen out of the water. In 2012, Apple upped the ante for tablet displays, and the specs of the Surface display are stuck in 2011.

Processor

With a Tegra 3, Surface RT should be no slouch in the performance department
With a Tegra 3, Surface RT should be no slouch in the performance department

At least on paper, Surface comes out looking good here. Its Tegra 3 chip is quad-core, with a maximum clock speed of 1.4GHz. Apple opted for dual-core processing (but quad-core graphics) in the latest iPad.

RAM

2 GB of RAM won't hurt Surface's performance either
2 GB of RAM won't hurt Surface's performance either

Here's another good sign for Surface's performance; its RAM doubles the 1 GB found in the iPad 3.

Storage

US$500 gets you more storage with Surface than it does with iPad
US$500 gets you more storage with Surface than it does with iPad

For the same entry price, Surface gives you twice the storage. If you like to store lots of movies, apps, and games, Surface gives you ample space.

Battery

This looks like a big advantage for iPad, but it's driving a more powerful display
This looks like a big advantage for iPad, but it's driving a more powerful display

Take these numbers with grains of salt. Though the iPad's battery hardware is better, remember that it's driving a display with three times as many pixels. We'll have to revisit this after getting our hands on a Surface, but uptimes could end up being close.

Wireless

No mobile data for Surface
No mobile data for Surface

Microsoft opted not to sell a 3G or LTE enabled version of Surface, so it's all Wi-Fi. With many of us toting smartphones with hotspot capabilities, this won't be a deal-breaker for most – but Apple does give its customers the option of paying more for 3G/LTE.

Cameras

Microsoft is being somewhat coy about the cameras in Surface
Microsoft is being somewhat coy about the cameras in Surface

Surface's cameras are still a bit of a mystery. All Microsoft is saying is that the front and rear-facing shooters are "720p HD." This could mean the cameras have under one megapixel a piece, or it could mean they have more.

The iPad's cameras, meanwhile, are a known quantity. Don't expect anything phenomenal, but the 5-MP rear camera is roughly (if not exactly) the same as the one in the iPhone 4.

Intangibles

Surface offers a clever keyboard accessory, while iPad has an enormous advantage in apps
Surface offers a clever keyboard accessory, while iPad has an enormous advantage in apps

This is where things get intriguing. Microsoft is marketing its device as a more productivity-focused alternative to the iPad. Its optional keyboard add-ons are a big part of this. The Touch Cover is like an iPad smart cover, only with built-in pressure-sensitive keys. Will it help you to get stuff done? Probably. Is it worth paying an extra US$100 (bundled) or $120 (as a separate purchase)? That's a tougher call.

Surface also ramps up the productivity quotient with a built-in kickstand and stock software. Combined with the keyboard, the kickstand lets Surface quickly transform into a faux laptop. Another potential plus is that Surface ships with RT versions of the Microsoft Office suite.

If we're talking apps, though, the iPad has the clear advantage. The iOS App Store easily houses the largest – and best – collection of tablet apps available. Meanwhile, the Windows Store (the only way to get apps on Surface RT) is fresh on the scene. It will launch with a solid selection, but it won't compare to what the App Store offers.

Also remember that if you want to use traditional Windows desktop software, you'll want to look at the Windows 8 Pro version of Surface; those apps won't run on Surface RT.

Summing Up

We have to admire what Microsoft is doing here. At the risk of alienating its hardware partners, it's introducing Windows 8 with its own beautifully-designed tablet. The company is swinging for the fence here; win or lose, that's always exciting.

The big question is whether customers will care. Sure, Surface has a cool new keyboard, but you can buy keyboard cases and accessories for the iPad. It has a kickstand, but there are many ways to easily prop up an iPad. In the most important category – apps – Surface has a lot of catching up to do. There are a lot of questions, and Microsoft's upper management may not be sleeping well for the next few weeks.

What do you think: is Surface going to be a hit? Or are we looking at Zune: Tablet Edition? Let us know in the comments.

30 comments
Dave MacLachlan
No way to tell at this point. I'm still waiting for someone reputable to get their hands on Surface for an extended period of time in order to do an in-depth review. I think it's all going to boil down to the combination of apps/programs and the usability of the device. You can have the slickest hardware in a world be nothing more than an expensive lump without good programs that take advantage of it. Conversely, having a ton of software doesn't do you much good if the hardware you're trying to run it on is buggy or underpowered. Too early to tell. I hope it does well - having another healthy, viable option for people is always good for everyone, if only for the competition it engenders.
Facebook User
I use my iPad to read and annotate PDF papers. With its lower resolution and 16:9 aspect ratio the surface tablet is far less suitable for this. I like the Win 8 visual design, it feels more modern than iOS but in the end it's the use case that matters and from the specs it looks to me that iPad will be the better fit. There just doesn't seem to be anything that the surface can do genuinely better than the iPad. If MS managed to create a tablet that handles touch equally well as stylus text input I'd be inclined to give it another look.
Khaled Mourad
iPad 3rd Gen got a proper keyboard-Case-stand, the Logitech Ultrathin beauty
PvD
Every time we have seen someone using the Surface the keyboard cover has been used. Does anyone know if the Surface has a virtual screen keyboard as well? It seems if we want to make an I formed buying decision we will just have to wait until it's released and a review is printed. Until then I will wait and see.
Fraser
The productivity focus is a good one. I recently bought an android tablet for business use and it was very quickly apparent that the iOS software is not really up to the task of managing a business device. Apple may have created the market with the iPad but by ignoring the business users they are being out innovated with things like the surface keyboard and integrated office.
Hariharan Sahasranaman
I agree I think I would wait for the release of surface before giving my opinion
Jason Pope
This is not even a competitior to the Ipad.. the Ipad is 99% an entertainment device.. this is being marketed as a office users device. this in that department alone will blow the Ipads doors off. Companies have been waiting for a business friendly MS Tablet that can be managed with their MS heavy environments. this will sell very well to Corporate clients.
Dzazter
@Fraser " I recently bought an android tablet for business use and it was very quickly apparent that the iOS software is not really up to the task of managing a business device." Android tablets run android os not iOS. Apple doesn't run Android. So what do you actually have? An Android tablet or an iPad?
MockingBird TheWizard
I will assume that it's as smooth to use as most modern tablets, tegra 3, no lag, etc. I'm not worried about there being less apps, as only about 2% of appstore apps make up for 90% of the downloads and 98% of sales, or something like that. So as long as the apps they do have cover most of the functions I need, I don't really care if there are 400,000 apps I'll never even look at. what maters for me are ereaders (kindle & open source), google maps (unless bing maps are equivalent) or tomtom, since those are offline. ability to put in an SD or microSD card, battery life, web expereince, and then ties into those apps that I do use. Mint, Astrid, etc. but, those apps I do use tend to be in the top 2%. sadly, I don' think they'll cover things like astrid or mint at first. which means I won't be giving up my android devices. and I really don't want to split my devices among different operating systems, making me buy multiple apps, etc. I'll wait for the version that can run x86 software and that might replace my laptop, but my laptop is a powerhouse, so I'm not going to dwongrade there. it might be that they tag low-end pc users, but android/pc users like me might end up too fringe. :-(
Atul Malhotra
I couldn't agree with Jason pope more ! iPads and Androids of the world are all essentially 'entertainment' devices. This is the world's first true 'work' tablet, with a bit of fun thrown in. Just like it should be, just like we all learnt computing in the familiar Windows environment I am bit disappointed that they launched a 'restricted' version of the OS on the tablet, and I have no idea if that is due to TEGRA 3 brains it has got, but I am super excited. I have waited for this for months. I love the little draw out stand they are providing, and the touch cover thing is inspirational. Come to India soon guys ! Can't wait ...