Usually, I don’t care to do snapshot product comparisons, like the one I’m about to do between Microsoft’s new Surface tablets and Apple’s iPad. Tech products — especially mobile devices — are so often more than the sum of their parts. They’re about the everyday experience of using them, and how they fit into your life.
But hey, Microsoft has brought this upon itself, with one-sided comparison charts and self-deprecating Siri ads. I’m sure we’ll see a lot more jabs in the coming months, so allow me to attempt an impartial comparison between the Surface 2, Surface Pro 2 and iPad below. Please direct all accusations of “bias” to the comments section.
While you can’t judge a product solely by its tech specs, the internals do matter to a certain extent. By upgrading to a fourth-generation Intel Core processor, for instance, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 2 should get a 60 percent improvement to battery life. And the performance woes that plagued the original Surface RT should be wiped away in the Surface 2, which sports an Nvidia Tegra 4 chip.
So let’s compare the speeds and feeds for the Surface Pro 2, Surface 2, their predecessors, Apple’s larger iPads and for good measure, and the 11-inch MacBook Air (click to enlarge):
The Hardware and Accessories
The allure of Microsoft’s Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 is really all about the design of the hardware. Both tablets have built-in kickstands, and Microsoft added a second level of incline — 55 degrees, in addition to 22 degrees — for easier viewing from a lap or kitchen counter. Microsoft is also making improvements to its Touch Cover ($120) and Type Cover ($130) accessories, which clip into the bottom of the tablet to provide a dedicated keyboard and trackpad. A Charge Cover keyboard with built-in battery is coming early next year.
True, Apple has its Smart Cover accessories that provide multiple levels of incline for the iPad. And there’s no shortage of third-party iPad stands, keyboards and stand-keyboard combos. The main difference is that the Surface includes a trackpad — or, if you prefer, support for external mouses — so you can get the precision and right-click context menus of a cursor, and you don’t have to tire your arm reaching for the touchscreen. There’s also something to be said for the simplicity of the Surface’s stand and keyboard working together. Unlike most third-party iPad keyboard cases, the Surface doesn’t require you to cover your entire tablet with a bulky case. You can just snap in the keyboard and fold out the kickstand.
Microsoft also plans to sell a $200 dock in early 2014, with connections for an external monitor, three USB ports, Ethernet, speakers and a power supply. The idea is that the Surface can double as a desktop PC — something you can’t do with an iPad.
The Apps and Software
During the Surface launch, Microsoft triumphantly declared that there are 100,000 apps available in the Windows Store. That sounds good until you consider that Apple offers more than 375,000 apps optimized for the iPad. In terms of touchscreen apps, there’s no comparison between the iPad and the Surface — not just in quantity, but in quality as well. As a general rule, whenever a hot new game or app launches, it comes to the iPad first, and maybe Android in the distant future. Windows tends to be an afterthought.
This isn’t so much of a problem for the Surface Pro 2, which supports all Windows desktop software and is therefore more of a competitor to Apple’s MacBook Air laptop. The lack of apps is a bigger liability for the Surface 2, which does not let you install desktop apps. While the Surface 2 includes a free version of Office 2013, Apple is striking back by giving away its iWork suite — that is, Pages, Numbers and Keynote — with the purchase of any new iOS device.
As for the actual operating systems, the iPad’s biggest strength is its simplicity. It’s basically a showcase for your apps, enhanced by Siri and Notification Center. Windows hasn’t yet figured out a clever way to let users revisit their notifications, and voice commands are an accessibility feature, nothing more. But Windows 8.1 has one standout trick of its own: You can display any three apps side-by-side-by-side, for a level of multitasking that doesn’t exist in other tablet operating systems. Also, the fact that you can access the file system is helpful for moving and organizing files, and I wouldn’t underestimate cursor support for things like highlighting and moving text within a document.
Pricing and Wrap-Up
The Surface 2 still seems like a tough sell, not just against the iPad, but against the coming wave of cheap Windows 8 tablets that run the full range of desktop software. The free version of Office wasn’t enough to counteract Windows RT’s missing tablet apps, and that’s not going to change even if performance has improved. The Surface 2 isn’t a big value play either, considering you must spend $580 to get a 32 GB tablet with keyboard. A 16 GB iPad with a Zagg Folio case would cost the same amount of money. (The actual amount of free space may not differ by much, with about 15 GB free on the existing Surface, and a little under 14 GB on the iPad.)
The Surface Pro 2 isn’t a money-saver over Apple’s products either. It’s far more expensive than an iPad, and a 128 GB model has the same $1,000 price tag as a 128 GB MacBook Air. And then you still have to spend another $130 for a Type Cover if you want a comparable keyboard. But the idea with the Surface Pro 2 is that you can ditch the dedicated tablet.
I still think a lot of people will want a smaller tablet strictly for app consumption — maybe a $329 iPad Mini or a $229 Nexus 7 — but having a Surface means you don’t have to completely give up the larger touchscreen. The Surface Pro 2’s battery life and improved kickstand mean you don’t have to make as many compromises on the way to consolidation. It’s not exactly the kind of argument that fits into a 30-second ad spot, but it’s something to think about if you’re on the fence between a laptop and a tablet.