Head-To-Head: Microsoft Surface For Windows RT vs. Apple iPad 412:00 PM EST Fri. Dec. 21, 2012
While an Intel Core-based tablet called Surface for Windows 8 Pro is still about two months off, the ARM-based device is a strong product and well able to compete spec for spec with the Apple iPad 3. But what about Apple's latest, the iPad 4? Which tablet provides a better value in terms of hardware, features and availability of software -- Microsoft's first tablet or Apple's fourth? To help you decide, here's a feature-by-feature comparison of Surface for Windows RT vs. iPad 4.
The first Microsoft computer is equipped with an Nvidia Tegra 3 system-on-chip, which incorporates four 1.4GHz Cortex A9 cores plus a fifth low-power core that can perform all functions during device stand-by. The Tegra 3 also includes a GeForce GPU with a maximum resolution of 2,560 x 1,600 pixels (well beyond what the current screen can produce). There are 2 GB of system memory for running applications. Inside Apple's iPad 4 is a dual-core A6X custom SoC, which also runs at 1.4GHz. And while it provides just two ARM Cortex cores, Apple claims double the performance of the iPad 3's A5X part. The new SoC also includes four PowerVP SGX 554MP4 GPUs clocked at 300MHz plus twice the video memory as before.
If judged solely on core count, Surface wins. But processors alone can't tell a performance story. While we like the idea of a dedicated processor for handling tasks during sleep, Apple's power management prowess is legendary, and we've never seen jitter when running iPad apps. Therefore, we'd call the CPU match-up a draw. Both are available in 32-GB and 64-GB models; Apple adds a 16-GB model.
Surface is built around a 10.6-inch HD display with Microsoft's ClearType subpixel rendering technology. According to Microsoft, technology in this custom-made display makes it impossible for the human eye to distinguish individual pixels when held at the optimal distance of 17 inches, less than an arm's length. Sounds a little like Apple's jargon with regard to Retina. Put plainly, the Surface display supports 1,366 x 768, and that ain't much. While Apple makes similar vision-related claims about its Retina display, its 9.7-inch IPS panel puts out 2,048 x 1,536. That calculates to 264 pixels per inch compared with Surface's meager 148. The difference to the human eye can indeed be striking. Apple provides the greater value here.
Incidentally, Microsoft in its initial marketing statements said that it planned to protect its panel with Corning's Gorilla Glass 2.0, a boast that Apple too often used about several of its products. Both companies have since removed such language from their websites.
Sizewise, what's most important is that neither the Surface nor the iPad 4 can easily be held with one hand; they're just too big. Encasing Surface's 10.6-inch screen is a 10.8 x 6.8-inch metal case, while iPad's 10.1-inch LCD is surrounded by a 9.5 x 7.1-inch plastic and metal enclosure. They also weigh about the same -- Surface tips the scales at 1.5 pounds while iPad weighs in at 1.44 pounds. We'd say that physical dimensions are a wash.
We salute Microsoft for its magnetic power connector, which mimics Apple's proprietary MagSafe technology. This type of connector couples with the main unit magnetically, popping off easily under stress rather than damaging components. Ironically, Apple does not use MagSafe on the iPad (it's reserved for MacBooks), opting instead for the all-digital Lightning port, an all-purpose port that handles charging, video output and numerous other communications duties. External controls are otherwise about the same. Both have power and volume buttons, a headphone jack, mic and speakers and a dedicated "home" button. Apple adds a combo mute and rotation-lock button.
Microsoft offers Wi-Fi a/b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0 only. To that, Apple boasts dual-band Wi-Fi (2.4GHz and 5.0GHz) Wi-Fi, plus cellular and LTE with service from AT&T, Sprint or Verizon.
As for visual sensors, both have two and both can capture video at 720p. But Apple's rear-facing iSight camera will be hard to beat; it can capture 1,080p video and its five-element lens with f/2.4 aperture and autofocus takes great snapshots. On communications and cameras, Apple offers the better value.
For content creators, the biggest hole in the tablet picture is the lack of a hardware keyboard. Microsoft provides a simple and elegant solution with Touch Cover and Type Cover, optional integrated keyboards that connect magnetically and double as system covers. They start at about $100. While there's certainly no shortage of third-party keyboards for iPad, features, functionality, fit and finish vary wildly; Apple provides no solution of its own. The best of these costs about $100.
Apple has famously left ports for USB and data card off its iOS devices, which limits the movement of files. But to do so with a Windows device would be unthinkable, and Microsoft has bestowed Surface with one slot for USB 2.0 and another for a microSDXC card. Like iPad, Surface also has a proprietary port for video output, the cable for which is optional. The better value here depends on your chosen platform. People using Windows need file access, so Surface provides it. People using iOS really don't, so they are not likely to miss it. Good keyboards and other input devices are available for both.
Microsoft provides an important differentiator when it comes to software, and that's the inclusion of Microsoft Office 2013. That includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. There are ways to access these apps from an iPad, of course, but only Microsoft offers local, native access to its popular Office productivity suite for the ARM-based version of Windows. The apps included with iPad are nice, but offer nothing close to the functionality of Microsoft Office.
It's also worth noting that just as iPad will run only apps obtained through Apple's App Store, Surface will run only apps downloaded from Microsoft's Windows Store, which is the exclusive provider of apps for Windows 8 and its Metro-style interface. There's a Desktop Mode, but it won't run third-party apps. Due to the sheer number of people using MS Office, we have to give the software advantage to Surface.
Apple's iPad with Retina display and Microsoft's Surface for Windows RT both start at $499. Apple offers 9.7 inches, 2,048 x 1,536 pixels and 16 GB of storage. Microsoft offers 10.1 inches, 1,366 x 768 pixels, 32 GB of storage and a kickstand. Apple's display is the better value, its rear camera is more capable, and it integrates seamlessly with other Apple devices. So if that's important to you, then Apple should be your choice. On the other hand, Windows users might prefer to stay with what they know, and Surface provides some of that. But Windows 8 will take some getting used to. And while Office 2013 might appear familiar, none of a user's old apps will work unless they've been redeveloped and filtered through the Windows Store. Microsoft has done a decent job addressing some of the technical challenges of competing with Apple but still faces hurdles, perhaps the most daunting of which is stocking its app store shelves. Because after all, isn't the greatest indicator of an object's value its usefulness for the money? On those grounds alone, the choice between iPad and Surface comes down to its intended use case and whether there's an app for that.