Apple and Microsoft are employing similar strategies with their tablet lineups. Both companies introduced new low- and high-end tablets that will join last year's discounted tablets on store shelves. Both offer tablets ranging in price from about $300 to $1000, covering most budgets and use cases. There are distinct differences, though, that will always separate Apple from Microsoft. Here's a look at how things shaped up this week.
A New Surface
Microsoft debuted its new Surface tablets last month, but they reached store shelves October 22. Thinner and lighter than last year's model (though just barely), the Surface 2 offers better battery life and has more storage options. It runs Windows RT 8.1. The Surface Pro 2 runs on an Intel Core i5 processor, can have up to 8 GB of RAM and up to 512 GB of storage, comes with a Surface Pen (stylus), and runs Windows 8.1 Pro, the full version of Windows. Both tablets offer 1080p HD displays, Microsoft Office and Outlook compatibility, USB 3.0 and microSD card ports, cameras, 200 GB of SkyDrive storage, and unlimited Skype voice minutes for a year. The Surface 2 starts at $449 and the Surface Pro 2 starts at $899.
[ Tablet showdown: Which one is right for you? Read iPad Air Vs. Surface 2: 9 Considerations. ]
Microsoft has long pitched its productivity cred to businesses around the world, and it is no different with the Surface tablets. Microsoft updated the keyboard cover accessories available to its tablets, which make it easier to type. The covers are even backlit for typing in the dark. Microsoft also points out that there are more than 100,000 apps for Windows RT/8.1 in the Windows Store.
Last year's Surface is available for $349 and last year's Surface Pro is available for $699, if you're looking to save a few bucks. Both can be updated to the latest operating systems.
Reviews for the new Surface tablets are lukewarm. Many praise the hardware improvements, but give the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 poor marks for software.
iPad Gets Air-y
Apple introduced two new iPads on Tuesday: the iPad Mini with Retina Display and the iPad Air. The iPad Air goes on sale November 1, but the iPad Mini with Retina Display won't arrive until later in November. The new Mini makes a huge improvement to the screen (now 2048 x 1536 pixels) and the processor (A7) at the expense of weight -- it's slightly heavier. Battery life is unchanged, but connectivity options abound. The iPad Air is a re-envisioned full-sized iPad. It is thinner, lighter and more powerful, and it costs the same as last year's model. Both devices run iOS 7 and include 5-megapixel cameras, configurable storage, and a large ecosystem of accessories. The iPad Mini with Retina Display starts at $399 and the iPad Air starts at $499.
Apple has long pitched its creative software to consumers and took that to the next level with the new iPads. iPhoto and Garageband are now free to iPad (and iPhone) owners. These apps let users manage their photos and record/create music, respectively.
The original iPad Mini remains available for sale at $299, as does the iPad 2, which costs $399. Both can be updated to the latest version of iOS.
Since neither the iPad Air nor the iPad Mini with Retina Display is available yet, there are no reviews. Initial impressions posted on the web this week were favorable, with many calling the iPad Air's thin-and-light design impressive.
A New Tack
Apple's products have long been favored by creative types, but Apple also appears to be taking productivity a bit more seriously, offering its iWork suite of apps for free along with iPhoto and Garageband. iWork contains Pages (Word clone), Keynote (PowerPoint clone), and Numbers (Excel clone). Before this week, each app cost $10; now they are free to all iOS users. Apple also appears to be currently giving away the desktop versions. Both the iOS and desktop versions of iWork are compatible and can be used with iWork in the Cloud, Apple's Office 365/ Google Docs competitor, for free. Apple also improved iWork in the Cloud with new collaboration tools.
Microsoft exec Frank Shaw scoffed at Apple's move this week: "Apple announced that they were dropping their fees on their 'iWork' suite of apps. Now, since iWork has never gotten much traction, and was already priced like an afterthought, it's hardly that surprising or significant a move."
It's worth pointing out that, as good as Microsoft Office is, it costs a lot of money. Pricing varies quite widely depending on which version of Office you want and whether or not you want to buy it outright or subscribe to Office 365. Surface 2 comes with Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 RT, but some functionality is limited. It's not the full desktop version.
Microsoft wasn't the only company slinging mud, though. Apple CEO Tim Cook needled the Surface tablets on stage at the Apple event, saying, "Our competition is confused. They're turning tablets into PCs and PCs into tablets. Who knows what they're going to do next?"
Not Just a Two-Player Game
Microsoft and Apple will always be first-class combatants, but they aren't the only two in the ring. On the same day that Microsoft launched its new Surface tablets and Apple announced its new iPads, Nokia waded into the tablet fray with the Lumia 2520, a Windows RT tablet that boasts superior hardware to Microsoft's model. Other companies, such as Dell, HP, and Lenovo may not be keen on RT, but they're certainly happy to make Windows 8.1 tablets of their own. Further, there are dozens of tablets for sale that run Google's Android operating system. Some of them are quite capable machines, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, which is just as good as the Surface and iPad when it comes to productivity and recreation.
Apple stood alone in the modern tablet market for much of 2010, and wasn't really challenged until late 2011 and early 2012. Once Android tablets took hold, however, the market's growth accelerated sharply. With solid hardware running operating systems from Apple, Google and Microsoft, businesses and consumers alike have plenty of choices. Fierce competition between these three players leads to better products for the rest of us.