iPad Air vs. Surface 2: 9 Considerations

Microsoft's Surface 2 and Apple's iPad Air are poised for a head-to-head showdown. Here are nine ways to decide which is better for you.

Michael Endler, Associate Editor, InformationWeek.com

October 23, 2013

7 Min Read

 Microsoft Surface: 10 Best And Worst Changes

Microsoft Surface: 10 Best And Worst Changes

Microsoft Surface: 10 Best And Worst Changes (click image for larger view)

Apple CEO Tim Cook said Tuesday that many companies were skeptical when the iPad debuted, but almost every tech player has since rushed to produce tablets of their own. Indeed, as Cook was introducing the company's new iPad Air, Microsoft had started selling its newest product intended to invade Apple's turf -- the Surface 2.

Microsoft's original Surface flopped notoriously, but the company has showed no signs of intimidation with the new and improved iteration. With a base cost of $449, the Surface 2 is priced to compete head-to-head with the $499 iPad Air.

Which device might be a better match for your needs? Here are nine factors to consider.

1. Both devices are thin and light.

The iPad Air is fractionally thicker at 7.5 mm than Sony's Xperia Tablet Z, currently the world's thinnest tablet. The Air is lighter than the Xperia, however, at just 1 pound. This gives Apple claim to the most portable full-size tablet.

[ Learn what the iPad Air doesn't have. See Apple's Reveal: What Was Missing. ]

The Surface 2 is a bit bigger but isn't a chore to carry around; it measures just under 9 mm thick and weighs 1.5 pounds, putting it in the same range as the iPad 4. Basically, if the iPad Air or Surface 2 is too heavy for your tastes, you probably need to spend more time lifting weights at the gym than deliberating tablet purchases.

2. The Surface 2 has a slightly bigger screen.

The Surface 2 has a 10.6-inch, 16:9 screen with 1080p resolution. The iPad Air has a slightly smaller 9.7-inch screen but more pixels. The screen is also surrounded by a slimmer frame, styled after the one in the iPad Mini, which makes the screen look bigger.

3. Both devices emphasize productivity but in different ways.

The Surface Pro 2 comes preloaded with Office Home and Student 2013 RT, which now includes Outlook RT. New iPad Air owners, meanwhile, are entitled to free downloads of Apple's productivity and creative apps iWork and iLife.

Office has the edge in familiarity, compatibility with collaborators, and depth of features. But iWork offers enough tools to satisfy most users' needs. It's also a cross-platform tool that supports real-time teamwork among remote collaborators, due to the introduction of iWork for iCloud.

The Surface was always geared more toward lap use than the iPad, thanks to its built-in kickstand and abundance of keyboard accessories. Now, with its new kickstand's two-position design, the Surface 2 is even easier to use on the lap than before, giving it a potential edge over the iPad Air. But many iPad users have already shown their willingness to embrace third-party keyboards, so it's unclear how this advantage will play out.

The Surface 2 also boasts true multitasking within the Modern UI. iOS 7 provides new ways to move between open apps, but Windows 8.1 and Windows RT 8.1 allow users to run several touch apps at once, no jumping required. The size of the Surface 2's screen limits heavy multitasking -- but if your workflow involves copying and pasting data between apps or other multitasking needs, it might serve you better than the iPad Air.

4. Both devices offer outstanding construction.

With the iPad Air, Apple is unlikely to relinquish its reputation as the industry's leader in industrial design. Even so, the Surface 2's high-quality construction is comparable. Despite being surprisingly light and easy to hold, the Surface 2 feels solid and luxurious thanks to its sturdy magnesium alloy case.

5. The Surface 2 is speedy but probably not as fast as the iPad Air.

Early benchmarking tests indicate that the Surface 2, which runs on Nvidia's Tegra 4 chip, is much more responsive than its predecessor. The iPad Air is probably faster, though. Apple's super-responsive new iPhone 5s is using a version of the iPad Air's desktop-class A7 processor, Apple promises that the Air will be its fastest, most powerful slate to date.

6. The Surface 2 is more convenient to use with peripherals.

As usual, Apple's pursuit of thinness has resulted in another iPad without built-in peripheral ports. With cloud storage becoming more common, ports might not be the necessity they once were. Still, for many, the iPad is a hassle because it can accept USB drives only via an accessory. The Surface 2, in contrast, includes both a USB 3.0 port and a micro SD slot. 7. Windows RT 8.1 is easier to use than Windows 8 -- but probably not as easy as iOS 7.

Windows RT 8.1 still can't run traditional desktop apps, but the OS nonetheless offers a smoother, more intuitive user experience than its predecessor. Those unfamiliar with Windows 8.1's Modern UI will still face a learning curve, but between UI refinements and a newly integrated tutorial app, Microsoft's lightweight OS doesn't pose the challenge it once did.

Nonetheless, iOS has traditionally been seen as easier to use than its competitors, and most users will probably find that this remains the case with iOS 7.

8. The Surface 2 has better apps than the Surface -- but the iPad still has more.

With only a few exceptions, the original Surface 2's core apps were discouragingly anemic. Its Mail app, for example, barely let users do more than send and receive basic messages. Windows RT 8.1 delivers improved versions of these old apps, such as a Mail client that supports rich formatting. It also includes several sorely needed new ones, such as Alarms and Tutorials apps.

Moreover, Surface 2 owners get several app-related perks, such as 200 GB of free SkyDrive cloud storage for two years and a year of free Skype Wi-Fi at more than 2 million hotspots. From Office to Skype to Internet Explorer 11, the Surface 2 provides all the tools many workers need to work on projects, collaborate with friends and colleagues, and stay connected to the Web.

That said, the iPad Air still has the edge in apps. Apple's iOS platform offers by far the largest number of titles optimize for full-size tablet screens. The Surface 2 boasts some novel titles and has become more competitive -- but if you like app smorgasbords, the iPad Air might be a better match for your needs.

9. Neither device is cheap.

Smaller, cheaper tablets are all the rage, but neither Microsoft nor Apple seemed intimidated by their competitors' plunging prices. The iPad Air starts at $499 for the base 16-GB edition and $629 for the 16-GB LTE version. The Surface 2 starts at $449 for the base 32-GB model and pricing has not yet been announced for the LTE version, which will arrive early next year.

Those who need keyboards will have to shell out a little more. Third-party iPad keyboards generally range between $50 and $150. Microsoft's original -- and flimsy -- Touch Cover keyboard is only $79.99, but many users might prefer the Touch Cover 2. The newer model is $50 more, but boasts at least three advantages over the older one: more sensors to make typing more accurate; backlit keys for easier typing in dim settings; and a more rigid design that's better suited to lap use. Microsoft also sells the $129.99 Type Cover 2, which is even more rigid than the new Touch Cover 2, and the $199.99 Power Cover, which includes an onboard power source to increase the Surface's battery life and will start shipping next year.

About the Author(s)

Michael Endler

Associate Editor, InformationWeek.com

Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 and, pending the completion of a long-gestating thesis, will hold an MA in Cinema Studies from San Francisco State.

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