Microsoft

Hands on: Microsoft Surface vs. Apple iPad

Which tablet should you buy: Microsoft Surface or Apple iPad? Patrick Gray compares the hardware and software of these two devices.

In my previous two installments reviewing Microsoft's Surface tablet (part one and part two), I deliberately tried to avoid comparisons with Apple's iPad. I've never been a fan of reviews that seem to spend more time on the competitive product than the product actually under review, and I wanted to avoid presenting the initial sections of the review as such. However, the iPad is the obvious dominant force in tablet computing in the consumer and enterprise markets, and anyone considering a tablet purchase is likely going to consider Surface in light of its primary competitor. So, how does Surface stack up?

Before getting my Surface tablet, an iPad 2 was my primary tablet computing device. I used the tablet in what industry gurus call a "content consumption" mode — that is, to get email, browse web pages, read electronic books and newspapers, play the occasional game and, in a pinch, create an article or longer email.

The hardware

On the hardware front, Surface easily matches Apple's legendary build quality. The tablet is sturdy and sleek, and it creates its own business-like aesthetic rather than attempting to "out-Apple" Apple. While I find the position of the buttons sub-optimal, features like the kickstand and touch keyboard are vast improvements over what's available from Apple. Many in the technology industry, myself included, wondered if Microsoft could actually build quality hardware on its debut effort, and worries about Microsoft's ability in this area were largely unfounded.

Surface uses a different screen format than the iPad, opting for a widescreen layout rather than iPad's more traditional 4:3 screen ratio, which is similar to the difference between older televisions and newer widescreen models. This may be troubling to some, but I found it fairly easy to transition between the two screen sizes. Reading a book on the Surface feels like reading a large menu when held in portrait orientation, yet the wider screen seems a bit more natural for content like newspapers. My aging eyes are probably not the best judges of color and resolution, but the screen on Surface looks better than my iPad 2's screen, although I have yet to do a side-by-side comparison with the newer iPad's "Retina" display.

Software

The iPad took a fair amount of criticism on its release for being "just a big iPhone." That's an apt comparison, but it's also the power of the device. Rather than attempting to offer a full-fledged computing experience, the iPad keeps the iPhone's quick response times and lightweight operating system, while allowing for more content-rich applications due to the larger screen.

Surface offered an interesting and compelling alternative vision. The aim of Microsoft's tablet was to be easy to use and finger friendly, plus incorporate the best elements of a traditional computer, like running full-fledged productivity applications, which the iPad has never done well. Unfortunately, I don't think Surface managed to completely pull it off, especially when compared to the iPad.

For better or worse, the iPad sets the bar for the tablet side of the computing experience very high. Tap an icon for the average iPad application, and you're in the app and ready to work in milliseconds. Tap an icon for something as mundane as the email application on Surface, and you'll likely be greeted with the "spinning circle" while the app loads and a delay of a few seconds each time you delete or move an email. The delays are not long or hugely troubling compared to a traditional laptop, but they border on painful when compared to an iPad. Quickly reading, flagging, filing, and deleting email is a task I do all the time on my iPad, but I find myself avoiding this task on Surface largely due to these types of delays. As a pure tablet, the software on Surface moves at a snail's pace compared to the iPad.

The other element of the Surface proposition is that you can run full-fledged productivity apps, and each Surface RT tablet ships with the traditional suite of Microsoft Office applications. Surface "morphs" into a more traditional computing experience when working in the Office apps, complete with the familiar Windows desktop and familiar menus and icons rather than a touch-optimized product. I actually like this somewhat disjointed user experience; when I'm sitting down to write an article or jockey a spreadsheet, the keyboard and mouse are still the best way I've found to get meaningful work down. Surface makes a great laptop replacement for these types of functions vs. the watered-down replacements available for iPad.

Which to buy?

So, should Apple or Microsoft be the name atop you tablet purchase order? If your mobile computing vision centers around productivity applications, with occasional tablet-style usage, Surface might fit the bill. I find myself grabbing Surface if I'm headed on a weekend trip or short business trip where I'll have some time on the airplane to write or get some work done. The iPad hops in my bag if I'm planning on catching up on reading or email, or if I'm looking more for distractions than a productivity tool to write my next column.

I'm in the rather unique position of having both devices available, along with a slew of laptops and other computing devices. At this stage in its evolution, if I had to choose only one tablet, I'd pick the iPad. While it doesn't offer the productivity of Surface, it's a very complementary device to the laptop that's likely going to end up in my bag anyway. Until Surface can tighten up the tablet side of the user experience, it's certainly worth adding to a tablet evaluation, but probably not ready to dethrone the iPad in this iteration.

What are your thoughts? If you've worked with both devices, which do you prefer and why? Share your insight in the discussion thread below.

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About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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