Apples and oranges. North and South. East coast and West coast. Night and day. Oil and water. Redmond and Cupertino. Surface and Air. Comparisons that point out differences usually take on the form of clichés. Comparing different mobile gadgets from different makers may veer into cliché country one day, in fact it may have already, given how passionate some users are about their respective platforms of choice. When it comes to Tablets, drawing comparisons is sometimes an easy task and sometimes not. In comparing Apple’s iPad Air and Microsoft’s Surface 2 the differences are fairly easy to recognize. So are the similarities. The devices are both multi-touch Tablets, can be used for work and play, and both sport improvements over their predecessors. They also are the latest releases from their respective companies, both sporting new names that perhaps herald a look to the future for Apple and a break from the past from Microsoft.
The iPad Air is a superior and more mature mobile technology solution. It should be. The platform has been on the market for 3 and 1/2 years now. Some felt it was a form factor that was getting a bit tired. The Microsoft Surface 2 is a second generation device and still needs some work from Microsoft as it attempts to break from the legacy it earned with the platform’s disastrous first launch. The Surface 2 is distinct from the Surface Pro 2, which runs an Intel based architecture. Surface 2 is designed to run on the ARM platform and is running a Nvidia Tegra 4. The iPad Air is also an ARM based system running Apple’s own A7 chipset. While we lump both the Surface 2 and the iPad Air, along with Android Tablets of many makes, into one big genre, there are enough distinguishing characteristics between the Surface 2 and the Air to consider if you’re thinking about a purchase.
The iPad Air and the Surface 2 have two distinctly different form factors. Walk into an Apple Store or view a commercial and you see a Tablet laying flat that looks like a window (irony?) into new worlds ready for you to touch. Do the same shopping or viewing for the Surface 2 and it is always displayed with a keyboard and its famous kickstand propping it up. Yes, viewing further you’ll see the touch screen on the Surface 2 touched and swiped, but the first visual distinctions are significant.
Those first impressions tell you quite a bit about how Apple and Microsoft view these devices and how they want you to view them. Microsoft wants you to view the Surface 2 as a device you can work and play on with the usual litany of consumption orientated pastimes (video, music, reading, gaming.) Apple’s message is that its Tablet is what you make of it. Apple implies touch, which in many ways is more human and more intimate. Microsoft implies keyboard first, which connotes a mechanical tool for getting things done. For multi-touch Tablets it’s an interesting comparison and demonstrates that Microsoft isn’t quite comfortable embracing the post-PC concept yet and doesn’t think you are either. Or the other way to look at it is that Apple doesn’t care about you working on its iPad Air. Pick your poison here, because you can work and play on both Tablets.
Here are some form factor specs:
- iPad Air: 9.4 x 6.6 x 0.29 inches
- Surface 2: 10.81 x 6.79 x 0.35 inches
- iPad Air: 1 lb
- Surface 2: 1.47 lbs
- iPad Air: 9.7 inches
- Surface 2: 10.6 inches
- iPad Air: 2048 x 1536 pixels
- Surface 2: 1920 x 1080 pixels
- iPad Air: 16, 32, 64, or 128 GB
- Surface 2: 32 or 64 GB
- iPad Air: Front-1.2mp Rear-5mp Front camera is 720p Rear is 1080p
- Surface 2: Front-3.5mp Rear-5mp, both 1080p
Orientation and Tactile Observations
The form factors also demonstrate how you address each Tablet. Microsoft’s Surface 2 leans towards landscape orientation. Yes, you can flip it into portrait mode for a more vertical experience. Weight balancing improvements in the Surface 2 make this a better experience than the original Surface RT, but most of the software designed by Microsoft and other developers have a decided horizontal preference, with you swiping left and right. Using the Surface 2 in portrait mode just doesn’t quite feel right in my hands. Apple’s iPad Air looks and feels like it could work in any orientation. By and large that’s true, although there are some Apps that look better in landscape than portrait and vice versa.
To my mind, when I’m carrying these devices in my hand the Surface 2 feels like I’m carrying a legal pad or a thin plank. The iPad Air feels more like carrying a classic black and white school composition book. Both devices feel sturdy and well made. They are. While the iPad Air is the lighter of the two devices by far, they are both comfortable enough to carry and don’t add much weight to a backpack or satchel.
Much has been made of Apple’s Retina display. It is indeed nice. To my eye, although the differences in pixel density between the Surface 2 and the iPad Air may look large, in every day use both offer very clear and beautiful screens to display your content on. Video, text, and games all look equally good on both devices. Your eye may see things differently.
Connections and Expandability
The Surface 2 offers users two things that the iPad Air doesn’t, at least without some sort of adapter. The Surface 2 comes with a full-sized USB 3.0 port and a slot for a micro-SD card to add storage space. That USB 3.0 port can come in handy for transferring content, connecting a printer or other peripheral, or connecting a camera. With an adapter you can add some of that functionality to the iPad Air for connecting cameras and reading storage cards. But while both companies want you to start thinking Cloud first (more on that in a bit), Microsoft hasn’t quite as precipitously cut off those still tied to the surface when it comes to transferring data. The iPad Air offers no real option for adding extra storage. Apple wants you to think of connecting through the air. Microsoft does too, but it recognizes that there are customers out there who still like to walk with a steady surface beneath them.
Performance and Battery Life
The iPad Air is the faster performing device of the two. Apple’s A7 chip makes Apps available now operate smoothly and the 64 bit architecture promises potential performance enhancements ahead. Once developers take advantage of it. The Surface 2 is a “fast enough’ performer and a decided improvement on its predecessor. It won’t win any head to head comparisons with the speed and performance of the iPad Air, but it handles the included Apps and others I’ve tested with a speed that seems more than satisfactory.
Both companies promise around 10 hours of battery life and in my use of both the iPad Air and the Surface 2 I would say both are accurate. Keep in mind that the internal architecture is vastly different. The bottom line in my observations is that the hardware and software integration on both devices offer good all day mobile experiences, with the iPad Air capable of brisker performance than the Surface 2.
Ecosystem and Software Crossover
The iPad Air is a 5th generation device that has been successful since the first generation of iPads hit the market. The Surface 2 is a second generation device that has to compete with other Tablets, carrying with it the baggage of a disastrous legacy stemming from the initial launch of the first model. It’s no wonder the iPad Air has a more mature ecosystem than the Surface 2 does. Measuring Apps by numbers doesn’t mean as much these days as measuring the quality of Apps, and here again the iPad Air has more to draw from in just about ever category of App you can think of. The numbers may matter, but it is the quality that counts.
Microsoft includes a range of Apps on the Surface 2 that show off what the Tablet is capable of, but by and large developers have been slow to fill the Windows Store with Apps of similar quality. Even some of the big names, like Evernote, have poor Metro style (or Modern UI) Apps as compared to their offerings on other platforms. The quality of Metro Apps that exists for Microsoft’s Surface 2 running Windows 8.1 RT even lags behind Metro Apps for Windows 8.1 that run on Intel based computers.
If you are a Xbox user the Surface 2 can serve as second screen for that device with an App called Xbox Glass. The Xbox integration for music, movies, and music seems to be quite nice, but I can’t really comment as I’m not an Xbox user. I imagine we’ll hear more about that as the roll out of the next Xbox is just around the corner.
Productivity Apps-Microsoft Office
For some the iPad won’t be a complete productivity solution until Microsoft Office can be installed. I’m not sure why that is because there are some good alternatives out there that can allow users to work with Office documents. Apple has its own productivity suite, (Pages, Numbers, Keynote) that by any measurement is not as full featured as Microsoft Office equivalents. iPad Air users can certainly take advantage of QuickOffice and other solutions to view and edit Office documents. According to Microsoft’s outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer we wont’ see Office on the iPad until there is “a touch-first user interface”. Note that the Surface 2 edition of Office isn’t exactly touch friendly either, but it can be used quite easily on the Surface 2 with a Touch or Type Cover. It’s a shame Microsoft hasn’t moved further and faster with making a touch-first version of Office, not for iOS, but for its own Tablets.
Up until the release of the iPad Air, Microsoft had an edge in that it included Office 2013 for free on Surface 2 Tablets. Apple followed suit and now offers its productivity Apps for free as well. Again, they are not as full featured. The bottom line here is that unless you absolutely must have Microsoft Office on an iPad Air, you can accomplish Office-like work on an iPad Air. If you prefer and are tied into Microsoft Office than the Surface 2 is a choice worth considering. For what it is worth, in my usage, I spend most of my time away from GBM working in a world that uses Microsoft Office. I have not once felt hindered in doing so using an iPad for getting work done.
Both Apple and Microsoft’s Office Apps will work on each others’ device using a browser.
In the iCloud version of Apple’s suite you can create a new document in the browser and work with it, but editing an existing document requires that you open it in Microsoft Word and then re-upload your changes. It’s doable, but as clunky as it sounds.
Using Skydrive to work with Office Documents in a browser on the iPad Air is a smoother proposition. This is an interesting crossover but I don’t know how many users rely on editing Office or iWork documents in a browser. I only do in an emergency situation.
Another interesting crossover is OneNote, which is also a part of Microsoft’s Office suite. There is a OneNote App for iOS App that works reasonably well. Hooked into SkyDrive, Microsoft’s Cloud, you can access your OneNote files, edit them, or create new documents. In fact, I’m creating this post going back and forth with OneNote on the iPad Air and the Surface 2.
Speaking of “The Cloud,” both Microsoft and Apple have their own. Apple’s is iCloud, and Microsoft’s is Skydrive (until they have to change the name due to legal issues.) Both offer you Cloud storage for documents and content. Both offer relatively seamless integration with their respective operating systems and Apps. With the release of Windows 8.1 and the Surface 2, I find Skydrive to be less of a hassle to use on the Surface 2 than iCloud is to use on the iPad Air. Apple still has issues with Cloud and Cloud syncing that need to be worked out. Microsoft seems ahead of the game here.
For those interested in purchasing a Surface 2, Microsoft is tossing in a special offer that includes 200GB of Skydrive storage for two years as a premium. That’s a significant value, but it is also a way to lock you into its Cloud service once you have all of your content stored there. Skydrive, separate from the bonus for purchasing a new device, comes with an initial 7GB of free storage and pricing for additional storage as follows:
- 27GB: $10/year
- 57GB: $25/year
- 107GB: $50/year
Apple’s iCloud gives you 5GB free at the outset and charges you for additional space as follows:
- 10 additional GB (15 GB total): $20/year
- 20 additional GB (25 GB total): $40/year
- 50 additional GB (55 GB total): $100/year
You can also use other Cloud options on both devices such as Dropbox or Sugarsync or Google Drive on both devices. Dropbox is the most cleanly integrated of the other services on iOS. Nothing is as easy to use on the Surface 2 as Skydrive. It is far easier to access Microsoft Office documents on an iOS device than it is to access iWork documents on any other device other than one made by Apple.
Why do you need a Cloud service? Well, this is the post-PC era, or so we’re told. Tablets are meant to be svelte and mobile and not tied to hard drives and the like. Note that storage on Tablets has just recently gone above the 64GB mark with Apple introducing a 128GB iPad in the generation before the iPad Air. Each platform has Apps designed to bring your content (photos, music, video) out of the Cloud and onto your device for your consumption needs, so that you don’t need to have everything stored locally. Like it or not, this is the future. Choosing which device you want to purchase also means choosing its respective Cloud system, although, as stated, there are other options.
Note that there is a Skydrive App for iOS, but you can only access iCloud via the browser on the Surface 2. In the example of OneNote I cited above, all of my OneNote files are accessible via the Skydrive App on the iPad Air.
This is an area where both Microsoft and Apple could use some real work. Apps are where the action is for Tablets and you need a place to make them available. Both App stores work, but only functionally so, in my opinion. Searching and finding an App is often a challenge in both. Apps for both stores are the slowest Apps that each maker offers and also the most crash prone. I find that ironic.
Apple’s inventory of Apps is greater and more mature than that in the Windows Store. I can’t say that will ever change. So much depends on how this second generation of the Surface RT platform is received. When sales and interest faltered for the original Surface RT so did developer’s interest. Sure, you’ll find plenty of Apps in the Windows Store, but most need updating.
Both the iPad Air and the Surface 2 have accessories to choose from. Again, the more mature and larger market for the iPad Air means there is a greater selection of cases, covers, keyboards, and other third party add-ons. Microsoft has been busy creating its own accessories from the Touch and Type Keyboards to a dock, and a Surface branded mouse. There’s even a Limited Edition cover for the Surface that is designed with controls to turn your Surface into an audio mixer.
The accessory story though has new grist for the mill with the entry of Microsoft’s Touch and Type Covers. As mentioned earlier, you don’t see a Surface 2 displayed or advertised without one of these covers. That’s intentional and focuses on the “you can get work done with this Tablet” approach Microsoft is taking. Both covers are excellent in my view, especially the upgraded versions. I prefer the Touch Cover, but most prefer the Type Cover as it has physical keys that travel as you type. Either cover will cost you extra, they are not included in the price: $119 for the Touch Cover 2 and $129 for the Type Cover 2.
These unique keyboard covers are such a vital part of Microsoft’s strategy and marketing that I think they were responsible for rumors that Apple would come out with a similar accessory when it released the iPad Air. That didn’t happen. But, there is a large range of third party keyboard covers and cases that work with the iPad Air available and on the way. Apple changed the form factor o of the iPad Air significantly enough that accessory makers are scrambling to get new product onto the shelves for the holiday season. The aftermarket for iPad keyboards began exploding with the iPad 3 and has not shown any signs of letting up. Consumers have a range of styles and types to choose from, and yes, they all cost extra. But many good options exist at price points below what Microsoft sells its Touch and Type covers for.
The fundamental difference in the user experience between these two devices is demonstrably apparent when viewed through the prism of Microsoft’s marketing approach and its keyboards. The Surface 2 is a touch tablet, but Microsoft is loudly proclaiming that you need a keyboard to get real work done. Apple, at the moment, is sticking to its guns that its iPad line can be whatever you wish it to be, but is touch first, keyboard and other accessories second. If you are hesitant about joining the post-PC world and/or touch, the Surface 2, along with the inclusion of Microsoft Office for free, makes this jump a bit less uncomfortable.
What’s in a Name?
Both the Surface 2 and the iPad Air are latest generation devices with new names. The Surface 2 got christened anew as a way for Microsoft to try and mitigate the damage caused by the botched and confusing roll out of the original Surface RT. Microsoft still hasn’t figured out the naming thing yet. Metro Apps (officially rechristened Modern UI Apps after legal issues) and Skydrive (soon to be rechristened after legal issues) both point to this confusion. Microsoft would like us to forget the RT moniker, but it hasn’t offered us a replacement yet so we have Windows 8.1 RT. Again, confusion.
Apple’s addition of “Air” onto its iPad line looks to point more towards the future. It hints at the lighter weight of the device compared to its predecessor and points towards the future that might yield an iPad Pro, similar to how we have the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro. Although given the impressive engineering of the iPad Air and what it offers, I’m not sure how much more Pro it can get as a Tablet.
Here are the differences in pricing:
iPad Air WiFi only
Add $130 for the addition of LTE to each of the above prices.
Surface 2 WiFi Only
No word yet on future LTE model pricing.
The sweet spot for the iPad Air, in my view, is either the 32GB or 64GB models. I don’t know why Apple still sells a 16GB model, given the increasing size of Apps and digital content that takes advantage of the Retina Display. The Surface 2 is considerably lower in price in those capacities than the iPad Air. If price is your main consideration than the real bargain is the Surface 2 with the Skydrive premium included. Comparing all the factors and your needs might alter that equation though.
It used to be that one purchased a new desktop or laptop computer and planned on that purchase lasting at least 3 years, if not longer. In today’s post-PC world things move much more rapidly and we can count on new revisions of hardware annually. Gadget geeks and those hungry for the latest and greatest might upgrade every year, but budget conscious consumers usually don’t follow those cycles. In my view, if you’re looking at a Tablet purchase, and your choice is between the two Tablet platforms discussed in this post, the iPad Air is the most future proof purchase.
The iPad Air is the more mature platform, has a more mature ecosystem, and given the hardware improvements it features, will probably last 2 or 3 years before you need to consider replacing it. The Microsoft Surface 2 might also last you that long, but it is a second generation device that will most likely see more significant hardware revisions in the next generation or two. These may or may not alter the ecosystem surrounding it, but there is a good chance that this will occur. Microsoft is also undergoing drastic changes in management and while the bet for the future is still on the RT platform to run concurrently with the Intel based platform, it is not a sure bet that this will be the strategy a year from now.
Two tablets. Two different approaches in most instances. If you’re thinking about a first time purchase there is a lot to consider. Your needs and wants should guide your choice. In my opinion the iPad Air is the more mature and more advanced technology with the most to offer for the future. Like it or not, Apple is still setting the bar for what Tablets can be today. That said, if you’re one of the legions of Windows users, or an Xbox user, then the Surface 2 could easily be a viable option. Keep in mind that you are not just choosing a device from either Apple or Microsoft. You are getting in bed with an ecosystem that surrounds each device and in many ways brings it to life.