Following the evolution of two of the tablet market’s most acclaimed offerings, in this article I will delve in and evaluate the latest spec of both the Apple iPad and the Microsoft Surface. Last time around, the Microsoft Surface, launched in the autumn of 2012, failed spectacularly; it was reported that Microsoft lost approximately $900 million owing to poor sales meaning that the company had to take the drastic step of cutting Surface RT and Surface RT Pro prices by around 30% worldwide. All of this woe and misfortune meant that the Surface failed in its primary objective of knocking the iPad off its perch as ‘king of the tablets’. But one year on and Microsoft are back for a second bite at the cherry. A reinvented, redesigned Surface 2 is ready to hit the shelves and wade into battle against the all new iPad Air, the undisputed market leader.
The iPad Air has been slimmed down by Apple designers to a miniscule depth of 7.5mm and with it weighing in at a smidge under half a kilo, it means a huge 28% of excess fat has been shredded from a device that wasn’t exactly hefty to being with. I am afraid though that the looks of the design are still remarkably unspectacular, despite Apple having fiddled around with the curvature of the back and the buttons down the side. The design fails to move me but you can’t argue with the sales figures of the previous versions, so it may just be a case of ‘each to their own’. The Surface too has lost weight in the region of five kilograms, but the most ingenious tweak in the design is the kick-stand; there are now two possible angles for the Surface 2 to be positioned at, meaning that you no longer will be faced with the awkward typing position should you choose to use the Surface from your lap. The silver finish of magnesium still oozes class, and for me, from the outside at least, feels a much higher quality product than the iPad Air, despite its subtle design tweaks.
Winner: Surface 2
I’ve never been a devoted Apple worshipper, but even when I first saw the retina display Apple introduced across its phone and tablet range a while back, I was blown away by the as-clear-as-crystal display; and I’m happy to report that the iPad Air has not deviated from the trend. The new Air has a mighty 2048 * 1536 resolution squeezed into a 9.7 inch display. The Surface 2 has a 10.6 inch screen which is great for multi -tasking, however the clarity is not in the same league as the Air. Honours even after round 2 then.
Winner: iPad Air
The iPad Air is powered by Apple’s much hyped 64-bit A7 processor, which the company claim is up to twice as fast as its predecessor, the A6. Apple has gone to great lengths to redesign its apps to ensure that they fully utilize this leap in performance, and with iOS7 being 64-bit too, users can expect to experience a much smoother and more fluid experience on the new iPad Air. The new Surface 2 packs a generous punch too, it being driven by the fourth generation Nvidia Tegra processor, which can be seen in a number of other tablets too – early reports have pointed towards a fair bit of lag when multitasking though, which is something that rung alarm bells on the previous Surface too. The Surface Pro 2 blows both of these devices out of the water with a huge 8GB of RAM, as well as housing a beast in the form of an i5 Core under its metal skin. The Pro 2 is, however, eye-wateringly expensive. A typical one currently lurks around the one grand mark. Ouch.
Winner: iPad Air
This was my biggest bugbear with my original Surface RT. It was so bad I thought initially I had a faulty product, but fellow Surface users I have chatted to all share my pain. On the contrary, I could happily watch movies on my older iPad’s all day without the risk of having to make the dash to find the nearest socket. This time around, it looks to be more of the same sadly for Microsoft, with the Surface 2 struggling to last six hours before needing to be plugged in again, despite claiming that users would be enjoying 75% more battery life when compared with the original Surface. Apple though have proudly announced that the Air will last 10 hours between plugins. My old iPad will manage that with ease, so I’ll buy that.
Winner: iPad Air
This is where the Surface really comes into its own. Office 2013 RT is included and ready to go after the initial setup, something that all modern PC users will view as a godsend. With an attachable keyboard you could almost be fooled into thinking you were actually using a laptop – unfortunately that laggy OS when multitasking using Office taints the experience. If you elect for a Pro 2 then the full desktop version of all your favourite Office programs awaits. Sadly for Apple its rival software productivity products, such as Pages, just never caught on, due to them not having the same level of compatibility or features compared to their Microsoft counterparts. The Surface 2 strikes back.
Winner: Surface 2
Arguably the most important category (after all, why do you buy a tablet?), and arguably the strongest ace that the iPad has to play is its formidable app store – where more than 760,000 apps (and expanding as you read this) are available at the touch of a virtual button. 760,000; a monumental amount – but it means that whatever it is you desire to do with your iPad Air, you really will be able to do it. Industry experts and consumers alike have formed a general consensus that the greatest limiting factor of the Surface is its lack of decent, high quality apps. This issue does stem from the fact that the Surface is a relative newcomer to the world of tablets, so given time it would be expected that the number of apps available to users would swell from the current underwhelming figure of under 100,000.
Winner: iPad Air
Both devices feature a rear facing camera good for 5 megapixels and 1080p for all your high definition desires. However if you will be taking night snaps with your tablet, the fact that the Surface 2 utilizes an LED flash means you will be able to capture the moment better. It is made a slam dunk by the fact that the Surface 2 boasts a 3.5 megapixel front facing camera, compared to the relatively feeble 1.2MP crammed into the Air’s front facer. The ability to connect to external devices will, for some, be an important factor and it is one where the Surface 2 comes out on top thanks to its USB 3.0 port and micro-SD expansion. Although pricey adapters can be purchased giving you limited connectivity, the list of additional features now runs a tad dry for the Air, thus handing victory in this category to the Surface 2.
Winner: Surface 2
Neither of these devices are for the cash-strapped or money tight. However the Surface 2’s on screen keyboard is clunky, awkward and most annoyingly of all, doesn’t automatically appear when areas for text entry are highlighted in the same way as with the iPad, so I’d advise that you add £100 straight away to cover the cost of your additional Surface keyboard – an essential in my opinion. Last time, the Surface was very reasonably priced; my Surface RT and blue touch keyboard came to £399, comparing to my iPad 3rd gen which was £595 all in. This time though, the two seem to have merged somewhere in the middle, with Surface 2 beginning at £359 and iPad Air at £329 – but you don’t want a bottom of the range one though do you? At that level, it is almost not worth upgrading if that is what you are interested in doing, particularly in the case of your Surface. Both overpriced, this one’s a draw.
Despite being evenly matched on paper, the Surface 2 shoots itself in the foot in many respects. It should be far more evenly matched, but the battery life, lack of apps and the lag-in-a-tablet that is Windows RT 8.1 tarnishes for me what is otherwise an excellent experience. The solution would be to opt for the Pro 2, but you could be paying over a £1000 for that – a similar price to a more than decent gaming computer – a bit ridiculous. The iPad Air has the better Apps and display, and is competitively priced. So would I buy one? Absolutely not. The reasoning behind my apparent unjustified decision is the fact I feel that the iPad has reached the end of the road in some respects; where do Apple go next? The iPad is in danger of being over-engineered, and soon Apple will have to go in a different direction with their products to reduce the risk of repetitiveness in their products; if that isn’t already the case. Undoubtedly the Surface has more scope for improvement and one day the device will overcome all of the gremlins that are currently holding it back and gain the potential to dominate the market. As an admirer and user of multiple Microsoft devices, maybe I am being a tad biased. My advice? Save your money until the day Microsoft gets it right.
Harry MacDonald is an upper-sixth student at Altrincham Grammar School for Boys and regular contributor to Lucid Science and Technology.