Microsoft Surface vs. Apple new iPad: Tablet head-to-head

Can the Microsoft Surface offer a valid alternative to the iPad?

Apple's iPad has long dominated the tablet market and as yet, no Android tablet has been able to make an impact. Microsoft is the latest to try and take on the Apple juggernaut with the Surface, a tablet that aims to compete with the iPad in the consumer space, as well as offer a solution to business and corporate users.

The Microsoft Surface has a 10.6in display, is powered by the company's new Windows 8 operating system and boasts a magnesium case. Can the Surface offer a valid alternative to the iPad?

Note: Microsoft will release two versions of the Surface. The first is an ARM-based device running Windows RT aimed at consumers, while the other uses an Intel-based chip to provide the full version of Windows 8 Pro for business and corporate users. For the basis of this comparison, we have used the ARM-based Windows RT version.

Microsoft Surface

Microsoft Surface Windows tablet (preview)

Apple new iPad

Apple new iPad

Verdict

?
Operating system
Microsoft Windows 8 RT
Apple iOS
Unknown
Screen size
10.6in
9.7in
Microsoft Surface
Display resolution
1366x768
2048x1536
Apple new iPad
Display technology
ClearType HD
LED backlit IPS
Unknown
Pixel density
208ppi
264ppi
Apple new iPad
Front camera
Unknown
VGA
Unknown
Rear camera
Unknown
5-megapixels, no flash
Unknown
Camera features
Unknown
Autofocus, geotagging, face detection, video stabilisation
Unknown
Video recording
Unknown
1080p HD @ 30fps (VGA front camera)
Unknown
Internal memory
32GB/64GB
16GB/32GB/64GB
Draw
Expandable memory
Yes (microSD)
No
Microsoft Surface
Thickness
9.3mm
9.4mm
Microsoft Surface
Weight
676g
652g
Apple new iPad
RAM
Unknown
1GB
Unknown
Processor
Unknown
Apple A5X dual-core (1GHz)
Unknown
Australian 3G networks
N/A
HSDPA 850/900/2100
Apple new iPad
Australian 4G networks
No
No
Draw
Wi-Fi
802.11a/b/g/n
802.11b/g/n
Draw
Bluetooth
4.0 with A2DP
4.0 with A2DP
Draw
Video-out
Yes (Micro HD Video)
No (Yes, with optional digital AV adapter)
Microsoft Surface
USB port
Yes, full sized
No
Microsoft Surface
Quoted battery life
Unknown
Up to 10h
Unknown
Flash support
Yes
No
Microsoft Surface

New iPad vs. Microsoft Surface: Display

The display on the ARM-based Microsoft Surface has a resolution of 1366x768, giving it a pixels per inch (ppi) rating of 208. The Windows 8 Pro model takes that one step further with a full HD resolution, presumably 1920x1080, though Microsoft hasn't confirmed full specifications of either Surface model.

The new iPad's "retina" display is one of the best on a mobile device.
The new iPad's "retina" display is one of the best on a mobile device.

With little known about the display of the Surface it's tough to compare it to the iPad's retina display, which is undoubtedly the best on the market. Microsoft describes the screen on the Surface as a ClearType HD display, though it's not exactly known what this encompasses. The Surface's ppi of 208 is less than the iPad but ahead of many other Android tablets, with the exception of the ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity and the upcoming Acer Iconia Tab A700 (both 224ppi).

New iPad vs. Microsoft Surface: Design

Microsoft has been tight lipped about many aspects of the Surface, including battery life, RAM and camera specifications, but it hasn't held back when discussing the design of the tablet.

The key feature of the Surface is a magnesium case that's manufactured using liquid metal. Microsoft claims the magnesium, PVD finish is the first of its kind in the PC market. Called VaporMg, the case is melted down in the manufacturing process and then moulded to the details needed for the design. The company says bevelled edges have been utilised in order to make the Surface as comfortable to hold as possible.

The key feature of the Surface is a magnesium case that's manufactured using liquid metal.
The key feature of the Surface is a magnesium case that's manufactured using liquid metal.

The Surface will also come with a built-in kickstand, which pops out from the back to stand on a desk or table. Microsoft says that putting a kickstand in the product wasn't an easy decision as it "breaks seamless lines". However, the company stressed it needed to take a chance and says the kickstand hinges attempt to feel and sound like closing the door of an expensive car. Although we are yet to see the Surface, its design certainly looks appealing and the kickstand is one feature that the iPad can't boast. Given a tablet will often be used for watching video content, this could be a smart decision.

All in all, if you consider the iPad design a little stale, the Microsoft Surface definitely has some appeal. The tradeoff is a slightly heavier weight and a larger footprint, but Microsoft will be hoping the positives outweigh any negatives.

New iPad vs. Microsoft Surface: Software

As previously mentioned, Microsoft will launch two versions of the Surface tablet. The first is an ARM-based device running the Windows RT OS aimed at consumers, while the other uses an Intel-based chip to provide the full version of Windows 8 Pro.

The best way to describe Windows RT is a version of Windows designed specifically for touchscreen tablets running ARM architecture. Windows RT is virtually identical in look and feel to the full version of Windows 8, but it can't run traditional Windows software. Think of it as what iOS is compared to Mac OS X, except with an identical look. Windows 8 RT hasn't been released yet but what you can expect is a smooth, slick experience. If you've used a Windows Phone before, you'll get the idea. The challenge for Microsoft, as always, will be attracting developers to the platform in order to build a quality catalogue of tablet applications.

The iPad has a large range of excellent, quality apps built specifically for a tablet device in the App Store.
The iPad has a large range of excellent, quality apps built specifically for a tablet device in the App Store.

Apple's iOS software, on the other hand has more apps than any other software platform, but more importantly, it has a large range of excellent, quality apps built specifically for a tablet device. The user experience is generally positive, despite some annoying limitations. The new iPad is an efficient tablet that shows no signs of lag or slowdown during most tasks.

New iPad vs. Microsoft Surface: Other features

Microsoft desperately needs to find an edge over Apple in the tablet battle and text input may be one area where it could do just that. The company acknowledged that many tablet users "prefer to have a cover" so the Surface utilises a magnetic connector to attach to a keyboard dock.

There will be two keyboard covers for the Surface available. The first is a 3mm thin accessory called the "Touch cover" that uses a full multi touch keyboard and also includes a trackpad. The Touch cover is available in blue, red, pink and white colours. The second accessory is a "Type cover" which includes a full trackpad with clicking buttons, available in black only. Microsoft says it will appeal to users who prefer traditional tactile keys over touching a flat surface. Both accessories are interesting options and something that Apple doesn't offer for the iPad.

There will be two keyboard covers for the Surface available. Shown above is the "type cover" which includes a full trackpad.
There will be two keyboard covers for the Surface available. Shown above is the "type cover" which includes a full trackpad.

Another drawcard the Microsoft Surface will hold over the iPad is expandable memory. Both the Windows RT and the Windows 8 Pro models of the Surface have a microSD card slot for extra storage. The Windows 8 Pro variant will come with 64GB and 128GB internal memory options while the ARM-based Surface will be sold in 32GB and 64GB variants.

Microsoft says suggested pricing will be announced closer to availability, but stressed the Surface will be priced competitively when compared with an ARM tablet or an Intel-based Ultrabook PC.

How do you think the Microsoft Surface will stack up against the new iPad? Let us know in the comments below!

Related content

Microsoft Surface preview
Apple new iPad review
The new iPad ultimate buying guide
Best iPad alternatives
Best upcoming tablets in 2012

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Ross Catanzariti

Ross Catanzariti

PC World
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