After several years of sitting on the sidelines, Microsoft is joining the tablet fray this year, and all signs are pointing to one massive tech stoush between two of the biggest tech companies in the world. Apple's iPad is still the unflinching king of the slates, but Microsoft's Surface is expected to make its present felt after its launch on 26 October.
But which tablet is best for you? We've picked apart the various pros and cons of each to find the answer.
|Storage||16GB, 32GB, 64GB options||32GB, 64GB options|
Microsoft's Surface RT pricing is certainly competitive compared with Apple's current iPad prices. As you can see in the table below, the Surface RT is AU$90 cheaper for the same Wi-Fi-only, 32GB model, and when you bundle a Touch Cover keyboard, you are only adding AU$30 to Apple's price for its similar model.
|iPad Wi-Fi 32GB||AU$649|
|iPad Wi-Fi 64GB||AU$759|
|Apple Smart Cover||AU$45|
|Apple iPad 2 Wi-Fi 16GB||AU$429|
|Microsoft Surface RT 32GB||AU$559|
|Microsoft Surface RT 32GB with Touch Cover||AU$679|
|Microsoft Surface RT 64GB with Touch Cover||AU$789|
The major ace up Apple's sleeve is its greater options at the lower end. If you can live without the absolute latest and greatest, you can pick up a Wi-Fi-only 16GB iPad 2 for over AU$100 less than the cheapest Surface RT. For most people, this would be a sufficient sacrifice.
Also worth noting is the fact that there are no 3G options for the Surface RT at this time. If you want a tablet that can access mobile data networks, you will have to go with an iPad for the time being. You could also consider an Android-powered tablet for 3G, but that's opening an entirely different can of worms.
Apps and more apps
The most obvious reason to choose an iPad over the Surface, or any other tablet available, is the unparalleled number of apps designed specifically for the tablet. The iPad can run any of the 700,000+ iOS apps available, with 250,000 of them designed for its larger display. All of the major online services are present, including word processing, cloud storage, multimedia and games.
With Windows RT, Microsoft is starting again, so the store on a new Surface RT is bound to feel barren in comparison. According to WinAppUpdate, the Windows Store was housing about 4500 apps on 9 October, and adding about 100 new apps a day, with around 20 per cent of these apps in the Games category. We've flicked through the store ourselves a bit already, and there are a number of high-profile names missing at the time of writing; there's no Facebook, LinkedIn or Foursquare apps, photo-editing options are basic and, worst of all, there is no Angry Birds yet.
It's also worth pointing out here that the Surface with Windows RT will not run your old Windows programs. It runs only apps that are downloaded from the Windows Store, the same way that the iPad only runs apps installed from the Apple App Store. Microsoft will release a different version of the tablet in a few months, called Surface with Windows 8 Pro, which will run old Windows programs. If you find this confusing, you're not alone. Check out our guide to Windows RT here for more information on how this all works.
Beyond Wi-Fi and 3G (or the lack thereof), the Surface and the iPad have very similar wireless capabilities; ie, they both have Bluetooth, but neither has near-field communication (NFC). As for physical connections, the Surface RT is the clear leader. As you can see in the first table on this page, the Microsoft-made tablet has a full-size USB 2.0 port and a slot for microSDXC cards.
For some users, these connections will be essential to the tablet-buying decision, especially the full-size USB port. You can achieve most of the same things on the iPad, but you will be required to buy a different adapter for each connection, where an SD card adapter costs AU$35 and an HDMI adapter costs AU$45 (you'll need an adapter to connect the Surface RT to a TV, too). There is no adapter for USB 2.0. With a comparable iPad being nearly AU$100 more expensive to start with, this is an annoying extra wad of cash to fork out if you need (or would like) these options.
As it is with the extra ports on the Surface, the iPad's higher-resolution display will be important to some users. The iPad has 264 pixels per inch (ppi) across its 9.7-inch screen, while the Surface with Windows RT has a pixel density of about 150ppi.
Professionals who plan to use their tablet for display purposes, like designers, real-estate agents and photographers, will absolutely benefit from having the higher-resolution of the iPad. For everyone else, either option will suffice.
Before choosing which tablet to buy, try to be realistic about what you will use your tablet for. If you want to have a portable device for using around the house, social networking, movies in bed, recipes in the kitchen, etc, then the Surface with Windows RT is a great option. For its cheaper price, you get improved connectivity options and a comparable tablet experience. The Windows Store will be light on apps for the first few months, but expect all of the major apps to be available soon.
That said, there will not be the same scope of apps as you'll find with the Apple App Store for a long time, and if apps are your thing, then you should really choose the iPad. Likewise, if your tablet use requires a higher-resolution screen, or you need 3G for data on your daily commute, then the iPad is for you; but it will cost you extra for the privilege.
Finally, if you want a tablet to run all of the programs that you currently use on your Windows PC, neither tablet will suffice. You will need to wait for the launch of the Surface with Windows Pro, which we expect to see early next year.