Long-term take: Surface Pro 2 vs. iPad Air

Microsoft and Apple have very different takes on tablets. What are the pros and cons of their respective approaches? And which speaks more to the future?

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The iPad Air (left) and the Surface Pro 2 Brooke Crothers/CNET

Microsoft and Apple have very different ideas about what a high-end tablet is.

After extensive use of both, I have some thoughts about the their strengths and weaknesses.

But first, some context. Though the year-over-year growth rate for tablets in 2013 was 51.6 percent, this year may be a different story, according to IDC. The market researcher expects the tablet market to grow only 19.4 percent in 2014. And a separate report this week points to a possible peak in iPad sales.

My guess is that the tablet as we know it -- primarily a content consumption device (and pretty much invented by Apple) -- is pretty much played out and in need of rethinking.

To wit, I can say for the first time that I'm not waiting with bated breath for the next refresh of the iPad. It's just not that exciting anymore. But I would be very interested in a new take on the tablet from Apple.

So with that in mind, here's what I think is good and bad about the tablet as represented by the iPad and the Surface. As much as possible, I'll try to leave it to the reader to decide which approach succeeds.

Note that I'm not going to cover every facet of design and usability (that's been covered in reviews already), just some salient characteristics that stand out after long-term use.

--Performance: Over the long haul, this becomes more and more important for me. And I think it's safe to say that the Surface Pro 2 beats the iPad Air pretty handily. The Pro not only feels much faster (it is a full-blown laptop inside, after all), it also benchmarks faster. Check out Geekbench numbers if you need proof.

All that extra memory in the Pro 2 (4GB standard) makes a difference too. Multitasking is fast and fluid. Not so on the iPad. For example, if you have a lot of browser tabs open on the Air, saving work -- for applications that I use -- can get dicey.

The future: Apple has made it clear that the 64-bit "desktop class" A series processors will continue to get closer to mainstream Intel performance.

--Versatility: For what I do day in and day out, the Surface Pro wins too. The ability to snap on the keyboard/trackpad (replete with an OS that supports a mouse pointer) and immediately be in full laptop productivity mode has become more important after months of use. And the design of the Surface takes this way beyond the third-party keyboard docks for the iPad Air.

Bottom line: If I was going on a trip and had to choose between the Surface Pro 2 and the iPad Air, I would take the Pro 2.

And the future? I vote for increasing versatility. Maybe Apple will take versatility in a different direction (sans keyboard). But, again, something fundamental needs to change to keep the category interesting.

--Physical design: The beauty of the iPad Air isn't only skin deep. For a svelte chassis it packs a decent amount of processing power. So, if aesthetics are important in the long run, the Air wins. (But the Pro 2 looks pretty attractive too next to my 3.5-pound MacBook Pro Retina. So, it's not a total wash.)

The future: I like the direction Samsung is going with the Galaxy Tab Pro 12.2. It's not there yet, but there's promise.

--Portability: No contest here. The iPad Air is a one-pound wonder. The Surface Pro 2 doubles that to two pounds. At the risk of stating the obvious, that's important if you need to grab and go most of the time and you do limited productivity work, like tasks in Microsoft Office for iPad, or undemanding photo editing.

Over time, a highly portable design does tend to wear better too. For instance, the original MacBook Air that came out in 2008 can still -- six years later -- be considered a very thin, lightweight laptop with portability that kills even in 2014.

I would include built-in 3G/4G LTE in portability too (no need for a second hotspot device). It's available on the iPad Air, not on the Surface Pro 2. That aspect of the Surface Pro bothers me more now than it did at the beginning.

The future: Microsoft has work to do. As in, make it eminently portable like the Surface 2 but with the software compatibility of the Surface Pro (or by having a lot more apps in the Windows Store). And, yes, add 3G/4G, for crying out loud.

--Price: The iPad Air starts at $499, the Surface Pro 2, at $899. No contest here if price is the deciding factor and you don't need a hybrid.

The future: I have a feeling that high-end tablet pricing will get closer to the Surface Pro. But let's hope I'm wrong.

I'll close by saying that I understand that tablets aren't used in a vacuum. In other words, many, if not most, people have both a laptop and a tablet and use each as they see fit at the moment.

Still, I think the longer you own a tablet, the more versatility and performance becomes important. In that sense, the Surface Pro 2 today may have more legs than the iPad Air. And it may be leaning a bit more toward the future.

That all could change of course, if Apple tries its hand at a new tablet concept. My vote's for an iPad Pro.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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