Apple iPad vs. Microsoft Surface RT

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CNET Editor

Joe capitalises on a life-long love of blinking lights and upbeat MIDI soundtracks covering the latest developments in smartphones and tablet computers. When not ruining his eyesight staring at small screens, Joe ruins his eyesight playing video games and watching movies. Twitter: @Joseph_Hanlon

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.


Apple iPad


Microsoft Surface RT

Screen 9.7 inches
1536x2048 pixels
10.6 inches
768x1366 pixels
Storage 16GB, 32GB, 64GB options 32GB, 64GB options
Connectivity Wi-Fi
3G (optional)
Bluetooth
Wi-Fi
Bluetooth
USB 2.0
MicroSDXC
Thickness 9.4mm 9.3mm
Weight 652g 680g

Price

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.

3G

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.

Connectivity

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.

Pixel counting

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.

Conclusion

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.



Add Your Comment 16


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kalval posted a comment   
Australia

Some of the big name apps you mention will be coming within a week. Also the built in facebook and twitter support in the people hub are really much better than having to launch separate apps.

Perhaps the most compelling feature for me is the side by side apps. With surface you can have 2 apps running side by side, one in 4:3 and the other gets about 1/4th of the screen in a phone style orientation.

 

000Drkangel000 posted a comment   
Mexico

If you want a tablet to RUN almost ALL of the PROGRAMS that you currently use on your Windows PC, neither tablet will suffice.

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bill765 posted a comment   
Australia

Hi Joseph,

Just wondering what tablet you think is best for a uni student who needs to annotate lecture notes (pdf and powerpoint documents) ??

The S-Pen in the Galaxy Note 10.1 looks great considering i need a tablet that works great as a learning tool. I also want it to be a good entertainment device (games, movies etc)

Cheers!

 

Kostie100 posted a reply   
Australia

Im at uni and using an Ipad 3 to take my notes and everything is working very smoothly and well with my wireless keyboard. All my notes are sent straight to my imac at home which is helpful. Id say go for the Ipad, the games are really good aswell. Am currently playing NOVA 3 and its very nice.

 

ADSLNerd posted a comment   
Australia

I'm going to be flat out honest here. If people cannot tell the difference between Windows RT and Windows 8 tablets form Microsoft, they have some major "issues" thats for sure. RT is short for RunTime, which is basically a Windows 8 UI designed to run "Applications" from the Windows Store only (just like the iPad). The Pro version is basically a table PC which runs "applications" from the Windows store and runs normal Windows programmes like on a normal laptop.

Why is it so hard for people to understand this straight up? I didn't need to have it explained to me, it was common sense. There really should be basic intelligence test for computing devices these days, its getting to such a point that everyone has to be hand-held instead of using common sense. Just like an iPad which you cannot install a full blow Mac OS X and relevant applications on it, the same with the Windows RT tablet.

Oh and at least with Windows RT you can claim the OS was "borrowed" from another company (hint hint Apple vs Samsung), as it looks completely different and nothing else like it on the market. Whats the best some company will try to knock off this OS as well?

 

darylcheshire posted a comment   
Australia

I would prefer the full Windows 8 version. It would be like a little laptop.The iPad is not a laptop and is used for a different reason.The lack of 3G on the Surface is not a problem as I use a portable wifi/4G device

 

Ray of Perth posted a comment   
Australia

You cannot compare the so called "Smart Cover" of the Apple tablet with the surface cover of the MS RT, the first is a cover which switches the screen on and off, the MS one does the same but also acts as a full keyboard! Also cannot judge this one model of Windows 8 Tablets, as there will be many different versions of these Windows tablets produced by all the major manufacturers with many different options. This is why Windows 8 will be succesful because unlike Apple - MS understands that one machine does not offer what the majority want! That is why Apple - apart from the iPhone & iPod, are way behind other brands in the world market shares on all other products. Its their way or no way! Apple has always been supported and pushed by the Advertising & Media fraternity, but the general public seee it for what it is, and buy the products with options included.

 

ei_samus posted a comment   
Australia

Don't forget windows 8 will be common across pc's and tablets so just think of the mountains of applications that will be available shortly, particularly ones with PC functionality and freedom not previously available on decent tablets.
Microsoft haven't exactly made the old style distribution, which is exclusive to the Pro version, the most desirable thing so presumably most recent PC applications will make switch.

You couldn't sensibly replace a PC or laptop with an IPad but the surface could just about do it.

 

Will1505 posted a comment   

I was hoping the pricing was a little bit more competitive however for what you get, the windows one is a much better option. If it can handle fast web browsing well, i might get one next year


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