Back on Monday, Microsoft announced the newest version of the Surface tablet, and though there are a lot of big names in the category, the Microsoft Surface 2 takes aim at just one: The Apple iPad.
The new Windows tablet is still using the Windows RT operating system (though now it’s Windows RT 8.1), despite the lukewarm reception it's had over the last several months, but that's not to say that nothing has changed. The revamped tablet has a new look, new hardware, and a price low enough to tempt away a few Apple faithful. So how do the two slates stack up?
I'm hardware reviewer, so my first thoughts are for the hardware and storage. The Surface 2 is outfitted with Nvidia's Tegra 4 (T40) processor, a 1.7GHz ARM mobile quad-core CPU boasting 72 graphics cores. It's paired with 2GB of RAM. The Apple iPad, on the other hand, is equipped with Apple's custom designed A6X processor, which is also an ARM processor, but this dual-core processor is supplemented with only four graphics cores. While it's tempting to read something into the raw specs of the processors, it's worth noting that both tablets have tailored the hardware and software to work together, and Windows RT is a very different beast compared to Apple's iOS. How the actual performance and user experience will compare is an unknown factor right now.
The storage capacities, however, do compare pretty directly. The new Surface 2 is available configured with either 32GB or 64GB of solid-state memory (we’ll talk more about pricing in a moment). The 4th-generation Apple iPad, on the other hand, is available with storage of 16GB, 32GB, 64GB and 128GB. While that gives Apple the upper hand in terms of base storage with the 128GB option, note that the Surface 2 offers a microSD card slot, so you can boost storage by 64GB to make for 128GB in total with the higher end model. Despite consumers vocally requesting similar expandable memory on Apple products, the iPad has no card slot.
The Surface 2 is just over 20 grams heavier than the iPad – but the Microsoft slate is thinner to the tune of 0.5mm. The minor differences in size and weight aside, however, the Microsoft Surface 2 does offer a larger display, with a 10.6in screen and 16:9 aspect ratio (compared to the iPad’s 9.7in display).
Microsoft has ramped up the resolution on the Surface 2 from the previous model's ho-hum 1,366 x 768 display to a much nicer 1,920 x 1,080 resolution. But even with full 1080p HD, it doesn't hold a candle to the iPad's Retina display, with its 2,048 x 1,536 resolution. In terms of pure picture quality, the iPad wins.
The Surface 2 offers 1080p cameras both front and back, with a front-facing, 3.5-megapixel camera for Skype and other webcam applications, and a 5-megapixel camera on the back for snapping photos and shooting video. Apple also boasts a rear-facing 5-megapixel camera, so there's not much difference there. On the front, however, the iPad has a 1.2-megapixel front camera that only records 720p video. If image quality is essential when video chatting with friends and family, the Surface 2 is the better choice.
One feature built into the Surface 2, which the iPad doesn't offer, is the addition of a built-in kickstand. Made of the same magnesium as the tablet chassis, the kickstand lets you prop up the Surface for a laptop-like experience, and the Surface 2 improves upon the previous model with a dual-position stand that offers more adjustability. Apple doesn't have any sort of built-in stand, though the included iPad SmartCover does fold up to prop up one side of the tablet.
Microsoft also offers some fancy covers for the Surface, like the TouchCover 2 and TypeCover 2, which update the previous TouchCover and TypeCover keyboards with better typing accuracy and greater sensitivity. However, these are some of the few accessories available for the Surface. On the other hand, the iPad enjoys a veritable ocean of accessories – from cases and keyboards to mini-arcade cabinets and musical instruments. Microsoft’s Surface hasn't yet gained the sort of traction which would spur similar products.
The same is somewhat true of apps, and although Microsoft boasts that the Windows Store offers some 100,000 apps, there's the downside that Windows RT won't support traditional desktop software. Apple's iOS may not support desktop software either, but it has a much broader app selection, with over 200,000 tablet-specific apps and a robust ecosystem of games and media.
With 32GB of storage, the Surface 2 sells for £359, a tastier price point than Microsoft debuted the original Surface for (£399). The Wi-Fi only iPad (32GB version) sells for £479, with the 4G LTE variant raising the price to £579. It's a smart move by Microsoft, and perhaps the most important of any mentioned here. Undercutting the competition by £120 may move the Surface 2 into a range where people are willing to try something different, and with all of Microsoft's improvements over the last version, a lot of buyers may be surprised at how much they like what they find.
So what do you think? Will the Surface 2 be the product that cracks the code and makes Windows RT a dominant force in the tablet world? Are you holding out for the new iPads rumoured to be coming next month? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Also check out our closer look at Microsoft’s Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2, and you might be interested to read our article which examines what the new Surface slates offer to the business world.
Microsoft Surface 2
Apple iPad 4
1,920 x 1,080 pixels
2,048 x 1,536 pixels
TFT 5-point multi-touch
Processor and battery
Nvidia Tegra 4
Claimed battery life (mid-heavy usage)
Storage and memory
32GB / 64GB
16GB / 32GB / 64GB / 128GB
2,592 x 1,936 pixels
2,592 x 1,944 pixels
1080p @ 30fps
1080p @ 30fps
3G, 4G LTE
802.11 a / b / g / n
802.11 a / b / g / n
4.0 with A2DP
4.0 with A2DP
275 x 173 x 8.9 mm
241.2 x 185.7 x 9.4mm
Windows RT 8.1
£359 (32GB) / £439 (64GB)
Wi-Fi only: £399 (16GB); £479 (32GB); £559 (64GB); £639 (128GB)
Cellular + Wi-Fi: £499 (16GB); £579 (32GB); £659 (64GB); £739 (128GB)