Tablet Wars: Microsoft Surface RT v. Apple iPad

Heavyweight champ and upstart newcomer battle to a draw

The Microsoft Surface running Windows RT is just about everything you'd want in a tablet, but how does it stack up against the market leader, the Apple iPad?

In our hands-on testing, the Surface RT stacks up well against the iPad -- once you realize that they're in two different stacks.

On paper, the Microsoft Surface RT looks like a competitor to the Apple iPad with Retina Display. They both start at $499. The screen of the Surface is slightly larger, with a 10.6 inch diagonal measurement vs. 9.7 inches for the iPad. They weigh nearly the same. Both have an operating system that's baked in and a host of apps that you can only get from the company store.

[THE ARGUMENT CONTINUES: 10 reasons why the iPad is better than Surface and 10 reasons why the Surface is better than the iPad]

But there are key differences.

-- While the iPad is primarily a content consumption device, the Surface, which comes with Microsoft Office, is also designed for content creation.

-- Where the iPad isolates users from the world of networks, servers and enterprise printers, the Surface works with them seamlessly.

-- Where the iPad requires you to work with its iOS grid-of-icons interface, the Surface gives you a choice of tiles, icons or (hold on to your hat) an actual command line.

So, who wins? The answer is, it depends. The iPad has nearly a quarter million apps available that allow it to do nearly everything. The Surface can't come close in that regard. But the Surface has capabilities that the iPad can't match, and its app store is growing.

If I had to choose, and I could afford it, I'd probably buy one of each.

Under the Surface

The Microsoft Surface RT emerges from its black and white slip case enclosed in a thin plastic envelope that's almost like giftwrap. There's not much to setting it up - first you have to charge it by attaching a magnetic bar to the side of the device and plugging in the charger.

Once you've done that, you tell the Surface your Microsoft account credentials (or create them) and tell the device what Wi-Fi source you want to use. The Surface works with 802.11n Wi-Fi on either 2.4 or 5 GHz.

The Surface then proceeds to set itself up, to install updates and apps. Once it's done, it will ask you to sign in, which you do once, then you flick the opening screen out of the way.

If you've seen Windows 8, then you know what to expect with the Start screen of the Surface. It has the same tiled interface. On-screen gestures move the screen from side to side, touching a tile opens it to perform whatever function it supports.

As in Windows 8, there's a spot at the far right of the screen where new apps show up when they're installed, although you can move them wherever you wish. And the Start screen works with the Surface in either portrait or landscape orientation.

However, the Surface is clearly intended to be used in landscape mode. The magnetic covers work that way, the built-in kickstand supports the Surface only in landscape orientation. The forward-facing camera is located so that it points at the user when in landscape mode. This is different from the iPad where the location of the camera would seem to indicate a preference for portrait orientation.

There's a row of ports on the right side of the Surface, starting with the power connector at the bottom, then a full-sized USB connector that will work with external storage or pretty much anything else that needs a USB connector. Moving up, there's a micro-SD slot, which is nearly concealed behind the kickstand, and then a micro-HDMI connector. Farther up is a screened opening that serves as a speaker port. On top is the power/standby switch.

A major difference for the Surface is the Touch Cover, which works like the Smart Cover on an iPad, except that it has a keyboard printed on it. The Touch Cover attaches magnetically and includes a row of electrical contacts. There's also a Type Cover that works the same way, but has real keys.

On the rear of the Surface is one of the most noticeable differences from the iPad. There's a built-in kickstand that opens and closes with a solid feeling and provides a sturdy support for the Surface. There's none of the flimsy feeling you get with the Smart Cover folded beneath an iPad.

[TECH ARGUMENT: iPad vs Surface RT in the enterprise]

The screen of the Surface features the flatter 16:9 aspect ratio, best suited for HDTV viewing, while the iPad has more square 4:3 aspect ratio.

One big difference is screen resolution, where the iPad's Retina Display boasts 2048 x 1536, while the Surface has an HD display of 1366 x 768 pixels.

However, Microsoft has given the Surface RT what it calls a "Clear Type" display, which means that text on the screen does not appear as fuzzy as you'd expect. In our testing, there was little if any visible difference between the clarity of the iPad display and the Surface RT, unless you're looking very closely for very fine detail.

Surface vs. iPad

E-mail issues

If there's an area where you might run into problems with the Surface, it's in e-mail support. For reasons that remain unclear, Microsoft has chosen not to support POP (Post Office Protocol) e-mail in Windows Mail, which is currently the only mail client available for the Surface. POP mail is supported by the iPad.

This gap in mail support means that millions of potential users, especially people with accounts they've had for a while, or people with mail accounts from their ISP, are basically frozen out of using the Surface for reading mail in its native mode.

Microsoft does make it possible to use its cloud-based e-mail service, outlook.com, to gather POP e-mail, and you can do the same thing with Google's gmail, but this isn't a solution for everyone.

Apple scores a big win here since e-mail is the original killer app for most people. And for many, e-mail is the only reason they're using a tablet.

On the other hand, Apple makes it hard to do simple things such as printing. With the iPad, you must use an AirPrint compatible wireless printer. The Surface will work with any printer that's accessible from your network, including wired network printers, shared printers on other computers, and it will work with wireless AirPrint printers. This is a big convenience win for Microsoft, since adding a printer is basically automated on this device.

The same is true for network storage and other network devices. If a server is visible on your network, then it's visible and usable to the Surface RT. You can get photos, music, documents or pretty much anything else, and you can back up your Surface to your local network. While the iPad can use some networked media, you can't actually browse the network.

The fact is that behind that tiled interface, this is still Windows. If you select the Desktop tile, you get the familiar Windows Desktop, complete with icons and a taskbar. Just as in Windows 8, the Start button has been replaced by a Charm Bar on the right side of the screen.

And one very nice touch is that the Surface RT supports true multi-tasking. You can have two apps open and running on the screen at one time, and you can rotate between several apps by sliding them in from the left side of the screen. The only multi-tasking the iPad does is to play music while you do something else.

The app issue

Microsoft claims something like 80,000 apps for Windows RT in the Microsoft store. Many of those apps are familiar, including things like Evernote and the Weather Channel. There's a movie service and a music service. You can get Amazon's Kindle app.

But there are a lot of gaps, including things like Pandora Radio. On the other hand, the Surface RT comes with Microsoft Office already installed, which is something you can't get for the iPad.

How useful is Office on the Surface RT? With the Type Cover, we could see writing a Word document. With the Touch Cover it would be slow going, but better than using the on-screen keyboard on either device.

Right now, there are huge gaps in the software offerings for the Surface RT. Many industry specific vertical apps are unlikely to appear, since those users will probably choose the Surface Pro, which has something like 4 million applications available, anyway. So it pays to check the app choices to make sure the Surface has what you think you'll need.

The iPad has no such app shortage with well over 200,000 apps currently available.

Conclusion

There are no winners here, and there are no losers. The Apple iPad and the Microsoft Surface RT are designed to perform different tasks for users, and either one performs its intended purpose well. If you need your tablet to be part of a larger network and use network assets, then the Surface is your only choice.

If you need the Retina Display, then you need the iPad. While there's some overlap between these devices, it's not inconceivable that you could need both.

Rash is a freelance writer. He can be reached at wrash@mindspring.com.

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