Microsoft’s Surface tablet PC made a big splash the other day and like many, we our really excited about it, not just to review it but also perhaps buy one as it seems like a logical evolution of the notebook in this touch-crazy tech world. Microsoft made a lot of Windows users really happy but in the bargain, may have peeved off some of their own OEM partners in the process. The Surface is Microsoft’s answer for anyone looking for the ideal Windows 8 experience, as Google has their Nexus line of phones (and soon tablets). As is the case with every new tablet launch, the one question that inevitably comes up is “how does it fare against the iPad?” Let’s see if we can answer that based on whatever little information Microsoft has revealed.
Let’s compare the most important aspect of any tablet – the display. Apple has stuck to their IPS panel in the new iPad but bumped up the resolution to a crazy 2048 x 1536 which puts the pixel count at 263ppi. The Surface on the other hand will be using a ClearType HD display. This could be something similar to what Nokia calls ClearBlack display and Microsoft simply changed the name to ClearType, since that’s what they call their font enhancement in Windows. The Windows RT-powered Surface will have an ‘HD’ display which could indicate a 1366 x 768 resolution, however the Windows 8 Pro Surface will have a Full HD display. While this is good, the pixel density count is still 207ppi, which is still far behind what Apple’s got cooking in the new iPad. Both are scratch-resistant as well so going plainly by the resolution alone, the iPad wins this round.
iPad clearly has an upper hand here
Let’s just compare the ARM-powered Surface with the iPad here. At 9.3mm, the Surface is just 0.1mm thinner than the iPad, which sits at 9.4mm. Apple uses an aluminium chassis whereas Surface uses a magnesium shell that they call VaporMg. On paper, both seem equally strong and durable so you can be rest assured that you’ll be getting a premium looking product. Microsoft emphasizes a lot on how the edges are beveled at 22 degrees, but we’ll have to wait and see whether this really makes any practical difference. The one critical area that swings the vote in Microsoft’s favour is the kick stand that’s built-into the tablet. This was a very thoughtful addition and negates the need for an accessory, so point Microsoft.
In terms of physical connectivity options for data, video and audio transfer from and to other devices, the iPad has none by itself. You can buy adapters for different devices but that’s an added expense. The Surface features slightly varied connectivity options depending on which Surface you pick. According to their site, the Win RT version will support a microSD card slot for expansion, standard USB 2.0 port and HDMI-out while the Win 8 Pro version will have a microSDXC slot (for full sized cards), USB 3.0 ( a huge bonus!) and a miniDP port. It’s pretty clear that the Surface is a lot more flexible as you can easily connect different devices and accessories without having to fumble around with a bag full of adapters and converters as you would with the iPad.
Good connectivity in the Windows Surface
While both tablets have Wi-Fi, there’s no mention of Bluetooth in either of the Surface versions. You also don’t get the option of a 3G SIM slot with Microsoft’s offering. One thing worth mentioning is Smart Keyboard. Just like Smart Cover for the iPad, this accessory clips on the tablet with magnetic holds but instead of just protecting the screen, it also has full pressure-based QWERTY keyboard underneath that transforms the tablet into a notebook. Whether Microsoft will be bundling it with the Surface is still unknown. We still give a point to Microsoft here as they clearly have an upper hand.
Both ARM-based tablets seem equally powerful as at the end of the day it’s not how many cores you have but how effectively you use them. Apple has stuck with a dual-core CPU in their A5X chip but have doubled their graphics portion so games, animation, video playback, etc are more fluid. Microsoft has been very tight lipped about the CPU in the Surface with Win RT tablet, however, they clearly mention Nvidia in their keynote which could only mean one thing – Tegra 3. Nvidia’s SoC clearly has more horsepower on paper but it’s in unfamiliar waters with Windows RT so we’ll have to wait and see if Microsoft can tap into all that power. Their Windows 8 Pro-powered Surface is a totally different beast altogether. With Intel’s Core i5 Ivy Bridge under the hood, we are looking at some serious processing power, enough to easily handle Photoshop, Lightroom, etc. The initial version of Surface won’t feature a discrete graphics card but once they figure that out, it will be the ultimate tablet.
We’ve all seen what the iPad is capable of but we haven’t really seen what Surface with RT can do so we’ll call it a draw, simply because it has potential.
Apps would be a worry at the moment
This is one area where Apple rules, even today. Apart from having a huge quantity of apps, it’s their uniform quality across the apps that stand out the most. Microsoft has a lot (and I mean a lot) of catching up to do between now and when they launch Surface RT sometime in November (we think). If they can get developers to port the most common and popular Windows apps over to Metro, then they should be good, else they might find themselves in a bit of a pickle. Surface with Win 8 on the other hand has nothing to worry about since even if Metro apps don’t make it in time, users can simply use any ‘EXE’ made for Windows 7 and get on with their work.
The true potential of Metro will only be realized once we have a good selection of apps that can be used across platforms be it desktop, tablet or smartphone. That’s what Apple just did with the Mountain Lion announcement at WWDC, bridging the gap between iOS and OSX. As of now, Apple clearly wins this round.
The ARM version of Microsoft Surface and Apple’s iPad max out their storage options at 64GB. The Surface with Win 8 Pro however will max out at 128GB, since it will use up roughly 10GB just for the OS itself. You also have the advantage of expanding the memory in Surface via SD card, which is something you can’t do with the iPad.
Camera in the Surface is relatively unknown
Microsoft never really goes into too much detail about the camera except for the fact that there are dual cameras and both are angled at 22 degrees. While this doesn’t help us in the slightest, we can take a hint that the cameras aren’t one of the highlights of the Surface, else they would have definitely talked a bit more about it. Apple on the other hand is very proud of their camera installment and it’s certainly one of the best cameras fitted to a tablet till date. We know that no one really uses their tablet for capturing photographs so we won’t fault Microsoft on this, unless of course it turns out to be really bad.
The Surface seems like a pretty tough contender, not only for the iPad but also the horde of Android tablets in the market. Microsoft has now set a sort of a benchmark for Windows RT and 8 Pro tablet PCs for their OEMs, who can either choose to follow or do their own thing. They also haven’t revealed any details on the pricing except that the Windows RT Surface would be priced competitively with other tablets while the Win 8 Pro Surface would be priced alongside other Ivy Bridge Ultrabooks. If we had to speculate, we’d reckon a Rs.35,000 to Rs.40,000 price tag for the top end Windows RT Surface while the Windows 8 Pro Surface would likely be around Rs.60,000, given the current state of Ultrabooks.
Now for the important question, does it make sense to buy the Windows RT Surface when you have the iPad at the same price and similarly spec’d Android tablets for a lot less? Also, does a Windows 8 Pro Surface make more sense than a proper Ultrabook? What about the Surface versus other Win 8 hybrids like the Asus Transformer Book? These questions will be easier to answer only in a couple of months once Microsoft launches Windows 8. But till then, do you feel that the Surface has what it takes to replace your notebook PC?