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Microsoft Surface RT vs. iPad mini

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July 15, 2013

Gizmag compares the specs (and other features) of the newly-discounted Microsoft Surface R...

Gizmag compares the specs (and other features) of the newly-discounted Microsoft Surface RT and Apple iPad mini

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When the Microsoft Surface RT launched last year, it was a hard sell at US$500. It ran an unproven software platform, had relatively few apps, and you had to pay an extra $120 or so to get its killer feature, the Surface keyboard cover. But with Microsoft recently dropping the Surface RT's base price, is it worth a second look? Let's see how it compares to another $300-something slate, the iPad mini.

Before we get started, remember that this is the Surface RT, which runs on a limited mobile-processor-based version of Windows 8. If you prefer the full Windows 8 experience, then you're probably looking for the Surface Pro.

Size

The Surface RT is a much larger tablet, though the iPad mini is quite a bit thinner

We're looking at two different size classes here. The Surface is 38 percent longer, and 26 percent wider than the iPad mini. Apple's tablet, however, is 31 percent thinner.

Weight

The iPad mini is 55 percent lighter

The iPad mini is also 55 percent lighter. The Surface does offer a few perks in this comparison, but the portability prize lands squarely in the iPad mini's court. Considering it's a much smaller tablet, that's no surprise.

Build

Both tablets are tightly constructed, and made of relatively high-end materials

It's hard to complain about either device's build or materials. Both tablets are tightly constructed, with no cheap plastic in sight.

One thing to note about the Surface is its built-in kickstand. There are many iPad covers that will achieve the same end, but if you want an onboard stand, Surface delivers.

Display

Ditto for screen sizes, as the Surface's is much bigger

The iPad mini only gives you 62 percent as much display real estate as the Surface does. Neither tablet has mind-blowing resolution, but Surface's might look a bit sharper when Microsoft's ClearType (subpixel rendering) tech is taken into account.

Official stylus support

Neither tablet has a digitizer for Wacom-based styluses

Just to avoid any confusion here, the Surface RT doesn't support proper Wacom-based styluses. You can use a third-party capacitive stylus on either device, but don't expect any fine input or pressure sensitivity in this part of town.

If you are looking for Wacom stylus support, the Surface Pro fits that bill, and even includes Microsoft's Surface Pen in the box.

Processor

The Surface's Tegra 3 should deliver faster performance than the iPad mini

The Surface wins this category handily. In popular benchmark app Geekbench, its Tegra 3 outscores the iPad mini's A5 by about 90 percent.

RAM

The Surface quadruples the iPad mini's 512 MB of RAM

Another performance boost for the Surface, as it quadruples the iPad mini's mere 512 MB of RAM.

Storage

The Surface's storage totals aren't as high as you might think, once Windows RT is account...

The Surface RT gives you a bit more storage bang for your buck, but maybe not by as wide a margin as you'd think. That's because Windows RT and its recovery partition take up so much space that the 32 GB Surface will only leave you with around 15 GB of usable storage. The 16 GB iPad mini gives you over 13.5 GB of usable storage.

The Surface does, however, have a microSD slot to help you to expand that. You can also free up a few extra gigs of internal storage by moving its recovery partition to a flash drive.

Wireless

Microsoft doesn't make a mobile data-enabled version of the Surface RT

Apple offers both Wi-Fi only and Wi-Fi with mobile data (including LTE) versions of the iPad mini. Microsoft only sells a Wi-Fi only Surface.

Battery

These Watt hours are deceiving, because the iPad mini has better battery life

You can pretty much ignore the Watt hour measurements listed above, because the iPad mini has the advantage in actual battery life. With average use, it will typically outlast the Surface by two or three hours.

Cameras

The iPad mini has a much higher-resolution rear camera

Advantage, iPad mini. It's debatable how important a rear-facing camera really is on a tablet, but Apple's slate does give you a much higher-resolution rear shooter than the Surface does.

Ports

The Surface has several ports, none of which as proprietary

The Surface RT's ports give you more versatile options. Its USB 2 port opens up a whole world of possibilities, while its micro-HDMI port is a great option for video out with support for up to 1080p.

Everything you connect to the iPad mini needs to travel through Apple's proprietary Lightning connector port. There's no shortage of available accessories, but Apple's authentication requirements make it harder to find cables and accessories that are both dirt-cheap and reliable.

Keyboard covers

Though Apple doesn't make one, both tablets are compatible with keyboard covers

Microsoft has wisely centered much of its Surface marketing around the device's optional keyboard covers (the Touch Cover and Type Cover).

But to be fair, you can buy plenty of keyboard covers for the iPad mini as well. They just aren't made by Apple, and they transmit information to the tablet wirelessly rather than through physical connectors. They're also more cramped, given the tablet's more compact build.

Mouse support

Only the Surface gives you the option of using a mouse

Here's something Surface can do that the iPad mini can't. In addition to the tiny trackpads on the Touch Cover and Type Cover, you can also connect a mouse to use with the Surface RT. But since Windows RT is a touch-based operating system, this isn't necessarily a huge advantage.

Software

Windows RT is a much less mature platform than iOS

This might be the most important category in this entire comparison. It might also be the most damning for the Surface.

Windows RT is, at best, standing on shaky ground. At worst, it's living on borrowed time, and headed towards an early grave. It gives you the touch-based (known as Modern or Metro UI) part of Windows 8, and little else. There's a token desktop, but it's probably not what you think it is ...

Desktop apps

Don't get confused: the Surface RT doesn't let you run desktop apps

That's because the Surface RT won't run desktop Windows apps any more than the iPad mini will. Its ARM-based processor isn't compatible with traditional Windows apps that you'd run on, say, Windows 7 or XP.

Total apps

The App Store houses many more apps than the Windows Store

The iPad mini's App Store also houses close to four times as many apps as the Windows Store does. And yes, these marketplaces are the only ways to get apps onto each device (unless your iPad is jailbroken, of course).

Flagship office suite

The Surface RT includes a scaled-back version of Microsoft Office, while Apple sells its i...

One potential perk for the Surface is that it ships with the RT version of Microsoft Office, which isn't full Office and is missing a few things like macros. However, Microsoft is addressing one of the biggest complaints from consumers with the addition of Outlook RT as part of the free Windows RT 8.1 update to be released later this year. So if your worklife revolves around Office, this could be worth considering.

The iPad's flagship office suite is Apple's own iWork. It's sold separately, but the prices are reasonable ($10 each for Pages, Keynote, and Numbers). The App Store also features several cloud-based apps that will run Office remotely on your tablet (OnLive Desktop and CloudOn, for example).

Release cycle

Both tablets are growing a bit long in the tooth at this point

This is another huge factor in your buying decision. Both tablets are quickly approaching a full year on the market. That means we could well see upgraded second-generation versions of both within the next two to four months. Depending how much of a hurry you're in, we might soon be entering the "bad time to buy" zones for both tablets.

Starting prices

We're only looking at a $20 difference in starting prices

As we mentioned at the get-go, pricing is now pretty close for both tablets. US$350 gets you a 32 GB Surface RT, and $330 gets you a 16 GB Wi-Fi only iPad mini. Just remember that the difference in usable storage in those two models is less than 2 GB.

Wrap-up

We won't pretend to have a definitive answer for you, but it is pretty clear where each tablet excels.

The iPad mini gives you a far superior app store, a much more mature platform, and a much more portable form factor. The Surface gives you a bigger screen, Microsoft Office, more connectivity options, and more seamless keyboard integration.

For what it's worth, many more customers have voted with their wallets for the iPad mini than for the Surface. After all, there's a reason the Surface just got that $150 price drop. But if the Surface RT's limited app selection and faux desktop don't scare you away, we aren't going to stand in your way. Just know that, with both tablets, you might be staring down a newer, better version before long.

If you'd rather take a look at a much more versatile Microsoft tablet, you can check out our full review of the Surface Pro.

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About the Author
Will Shanklin Will Shanklin is Gizmag's Mobile Tech Editor, and has been part of the team since 2012. Will has a Master's degree from U.C. Irvine and a Bachelor's from West Virginia University. He currently lives in New Mexico with his wife, Jessica.
  All articles by Will Shanklin
3 Comments

Bizarre comparison. Honestly, who is going to cross-shop these?

The surface should have been compared to an iPad or not at all.

Australian
15th July, 2013 @ 11:28 pm PDT

This is a really strange comparison. These things are no where near the same things and cant be compared. Also, the cheap plastic link in the beginning was in poor taste...

Quinn Millegan
19th July, 2013 @ 11:58 pm PDT

Actually, this comparison was pretty good as these Surface RT & iPad Mini are near the same price point. Good article.

Jeff Lawrence
27th July, 2013 @ 08:18 am PDT
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