Tablets are the new personal computers. But can they replace a laptop? And do Windows 2-in-1s like the Surface really make for better faux laptops than the iPad? Let's take a look, as Gizmag goes hands-on with keyboard-laden versions of the iPad Air, iPad mini with Retina Display, Surface 2, and Surface Pro 2.
Branding can influence your perception of a product, so let's start by looking at some marketing-driven stereotypes. Microsoft makes keyboard covers for Surface, while Apple doesn't make any for the iPad, so it's easy to get into a line of thinking that "Surface is the one with a keyboard." And since a physical keyboard is one of the biggest things that separates a work device from a play device, it's also easy to buy into Microsoft's "the iPad is a toy, the Surface is for serious business" marketing angle.
While the Surface was designed more around keyboard attachments than the iPad was, I don't think it's quite as black-and-white as Microsoft's advertising agency would have us believe. First, Microsoft sells its Surface keyboard covers separately, so they aren't bundled with the Surface any more than they're bundled with the iPad. But the bigger point here is that you can also buy some great third-party keyboards for the iPad. Many of them are even snap-on covers, similar to the ones you'd use with Surface.
I tested all four of these tablets with physical keyboards. With the two iPads, I used Logitech's Ultrathin Keyboard Covers, which I think are easily some of the best iPad keyboards money can buy. And of course I used the Surfaces with Microsoft's newest covers: the Type Cover 2 (moving keys), Touch Cover 2 (non-moving keys), and Power Cover (moving keys, with built-in battery).
Microsoft's keyboard covers do feel a bit more integrated into the overall product than the iPads' are. But I also didn't find the experience of using the iPads with Logitech's covers to be radically different.
One of the biggest differences is that the Surfaces' covers snap onto the tablet (via magnets) just by hovering the bottom of the tablet near the top of the cover. They'll snap together with a "click" and – bam – you're ready to type. The covers send the keys' input to the Surface through physical connectors, so there's no wireless signals involved. You'll also want to snap out the Surface's built-in kickstand (which folds out of the tablet's backside) to prop the device up. In each of these two 2nd-gen Surfaces, the kickstand can be propped up in two different angles (22 degrees and 55 degrees).
One potential advantage for the Surfaces is that their covers have trackpads and palm rests, similar to what you'd find on a dedicated laptop. Touchscreen input is nice to have on a laptop-like device, but it also can't hurt to be able to scroll, point, and tap on that trackpad.
At the same time, though, I wouldn't get too excited about the Surface covers' trackpads. They're very small, made of plastic, and not remotely in the same league as the larger trackpads you'd find on something like a MacBook. But since the iPad doesn't support mouse input at all, you could argue that this is a plus for both Surfaces.
The process of connecting one of the iPads to a Logitech keyboard cover is pretty simple, though not quite as smooth as things are in Surface Land. The iPad slides into a slot on the cover (also magnetic). Like with the Surfaces, you can adjust the iPad to stand up in different angles (the Logitech covers actually support more angles than the Surfaces do).
Instead of physical connectors, the Logitech keyboard sends input to the iPad wirelessly, via Bluetooth. And since the keyboard needs some power to crank out that Bluetooth connection, you'll have to charge the cover (via micro USB cable). There's also a power switch that you can toggle on and off. And when you're done with the keyboard, you pull the iPad out of the stand, snap the tablet onto a separate magnetic flap (it pops out of the back end of the cover), and fold that puppy over to protect the screen.
So the process of connecting the iPad to its cover is clearly a little clunkier. I don't, however, think this is nearly as big of a difference as you might think. All four devices are pretty easy to use with their keyboard covers. But if you jump back and forth between tablet and laptop mode countless times throughout the day, then you might think the Surface's slightly quicker and simpler transformation (basically "click" and go) tilts the balance in its favor.
Once you're in faux laptop mode, the experience of using all four devices is pretty similar (well, apart from their software). I like having touch screens on laptops: it's easier for me to reach out and swipe or tap the screen than to mess with a trackpad or connected mouse. So once you're in laptop mode, one of the biggest differences is size. The two Surfaces have the biggest screens, at 10.6 inches. The iPad Air's 9.7-in screen is 94 percent as big. The iPad mini's 7.9-in display is much smaller, at about 62 percent as big as the Surfaces'.
In general, I think the iPads make for better tablets – especially when compared to the hulking Surface Pro 2. For starters, the iPads are much lighter and thinner. The iPad Air is 31 percent lighter and 16 percent thinner than the Surface 2. The difference is much bigger when you compare it to the Surface Pro 2: the iPad Air is 44 percent thinner and 48 percent lighter than Microsoft's powerful beefcake. When you're looking at a device that you might be holding in your hands for an hour or more, those extra grams can make for a huge difference.
The iPads are also much better than the Surfaces for use in portrait mode. Their 4:3 aspect ratio is more versatile, looking great in either orientation. The Surfaces' 16:9 ratio, meanwhile, looks awkward in portrait mode. It reminds me of reading a long scroll of parchment.
One advantage of the Surfaces' 16:9 ratio is that video such as movies is going to play without any letterboxing. The iPads' 4:3 gives you large black bars above and below your screen, making for a somewhat compromised video-watching experience.
Of course the Retina iPad mini is easily the most portable in this bunch. It's 27 percent shorter, 22 percent narrower, and 16 percent thinner than the Surface 2. It's also 51 percent lighter. The iPad mini can make for a pretty cramped faux laptop (it's more like a faux netbook), but, once I got used to it, I actually don't mind using its tighter keyboard layout. In fact, I actually typed this entire comparison on a Retina iPad mini with keyboard cover. Your mileage, of course, may vary – and I definitely wouldn't recommend it if you have arthritis or unusually large hands.
If there's a wild card in this comparison, it's the Surface Pro 2's ability to run classic Windows desktop apps. If Photoshop, for example, is a part of your workflow, then none of these devices are going to hold a candle to the Surface Pro 2. Adobe offers a mobile version of PS for the iPad (Photoshop Touch), and it's surprisingly full-featured for a mobile app, but it still pales in comparison to professional-grade Photoshop CC, which you can run on the Surface Pro 2.
Speaking of Photoshop, the Surface Pro 2 also includes a pressure-sensitive (Wacom-based) stylus that works great for Adobe's image-editing software. And even if you don't spend a lot of time in Photoshop, that stylus ("Surface Pen") makes for a great mouse replacement for desktop apps. The Surface 2 doesn't support that kind of stylus, nor do the iPads.
In many ways, the Surface Pro 2 is the polar opposite of the iPad. If you're looking for a laptop-like productivity device first and foremost, and are less worried about fun and games – or at least you don't mind hoisting a beefy slab of glass and magnesium for your fun and games – then the Surface Pro 2 might be your best choice. Its desktop OS makes it the closest to a full-fledged laptop, even though that also makes it the thickest and heaviest tablet.
So what about the Surface 2? Well, it runs Windows RT, Microsoft's answer to the iPad's software. In case you aren't familiar with Win RT, just know that no Windows desktop apps will work on the Surface 2. Every app that you use on it will have to come from Microsoft's Windows Store. iOS developers have been stocking up the iPad's App Store since early 2010, but the Windows Store, which launched in late 2012 (and has also struggled with user adoption), doesn't offer anything remotely close to the same selection. I like the Surface 2's hardware pretty well, but its walled Windows Store garden is still a weakness.
For a lot of people, productivity goes hand-in-hand with Microsoft Office. Fortunately, all four of these devices now run their own versions of Office. The Surface 2, though, is the only one that runs it for free. For the Surface Pro 2, you'll need to either buy or rent (via Office 365) a full desktop license. On iPads, the Office apps themselves are free downloads, but you'll need an Office 365 subscription to do anything with them.
Those Office 365 subscriptions, by the way, start at US$7 per month. So hardcore Office users could be looking at an $84 (or more) savings per year by going with the Surface 2. That might be one of the best arguments for choosing the Surface 2 over the iPad Air.
If you go with one of the iPads and don't feel like paying for Office, then you do have some alternatives. Apple now gives away its iWork suite for free. The iWork apps (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) are basically Word, Excel, and Powerpoint clones – only with a very simple, Apple-centric design twist. For what it's worth, I still prefer Office, but I would have no problem using iWork if I wanted to save a few bucks.
When you buy a full-blown laptop, you're always going to get at least one USB port. One potential advantage for the Surfaces is that they each give you one USB 3.0 port. The iPads don't have any. There are adapters that will let you import images and videos to the iPad from cameras, and you can also buy third-party flash storage devices that play nicely with the iPad. Cloud storage services like Dropbox can also help to make up for the lack of USB transfers.
... but if direct USB access is a priority for you, then that's going to be a big advantage for the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2. And even though they only give you one USB port each, you can find cheap USB splitter adapters that will let you connect several accessories to your Surface at once (if somewhat awkwardly).
In laptop mode, where the devices are farther away, all four screens are going to look plenty sharp. When held closer to your face in tablet mode, though, the iPads are going to look noticeably sharper than the Surfaces.
The Retina iPad mini's display is the sharpest, with a terrific 326 pixels per inch (PPI). The iPad Air comes in second at 264 PPI, and each Surface's screen gives you 208 pixels per inch. The Surfaces use a technology called ClearType, which makes text look a bit crisper than their resolutions would suggest, but, up close, they still look a little pixelated next to the iPads.
Battery life is great in three out of our four devices. In our standard test, where we stream video on each device (with brightness set at 75 percent), the Retina iPad mini lasted the longest, at 10 hours and 50 minutes. The Surface 2 (barely) came in second, at 8 hours and 45 minutes. The iPad Air was right behind, at 8 hours, 40 minutes. The Surface Pro 2 trailed way behind at a mere 2 hours and 36 minutes. If you want to extend the Surface Pro 2's uptimes, though, the $200 Power Cover stretches those results out by about 33 percent.
Having used the Surface Pro 2 for quite a while, though, I don't think its battery situation is quite as concerning as those test results would suggest. I usually have its screen set at about 50 percent brightness, which a) is still pretty bright, and b) stretches those uptimes out further than the test's 75 percent. Plus most things I do on the device aren't as taxing as streaming video. Using the SP2 with Power Cover, I'd say it's an all-day device – even if you spend a good portion of that day in Photoshop.
Do you want your faux laptop to get a data connection while you're on the go? Both iPads and the Surface 2 are sold in models with built-in 4G LTE radios. For the iPads, you'll have to fork over an extra US$130 over their Wi-Fi only equivalents (though if you live in the US, T-Mobile now lets you buy cellular-enabled iPads at Wi-Fi only prices). The LTE Surface 2 is tied to the 64 GB model, which has it coming out at $230 more expensive than the cheapest (32 GB) Wi-Fi model.
Speaking of storage, the iPads are sold in 16 GB, 32 GB, 64 GB, and 128 GB models. They don't have microSD card slots, or any other means of expanding that storage (besides the cloud, which can actually help out quite a bit in that department). The Surface 2 is sold in 32 GB and 64 GB models, and it also gives you a microSD card slot. The Surface Pro 2 comes in more laptop-like 64 GB, 128 GB, 256 GB, and 512 GB variants. It also supports microSD cards.
Pricing is in the same general ballpark for three of our four tablets. The iPad mini with Retina Display starts at $400, the Surface 2 starts at $450, and the iPad Air starts at $500. As for the Surface Pro 2? Well, you'll be dishing out at least $900. It has the guts and the price tag of a full-blown laptop.
But since we're talking about faux laptops here, remember that you're going to have to throw down some more loot for a keyboard cover. The Surface's Touch Cover 2 (which I usually don't recommend, due to its non-moving keys) costs $120. The much better Type Cover 2 will run you $130. Both of those covers, by the way, have backlit keys. The battery-extending Surface Power Cover (which doesn't have any backlit keys) will tag an extra $200 onto your purchase.
There are more iPad keyboard covers out there than I can count, but the Logitech Ultrathin covers that I tested run $100 for the iPad Air and $80 for the iPad mini. You can buy similar (and sometimes cheaper) covers from Belkin, Anker, and lots of other lesser-known manufacturers.
So which tablet makes for the best faux laptop? Well, it's going to depend on what you're looking for. If you need full desktop software, then the Surface Pro 2, with "real" Windows, is your champion. It's the least "faux" in this group, as it basically is a laptop, only in a tablet form factor. If you want the Surface form factor with longer battery life and a lower price tag (and you don't mind missing out on those desktop apps) then I suppose the Surface 2 could be your best bet.
The iPads, meanwhile, make for much better tablets (thanks in no small part to their unparalleled app selection). And though they aren't quite as natural in laptop mode, they do also hold their own in that department. The iPad Air's larger size makes it a more natural fit with a keyboard, but I can vouch that the iPad mini can work surprisingly well there too ... at least after your hands adjust to that compact layout.
Those are very general and subjective rules of thumb, so of course they won't apply to everyone. Maybe you'll think the beefy Surface Pro 2 works great as a tablet after all. Perhaps you're perfectly content with the Windows Store's app selection for the Surface 2. Or maybe you can't stand the iPad keyboards' lack of trackpads and palm rests. It's all good: all I ask is that you drop us a line in the comments below and let us know how any or all of these devices are working out for you – and your workflow – as faux laptops.