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iPad vs. Surface: Which makes the better faux laptop?

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May 8, 2014

Gizmag goes hands-on to compare the Microsoft Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 with the Apple i...

Gizmag goes hands-on to compare the Microsoft Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 with the Apple iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina Display

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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.

Another family portrait

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.

The Surfaces both magneticall 'snap' into their keyboard covers

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.

Purple is one of several colors that the Surface's Type Cover 2 is sold in

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).

Another shot of the iPad Air with keyboard cover

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.

(l--r) Surface Pro 2, Surface 2, iPad Air, Retina iPad mini

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.

Surface 2 with iPad Air

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.

Back of the iPad mini with Retina Display

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.

The Surface Pro 2, with Type Cover 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.

Back of the Windows RT-running Surface 2

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.

Office for iPad means the Retina iPad mini and iPad Air both run Microsoft's suite

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.

The Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 each have one USB port

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.

Relative sizes and display resolutions

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.

Both Surfaces have 10.6-in, 1080p displays

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.

All four of our devices show their backsides

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.

The Surface Pro 2 (with Power Cover) and iPad Air (with Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover)

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.

The backsides of (left-right) the Retina iPad mini, iPad Air, Surface 2, and Surface Pro 2

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.

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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
12 Comments

I'd like to see a tablet that allows me to download my existing software onto it. But maybe that's just the difference between a tablet and a laptop.

Milton
8th May, 2014 @ 08:46 pm PDT

Milton, that's the Surface Pro. It's a full Windows machine in a tablet format. I have both the Surface Pro and iPad Mini Retina, and they are different animals. I have to say, I use the iPad considerably more. Now with LightRoom Mobile and Photoshop Touch (although there's a bug that disables using Adobe's Creative Cloud), I'm using the Windows machine even less than before.

Vince Pack
9th May, 2014 @ 05:24 am PDT

Having the USB 3.0 port allows connecting the Pro to a USB 3 docking station such as the Targus ACP70CA. This allows connection of a regular keyboard, mouse, two full size monitors, Speaker system and just about anything else you can imagine to the Surface Pro 2, making it a vedry good full desktop replacement. While the ipad is likely the better tablet, for a full desktop and laptop replacement in one, you should consider the Pro.

GarryGriffin
9th May, 2014 @ 07:06 am PDT

I like more the Surface 2. It's more helpful with office and more beautifully built. Windows store is growing a lot times faster than before so it's the best tablet or there.

Dany
9th May, 2014 @ 07:25 am PDT

Thanks for an excellent review. I will certainly have to consider the Surface Pro 2 in my search for a laptop replacement.

pmccarthy
9th May, 2014 @ 09:14 am PDT

I have the Logitech and other keyboards for iPads, but the Zagg is by far the best, and really turns it into a laptop.

Thomas B. Lemann.

TBLemann
9th May, 2014 @ 11:44 am PDT

The main problem with the surface is the software. It always will be until Microsoft decides to make a stable, user-friendly (aka not needing 3 actions to do something that can be done in one), intuitive interface.

Unfortunately I see how Apple is also becoming more and more Micro-soft-like in its approach by (ridiculously) adding more steps to (supposedly) make things more simple to do.

I personally think its a factor of programmers being pressed to come up with new innovations at the expense of simplicity.

Lbrewer42
9th May, 2014 @ 12:49 pm PDT

Given the premise of your article , which is the better faux laptop, clearly the Surface is a much better choice (I own the iPad Air, mini Retina, and the Surface 2). Windows RT features a full browser experience which supports Flash as well as full support for business intranet applications. I use the Surface RT to produce Cisco quotes, something that is impossible with the iPad. Office is included btw, not charged. I like to experiment with all of the various OS and devices out there and I can say the Microsoft RT OS is very much underrated by the press. The App Store is very impressive and I'm astonished at the rate at which it's growing. If I had to choose between only one of these I'd go with Surface. ARM is the future, Microsoft knows that. Major benefit is I can connect a 2nd monitor, a game pad directly to the Surface. I can place the desktop on the external monitor while using a Metro App simultaneous on the Surface. Try that with an iPad. It's time to stop wishing Microsoft into the cornfield.

Thanks

Kboyd
9th May, 2014 @ 01:27 pm PDT

I got an Ipad Air, keyboard, gave away my laptop and hit the road. I did it because I always loved ipad from first to latest gen, it was always a perfect travel companion, but I always carried a laptop as well. after a few months though I have realized its not a doable solution if you even once in a blue-moon are depending on business productivity tools (which are mostly made for PC, and many by Microsoft) ERP, Intranet, Excel, CRM, SharePoint just does not work properly on an Ipad with or without keyboard - Minecraft does not work on an IPad, Lightroom does not work on my ipad - yes there are versions for Ipad, but its just not the same thing as the full windows version.

So I got myself a Surface Pro2 with Type keyboard, and it just works. no need to charge the keyboard separately, keyboard is backlit, and the power supply is small and even comes with an extra USB port for my charging my iphone.

I love my Ipad and I love the Surface Pro2, but having both, I just wish I had opted for an Ipad Mini, that would have been the ideal combination.

Kind regards

Lars

Lars Bøgvad Jeppesen
9th May, 2014 @ 04:46 pm PDT

Sorry, bur currently the Nook HD+ takes the prize.

Its half the price and has a 1020P screen, plus sd

storage ability. This price is temporary.

.Charles Remarque

remarque
9th May, 2014 @ 07:36 pm PDT

Just focusing on the Surface 2 (since really the Surface Pro 2 is a full laptop, i7 and all) compared to a iPad Air...

Mousing: You just kinda glazed over this with the comment about the touchpad but iOS has zero mousing ability, none. This is important for when remoting into legacy systems (both PC and Mac) as touch is just clumsy doing this. I almost always carry around a mini mouse with my Surface RT as just using a mouse sometimes is preferable even using metro.

As far as the keyboards, there is nothing stopping you from using a zagg or other nice keyboards with the Surface 2. Add the aforementioned BT mouse and you have a nice interface. A nice thing about the Surface keyboards is that they fold back so you can flip between usage in a second. You can also detach and flip it so the felt is on the back if you like for a grippy back.

The Surface 2 also has an HDMI port for video out, USB3 that you can use tens of thousands of devices with, a SD card slot for up to 128GB ultrafast cards.

The Surface is really full Windows on ARMs so that means the Win-P key functions the same with duplicate, extended, etc displays. This is not per app but the full screen.

I mentioned the USB port, you can use that for connecting to a printer but you can connect via LAN to wireless printers, to printer servers, etc. You can also connect and map to network shares as well as Mac shares. You can even turn on Server service and share out your whole hard drives if you want.

Etc and so on. On comparison, Surface 2 is a much better flux laptop. Now compare the Dell Venue 11 Pro and it blows the iPad out of the water with full Windows.

Rann Xeroxx
11th May, 2014 @ 05:48 pm PDT

I can't help but think that a fuller review might consider use of 'TeamViewer' (free) to 'take-over' one's desktop or laptop at home or office from a remote pad-like device to do the rare full-PC type functionality that one might need. I've tried it on PC-to-PC and also iPhone-to-PC. Using the iPhone, TeamViewer works (albeit a bit slow), but the screen is too small to emulate your home desktop/laptop using just a small smartphone screen. But it may be feasible for many to use TeamViewer to 'pretend to be back' at the bigger device to run some app that is only on that 'main' work box. And it has cost-savings, compared to buying another licence for a cut-down MS device.

I agree that the closed-store is a big limitation for MS take-up; and that the lack of an SD card slot is a huge shortfall on Apple iPads. Both those ought be fixed pronto if the respective companies want to fight without one hand tied behind their back.

But the analysis was a bit too US-centric and upper-middle demographic. The great unwashed have gone 'Android' on any worldwide measure. So maybe the winner will follow the phone model, and be slightly-larger Android pads, winning over both RT and iOS proprietary OS approach.

I don't need complex apps when travelling, but I do want to upload images off a camera SD card while travelling, to:

a) lessen risk of loss of photos if camera was lost/stolen;

b) to see photos on larger screen (as only way to check sharpness);

c) to edit and email images while still travelling.

Plus to leave full laptop at home, I'd have to have full LibreOffice (free equivalent to MS Office) and a few GB of recent files to hand. Plus I'd need to do secure banking.

With this spec, I am about to try putting an install of 'TAILS' - the Linux OS package that The Guardian experts recommended, that Snowden supposedly used for communicating with Greenwald. It is very secure, and if you accept the news that NSA intentionally knobbled SSL encryption with back-door keys, then if you need to do secure comms, perhaps TAILS is the most secure way. It can be installed over Ubuntu OS on Asus EEE 10-inch netbooks, which are Atom-based full-function small/light laptops with keyboards. An inherent part of TAILS is that it gives you an 'encrypted persistent volume', so that if the netbook is lost/stolen while you are travelling, all of your files remain fully-encrypted. That gives you extra piece of mind. It is also a $200 solution, as Asus EEE netbooks have been out for a couple of years. The problem with later offerings running Win8 or iOS is that the 'secure boot' (UEFI) restrictions imposed by MS & Apple, prevent you from booting TAILS from a USB stick, as 'for security reasons' those suppliers wanted to effectively lock-out Linux versions from running on their hardware. But Linux is so small/efficient that (whether Ubuntu or TAILS etc) it will easily run on older/slower netbooks with low-power chips and not much RAM.

Graeme Harrison
11th May, 2014 @ 10:07 pm PDT
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