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Surface 3 v iPad Air 2: Battle Of The Tablets

When Microsoft announced the Surface 3 I was somewhat dubious about its competitiveness in a tablet market that was stumbling and where premium devices aren't making much headway. Even the acknowledged class leader, Apple, was seeing shrinking demand for its products.

What hope for a device from Microsoft priced at a premium and competing directly with the iPad Air 2? Now I've had an opportunity to put them head to head I find that my opinion has changed.
iPad Air comes in more
colours, but lacks expansion.
Looking at the physical aspects of the devices first and the Surface 3 is bigger in all directions than the Air 2. Its heavier too. To compensate you get a bigger screen, kickstand, stereo speakers and infinitely more connectivity than the iPad. Both are exquisitely put together from premium materials, Aluminium for the iPad, VaporMg for the Surface.

Now that the Surface has a 3:2 ratio screen the two feel similar in the hand, with the same balance whether held in portrait or landscape orientation. For consuming content the bigger screen and better audio serves the Surface well. Not to mention the kickstand that allows you to set the device down when watching. The iPad requires an accessory cover or case to deliver the same functionality.

Battery life is similar between the two devices although the iPad does recharge a bit quicker. Performance is also comparable, however methods of working are different enough to make the experiences wildly different. The Surface packs both the traditional desktop and Modern UI, which means that you have access to the widest catalogue of applications available on any tablet platform. The screen size and default desktop zoom settings mean that you can comfortably use most desktop apps using the touch screen. There are some that don't use Microsoft's APIs though and these may be more of a problem. Spotify is a prime example.

Microsoft's gestures interface outdoes the iPad, using the edges of the screen, rather than a finger count to accomplish different tasks. The Surface will do two things at once, the iPad can't. Apple boasts of its huge iPad app catalogue, whilst Microsoft counters with its enormous x86 software offerings.

The more you use the two devices the more you start to see the differences between a real PC and a phone-based lightweight OS. Whilst the iPad has limitations that mean you could not conceivably use it without the back up of a proper computer, the Surface really can do anything your PC can - accepting some performance limitations.

This difference in capabilities was amply demonstrated to me just a few weeks ago, when I needed to print my tickets for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup Final. The iPad's PDF viewer did not display the tickets correctly, missing out crucial information like seat location details. Had I been relying on the iPad I would have been royally stuffed. The Surface had no such problems. There are still websites that just don't work well in the iPad's Safari browser. They're few and far between but when you run into one it's immensely frustrating. Again the Surface has no such problems with its (choice of) full desktop browsers alongside the Modern version of IE.
The Surface Pen works where
iPad's stylii don't.
There's another trick that the Surface 3 has up its sleeve - the Surface Pen. Using N-trig digitiser technology, which Microsoft bought up a few months back, this really does deliver a first-rate writing experience on the Surface. If you follow this blog you'll know about my disappointment with the poor quality and capabilities of even the most expensive iPad styli.

Taking the tablet only view, the Surface is an excellent iPad competitor, beating it out in many key areas and matching it in others. More often than not the Surface outdoes the iPad.

The real power of the Surface 3 though is that you can turn it into a proper computer. It works as a laptop and it works as a  desktop (and it will even support three external monitors if you choose to do so). Even with the purchase of comparable accessories the iPad can't achieve any of this.

Pound for pound the Surface 3 offers better value than the iPad, to go with its enhanced capability. A  64GB Surface Pro sells for NZ$799. To get a comparable amount of storage you'd need to go for the NZ$899 64GB iPad Air 2. The difference would get you a Surface Pen and a 64GB micro SD card to boost storage.

Many customers won't see past the Microsoft name and the (high-intensity) iPad advertising program, but the Surface 3 turns out to be a better machine than anybody could have expected. Certainly a better one than the iPad. A better tablet? All things considered I'd have to say yes, with one small reservation about touch apps.

As a tablet that can replace your computer, it certainly delivers in the tablet comparison. Now to measure it up against a laptop...