With its impressively light design and fast new A7 processor, the iPad Air has quickly become the large-screen tablet to beat. But Microsoft is hoping to steal the spotlight with its Surface 2. The follow-up to the Surface RT, Surface 2 is an improvement on all fronts with a more powerful processor, full HD display and enhanced Windows RT 8.1 operating system. Which tablet is the better choice? We threw them in the ring for a head-to-head brawl to find out.
Apple's latest iPad is as elegant as ever. A mixture of the original iPad and the iPad mini, the aluminum-and-glass Air features thinner bezels and chrome accenting around its chamfered edges. The Air's mute button and volume buttons line its right edge, while the Home button sits below the display. The power button is up top, and two speakers are on the bottom edge.
Microsoft's Surface 2 features the same sturdy VaporMG (magnesium alloy) body as the original Surface, but there are some notable differences. We're fans of the second-generation Surface's austere industrial design and silver paint job. More important, a new two-stage kickstand makes it easier to use this slate in your lap.
The 9.7-inch iPad Air measures just 9.4 x 6.6 x 0.29 inches and weighs a scant 1.05 pounds, making it the lightest big-screen tablet on the planet. That's far thinner and lighter than the Surface 2, which measures 10.8 x 6.8 x 0.35 inches and weighs a hefty 1.49 pounds
Winner: iPad Air. The Surface 2 sports a built-in kickstand and slick styling, but the Air is more attractive and lighter.
Ports and Expandability
The iPad Air is fairly limited in the ports department, offering a lone Lightning port for charging and accommodating accessories. The Surface 2, by contrast, benefits from a full-size USB 3.0 port, allowing users to plug in a full-size mouse or keyboard, as well as USB hard drives. You'll also find a microUSB port on the right edge, and a microSD card slot underneath the kickstand.
Winner: Surface 2. Having a full USB port allows the Surface 2 to support more peripherals, and (unlike the Air) you can expand the storage.
The iPad Air's 9.7-inch, 2048 x 1536 Retina display is one of the best on the planet, offering a level of detail the Surface 2's 10.1-inch 1920 x 1080 ClearType display simply can't match.
The Surface 2's screen offered quality images while watching a 1080p trailer for "X-Men: Days of Future Past." Unfortunately , colors on the Surface 2 appeared oversaturated, and blacks were less accurate than those we viewed on the iPad Air . In one scene, the character Mystique's blue skin and red hair popped against a pitch-black background when viewed on the Air. The same scene looked decidedly flatter on the Surface 2.
Similarly, images on the Air looked crisper than on the Surface 2. Lines in Mystique's face were sharper and easier to see on the Air than on the Surface, and the hairs on the character Beast's face stood out more.
With a brightness rating of 411 lux, the iPad Air's display easily outshined the Surface 2's screen, which mustered 364 lux.
Winner: iPad Air. The iPad benefits from a brighter and sharper display, as well as better color accuracy.
The iPad Air's bottom-mounted speakers pump out audio that envelops the listener. The high-pitched, synth-heavy sounds of Chvrches' "Recover" sounded loud and clean. The Queens of the Stone Age's "Little Sister" sounded equally fantastic, with its guitar riffs reverberating.
The Surface 2 features digitally enhanced speakers on its left and right edges that Microsoft says provide fuller-sounding audio. That's true, the speakers' overall volume was exceptionally low. While listening to the same Chvrches track we noted that the synthesizer sounded a bit hollow. The Queens of the Stone Age's heavier-hitting song could hardly break through the low din of our newsroom.
On the LAPTOP Audio Test, however, the iPad Air registered just 67 decibels of sound. That's far lower than the Surface 2's 78 dB rating. That said, neither slate could match the tablet category average of 80 dB.
Winner: iPad Air. Though it sports digitally enhanced speakers and a higher decibel rating, the Surface 2 just couldn't match the iPad Air's fuller sounding speakers.
Operating System & Interface
Preloaded with iOS 7, the iPad Air's software has a clean and more modern look, as well as some needed enhancements. These include a new Notifications Center menu and Control Center for quickly adjusting settings.
The iOS 7 also has improved multitasking capabilities. Users can now double tap the Home button to launch a thumbnail view of all their running apps. From there you can just swipe a thumbnail up to close an app. However, you still can't interact with multiple apps at the same time. Windows RT 8.1 goes further with a split-screen viewing mode, which lets you multitask with two Windows 8 apps on one screen at the same time (take that Apple).
Windows RT 8.1 still stands out with its Live Tile interface, which delivers live updates to your Start screen. It's easy to pin apps to the Start screen, as well as move them and resize them. We also appreciate the Bing Smart Search feature, which lets you search your device, the Web and Skydrive all at once. The Windows Start button has made a return of sorts, but it's a neutered version of what we've been asking for.
As with the original RT, users are limited to using Windows 8 apps, as traditional desktop programs are incompatible with the OS. That leads to the issue of the operating system's split personality between the desktop and Start screen modes. Apps on one aren't usable between the other, and the only reason you'd use the desktop is to access Microsoft Office.
Winner: Draw. Windows RT 8.1 is more dynamic and makes it easier to multitask, but iOS 7 is more unified and easier to use.
Anyone who purchases an iPad running iOS 7 gets free access to Apple's iWork productivity suite, which includes Keynotes (for presentations) Numbers (spreadsheets) and Pages (word processing). The Air also benefits from a huge library of productivity apps.
However, the Surface 2 comes with the much more established and familiar Microsoft Office Home and Student, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and Notes. The Windows Store has some good productivity apps, such as Lync and Yammer, but Apple's tablet has a broader selection.
A distinct advantage of the Surface 2 is the ability to use two apps on the screen at once via the Snap feature. And while some printers support the iPad Air with Air Print, the Surface 2 works with most printers via USB. Being able to have finer cursor control when editing documents via a touchpad (inside the Touch Cover and Keyboard Cover) or external mouse is yet another plus.
Winner: Surface 2. Having Office built in and superior multitasking makes the Surface 2 a better business tool.
Apple's iPad Air is the first iPad to come loaded with the company's 64-bit, dual-core A7 processor, the first such chip to make its way into a tablet. The Surface 2 sports Nvidia's quad-core Tegra 4 chip. On benchmarks that run on both iOS 7 and Windows RT 8.1, the iPad Air came away the winner.
On the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited graphics test, the iPad Air notched 14,850 and the Surface 2 a lower 13,777. Once again, both slates blew past the tablet category average of 7,726.
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Anecdotally, both tablets fired off photos quickly and switched between apps instantly. Interestingly, the Surface 2 booted faster than the iPad Air, coming to life in just 17 seconds versus the Air's 23 seconds.
The Air changed orientations from horizontal to portrait quicker than the Surface 2, 0.7 seconds versus 1.5 seconds. In a different test, the iPad Air opened the game "Asphalt 8: Airborne" in 8.3 seconds. The Surface 2 opened the app in 8 seconds. We didn't see any slowdown or lag while playing the game on either slate.
The iPad Air's camera app captured photos much quicker than the Surface 2, firing off images in the blink of an eye. The Surface 2's camera app hesitated about 0.5 seconds before capturing a photo.
Winner: iPad Air. This round was close, but the edge goes to the iPad, which bested the Surface 2 in various benchmarks and offered slightly better everyday performance.
The iPad Air's lighter weight makes the prospect of taking photos more likely, and it's 5-MP camera is fairly good. A photo of a large planter with coniferous shrubs and a small tree looked clear and colorful, with sharp lines and little to no noise. The same shot captured with the Surface 2's 5-MP camera took on an almost purple tinge, though details were still clear. The color in the Air's shot looks almost overly warm, but it's more pleasing to the eye.
A photo of the Flatiron Building in Manhattan taken with the iPad Air looked crisp, though the blue sky had visible artifacts. The sky looked better on the Surface 2's shot, but the camera didn't adjust properly to the shadows blanketing nearby buildings, making them appear as though they were in complete darkness.
A 1080p video near a busy intersection shot with the Air looked bright and colorful. Details, such as the parallel lines of a nearby building's brick facade, were easily visible.
A video of the same location taken with the Surface 2 was a bit rougher around the edges. Buildings were grainier and colors were flatter.
The iPad Air's front-facing camera took excellent photos, capturing individual beard hairs and small lines in our shirt. The Surface 2's front camera images weren't as colorful or sharp.
Winner: iPad Air. Apple's tablet captured sharper images with brighter and more accurate colors.
With 475,000 apps optimized for the iPad, Apple's App Store far outpaces the Windows Store's selection of 100,000 titles. Despite the recent additions of Facebook and Flipboard, the Surface 2 is missing such crowd favorites as Instagram, Pandora, Spotify, Snapchat and YouTube. There's no sign of "Candy Crush Saga" or "Angry Birds Star Wars II," either. In fact, Microsoft’s Windows Store is missing about 75 percent of the most popular apps found in Apple’s App store .
Winner: iPad Air. The Apple App Store wins hands-down.
The iPad Air turned in one of the most impressive performances yet on our LAPTOP Battery Test, lasting a marathon 11 hours and 51 minutes while continuously surfing the Web over Wi-Fi with the display brightness set to 40 percent.
Microsoft's Surface 2 lasted 9 hours and 19 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which is a major improvement over the first-generation Surface. However, the Air lasted longer over a more power- hungry LTE connection (10:47) than the Surface did over Wi-Fi.
Winner: iPad Air. Offering 2 hours of more endurance gives the Air the advantage.
With the iPad Air's incredible popularity comes a veritable smorgasbord of accessories. There's everything from wireless keyboard cases and connected thermostats to remote-control cars and iPad-specific stands. Of course, you can also pair almost any Bluetooth-enabled device with the slate.
Microsoft offers three first-party keyboard covers, the Touch Cover 2, Type Cover 2 and Power Cover. The Touch Cover 2 sports a capacitive backlit keyboard, while the Type Cover features a physical backlit keyboard. The Power Cover includes a physical backlit keyboard with a built-in battery pack.
The biggest problem for Surface 2 users is the price of these accessories. While Apple users can purchase a keyboard case for the iPad Air for $99, Microsoft's Touch Cover 2 will cost Surface 2 customers $119. The Type Cover 2 costs $129, while the Power Cover costs $199.
Third-party options also include the Maroo Surface 2 Folio Case, which features a keyboard for just $49.99.
Winner: iPad Air. Not only are there significantly more accessories available for the iPad Air, but they are also generally less expensive than Microsoft's items.
A based Wi-Fi-only iPad Air with 16GB of storage costs $499. The base Surface 2 features more storage, 32GB, for $50 less. Unfortunately, Surface 2 users only get access to 18GB of that space, as a massive chunk of it is taken up by Windows RT 8.1 and various pre-installed apps. You're able to use far more of the iPad's storage.
A 32GB iPad Air comes in at $599, while a 64GB costs $699. If you need some serious space, you can get a 128GB Air for $799. The most storage you can get out of a Surface 2 is 64GB for $549. That said, the Surface 2 has a microSD card slot, something the Air doesn't provide.
The Air is also available in 4G LTE models at an additional cost. A 16GB LTE version, for example, costs $629 and rises by $100 as you move up the line, topping out at $949 for a 128GB LTE-enabled Air. The Surface is not available with any cellular connectivity options.
Winner: Surface 2. The iPad Air is available in more configurations than the Surface 2, but Microsoft's slate offers expandable memory and a lower price.
Taking eight out of 12 rounds, and tying one, the iPad Air is the clear winner of this bout. Apple's tablet offers a sleeker and lighter design, a brighter and sharper screen, and better sound. Most important, the Air boasts a much broader and better selection of apps. Plus, the Air lasts more than 2 hours longer on a charge. Having a wider array of accessories is yet another advantage.
That said, the Surface 2 is a major improvement over its predecessor and is a solid choice for those who emphasize productivity. The split-screen multitasking, new kickstand position and keyboard options make this tablet a serviceable laptop replacement. However, you'll need to step up to the much pricier Surface Pro 2 to enjoy the full benefits of Windows.
Ultimately, the iPad Air is the better choice of these two slates for the vast majority of tablet shoppers.