Earlier this week I reviewed the Surface Pro 3 and how it stacked up against the MacBook Air as an ultrabook laptop. I wore the objectivity cape as long as possible, but it was simply no contest. From hardware to operating system, the MacBook Air delivered a vastly superior ultrabook experience. But the Surface Pro 3 claims something the MacBook Air does not – that it is the best of a laptop and best of a tablet. The former was covered, but now it is time to dig into the latter. Does the Surface Pro 3 make for the best tablet when compared against the leader of the pack, the iPad Air?
Microsoft has been keen to market the Surface Pro 3 against the MacBook Air, but raw processing power of the Surface seemingly gives it an advantage over the iPad Air, not the MacBook Air. Geekbench testing reveals Surface has the power edge over the iPad Air:
Beyond raw benchmarking it is actually very difficult to say which system is “faster” at everyday tasks, as the Surface is running Microsoft's Windows 8.1 Pro desktop OS, while the iPad Air is leveraging Apple’s lightweight mobile iOS, both are very different beasts.
The feel of the Surface Pro 3 versus the iPad Air is striking. Picking up the Surface Pro 3, there is a hefty difference between it and the iPad Air, and it will be immediately noticeable. The iPad Air weighs in at 1lb (469g), while the Surface tips the scales at 1.76 lbs (798g). Much of Surface's weight can be attributed to it's large screen size of 12", while the iPad Air iPad utilizes a 9.7" screen. The end results is even though the Surface uses magnesium casing, the overall size simply can’t be overcome by using alternate lightweight materials, and it feels very heavy as a tablet.
The 12" Surface screen is a behemoth in the tablet world (even when compared to the 9.7" Air). The entire Surface Pro 3 unit is just a monster sized product to wield around all day as a tablet, which is simply not the case with the iPad Air. Delivering a monster-sized 12" tablet display is a compromise Microsoft choose to make, as Surface also had to be an ultrabook as well.
The Surface comes with a USB port, while the iPad Air does not, which can be handy. However, the iPad Air sports a technology Apple calls Airdrop, which allows files to be directly transferred via a peer-to-peer connection. Based on the previous review of the Surface as a laptop, it appears the USB port would likely be needed for traditional mouse use. With Apple's massive iPad sales, it seems clear that tablet users have not been clamoring for USB ports, and in using the iPad Air I have not had one instance where USB was needed.
Surface’s battery life is lacking. Using it both as a tablet for web surfing, some video, emails and various every day tasks, Surface comes in a few hours short of the iPad Air. Official testing will need to be conducted, but if Microsoft is pushing their power saving specifications to the limit on their spec sheet, Surface will require recharging about 3-4 hours sooner than the iPad Air.
Laptops have come from the origin of using a traditional keyboard and mouse, while Apple’s iPad delivered a full-on multi-touch interface. Surface Pro 3 also utilizes multi-touch, leveraging the Windows 8.1 OS. Windows 8.1 incorporates what Microsoft calls its Metro UI (user interface). Metro is a unique tile-based interface design, with unique and easy at a glance updates to the applications you choose to display within the tiles. Metro is easy enough and efficient to use from the outset, but getting behind the tiles is where Surface’s interface and UX (user experience) quickly breaks down.
Behind the Metro interface lies a familiar Windows desktop OS. A start menu in Windows 8.1 was re-introduced and applications like Word or Excel all seemed highly familiar, but these are not tablet designed apps. A myriad of tiny point and click buttons are displayed, and trying to use the finger to touch so many small icons and desktop-based features becomes extremely aggravating. Drop down menu-ing schemes, radio buttons, sliders and font boxes also are all non-finger friendly.
Metro is a decent enough interface for a tablet, but the Surface becomes a disjointed and frustrating experience beyond the tile gloss. Evidently Microsoft realized the two different environments (Metro vs Windows 8) might be a difficult one to navigate; therefore, a stylus was included to help make Surface more tablet friendly. Of course, with the tablet being a large and difficult beast to hold with just one hand (for any length of time), trying to use a stylus in the other hand is akin to feeding a crying, squirming, baby a bottle.
Surface Pro 3 and iPad Air have very different base specifications, so pound for pound pricing is a difficult area to figure out, especially when considering the Surface also attempts to be a laptop... The Surface Pro 3 starts at $799 packed with 64GB of SSD storage. The iPad Air starts at $499, but only includes 16GB of storage. An iPad Air upgrade to $699 delivers pound for pound storage with the Surface, coming it $100 less. The iPad can be upgraded to include a carrier connection, while the Surface cannot, but the Surface can also be had in higher-end CPU configurations while the iPad Air cannot. Overall, just about any way the two products are configured, pound for pound the Surface will run $100 or more versus iPad Air.
Compared to the iPad Air, which has an interface and applications that are all based around a touch UI, Surface as a touch tablet comes across as a half-baked solution when moving beyond the Metro interface and its apps. Overall, the Surface Pro 3 is best left somewhere in the ultrabook realm, merely masquerading as a tablet. Whether it is the dual software interface, or the unwieldy large and heavy hardware, or its lackluster battery life, as a tablet, the Surface Pro 3 simply does not stack up well against the iPad Air.
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