How Microsoft Surface stacks up against competing tablets
Microsoft’s Surface tablet lands amidst an increasingly crowded and diverse tablet market, one with a dominant leader in Apple’s iPad, fractured app ecosystems, and a wide range of sizes and prices. Bearing an ARM-based processor and a $499 price tag, Surface with Windows RT is poised to go tête-à-tête with the iPad and a slew of 9- and 10-inch-class Android tablets.
Surface has a lot riding on its magnesium chassis. This tablet is clearly Microsoft’s flagship, a hero device designed to showcase the best of Microsoft’s Windows 8-based Windows RT operating system. It also represents a gamble for Microsoft as a company: This is the first time Microsoft has made a foray into manufacturing Windows hardware.
So how does Surface compare? Let’s see where it stands.
Processor and memory
Surface with Windows RT (which I'll refer to as Surface RT henceforth, for brevity) fits right in with the vast majority of its competitors, most of which rely on ARM Cortex-based processors. Nvidia’s 1.4GHz T30 Tegra 3 quad-core processor powers Surface RT. Similar Tegra 3 processors are in many of the leading Android tablets, and even Apple’s own processor on the iPad has its roots in the ARM architecture.
Surface RT packs in more memory than its rivals, though: It has 2GB, in contrast to the standard 1GB found across the competition. Nvidia says that all Tegra 3-based Windows RT systems will ship with 2GB of RAM. That extra memory could be a key differentiator; Nvidia and other system-on-chip engineers say that additional system memory can help facilitate multitasking among apps, as well as “intensive applications” such as graphics-heavy games. (And Microsoft’s OS already has an edge over everyone else when it comes to multitasking.) Qualcomm’s upcoming Snapdragon S4 Pro reference design calls for 2GB in the tablet, but no tablet based on that platform has shipped yet.
How Surface RT’s performance will compare, of course, remains up in the air. And however it does will speak volumes about Microsoft’s newest Windows and how the OS is designed to take full advantage of the hardware.
A noteworthy aside: Given its price, Surface RT also competes against Intel’s x86-based Atom “Clover Trail” Windows 8 tablets, such as the Acer Iconia W510. The W510 also starts at $500, although it offers a full version of Windows (including desktop mode) and backward compatibility with existing Windows applications that can run in the Windows 8 desktop. Regardless of how else the hardware compares, which route you choose may depend on what you plan to do with your Windows 8 tablet. The idea of having a tablet with the full-blown Windows 8 may be a compelling enough reason to go with an x86 Atom model versus an ARM Windows RT model.
Storage on Surface RT starts at 32GB. That’s double what the iPad and most Android tablets come with for the same price. Among Android tablets, Asus’s Transformer Pad Infinity TF700 and Acer’s Iconia Tab A700 are the two exceptions, with 32GB baseline models priced at $500 and $450, respectively.
During the preorder period, Surface RT also comes in a 64GB version that costs $699 bundled with the otherwise extra-cost $120 keyboard Touch Cover. If you were planning to get a keyboard cover along with a tablet, this bundle seems to be a good deal. (As of this writing, the 64GB model was solely available with the keyboard cover.) It’s something worth considering for external-keyboard fans.
Surface RT comes with a built-in USB 2.0 port, a critical feature for connecting external storage devices and peripherals. No current Android tablet has a full-size USB port on the unit itself; instead, for Android slates, this port is available only via a dongle or a docking station.
My biggest disappointment with Surface lies in its inclusion of a MicroSD Card slot as opposed to a full-size SD Card slot, as the Toshiba Excite 10.1 has. Support for a full-size SD Card would have been appealing, since it would have offered an easy way to view content from a camera on the tablet. That said, a MicroSD slot is better than nothing at all, and its presence makes Surface competitive with Android tablets, most of which have a MicroSD slot as well.
I'm also disappointed in the video-out port, which requires a proprietary extra-cost dongle to send out high-definition video. That’s the same approach as Apple uses, but many Android competitors have some kind of HDMI port on the tablet itself.
Surface RT has a 10.6-inch display. That’s nearly an inch larger than Apple’s 9.7-inch iPad, and a half-inch larger than the typical 10.1-inch Android tablet. Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD 8.9” has, as its name suggests, an 8.9-inch display, while Barnes & Noble’s Nook HD+ sports a 9-inch display.
That extra bit of screen real estate is useful. For one thing, it supports Microsoft’s snap-view side-by-side multitasking with any app, something that neither Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android allows; such flexibility is closer to what users are accustomed to having on a desktop or laptop computer. For another, the extra space comes in handy for content creators: You’ll have more headroom when you’re writing a document or editing a presentation or video, for example. In this respect, Surface RT is likely to shine. Plus, Surface RT, like all Windows RT devices, will come with Office Home and Student 2013 RT, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote; this package gives Surface RT an instant leg up on the competition when it comes to productivity.
Resolution and display
Surface RT’s display resolution is 1366 by 768 pixels; that works out to 148 pixels per inch. On a pure pixel density level, that won’t compete with the iPad’s Retina display (2048 by 1536 pixels, 264 ppi), or even with the screens of 10.1-inch Android tablets such as the Transformer Pad Infinity TF700 and the Iconia Tab A700 (each with resolutions of 1920 by 1200 pixels, 224 ppi). Meanwhile, even Android tablets with custom versions of the OS are rocking higher-resolution displays: The Nook HD+ packs in 1920 by 1280 pixels (257 ppi), while Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD 8.9” has 1920 by 1200 pixels (254 ppi). In fact, Surface’s pixel density is on a par with that of the average 10.1-inch Android tablet, which carries a resolution of just 1280 by 800 pixels (149 ppi).
Will the pixel disparity make a big difference in everyday use? That’s tough to say judging from the specs alone. I’ve definitely been able to see a significant difference among tablets, and typically—but not exclusively—higher pixel density has translated into smoother, cleaner text. That said, Microsoft has claimed that its ClearType font-display technology will help text rendering; the implication at Surface’s launch event, before the company had even confirmed the resolution of the display, was that ClearType would compensate for the difference in pixel density. We won’t be able to judge whether that is the case until we have a Surface tablet in our lab that we can compare side by side with the other tablets.
Surface RT is among the standout tablets with an optically bonded display. Optical bonding eliminates the annoying air gap between the screen and the glass, which in turn improves text clarity, viewing angle, and contrast, and reduces screen glare. Bonding makes for a better visual experience, and it’s a visceral and dramatic improvement over displays that lack this feature. Apple’s iPad lacks bonding, as do most Android tablets. Only the Acer Iconia Tab A700, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD and HD 8.9”, the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity, the Barnes & Noble Nook HD+, the Google Nexus 7, and the Toshiba Excite 7.7 have optical bonding.
Microsoft finally filled in the outstanding physical specs on Surface, and they match up well with the competition. Surface RT measures 0.37 inch thick—it's thinner than many competing tablets and in a dead heat with Apple’s iPad.
More noteworthy is that Surface has a unique and appealing design among tablets. It features a comfortably angled bezel created with ergonomics in mind; a balanced arrangement of internal components that make Surface feel lighter; and a built-in kickstand for conveniently using Surface in a variety of scenarios. No other tablet has a built-in kickstand; with competitors, you have to use a case to prop up the tablet.
Although Surface RT matches up well with the competition in physical dimensions, weight is another story. Microsoft says Surface RT will weigh 1.49 pounds. That’s 0.05 pound heavier than Apple’s iPad, a negligible difference, but noteworthy given that the iPad itself became heavier this year, while Android tablets are consistently moving in the other direction, as consumers have come to expect.
Surface RT will be about 0.2 pound heavier than the Toshiba Excite 10 or the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity. And it’s significantly heavier than the slightly smaller Nook HD+ (1.1 pounds) and Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9” (1.25 pounds). Surface RT will certainly be portable, but it won't be a tablet that’s conducive for one-handed use.
What’s still unknown
For all that’s covered here, Microsoft still hasn’t released a few specifics. The company mentions only “720p” for its front- and rear-facing cameras, for example. And Microsoft hasn’t given a battery life expectancy for video playback. Specs, ultimately, tell just one part of the story; the real tale of how Surface stacks up will come when we get our hands on a unit, and can see it alongside the competition.