The iPad versus Surface debate has raged on for years, but with Apple’s new 4th-generation iPad Air joining the discussion, the competition is even tighter.
With Apple claiming during a recent event that the new iPad Air sports a 5nm processor and can be twice as fast as a top-selling Windows laptop, it will be interesting to see how the newest Apple tablet stands up against the latest and greatest from Microsoft.
We may have some new Surface products launching soon, but for now, Microsoft’s lineup consists of the Surface Pro 7, the Surface Go 2, and the Surface Pro X. Do any of these 2-in-1s have what it takes to compete with Apple’s new iPad Air?
Depending on how you look at it, the design of the iPad Air and the Surface Pro lineup can shape up to be quite similar. The devices are thin and light, ultra-portable tablets. However, the iPad Air is slightly thinner and lighter than all of Microsoft’s Surface devices, and the Surface has the benefit of a built-in kickstand.
The iPad is made out of 100% recycled aluminum, and the Surface Pros are made out of magnesium (except for the Surface Pro X, which is made of aluminum.) This means the iPad Air comes in at 0.24 inches thick and weighs in at 1.01 pounds. The extremely light weight of the iPad makes it the easiest to hold in one hand and use as a tablet.
The Surface Go 2, meanwhile, comes in at 0.33 inches thick and weighs 1.2 pounds. The Surface Pro 7 weighs 1.70 pounds and measures 0.33 inches thick. The Surface Pro X comes in at 1.74 pounds, and 0.28 inches thick — the thinnest but heaviest Surface option.
The iPad Air features a 10.9-inch screen, closest in size to the 10.5-inch Surface Go 2. The Surface Pro 7 is a bit bigger with a 12.3-inch screen, while the Surface Pro X is the largest with its 13-inch screen.
The most important design differences between these devices, though, are bezels, kickstand, screens, and color choices. Microsoft’s Surface devices feature a built-in kickstand, making them easy to prop up and watch videos on. The iPad Air will only get elevated with a magnetic kickstand through a separate purchase of one of Apple’s keyboard stands.
The Surface Pro X is black, while the Surface Go 2 and Surface Pro 7 are platinum. The iPad Air comes in silver, space gray, rose gold, green, and sky blue.
As for those bezels, the iPad Air is the clear winner for its slim-looking design, which does away with the Home button to match the design of the iPad Pro. While the Surface Go 2 made improvements with slimming the side bezels down, the bezels are still thick in comparison to the iPad Air’s. The same can be said for the Surface Pro 7, which has thick bezels (for the comfort of holding the device in tablet mode.)
Only the Surface Pro X holds its own against the iPad Air in terms of bezels. Its side bezels are thinner than Apple’s, though the top and bottom are slightly thicker.
Screen and inking
There’s a good reason why iPads have long been preferred by creative professionals for their inking experiences. The screens are some of the brightest on the market, and the Apple Pencil is one of the most reliable inking devices available. The pens are separate purchases, however, and will cost you $129 for the Apple Pencil 2 for the iPad, $144 for the Surface Slim Pen for the Surface Pro X, and $100 for the standard Surface Pen.
On paper, the Surface packs more pixels in its screen when compared to the iPad. The Surface Pro X has a 2880 x 1920 resolution (267 PPI), the Surface Go 2 has a 1920 x 1280 (220 PPI) resolution, and the Surface Pro 7 comes in at 2736 x 1824 (267 PPI.) The iPad Air, meanwhile, has a 2360 x 1640 resolution (264 PPI.) If you’re looking for pixel density, the Surface Pro X is the clear winner, but the differences will be subtle.
As for brightness, the new iPad Air has a max brightness of 500 nits, according to Apple’s claims. That’s higher than the Surface Go 2 or the Surface Pro 7 (400 nits), while the Surface Pro X sits between the two at 450 nits.
Performance is one of the most important things in a tablet, but there’s quite a few differences between the iPad and Surface. It’s like comparing apples to oranges, and performance really depends on what you’re looking for.
The iPad is powered by iOS 14 and is a mobile device with multitasking elements, and the Surface is powered by Windows 10 and is a portable PC. The processors powering the devices will reflect this.
Looking at performance, the iPad Air features the A14 Bionic processor, which is built on a 5nm process. It features a 6-core CPU, 4-core GPU, and 11.8 billion transistors. The A14 chip also includes machine-learning accelerators for apps to use. Apple has not disclosed the amount of RAM in the iPad Air, but Apple said this processor is two times faster than a top-selling Windows laptop. We don’t know what they’re comparing it to, but that’s a lot of power for iOS 14. We look forward to testing it.
With the Surface lineup, though, things are all over the board. The closest thing to Apple’s A14 processor is the Microsoft SQ1 processor found inside the Surface Pro X. It’s a custom ARM chip — Apple’s A14 is based on ARM architecture as well. It is also built on the 7nm process and has an eight-core, eight-thread CPU and an Adreno 685 GPU with 2.1 teraflops of performance. RAM comes in at 8GB or 16GB. There’s even an integrated A.I. accelerator on board, just like Apple’s. That’s already been put to work for eye-tracking during web conferences.
Good as that sounds, though, the actual performance of the Surface Pro X has been all over the board due to app emulation in Windows 10. An iPad might be the better bet if you’re worried, as Apple has heavily optimized its operating system for its custom silicon. Microsoft hasn’t yet done the same.
Since the Surface Go 2 is all about affordability, you’ll find that it has budget-friendly Intel Pentium, Gold Processors, or Intel Core m3 processors. These aren’t exactly the best for gaming or editing photos and videos, and shouldn’t be compared to the iPad Air. It’s best for web browsing and casual computing.
The Surface Pro 7, meanwhile, sports a much more powerful processor, which puts it up against the iPad Air. It has Intel’s 10th-generation Ice Lake processors, built on the 14nm process. These come in with either 4GB, 8GB, or 16GB of RAM. The processors can be configured up to eight cores and eight threads, with Intel’s dedicated Iris Plus graphics. This is great for light gaming and even photo editing, as we found in our review. At the end of the day, though your choice of device comes down to what you’re after. Mobile productivity on an iPad, or desktop-class performance on a Surface Pro 7.
Ports and connectivity
Ports and connectivity provide another a key difference between the iPad Air and Surface. With the iPad Air, Apple finally made the jump from Lighting to USB-C on the cheaper end of the iPad lineup. While slimming down the screen, it also brought back TouchID in the power button. On the Surface, though, there are various ports for you to enjoy, depending on what Surface you choose, as well as Windows Hello facial login.
The Surface Pro X comes with two USB-C ports, as well as a Surface Connect port. There’s no classic USB-A. If you want that, you need to get a Surface Pro 7, which sports USB-A alongside USB-C and Surface Connect. Finally, there’s the Surface Go, which has a single USB-C port and a Surface Connect port.
The addition of Surface Connect on all Surface devices is for fast charging with the Surface Connect charger. Charging with iPads, though, is only done through that USB-C port and the 20-watt USB-C power adapter.
As for security, the iPad Air brings back Touch ID from the previous generation, but adds it to the power button. The Surface Pro has its own Windows Hello webcam, which lets you log in to the device with your face. Security is great with both devices.
When it comes to the camera, you’ll find that both the iPad and all the Surface devices feature 1080p webcams — far better than the 720p options that appear in laptops. The iPad Air sports a 12MP wide camera on the rear and a 7MP FaceTime selfie camera. The Surface Go 2 has a 5.0MP front-facing camera, as well as an 8.0MP rear-facing auto-focus camera. The Surface Pro X keeps the same front webcam, but ads a 10MP rear camera. And the Pro 7 has 8.0MP rear and 5.0 MP front cameras. In terms of cameras, the iPad is the winner.
It should be noted that the iPad also supports LTE connectivity. So do the Surface Pro X and Surface Go 2. The Surface Pro 7 does not support it.
Finally, there are keyboards. The iPad sports Pogo connectors for the Magic Keyboard, which provides a full keyboard and trackpad experience. The most recent iPadOS update brings important laptop-like features such as keyboard shortcuts, cursor support, and external mouse support.
Meanwhile, the Surface has connectors for the Type Cover, which is a must-have accessory for the Surface devices. Both offer similar typing experiences and are separate purchases. But, be aware of the fact they are separate purchases. The Type Cover is $129, and the Magic Keyboard another $300.
The iPad Air’s price is downright dangerous
On paper, the iPad shapes up to be better than the Surface lineup due to its overall performance, operating system, and display. Its price, though, is its most important feature. At just $599, the iPad Air is $200 cheaper than the starting configuration of the Surface Pro 7. If you add in 256GB of SSD storage to both devices, you’re looking at a $749 iPad Air versus a $1,200 Surface Pro 7. That same configuration will cost you $1,300 for the Surface Pro X.
WQith support of the Magic Keyboard, the iPad Air becomes a far more versatile device. It has cursor support, plus a full keyboard and a trackpad. It can’t run the traditional desktop apps that the Surface Pro 7 can, but the iPad’s app store is deep, even in professional apps for getting working done.
The Surface lineup is the only one you can buy today, so it wins by default. But Microsoft may be in some trouble when the iPad Air launches in October.