The Surface Pro 3 goes on sale this week and it's fair to say Microsoft has done a heck of a job with it. It’s definitely worth reading our full Surface Pro 3 review, but we know many of you want to see how it compares to the best tablet out there--the iPad Air.
This is a rather tricky question, however, because they aren’t technically in the same class of devices. One is a hybrid tablet/laptop and the other is simply a tablet. Still, if you’re on the fence about what machine to get, read below and you’ll have a good idea of which is best for you.
Design & Display
Apple’s iPad Air is made from a solid block of machine-crafted aluminium and measures 240 mm x 169.5 mm x 7.5 mm. It weighs 469 grams. The body houses a 9.7-inch 2048×1536 pixel colour display at 264 pixels per inch. Its aspect ratio is 4:3.
Microsoft’s Surface 3 is made from a magnesium alloy and measures 201.4 mm x 292.1 mm x 9.1mm. It weighs 800 grams. The body houses a 12-inch 2160 x 1440 pixel ClearType HD display at 216 pixels per inch. Its aspect ratio is 3:2.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Surface Pro 3 versus the iPad Air is that the iPad Air is noticeably thinner and lighter. But the size disparity isn’t exactly fair for a number of reasons.
First, the Surface Pro 3 boasts a screen that is over two inches larger. The second reason, as mentioned above, is that the Surface Pro 3 isn’t specifically designed to solely take on the iPad Air. It’s a hybrid device, which means Microsoft is positioning it as the perfect device for users who need the power of a laptop and the portability of a tablet, hence the larger screen and optional keyboard cover.
Processor, RAM, Storage & Expansion
The iPad Air comes in 16, 32, 64, and 128GB configurations, but offers no external expansion. The Surface Pro 3 comes in 64, 128, 256, 512GB configurations, and offers a microSD card reader that takes up to cards 64GB in size.
No question about it: the Surface Pro 3 is the clear winner here by a long shot. 512GB in a tablet is unheard of. Heck, even iPad fans would kill for 256GB.
As for processor and RAM, the Surface Pro 3 also comes out clearly ahead. It comes in a number of processor options including an Intel Core i3 at 1.5GHz, and i5 up to 2.9GHZ, or an i7 processor up to 3.3GHz. The Surface Pro 3 also ships with 4GB of RAM in the 64 and 128GB storage configurations and 8GB of RAM in the 256 and 512GB storage configurations. The iPad Air features Apple’s A7 chip and 1GB of RAM.
What all this means is that, spec-for-spec, the Surface Pro 3 cleans the floor with the iPad Air. It’s got up to eight times the RAM and offers a wide range of processors to fill anyone’s needs. Of course these specs aren’t exactly fair comparisons either. The iPad Air isn’t designed to be a laptop replacement, so it doesn't need all the extra power inside.
A product better suited for component comparisons to the Surface Pro 3 would probably be the MacBook Air.
Connectivity & Ports
The iPad Air has a Lightning connector on the bottom for charging and transferring data and a 3.5mm audio jack for plugging in headphones or external speakers. Inside it you’ll find 802.11a/b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0, as well as GPS and, in select models, 4G.
The Surface Pro 3 has a dedicated power charger on the side along with another coupling connector to attach an optional Type Cover/Keyboard combo (which has been greatly improved this time around). It includes one USB 3.0 port, microSD card reader, a MiniDisplay port, and a 3.5 mm audio jack.
Inside you’ll find Wi-Fi 802.11ac/802.11a/b/g/n, and Bluetooth 4.0. Unfortunately there is still no 4G option but, on the plus side, the Surface Pro 3 does come with Microsoft’s new Surface Pen--a stylus for its touchscreen that works exceptionally well as a handwriting tool.
In this area, the iPad Air beats the Surface Pro 3 because it gives users the choice of 4G--something that is very important for a lot of people who need portability. But besides that the Surface Pro 3 again cleans the floor with the iPad Air. It’s got all the connectivity options laptop users are used to as well as a selection of useful, traditional ports.
On the camera front the iPad Air features a front 1.2MP 720p HD camera and a rear 5MP 1080p HD camera. The Surface Pro 3’s front camera is 5MP 1080p HD, and its rear is also 5MP 1080p HD.
Keeping in mind that more than the megapixels of a camera matters in good photos, it’s still clear that the Surface Pro 3’s cameras beat the iPad Air’s. The specs don’t lie: a 5MP front and rear camera on the Surface Pro 3 makes it the tablet with the best camera options.
Okay, this is where you really begin to see the differences between the Surface Pro 3 and the iPad Air. The iPad Air features iOS 7.1. The Surface 3 features Windows 8.1 Pro. There are well over half a million iPad apps. The Surface Pro 3 on the other hand has a little more than 100,000 dedicated “Modern” apps.
Hands down, iOS is the best mobile operating system on the planet--and its set to get even better with iOS 8, shipping in just a few weeks. It’s got the apps, the security, and the ease of use. Windows 8.1 Pro on the other hand is a little laggy for my taste and a bit slow and prone to crashes. Plus not everyone is a fan of the tiled Metro interface--although it is growing on me.
However, when it comes to OSes on tablets, the Surface Pro 3 has the power of the full Windows desktop behind it. You can run any Windows desktop app on it just like you can on a standard Windows laptop. In this way, the Surface Pro 3 offers much better software than the iPad Air. It would be a dream if the iPad could also run OS X, but it doesn’t look like that will happen anytime soon.
So, which is right for you?
Technically if you look at the five categories above the Surface Pro 3 seems the clear victor here. But as I said in the opening paragraph, comparing the iPad Air against the Surface Pro 3 isn’t apples for apples.
Both are amazing machines--but both are targeting very different users. So which is right for you?
Choose the Surface Pro 3 if you’re already in the Windows world with a PC with tons of apps you’ve already purchased and you need a new laptop, but also want the flexibility of a tablet. Also choose the Surface Pro 3 if you need the ultimate level of productivity in a portable. It will cost you extra (adding the Type Cover, which makes the Surface Pro 3 a laptop, is an additional £109), but it is ultimately a more productive machine than the iPad Air.
Choose the iPad Air if you’re already in the iOS or Mac ecosystem with an iPhone or Mac. Also choose it if you just want the lightest and thinnest tablet out there to browse the web, share on social media, play the best mobile games, and do some light to moderate productivity tasks like word processing and photo editing.
There are also a number of third-party keyboard covers for the iPad Air, so if you do find you want more of a hybrid device you can make your iPad Air into one for the cost of these covers (about £50-100 depending on which one you buy).
The REAL comparison between Apple and Microsoft won’t kick off until next year when the iPad Pro launches. Once it does things could get very interesting rather quickly, as Apple looks to tap into its newly confirmed IBM deal.