Microsoft announced its long-awaited entry into the two year old media tablet market on Monday with self-branded tablets called Surface by Microsoft. Accordingly, it appeared to be time for a spec comparison between Apple’s new iPad and Surface, but it turns out that the real story may be just how much we don’t know.
There Are Known Knowns, Known Unknowns, and Unknown Unknowns
The list of specs released by Microsoft after the company’s media event on Monday was fairly light, but it wasn’t until we started dropping that data into the TMO spreadsheet for our spec comparisons that we realized just how little was known about the device. In fact, we sent a list of 13 questions to Microsoft in our efforts to fill in the blanks. As of press time, the company hadn’t yet responded to those questions.
At the same time, not all of these unknown factors are completely unknown. For instance, Microsoft hasn’t announced if either of its devices—either Surface for Windows RT or Surface for Windows 8 Pro—will have an accelerometer, a gyroscope, or a magnetometer/compass. Accordingly, they are listed below as “Unknown,” but the reality is that there is roughly a 0.000005% chance that Microsoft would release a tablet without these now-basic capabilities.
The same is true of Bluetooth, speakers, a microphone, or Wi-Fi. Microsoft will most likely have all of these features built in to its tablet, but it hasn’t told us anything about them. For those features, we are including a variety of asterisks and footnotes to try and clarify any comparison between the two devices.
When we know more, we will either update this article or publish a new comparison, depending on when we actually get that information.
Below the Fold
Below the fold, we have some analysis on the devices and those things we can actually compare.
(Product images are intended to be close to scale, but since we’re shooting in the dark with Surface, they may be off by a pixel or two)
|Product||The New iPad||Surface for Windows RT|
Surface for Windows 8 Pro
|OS (current)||iOS 5.1||Windows RT||Windows 8 Pro|
|Dimensions (in.)||9.5 x 7.31 x 0.37||? x ? x 0.37 (9.3mm)||? x ? x 0.53 (13.5mm)|
|Weight (lbs)||1.4 (Wi-Fi) 1.46 (4G)||1.49||1.99|
|Display size (in., diag)||9.7||10.6||10.6|
|Display Resolution||2048 x 1536 (IPS, LED bklight)||Unknown (Listed as “HD,” which is likely to be 1280 x 720)||Unknown (Listed as “Full HD,” which is likely to be 1920 x 1080)|
|Pixels per inch||264||Unknown||Unknown|
|RAM (MB)||1024 (1GB)||Unknown||Unknown*|
|Processor||A5X (dual core) 1 GHz; |
quad core GPU
|Unspecified Nvidia ARM-Based Tegra Processor||Unspecified Intel Processor|
|User Storage (GB)||16/32/64||32/64||64/128|
|Expanded Storage||x||Unknown - microSD possible||Unknown - microSD Possible|
|Front Camera||“VGA”||√ (resolution unknown)||√ (resolution unknown)|
|Rear Camera||5 MP (1080p) stabilization||√ (resolution unknown)||√ (resolution unknown)|
|Audio/speaker||mono spkr, stereo headphone||Unknown**||Unknown**|
|Wi-Fi||802.11a/b/g/n||Unspecified (probably 802.11a/b/g/n)||Unspecified (probably 802.11a/b/g/n)|
|Radio (CDMA)||CDMA, EV-DO/UMTS/HSPA/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA/GSM||Unknown||Unknown|
|Bluetooth||4.0||Unknown (probably Bluetooth 4.0)||Unknown (probably Bluetooth 4.0)|
|GPS||w/4G||Unknown (likely, if there is 3G or 4G support)||Unknown (likely, if there is 3G or 4G support)|
|Battery Life, hours||10 (9 w/ 4G) (42.5 watt-hr)||Unspecified (31.5 watt-hr)||Unspecified (42 watt-hr)|
|Video out||HDMI (w/ accessory) + AirPlay||Micro HD Video||mini-DisplayPort|
|USB||x||USB 2.0||USB 3.0|
|Colors||Black or White||Gray (with variety of colored keyboards)||Gray (with variety of colored keyboards)|
|Price US$ (Wi-Fi)||499/599/699||Unknown (similar to other ARM-based tablets - say $399 and up)||Unknown (similar to ultrabooks, say +/- $999)|
|Price US$ (3G/4G)||629/729/829||Unknown (see above, but add roughly $100)||Unknown (see above, but add roughly $100)|
* Since the device will run Windows 8 Pro and will be priced like an ultrabook, it’s safe to assume it will come with a minimum of 4GB of RAM, and possibly as much as 8GB or even 16GB.
** Microsoft hasn’t announced these features, but at this stage of the game they are all but standard. Accordingly, we think it safe to assume it will be included in both Surface by Microsoft models.
It’s impossible to truly compare the displays on either Surface device to the new iPad, but we do have a few known unknowns. For one thing, though both devices sport 10.6 inch displays, Microsoft listed the display for the smaller Windows RT device as “10.6 inch ClearType HD Display,” and on the larger Windows 8 Pro device as “10.6 inch ClearType Full HD Display.”
That tells us the resolution will be higher on the Windows 8 Pro device, but how much higher? Will be Retina Display quality like Apple’s new iPad? 1920 x 1080 would be full 1080p resolution, so that seems a safe bet, but we don’t know if the pixel density would be high enough to qualify as a Retina Display (Apple’s new iPad is 2048 x 1536).
Similarly, 1280 x 720 would be the equivalent of 720p HD, making that a safe bet for the Windows RT device, towards the low end for a 10.6 inch display in today’s market, but still plenty good.
Microsoft has chosen to go its own route with its mobile OS rather than trying to copy Apple’s iOS look and feel. Its tiled approach where users can have a variety of different kinds of information displayed, each on its own brightly colored block, is unlike anything else on the market. Windows 7 Mobile, where this concept was introduced, hasn’t won many adherents, but Microsoft is making a big push with Windows 8.
Windows 8 includes Windows RT for tablets and Windows 8 Pro for tablets and PCs. It also includes the Metro interface, which will be the next iteration of the above-described tile-based interface designed for touch devices, be they PCs, smartphones, or tablets.
If that sounds confusing, or at least needlessly complex, you’re not alone. Microsoft is pushing all-in on this strategy, however, by approaching tablets as being small, flat PCs, rather than a new class of devices with entirely new paradigms and new user habits. Microsoft wants its tablets to be extensions of PCs where users can switch back and forth between the two with the same files and documents, and the same software.
We think this is missing the boat—that Apple, and to a much lesser extend Android tablets—have shown that tablets are a new thing, and that people are using them in new ways. In other words, that they aren’t small, flat PCs, but rather something in and of themselves, tablets.
We even explained this in a column, but Microsoft apparently didn’t take our advice to heart, and the company apparently didn’t take Apple CEO Tim Cook’s advice, either. Surface by Microsoft—especially the Surface for Windows 8 Pro—is essentially a toaster-fridge. Microsoft wants it to be a PC and a tablet and a pen-input device.
It’s quite possible that Big Redmond’s approach is right on the money for some segment of the market, particularly old-school IT types. We won’t know until these and other Windows 8 tablets get released later this year. If Microsoft is right, they will sew up the market for toaster-fridges.
Here we have more known unknowns. Microsoft is using an Nvidia Tegra processor for the Windows RT device, but we don’t know which one. Nvidia has done very, very well with this class of mobile processor, however, and the chances are good that this device will, at the very least, be competitive with the Apple A5X processor powering the new iPad.
Surface for Windows 8 Pro should be much more powerful. For one thing this will be powered by an unspecified Intel processor. For another, it will be priced like an ultrabook, which we believe means it will start at or around $999. Lastly, it will be running Windows 8 Pro, the full featured version of Windows. Accordingly, it will most likely be powered by a Core i5 or Core i7 multicore processor that will make it about as fast as the MacBook Air or the ultrabook copycats.
Microsoft announced it will be using VaporSG, a vapor deposition process, to make the magnesium case for the device. This is slick technology, and it should make for a very strong, but quite light body. Of course, even the smaller Windows RT device weighs a little more than Apple’s new iPad, despite having a smaller battery, so…there’s that.
Still, we are delighted that Microsoft, a software company, is investing in new manufacturing techniques. Apple has had a major advantage over its competitors by maintaining tight control over its supply chain, and this has allowed Apple to have a multiple-year head start over its competitors when it comes to making its products in terms of size, weight, and even price. By investing in its own processes, Microsoft could develop similar advantages.
[Update: The following section was updated to reflect information on Microsoft’s Surface site. - Editor]
Microsoft showed off both devices with a case that has a built-in keyboard. It wasn’t initially clear if the keyboad was optional, but as noted by TreeHugger in the comments below, Microsoft’s Surface says,”Surface comes with an integrated Kickstand and a revolutionary, 3mm thin, pressure sensitive cover that doubles as a fully functioning keyboard and trackpad.”
We should also note that if there was a virtual keyboard shown during Microsoft’s media event, we didn’t catch it. At the same time, there is literally zero chance of these devices not having a virtual keyboard, so the lack of a demo means little.
Surface by Microsoft with Keyboard
Margins are tight in the tablet market as Apple, so it will be very interesting to see how the inclusion of the case/keyboard affects the retail price of the device.
The reality, however, is that there are many people who do not like typing on a tablet’s screen. Many of these people have turned to other hybrid devices like the Android-powered Asus Transformer product line, which has an optional, matching keyboard and is being pitched similarly to Surface by Microsoft. With a standard keyboard, Microsoft could easily capture this segment of the market with Surface.
As for the iPad, our opinion is that you don’t need a keyboard for the iPad, but that’s neither here nor there when the issue is entirely subjective.
Still, Surface by Microsoft is ugly. Not from the front, mind you, where Microsoft is treading in Apple’s well-worn footsteps, but from the back and side, this thing is ugly. It’s blocky, the dark gray color is unappealing, and it simply does not match the day-glo colors of the keyboard accessory.
Still, some like it—and it pays to remember that style is subjective. Gizmodo went so far as to say that the unreleased Surface had made Apple’s iPad and the MacBook Air obsolete (in this writer’s opinion, this will eventually be seen as Gizmodo’s jumped-the-shark moment, but whatever).
We should add that IT’s embrace of ugly should never be underestimated, and it’s always possible that there enough of the market will see this thing as being more business-like for Microsoft to move a few units.
There are so many unknowns about this device, it’s hard to fathom why Microsoft announced it when it did. Pricing is vague (see the spec chart), and the release date more so. The Windows RT device will be released when Windows RT is released, and the Windows 8 Pro model will come out roughly three months later.
With Windows 8 not expected until later this year, why announce Surface now? Perhaps Microsoft judged that a June announcement was close enough to a fall release date that it will still be relevant when it ships, while it’s far enough away to get maximum FUD value.
Microsoft has a long history of pre-announcing products to dampen enthusiasm for competing products by creating fear, uncertainty, and doubt about them. We strongly doubt that what was shown will be enough to achieve full FUD if that was Big Redmond’s goal.
The reality is that Microsoft didn’t announce more details about the device simply because it doesn’t have those details yet. We don’t expect to se it for four or five months, still, plenty of time for last minute decisions considering the relatively small run rates Microsoft is likely to need when it does ship.
Surface by Microsoft could well give the company enough ammunition to become a distant number two to the iPad. If that happens, however, it won’t be the specs that wins the company adherents. From what little we know and what little we saw, this thing isn’t comparable to an iPad, let alone superior to one.
If Surface sells, it will be because Microsoft made the right bet on treating the tablet as a small, flat PC, rather than a media consumption device. Only time will tell if that’s the case.