How to decide: should you buy an iPad or wait for the Microsoft Surface?

Summary:Even though we still don't know much about the Surface models, I can give you some advice, at least within certain basic parameters.

I have to admit, I didn't expect this to be a question. The iPad is here, now, and we all know what it is in excruciating detail. On the other hand, the Microsoft Surface tablets are neither here, nor do we know much about them. We don't know price, availability date, or even how long the battery will last.

Microsoft seems to have made enough of a splash with its recent tablet announcement that some people, particularly when it comes to business use, are asking whether to buy an iPad or wait for the Surface.

Even though we still don't know much about the Surface models, I can give you some advice, at least within certain basic parameters. Let's first recap what we know of the Surface.

What we know

We know that there will be two basic models of the Surface, one based on an ARM-processor variant of Windows 8 that's essentially Microsoft's mobile OS. This is called Windows RT. This device will ship right around when Windows 8 ships (which we think is the fall of 2012) and will only run applications available to it from the Microsoft App store.

Let's be clear here: the Windows RT Surface is not really a Windows computer. At least not as we've come to know Windows computers.

Next up, though, is an Intel-based version of the Surface, and this will run full-on Windows 8. Presumably, this version will run any Windows application that will fit within its memory and processor footprint, and be as flexible as any Windows computer. This tablet is promised within three months of Windows 8's release.

So, given that little information, should you buy an iPad, or wait for a Surface?

The case for waiting

There is a case for waiting for the Surface, but it relies entirely on whether you want a fully-powered Windows 8 tablet. There is a case for this.

For example, to connect to my corporate servers, I need a specialized VPN client that only runs on Windows. I can't open a path to my servers unless I have a Windows computer, which means even if I took my iPad, I'd still need a laptop to open a gateway to do company work. A full Windows 8 Surface would be nice to carry and would eliminate needing to carry the laptop.

But there are questions here as well. For instance, I could just go out and buy one of the sleek, new Ultrabooks. The new Vizio Thin and Light looks particularly sweet.

There's also the question of a pointing device on the full Windows 8 Surface. If you're running full Windows 8, you can't rely on trying to touch everything with your fingers -- and no one is going to live in Metro, despite what Microsoft may wish. So the Windows 8 Surface will either need to have a stylus, or you'll need to hook up a mouse.

But let's say you don't want an Ultrabook. What you really want is a tablet, and you really want to run "real" Windows on it. There's an advantage to the Surface that Apple can't touch: a USB port. With a real version of Windows and a USB port on the device, you could turn that Surface into just about anything you want.

That's slick.

So, at this point, your case for waiting is pretty much a confluence of factors: you want a tablet, you need to run full Windows 8, and you'd prefer a tablet form factor over the Ultrabook.

Admittedly, it's a narrow set of specs. But, okay, let's look next at the case for waiting, and getting a Windows RT ARM-based Metro-centric tablet.

Eliminating the easy answer

There's an easy answer here, and Microsoft isn't going to like it. If you want a tablet and you don't want a full version of Windows 8, buy an iPad. Don't wait for Windows RT on a Surface.

Sadly, I'm not sure there's any case to be made for Windows RT, based on Metro, running on a Surface -- at least for now. Eventually, Microsoft always gets its act together, even if it takes a bunch of tries to get there.

But for now, all you'd get if you wait would be far fewer apps, an unproven system, and limited aftermarket support. Sure, give Microsoft a few years and there will be a market, but for now, unless you're a gadget collector, I can't recommend waiting to buy the Windows RT device.

To me, the Windows RT Surface seems to fall into the same class of not-quite-right tablets as the PlayBook, the TouchPad, and every Android tablet out there (with the possible exception of the Kindle Fire).

The ever-lovin' iPad

Sadly, this brings us to the iPad. You can't get away from this thing. Personally, I think I'd probably prefer a full-on Windows 8 tablet than an iPad, but I like to do real work with my computers, not play Angry Birds and watch Game of Thrones on a 9-inch screen. Clearly, I'm in the minority.

In any case, despite how annoying I personally find the iPad (and I can't pick it up without being annoyed by something -- from the stupidly-placed Home button to the constant, never-ending need to log into the App store for everything) -- anyway, despite how annoying I personally find the iPad, it's a solid, proven machine.

There are an almost uncountable number of apps available, there's an ecosystem that will sell you everything from keyboards to cases to whatever the heck this is supposed to be.

The point is, if you want a robust aftermarket, the choice is the iPad.

Making the choice

So there you are. If you want full Windows and don't want an Ultrabook, wait for the Intel-based Surface. If not, give the ARM-based Windows RT Surface a pass and buy an iPad.

Personally, I'm intrigued by the Windows 8 Intel-based Surface, although I think I'd like an Ultrabook just as much. As much as I want writing tools, I also like my mobile devices to have a full, working development environment, as well as all the specialized security and communications tools I need. While I can't see doing too much typing on the Surface's flat keyboard case, I could certainly see adding an Intel-based Surface to my collection of portable computing gear.

The ARM-based one, though? I can't see it. I don't want it. Unless it winds up running a bajillion super-cool apps, I don't know if I ever will. Sorry, Microsoft. You know I'm on your side. It just doesn't call to me.

Topics: iPad, Hardware, Laptops, Microsoft, Mobility, Operating Systems, Software, Tablets, Windows

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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