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

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


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Windows RT

    With the RT version of Windows I can see application writers porting their apps to ARM based Windows in the future. This means in less than a year from buying your RT ARM Windows 8 tablet you'll basically have a fully functional Windows 8 tablet. Right now Windows on ARM is crippled because its a new platform, but with the push to ARM based processors most new laptops and desktops will be powered by them.
    For the average consumer the Windows RT based Surface would be more than sufficient. But I, like you will be waiting for the Intel Based surface. I need the extra power :)
    • Wishful thinking

      "I can see application writers porting their apps to ARM based Windows in the future."

      Heck, I've got a whole slew of applications that haven't been ported to Windows 7 yet, much less something unreleased. One of the biggest arguments for Windows is backwards compatibility, when it goes, half the applications in existence go out the window.
      terry flores
      • The Windows Store will solve all of this

        The windows 8 eco-system and store will solve all of this. Porting apps will be easy for DEVs. My guess is over 200 Millions Windows 8 PCs will ship next year. Why ignore that user base? its much bigger than anything Apple can offer...why ignore such a large chunk of change because Apple was first? Sorry but that's idiotic and a good way to lose out on a big pay day.
        • ~200 million PCs. With touch screens?

          That's what the developers will wait for. To see if people buy the kind of device that Metro apps will sell to, or the same sub $500 13-15" MS Office workhorse they buy currently.
          • Aren't most PC sales to corporate?

            If so they aren't making the move to Win 8 anytime soon so they will be sticking with the workhorses that have served them well up to this point.
        • Based on what?

          How did you come up with that figure? Was it a random guess or based on any real stats? Regardless, 200 million Windows 8 PCs does not equal Windows 8 RT systems.
      • Even though a slew didn't...

        a bigger slew did convert. There is a tremendous support for the Microsoft platform in all its gyrations. In reality, though, most people will be using more than one machine in the near future. I know very few people who have ONLY an iPad (or Kindle Fire), and those who do have a very limited number of applications they need to do what they need to do. The thing to remember is not that Windows 7 apps don't run on RT, it is that RT apps will run on the Windows 8 desktop computers and laptops.
    • Only Metro...

      You can't run traditional desktop applications on Windows RT, even if they are written using WinRT and compiled for ARM. Microsoft don't allow it.
      • The operating system doesn't allow it

        "Microsoft don't allow it."

        You're right that you can't run traditional desktop applications on Windows RT. But it's not because "Microsoft doesn't allow it". It's because the Metro and traditional Windows operating systems are inherently incompatible. It's exactly the same as the different operating systems used by Apple on mobile (iOS) and the desktop (OS X).
    • WinRT applications

      "This means in less than a year from buying your RT ARM Windows 8 tablet you'll basically have a fully functional Windows 8 tablet."

      That is the hope, I'm sure, but practically? It tends to take about 18 months for developers to start building something for a new system, assuming they ever do. (I have been through A Whole Bunch of these kinds of transitions.) There are exceptions to that (the iPad might be considered one although it released into a vacuum), but they are very rare.

      WinRT will certainly benefit from WinPhone developers, but WinPhone isn't all that well populated and you can expect only a small subset of those developers to build tablet-optimized applications before there is a big user base (ie before anyone is likely to buy them). We see this same problem with Android, which has had tablets out for more than 18 months and it's still largely a tablet app desert. Frankly it surprises me that this is still the case at this point in Android's tablet life, but it may well have to do with the very poor penetration of Android 4+ and more than mediocre tablet sales numbers.

      Someone else brought up the fact that lots of traditional Windows apps aren't even running on Win7 yet -- and it's true, although backwards compatibility is good enough that this doesn't matter a lot. With WinRT it's a full rewrite of just about everything, though, and that's expensive enough that there has to be a real value proposition for most developers to try it.

      If you're a developer you're looking at iOS, which by the time Surface RT ships will have well over 100m *iPad* users, and something like 400m *total* users including iPhones and iPod touches, or RT with effectively zero. If you want to keep eating, which do you pick?

      If Win8 is a big hit on x86 maybe RT gets a lot of stuff because you can build them for x86 and it'll run in both places. I'm sure that's Microsoft's thinking. But with good backward compatibility in Win8/x86, people who already have traditional Windows applications aren't going to have a whole lot of economic reason to rewrite them for RT. You're only going to get the guys who are looking to write new ones, and by and large they're going to follow the money.

      It's just fantasy to think that RT will have a healthy app supply anywhere near launch. And that may well be its death toll; once the public figures out that RT is not really "Windows" in the traditional sense -- which will certainly play out before the end of the 2012 holiday season -- why would they buy it? And if they don't buy it, developers have no incentive.

      I know there are people here who believe that anything you write for Microsoft stuff has an instant huge market and instant huge developer support, but we have seen with WinPhone that this is not necessarily the case on either front.

      Like Mr. Gewirtz says, there's not a whole lot of value proposition in WinRT tablets. This is true even if they are dirt cheap, and nobody expects them to undercut the iPad much, if at all.

      Surface Pro does look very interesting, but more from an ultrabook market point of view than a tablet market point of view. That could mean a very successful product if you're thinking of laptop level sales numbers, but at an expected price of ~$900 there's no way it competes with the iPad in for the wallets of consumers.
      • I don't think people really understand Windows RT

        Look people. Microsoft currently has something called the Windows Phone. I realize almost no one has bought one, but it works and there is a lot of software out there for it. See here if you do not believe me.

        It is very easy to port these apps to Windows 8 RT, Windows 8 and WP8. Most of the crappy apps that the iPad has are already there. Combine this with the fact that MS has been working with companies to get them to write Metro apps for Windows 8 and software is not going to be an issue for Windows 8 RT. Will it run a free FTP program that you love from 2003? No, if you want to use that then stick with Windows 8 Pro. The fact that it will not run some meaningless piece of software from the past, does not change the fact that companies will love to be able to develop one Metro program for phone, tablet and computer that they can get out to users quickly and cheaply.

        It's really a no brainer and I'm not sure what all the fuss is about. Metro is the one unified look and code base for delivery of MS software moving forward. If you still want to write x86 software and distribute it the old way you can, and it will only work on a subset of devices. In reality everyone is going to want to write Metro programs because it's a much bigger pie to sell to.
      • Surface "Pro"

        Will more than likely cost more than a more powerful laptop. So you'll be paying more, for less. These will not have optical drives, or a large amount of built in storage. And no, streaming is never the answer. If I'm on a road trip, and one of the kids wants to watch a movie, I'm not going to tether o this overpriced "Netbook"to a mobile phone, just to "stream" content. At these prices 128GB of "on-board storage" is not enough.
        Jumpin Jack Flash
        • You are right, streaming isn't the answer.

          The built in storage expansion slots are. Class 10 SD cards are less than $1 per GB which gives the Surface tablet effectively limitless storage capabilities (as well as android tablets).

          So you are right, there is no need to rely on streaming content due to limited built-in storage of a tablet.
          • Just say what you mean

            I don't like Apple so I will point out how they don't have an SD slot while everyone else does. I don't tether my iPad to my phone but have also not run into an issue where I don't have enough room so streaming has not been an issue.
          • And Then...

            You can be one two people on the planet that travels with a collection of SD cards everywhere they go...
      • USB Port

        USB Ports support both 3/4G modems and external storage mediums. Amazingly enough you'll be able to connect up to the internet anywhere and watch TBs of stored movies with your kids. Then when you don't need it anymore you put the flash drive back in your pocket. That does not seem like a big problem.
      • Metro Apps

        I actually think that MS needs to put a big push into getting developers to update their apps to Metro. I think that the success of Windows 8 may hinge more on Metro Apps than on its backwards compatibility. I am referring to the everyday Apps, like Adobe Reader for example and things like that. I think that MS is not helping their own case by leaving the new version of Office in the desktop environment. The more that users find themselves staying in the Metro environment, the more I think they will like Windows 8.

        And, obviously Windows RT will do better with more Metro apps.
        • Aren't they already paying them?

          I could be wrong but thought a read a few times how MS is paying development costs to get developers to work on Metro apps. If you can't get them on board by paying their expenses that's not a good sign at all.
        • Well,

          This is why Microsoft's shotgun approach sinks Metro before it even gets started.

          Microsoft had a chance to kickstart their entire mobile ecosystem by coming out with the ARM Surface only running their new none legacy OS and have developers move the platform forward. Instead, they provide their enterprise customers (which I'm sure are going to come riding in and make Microsoft King of Mobile again any day now...) with the easy out of the legacy crap that Microsoft has been dragging along for 25 years. Guess what? Faced with doing a half-assed port to metro's UI or rewriting for ARM, guess which road most will take? A company that still can't rid itself of it's 32 bit apps because, Hell, it's in the most referred to aspect of Windows: Win32 APIs.

          Microsoft's idea that true mobile and desktop OSes are different animals is delusional. If they were't, CE and UMPCs would still be ruling the roost on the basis of these mythical enterprise customers now currently holding their breath for Microsoft to get back into mobile.
          • you dont understand...

   business actually works.

            Businesses dont invest in software so it moves a platform forward to improve, they have that software (which they invest a lot of money in) to enable them to deliver their business services better (be that internally or externally).

            Businesses still have mainframe systems, and why should they keep on investing money in IT hardware and having to upgrade software that then offers no additional benefit to the business or the service they provide??? If they did, almost all would be bust by now. Even if they did this to some conservative extent then that would just push prices up, which means consumers have to pay more for things, which means inflation increases and all because you want to force MS to not keep legacy crap in their OS....