Surface RT versus iPad: Which is better for work?

Workers are falling in love with tablet computing, even if their bosses still aren't quite sure. So what's it like to use two of the leading contenders — the iPad and the Surface RT — to try and do the day job?
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

It took the tech industry 20 years to figure out that in order to make tablets popular in business, they had to be a hit with consumers first.

Now tablets are firmly entrenched in the consumer space, large rollouts of tablet computing devices in business are beginning. And, as very few of the tablets available on the high street are really suitable for business use, it's often the case that the most common tablet seen in businesses is an iPad.

Surface vs iPad
Which device will win the business market: the Surface (left) or the iPad? Image: Charles McLellan

Apple has in the past done little to encourage business use of the iPad because it hasn't needed to. Even so, it's by far the most used tablet in the enterprise. That de facto enterprise domination is a combination of staff bringing in their own iPads as the BYOD trend gathers pace (according to one estimate last year some 40 percent of tablets were bought by individuals to be used at work) and more recently some corporate investments.

However, Apple has started to talk up iPads in business — Barclays Bank got a name check in Apple's recent financials after it snapped up 8,000 iPads, for example.

That could be because there's a fresh challenge to the iPad's enterprise dominance emerging, in the shape of Microsoft's Surface. Apple hasn't had any real competition in the tablet market and Surface could be a contender, in business at least.

And yet, the two devices embody completely different design philosophies and even attitudes to the workplace.

Surface is square. It's boxy. It's earnest. It wants to be useful. The iPad is curved, sensuous. It's playful; it wants to be adored. Surface is most at home sitting on a desk. The iPad wants to be held.

Surface detail

It's tempting to argue that the Surface isn't a tablet at all, it's a notebook that wants you to pretend that it's a tablet. Without a keyboard the Surface is forlorn, bereft, unbalanced. Even with the handy addition of the kickstand, the keyboard is an integral part of the package.

This is entirely deliberate. For businesses, most of which aren't entirely sure they want to buy tablets, that boxyness and emphasis on utility is actually quite reassuring.

But the counterbalance to that, for Microsoft, is that it needs Surface to be a success with consumers as well if it's to challenge the iPad. And I struggle to see that happening: Surface is far too worthy to be a fun gadget. 

In the research for this article I've been using both the Surface RT and an iPad to see which fits me better from a work perspective. I've been using a Surface with Windows RT on and off for the last few weeks and the vast majority of that time I've had the keyboard attached. When I've occasionally used it as a tablet it's been for consuming content — reading, aimless web browsing, or watching video.

I've not used the Surface in portrait mode once, and I can't really ever imagine doing so. While the Windows RT model has been implicitly aimed at the consumer market — the 32GB Surface with Touch Cover is the same price as a 32GB iPad — it still feels much more like a notebook, and a business tool.

The Microsoft Store doesn't have anywhere near the range of apps that Apple can offer, and while Windows 8 is a step towards a world of mobile and cloud as default for Microsoft, its desktop heritage is still strongly felt.

Surface is far too worthy to be a fun gadget

Mostly I've used the Surface with the Type Cover, and found it extremely easy to use. The Touch Cover keyboard, which I've used occasionally, takes a little more getting used to but is actually perfectly usable (pro tip: having the keyboard sound switched on for the first few attempts is a useful psychological crutch when getting used to the flatter keyboard, if slightly irritating for those around you).

The Touch keyboard does offer the unexpected advantage of completely silent typing — a handy stealth mode, perfect for working while on conference calls.

Using the Surface has been my first real look at the Windows 8's tiled user interface. It took all of 30 seconds for me to get grips with it, and like it. I don't miss the start button and when I've occasionally visited the desktop it has seemed to me desolate and windswept, not a reassuring return home.

But the big selling point of the Surface is nothing to do with the elegant hardware or the fancy UI: it's the inclusion of Office that will make it a contender in business.

That's another reason that I struggle to see the Surface as a consumer device: while there may be a segment of the consumer market that yearns for Word on a tablet, it's not exactly a large chunk.

But yearning for Office is exactly what business users do. They need Word and PowerPoint, and Excel too, the poor lost souls. And Office works fine, as does SkyDrive. It's worth noting that I'm not a power user — browsing, reading and writing documents and occasional spreadsheets is my standard usage, so read the full reviews of Surface RT and the iPad if you're craving technical details.

The smallish Surface screen is not a problem for writing stories (including this one), although I prefer a larger screen for editing. As such, some enterprise apps might become painful to look at with extended use. Battery life was not an issue — mainly because the charger is small and light (unlike many), so I was happy to carry it. The addition of a USB port is also handy as I prefer to work with a mouse.

There are many limitations to the Surface RT — the lack of backward application compatibility is irritating, but what's more annoying is the lack of browser and search engine choice, especially as I use some browser-based apps that don't support IE. The lack of some common apps in the Microsoft Store — such as TweetDeck — means you have to figure out a workaround, which is tiresome.

And then there are some problems that come from this being the first version of the hardware: apps that don't work very well, for example.

All these limitations make the RT feel compromised, a budget model — except the price (£399 for the basic model, or $499) is anything but.

iPads and the tyranny of choice

All tablets have to define themselves against the iPad, the ur-tablet.  

The main problem with using an iPad for work is the lack of two things: a keyboard, and Office. The keyboard is something you can deal with easily — there are plenty to choose from, although choice is a pain that businesses don't always want. It took me a while to get used to the iPad with a keyboard, whereas the Surface looks naked without one, the iPad looks awkward with one as I'm far more used to holding it.

Microsoft seems to have the long game in mind

With the iPad I've been using aLogitech solar-powered keyboard. It's not the most stylish and feels heavier than the Surface-plus-keyboard combo. It was also too cramped to write on it very long, although it was perfectly acceptable for typing up some notes in a meeting. One advantage to this particular add-on is that it has two settings so you can have the iPad screen at different angles for typing and watching video.

The lack of Office on the iPad means another choice to make: whether to go with the Apple productivity suite or test out other App Store offerings. Although it's fine for the individual user, it means you'll have to be careful that the tools you choose fit with your employers' technology choices too.

Despite almost constant rumour, there's still no sign of Office for iOS or Android. Microsoft seems to have the long game in mind; while Redmond might make a bunch of money from selling Office for iOS, it would at the same time effectively signal that it had lost the battle for the enterprise tablet market to the iPad. Depending on how Surface fares this still may come to pass, but not today.

Surface vs iPad for BYOD?

Tablets can be used in all sorts of ways — I'd suggest a significant proportion of the iPads in use are for presentation to clients or to host specific customer-service apps. The desktop replacement segment is smaller, but that's because the iPad isn't and wasn't designed to be a desktop. Similarly, the Surface RT has been implicitly positioned as a consumer device.

And yet, they're both being used in business thanks to BYOD fans — a reflection of the fact that the hardware our employers offer doesn't do what we need it to. As such, there are compromises to using either an iPad or a Surface RT in business, as I've discussed above.

Both the iPad and the Surface are perfectly adequate companion devices, which is where BYOD is right now. Out of the box I found the Surface to be the better tool for working day to day, while the iPad, despite requiring users to add a keyboard and productivity tools themselves, is a much more rounded device.

Even with its limitations and underpowered specs, the Surface RT is an interesting option as a BYOD device — and the Surface Pro will be even stronger. That's no surprise, and in some respects it's not actually good news for Microsoft.

While the fate of Windows 8 is more important for Microsoft than the success of one piece of hardware, Surface RT was a great opportunity for Microsoft to create some consumer excitement. Instead, it's delivered what feels like a lightweight business machine.

The Surface RT will do little to win over consumers from the iPad or various Android tablets. And considering how important winning the consumer is, playing it safe with the RT may bring short-term success but backfire in the longer run.

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