As we get ready for the next batch of Apple announcements (most likely the iPad 5 and a new iPad mini) on October 22, there's been some discussion about whether the iPad 5 (which will likely sport a 64-bit processor) can do the heavy lifting of a main work computer.
To be fair, we've covered the iPad (and tablets in general) as work computers before, and — depending on what you do for work — the answer has been generally positive.
But I wanted to see if I could use an iPad as my work machine. Could it handle the breath of tasks my current Windows laptop does easily, or would I be left out in the cold, unable to get the job done?
To sweeten the story a bit, I decided it would be fun to compare the expected new iPad with the newly announced Surface 2 Pro (which runs full Windows) and Surface 2 RT (which runs Office, and not much else).
Oh, and one last note: I'm not considering a jailbroken system. I want to know if it's possible to do my job, not take on a new job in addition to all I do.
Stay tuned. At the very end, I'll rank the winners and losers. You might be surprised by the results.
I teach an object-oriented programming course at UC Berkeley extension and we use the ANGEL learning management system. ANGEL requires the availability of both Flash and Java, as well as — in some places — Windows media.
64-bit iPad 5: No way. iOS does not support Flash or Java.
Surface 2 RT: No, although not necessarily well. Surface RT originally only whitelisted a few sites for Flash, but now just blacklists those sites it doesn't trust. But it doesn't run Java.
Surface 2 Pro: Yep. It's Windows on Intel.
I use virtual machines a lot. Before Windows 8 Pro, my go-to VM was VirtualBox, but I'm doing more and more with the built-in Hyper-V now. In either case, though, I need to run VMs.
Because I teach programming, students have to program. They're all using Visual Studio, but some use Visual Studio 2010, some 2012, and some are tinkering with VS2013. Each version of Visual Studio lives in its own virtual machine.
I also run VMs for testing questionable software and I run a number of Linux VMs to stage my websites before uploading them to servers. Additionally, I field a VM for whatever interesting new virtual appliance or application comes my way that I don't want to test on my main machine.
Now, before I put the three machines to the test, note that I'm not talking about hidden VMs that come as part of provided solutions. I'm talking about the ability to spin up my own VM and run it, with whatever OS inside I choose.
64-bit iPad 5: This is where a 64-bit iPad gets interesting, because you might be able to support a lot of RAM. That said, it's unlikely we'll see iPads that come with 8, 16, or 32GB of RAM that will let you run three or four VMs at once. In fact, the iPad doesn't have a way (other than remotely connecting to a real desktop) of supporting VMs at all.
Surface 2 RT: No. No good news here at all.
Surface 2 Pro: Yes. This supports Windows 8.1 Pro, and that includes native HyperV support. You can also run VirtualBox if you want. You can order a Surface 2 Pro with as much as 8GB, so you can quite nicely run a VM or two. My current laptop has 32GB, but while that's nice, the Surface 2 Pro would do nicely.
I often need to compare two or more files side-by-side, usually in Word. In fact, I've pretty much got my eye on one of those 27-inch ultra-high-resolution displays for just that purpose. But let's give these smaller devices the benefit of the doubt. Could they show multiple windows at once?
64-bit iPad 5: No. But you could use a second iPad.
Surface 2 RT: Yes. In fact, for Word documents, it does this quite well.
Surface 2 Pro: Yes, for all the reasons you can do this in Windows. There is also an HDMI port on the machine that will allow an add-on monitor.
As a developer, I run a variety of development environments, from PHP IDEs to Visual Studio. Even if the iPad couldn't run Visual Studio (a) because it's a Windows-only product and (b) because the iPad won't support VMs, I'd still give the iPad a nod if it had full PHP development IDEs.
64-bit iPad 5: Yes. As it turns out, there are a few PHP IDEs on the App Store. I'm not sure how pleasant or powerful they are, but I have to give the iPad a nod here, even if it's provisional. It might be doable.
Surface 2 RT: No. Even Microsoft's own Visual Studio won't run on the Surface RT.
Surface 2 Pro: Yes, and quite well. I'd recommend getting the Surface 2 Pro with 8GB (or 4GB at minimum), but it would work quite well.
I create a ton of presentations and many of them require custom images and vector drawings. I also use Photoshop and Premiere a lot to prepare video from the studio.
64-bit iPad 5: Not quite well enough. The iPad has a wealth of photo manipulation applications and a surprisingly deep stable of video editing apps. That said, getting the precise control you would with a mouse using a finger would be difficult, and the professional Adobe Creative Cloud apps are just not available on an iPad. But with a bulky 64-bit iPad 5, you could probably get by.
Surface 2 RT: No. Once again, not even close.
Surface 2 Pro: Yes, quite well. The peppy Haswell processors in the Pro, combined with full Windows 8.1, a good amount of RAM, and the ability to use external control devices like mice make the Surface Pro a great contender for a mobile media production system.
There's a difference between being Office-compatible and running Microsoft Office. Almost everything has an Office-compatible solution these days. But because I'm transferring complex files to clients who use real Office, I'm looking for a real office solution.
64-bit iPad 5: Yes, for most people (but probably not me) Microsoft, notoriously, has not released a version of Office for the iPad. But the iPad has many Office-compatible apps that are quite good.
For most people, this would be fine. For me, though, since my PowerPoints are huge, and have to be injested by a third-party webcast broadcasting system, there might be some incompatibility problems. Because I do so much with pure PowerPoint, it's probably not a fit with me, but otherwise the iPad is pretty good (although see my notes on Outlook below)
Surface 2 RT: Pretty much. This is the one place where the Surface RT shines. I honestly think Microsoft should have called it the Office Machine. Surface RT has a complete implementation of Microsoft's Office and it's a good one. Not sure there's enough RAM to handle my multi-thousand slide PowerPoint files, so it might not make it for me, but it would work for most people.
Surface 2 Pro: Yes. Quite well. Again, the good amount of max RAM available combined with fast processors and full Windows makes this a win.
I have our massive media library and all the documents I use in my various projects on our file server. That server (actually a set of servers) is critical to everything I do.
64-bit iPad 5: Not really. Apple is building in more and more enterprise access technology, although whether apps can access corporate servers is in question because most apps can't access SMB networks. This is where the file system tied to each app begins to fail for real work.
Surface 2 RT: No. For some completely baffling reason, Microsoft left out Active Directory functionality from RT. So you can't access enterprise Microsoft networks from Microsoft's tablet. W. T. F. ?
Surface 2 Pro: Yes. Once again, because this is real Windows, it's a no-brainer. It does it.
Over the past year, I've come to rely more and more on Evernote for almost every aspect of my job, particularly in terms of managing project notes, research and writing.
64-bit iPad 5: Yes, and quite well. The iPad has a beautiful implementation of Evernote. Paired with a keyboard, it's a win.
Surface 2 RT: Barely. The Metro implementation of Evernote is terrible. Disappointing. Ugly. Almost unusable. I would not use Evernote if I had to use this version.
Surface 2 Pro: Yes. I use the Windows Evernote application all the time, and the latest version is even nicer.
My browser isn't just a browser, it's part of my workflow. I rely on a series of extension to flow links and other elements from Web pages into my work and without those extensions, it would take me considerably longer to do my job.
Similar extensions exist in the Windows version of Firefox and even, to a limited extent, in desktop IE. But they don't exist in tablet browsers.
64-bit iPad 5: No. The iPad has Chrome (it's the browser I use when using the iPad), but the iPad Chrome doesn't support extensions.
Surface 2 RT: No. The Surface 2 RT doesn't even support desktop Chrome because RT doesn't support any desktop apps.
Surface 2 Pro: Yes, do you even need to ask?
I use my iPad, my Android phone, and my iPhone quite nicely with their native email apps and the Exchange server I use as part of my Office 365 subscription. Even so, I use Outlook as a production environment, a correspondence database going back to 2002, and a planner.
Transitioning off of Outlook to something else would be difficult and isn't something that would be worth my time, so how do our tablets do here?
64-bit iPad 5: No. The iPad has a number of great email apps and Office clones, but none are able to hold the gigabytes of data I keep in my Outlook data store.
Surface 2 RT: Yes, finally. The Surface RT didn't support Outlook. Why? Nobody knows. It was another baffling decision on the part of Microsoft. However, the Surface 2 RT does support Outlook, so there's actually a check in the win column for the RT.
Surface 2 Pro: Yes, but of course.
Can it be used to do whatever I need, from video transcoding to DVD playback to conferencing using whatever tool the client wants to anything else I need?
What about all those demands we put on our work machines that we can't predict? Each new day introduces new ideas and new projects. I need a machine that can handle almost all of them with ease.
64-bit iPad 5: Not really. The iPad is surprisingly capable, but also has baffling limitations based on how iOS is designed.
Surface 2 RT: No. Not at all. Don't even think about it.
Surface 2 Pro: Yes. If you get the version with 8GB RAM and a pretty big SSD, this is a pretty capable business machine.
I decided to award 2 points to every "Yes," one point to every "Maybe," and no points to every "No". The total possible points (and what we're shooting for to be able to replace my current laptop) is 22. Let's see which gets closer.
64-bit iPad 5: The iPad got a 9 (with a few generous gimmees). It's a pretty capable device, but it fails completely on the need to work with the educational systems. Almost everything else could be crudely hacked, but the fact I can't access the learning management systems I need to grade students is a complete deal-killer.
Surface 2 RT: The RT machine got a 7 (and I was generous here, too). This machine is valuable pretty much only if you need to run Office and nothing but Office. I'd have a much better chance doing my job on the iPad than this.
Surface 2 Pro: I originally thought this was going to be a pretty anemic machine because I thought it was limited to 2GB or 4GB of RAM. While I prefer 16GB or 32GB of RAM because it makes things easier, I could do my entire job using a Surface 2 Pro equipped with a big SSD and 8GB of RAM. It got a perfect score of 22.
The winner is... the Surface 2 Pro!
Would I get a Surface 2 Pro? I'm not sure. I don't need the tablet form factor as much as I do the laptop form factor, but it is intriguing. I'll tell you this: after putting together this shoot-out, I'm far more inclined to the Surface 2 Pro than when I set out to do the comparison.