Microsoft Surface 2 vs. iPad Air, Kindle Fire HDX 8.9

Microsoft Surface Pro 2 / Microsoft Corporation

After essentially allowing Apple to redefine and then take the lead in the tablet sector with the iPad, Microsoft tried to make up for lost ground with the release of its Surface RT and Surface Pro consumer tablets. Although the Surface line didn’t quite sell like proverbial hotcakes, it did provide folks a solid alternative in a tablet space dominated by Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating system. Now Microsoft is doubling down on its line of slates with the release of the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 tablets.

Unlike the Windows 8-powered Surface Pro 2 — which essentially functions as a laptop in slate form — the Surface 2 sports the Windows RT operating system like the original Surface. This means it can only install Windows apps and not full-fledged desktop programs. Add its lower price point of $449 vs. $899 for the Surface Pro 2 and the new Surface 2 is considered the natural competitor to the iOS and Android tablets on the market. Here’s a look at how Microsoft’s slate stacks up against the competition.

Display: The Surface 2 sports a 10.6-inch display with a 1,920 x 1,080 resolution at 208 pixels per inch, making it the largest tablet among the three. While its resolution may have been decent in the past, however, it pales in comparison to the slates concurrently served up by its competitors. Apple’s inaugural iPad Air model, for example, features a 9.7-inch display with a resolution of 2,048 x 1,536 and 264 pixels per inch. Meanwhile, Amazon’s Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 boasts a 2,560 x 1,600 screen resolution at a whopping 339 pixels per inch. This places the Surface 2 at the lower end of the spectrum among rivals when it comes to screen resolution. If size is your main consideration, though, then the Surface 2 takes the cake.

Brains: Driving the Surface 2’s Windows RT 8.1 operating system is a 1.7GHz NVIDIA Tegra 4 quad-core chip backed by 2GB of RAM. In contrast, the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 uses a quad-core 2.2GHz processor while unofficial benchmarks peg Apple’s processor at 1.4GHz and with just 1GB of RAM. Battery life stacks up well against competitors at 10 hours of video playback, which is in line with Apple’s tablets and pretty close to the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9’s 11 or so hours depending on your usage. Charging time is about two to four hours.

Capacity: The Surface 2 comes with 32GB of built-in memory for $449 and 64GB for $549. For the same amount of memory, the Wi-Fi-only Kindle HDX 8.9 costs $444 and $494 though you can lower the price with the ad-enabled “Special Offers” program to $429 and $479. The Wi-Fi-only version of the iPad Air, meanwhile, costs $599 for the 32GB model and $699 for the 64GB version. In addition to comparing well with its rivals in terms of price, the Surface has one advantage — expandable memory. Although you’re pretty much stuck with the built-in memory you’ve got for the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 and the iPad Air, the Surface 2 comes with a USB 3.0 port as well as a microSD card reader. This gives you more flexibility with memory and also lets you increase your capacity at in a way that’s easier on the wallet.

Other features: Rounding the Surface 2’s list of features are a 3.5-megapixel front-facing camera and a 5-megapixel rear camera. It also has two microphones as well as an ambient light sensor, gyroscope, accelerometer and magnetometer. As a bonus, it also comes with Microsoft Office RT 2013, which its more expensive brother, the Surface 2 Pro, doesn’t come with. The Surface 2 also has a kickstand integrated into the tablet.

The lowdown: Although the Surface 2 is trumped by rivals in terms of its display and other features, its main appeal is its attractiveness to folks who are invested in Microsoft’s Windows and Metro ecosystem. The simple presence of a USB 3.0 port is a big deal for power users, though the inability to install desktop programs like you can do with the Surface Pro 2 is admittedly a bummer. Ultimately, the biggest drawback of the Surface 2 is its shortcomings when compared to its more expensive brother. While the iOS and Android app ecosystem is well developed, Windows apps still have a long way to go. The Surface 2 Pro counters that with its ability to install desktop programs but the Surface 2 doesn’t have the same option. As such, whether or not the Surface 2 works for you depends on whether or not you’re OK with the Windows app environment.

Jason Hidalgo is Lifewire's Portable Electronics expert. Yes, he is easily amused. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhidalgo and be amused, too. For more about slates, check out the iPad and Tablet hub.