Microsoft Surface 3 vs. iPad Air 2

Which tablet better meets your needs?

Microsoft Surface 3
Microsoft, Inc

It's clear that Microsoft is feeling the heat from tablets and Chromebook. With a similar price tag and running a full-blown version of the Windows 10 operating system, Surface 3 is aimed directly at the iPad Air 2. But, how does Microsoft's tablet stack up to iPad? Should it even be setting its sights on Apple's tablet?

Overall Findings

Surface 3
  • Runs the full Windows desktop operating system.

  • Processor struggles to run Windows.

  • For best performance, you really need to upgrade the RAM.

  • Low base price.

iPad Air 2
  • Powerful A8X processor.

  • iPadOS is efficient and built for mobile.

  • Comes with Retina Display.

  • Higher base price.

Operating System: Windows RT Is Dead

Surface 3
  • Runs the full Windows desktop operating system.

  • Runs any app a Windows laptop can run.

iPad Air 2
  • Runs iPadOS, an operating system optimized for the tablet.

  • Runs mobile versions of apps like Microsoft Office as well as Apple productivity apps like Pages.

It's hard to believe that Microsoft once had a reasonably good grasp on the smartphone market. Windows Mobile may have played second fiddle to Blackberry, but in the days before the iPhone, Microsoft looked primed to play a major role in mobile. After several failed attempts at a mobile operating system, Microsoft seems ready to throw in the towel on its latest gambit, Windows RT. As a Windows platform that didn't run Windows applications, Windows RT was dead from the start. Fortunately for Microsoft, mobile technology is at a point where a smartphone or tablet can run the full version of the desktop operating system.

And, that's the Surface 3 device's best trick: running Windows software.

Processing Power: The Edge Goes to iPad Air 2

Surface 3
  • The Intel Atom X7 processor struggles to run a desktop operating system.

  • For best performance, upgrade the RAM and hard drive.

iPad Air 2
  • The A8X processor is designed for mobile computing.

  • A8X chip beat the Intel Atom X7 chip in Surface 3 in benchmark trials.

The Intel Atom X7 processor in the Surface 3 may be powerful enough for Microsoft to put Windows 10 on the device, but in terms of raw power, the processor doesn't stack up against the iPad Air 2. The A8X system on a chip that powers the iPad Air 2 is one of the most powerful mobile processors out there, and it tends to beat out the Intel Atom X7 in benchmarks.

Windows 10 only compounds this issue. A chunky operating system with a big footprint, Windows eats through a big part of that processing power, leaving fewer CPU cycles for applications.

An even bigger issue for the entry-level Surface 3 is the 2 gigabytes (GB) of RAM. This 2 GB matches the amount of memory in the iPad Air 2, but it's not enough for a smooth Windows experience. Windows 10 may work on 2 GB of RAM, but it is hard to say it runs on it—rather, it walks on it. For those interested in the Surface 3, upgrading to 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage space is well worth it. The entry-level machine is going to run out of steam doing anything more than web browsing and light word processing.

Display: Surface 4 Can't Compete With Regina Display

Surface 3
  • 10.8-inch display with 1920x1080 screen resolution.

  • Higher-end games won't look sharp.

iPad Air 2
  • 9.7-inch Retina Display with 2048x1536 screen resolution.

  • Higher-end games will look fantastic.

The Surface 3 device's 10.8-inch display makes it slightly bigger than the display of an iPad Air 2, but the 1920x1080 graphics don't compare to the 2048x1536 iPad Air 2 Retina Display. A larger display with a lower resolution means that the Surface 3 doesn't look nearly as sharp as the iPad Air 2. Add the slower processor and games designed for much faster hardware, and the Surface 3 is far from a game machine. It'll be able to play Candy Crush with the best of them, but with gaming one of the big perks of the iPad Air 2, it'll be one of the disappointments of the Surface 3.

Price: Surface 3 by a Nose

Surface 3
  • Price starts at $499 for the base model.

  • To get the most from Surface 3, you'll need to spend $130 more to get the Type Cover.

iPad Air 2
  • Higher base price.

  • Works with most Bluetooth keyboards.

Microsoft's big bet on the Surface 3 is the $499 price tag, which seemingly matches the entry-level iPad Air 2. However, that price doesn't include Microsoft's $130 Type Cover, which adds a keyboard and trackpad to the tablet. The Type Cover is a necessity if you want to get everything out of the Surface tablet, so realistically, the Surface 3 costs around $630 for the low-end model. If you don't want to poke along at a snail's pace, you'll need to spend $730 for the 4 GB Surface 3 and the Type Cover.

Final Verdict: Surface 3 Is a Dud

It's difficult to define a good market for the Surface 3.

The tablet with the Type Cover is more expensive than and not as responsive as an iPad, and it loses in the graphics department. Its only real advantage is its ability to run Windows software, and even then, Surface 3 is limited by its slower processor and 2 GB of RAM.

For those who need Windows software, the Surface Pro 3 is a better choice. The tablet starts at $799, which translates to $930 with the Type Cover, but Surface Pro 3 will ultimately last longer. Out of the gate, the Surface 3 is a little sluggish, an issue that will only grow worse as applications and Windows become more sophisticated.

If you aren't restricted to using Windows, the iPad Air 2 is the clear winner. Students can still gain access to Microsoft Office as well as the Apple productivity apps Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, all of which are available for download or on iCloud.com at no charge. As one of the fastest tablets on the market, there's no need to worry about iPad Air 2 becoming obsolete in a couple of years.

The only real market for Surface 3 ​is people who absolutely must run Windows and can't spend the money on the more expensive and better Surface Pro 3. In terms of raw power, a Windows-based laptop at the same price tag will run circles around the Surface 3.