Microsoft Surface 3 vs. iPad Air 2

Which tablet better meets your needs?

Microsoft is feeling the heat from tablets and Chromebook. With a similar price tag and a full version of the Windows 10 operating system, Surface 3 is aimed at the iPad Air 2. Should Microsoft be setting its sights on the Apple tablet? We tested the Surface 3 and iPad Air 2 to see how the Microsoft tablet stacks up to the iPad.

Surface 3 vs iPad Air 2

Overall Findings

Surface 3
  • Runs the full Windows desktop operating system.

  • The processor struggles to run Windows.

  • For best performance, 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.

If you're in the market for a mobile device that has the computing power of a laptop, look at the Surface 3 or iPad Air 2. The primary difference between these devices is that the Surface 3 is a slimmed-down and mobile version of a Windows laptop. In contrast, the iPad is a mobile device with a unique processor, video card, and operating system designed for mobile computing.

To get the performance iPad offers on a Surface 3, you'll need to beef up the RAM and invest in a larger hard drive. Even then, the Intel Atom X7 processor in the Surface doesn't compare with the Apple A8X processor. Add in the superiority of Apple Retina display, and the only advantage Surface offers is a slightly lower price point. This advantage quickly dwindles if you opt for more RAM and a larger hard drive to improve performance.

Operating System: Windows RT Is Discontinued

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 and Apple productivity apps like Pages.

Microsoft once had a good grasp on the smartphone market. Windows Mobile may have played second fiddle to Blackberry. Still, 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 best trick that the Surface 3 has to offer: 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.

  • The A8X chip beat the Intel Atom X7 chip in the 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. However, 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. 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 uses a big part of that processing power. This leaves fewer CPU cycles for applications.

A 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 the Surface may be slow. For those interested in the Surface 3, upgrading to 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage space is worth it. The entry-level machine runs out of steam when it does anything more than web browsing and light word processing.

Display: Surface 3 Can't Compete With Retina Display

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

  • Higher-end games don't look sharp.

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

  • Higher-end games look fantastic.

The 10.8-inch display on the Surface 3 makes it slightly bigger than the display of an iPad Air 2. Still, 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 as sharp as the iPad Air 2.

Add the slower processor and games designed for faster hardware, and the Surface 3 isn't a game machine. It can play Candy Crush with the best, but with gaming one of the big perks of the iPad Air 2, it's 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 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 isn't easy 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. It also loses in the graphics department. Its only real advantage is its ability to run Windows software, and even then, Surface 3 is limited by a 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. However, a Surface Pro 3 will ultimately last longer. Out of the gate, the Surface 3 is a little sluggish. This issue will 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 gain access to Microsoft Office as well as the Apple productivity apps Pages, Numbers, and Keynote. These Apple apps 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 market for Surface 3 ​is people who 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 runs circles around the Surface 3.

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