While the Surface Pro 3 has the specs and the price tag that aligns more with the MacBook Air, it will no doubt draw inevitable comparisons with the iPad Air. And rightly so. Microsoft's Surface tablets are aimed squarely at the iPad, fighting the idea of a post PC world with a PC-Tablet hybrid device. And in some respects, it's a pretty good device. But does it really compare with an iPad Air?
Microsoft Surface Pro 3: The Specs
The biggest improvement on the new Surface Pro may be the new 12-inch display. The 2160x1440 resolution might not be quite as sharp as the Retina Display on the iPad Air, but it is close enough that few will tell the difference. It's also changed to a 3:2 aspect ratio, which means it will be much more comfortable to use when in portrait mode.
The entry-level device includes an Intel i3 processor, 4 GB of memory and 64 GB of storage. It has 5 MP front-facing and back-facing cameras, includes Bluetooth 4.0 and has a USB 3.0 port in addition to a microSD card reader. It also has much improved speakers that face the front this time around, so you won't accidentally cover them up with your hands while holding the device.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3: The Price
This is where direct comparisons to the iPad become a lot more difficult. The entry-level Surface Pro 3 starts at $799, but this is without the $129.99 Surface Pro Type Cover. Considering Microsoft bills the Surface Pro 3 as both a laptop and a tablet, that Type Cover is a requirement, bumping the price up to $928.99.
And while that 64 GB of storage sounds like a lot, more than half of it will be taken up by the operating system. Because it runs full-blown Windows, software is going to take up more space than apps would on an iPad, so the remaining 30 GB of space will feel smaller than the 14 GB of free space you get with the 16 GB iPad Air. And this is at about double the price.
Unfortunately, the Surface Pro 3 doesn't compare well against the MacBook Air either. The MacBook Air starts at $899, slightly cheaper than a Surface Pro 3 with a Type Cover. And for this price, you get a faster Intel i5 processor and double the storage.
Simply put, that entry-level Surface Pro 3 has a nice looking price tag, but it lacks the power of a modern laptop. And it's going to run out of space way too quickly. This makes the $999 Surface Pro 3 with a Intel i5 processor and 128 GB of storage a much more realistic option.
The iPad Air is cheaper with more functionality
It's easy to point out that the Surface Pro 3 runs a full-blown version of Windows, thus it can run all the same Windows software that you have on your laptop or desktop PC. And for those that are required to run Windows software, that's a big bonus. But what about the rest of us?
Microsoft's tablet has long been regarded as laptop that doesn't work well as a laptop. The Type Cover is better used at a table than in your lap. Microsoft has improved the design with the Surface Pro 3, but there's no doubt that a true laptop is more comfortable and easier to use than the Surface Pro with the Type Cover attached. And while running full-blown Windows gives the Surface Pro access to a vast array of software, much of this software is designed for the mouse and keyboard, which defeats the purpose of having a touch device. The iPad has over half a million apps designed specifically for its touch display, and another half a million iPhone apps can be run in 'compatibility mode'.
The iPad Air also gives you the option of 4G connectivity. For those with an active lifestyle or who frequently travel for work, the ability to connect to wireless data networks is a major bonus over the Surface Pro 3, which currently doesn't have an announced data connectivity.
The availability of Microsoft Office on the iPad in addition to office suites like iWork give the iPad a boost in productivity. And while Microsoft makes a big deal over the keyboard, it's quite easy to attach a keyboard to the iPad. In fact, there are a number of keyboard cases that will turn you iPad into a laptop.
The Surface Pro 3 vs the iPad Air: And the Winner is...
There's rarely a true winner when comparing devices running on different platforms, and when you consider the Surface Pro 3 is a bit more inline with a MacBook Air than an iPad Air, it may not even be fair to compare them directly.
The flaw of the Surface Pro series is that they aren't great laptops. The Type Cover is a neat idea, but compared to working on a true laptop, it's not quite there. And when you look at the $799 entry-level version, it is overpriced and underpowered. This might be okay if it was a great tablet, but the Surface Pro isn't there yet. The number of tablet-optimized apps is very limited, which means you'll ultimately run a bunch of software designed for the mouse and keyboard.
Despite its flaws, the Surface Pro 3 does have its place. If you absolutely must have a Windows-based laptop, you really want a tablet, and you detest the idea of carrying around a laptop, tablet and a smartphone, the Surface Pro 3 could be a good option. And there are a number of great uses for it. It could easily run a presentation in tablet mode, allowing more mobility while presenting, convert to a laptop for taking notes in meetings, and then back to tablet mode for browsing the web after work.
But we are quickly approaching a time when Windows is not a requirement. The more you can do on your iPad, the less attractive a hybrid device like the Surface Pro 3 looks. While it is nice to have one device for two uses, ultimately, you have a watered down laptop and a watered down tablet.
For many, buying a cheap entry-level Windows laptop for those times when you absolutely must have Windows and an iPad Air for those times when you don't may be the best choice. In fact, considering you'll need that $999 model with a $129.99 Type Cover to really get the most out of the Surface Pro 3, you could easily save money going with a cheaper laptop and an iPad Air.