Of all the low-cost tablets out there, the one Microsoft is most keen for its new Surface Go to come out on top against is Apple’s iPad.
Both touchscreen mobile devices have decent internal hardware, great screens, and are lightweight and portable. But which is best? To answer that question, we pitted the new $400 Surface Go against the $330 iPad in a classic head-to-head comparison.
The 2018 Apple iPad sports what is, at this point, the classic iPad design. It looks near indiscernible from its predecessors and while that isn’t a bad thing, this does mean it sports relatively chunky bezels compared to most of its contemporaries. The Surface Go isn’t much trimmer around the edges though. The overall look and feel of both devices is premium, but not the most cutting edge in terms of design. They feel sturdy and solid in the hand, though the iPad is ever so slightly lighter.
When it comes to external connections, the Surface Go offers a USB-C connector, as well as a MicroSDXC card reader, and a headphone jack. The iPad has even less connectivity options, with just a headphone jack and Lightning port — the latter of which you’ll need an adaptor for to connect USB devices.
The software on both systems is decidedly different. Where the iPad runs Apple’s iOS platform and is limited to App Store applications, the Surface Go runs a full Windows 10 installation. Although it defaults to Windows 10 S — thereby restricting users to Microsoft Store apps only — you can run a full Windows 10 install on there with a few clicks. That expansive support for applications outside of the Microsoft’s closed garden gives the Surface Go an advantage over the iPad in that respect. It is clear from our time with the Microsoft tablet though, that Windows 10 is still better suited to keyboard and mouse, over touch, control. It’s a more functional software suite than the iPad offers, but it’s not as intuitive.
If you do spend a bit extra for the Surface keyboard, you’ll get an input option that is leaps and bounds ahead of the iPad’s offering, but at just 10-inches, it can still feel cramped compared to those found on larger devices.
One of the most important aspects of any tablet is the display, and both the iPad and Surface Go have great looking touchscreen panels. The Apple tablet sports a 2,048 x 1,536 Retina screen that looks sharp and has good coloring. It’s not quite as black as we’d like, but for less than $350 for the base model, it’s a great looking display. The Surface Go’s has a lower resolution screen at 1,800 x 1,200 with a noticeably reduced pixel density (256 vs. 217), but it still looks good in the 10-inch form factor.
Underneath their glossy surfaces, the two tablets offer quite different hardware suites. The iPad sports Apple’s own A10 Fusion core, with an embedded M10 coprocessor. It pairs that with 2GB of RAM and a choice of 32GB or 128GB of on board flash storage space. The Surface Go packs one of Intel’s dual-core (with hyperthreading) Pentium Gold 4415Y processors with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. There are options however, for up to 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. That should give it significant memory bandwidth advantages over the iPad, though in our testing we didn’t notice much of a difference between the two in general computing ability.
The biggest differentiator between the two is in graphics performance. While the Pentium chip does have Intel’s HD 615 graphics chip, that doesn’t give it the ability to do much beyond handle very light 3D-rendering apps like Powerpoint. While the iPad is hardly built for serious gaming, it’s much more capable of handling anything you can throw it from the App Store.
The iPad is also available with full LTE connectivity. While that isn’t quite yet a possibility with the Surface Go, we’re told it will be in the future.
At 1.03 pounds, the iPad comes in a shade lighter than the Surface Go, which weighs 1.15 pounds without the keyboard. It’s also a little more compact, though 9.7-inches is about as close as you’re going to get to the Surface Go’s 10-inches, without calling them the same size.
Battery life is likely to be better on the Apple hardware too. Apple claims up to 10-hours of general usage for full charges and we found that played out in our testing. After five hours of YouTube videos, the battery life had only drained more than a third. While we don’t yet have hard battery-life results for the Surface Go, its battery is four watt-hours smaller than the iPad’s and Microsoft only claims nine-hours of life. The concern there, is that the Surface Go may not be able to handle a full eight-hour workday on a single charge, especially if you’re using it for slightly heavier lifting.
For small, lightweight, portable tablet devices like these, that’s a must and suggests that the iPad would be a much more stable pick for day to day use.
Microsoft’s Surface range has grown from strength to strength over the years, giving us some fantastic hardware like the Surface Book 2 and the Surface Pro. While the Surface Go makes a valiant attempt to resurrect the low-cost, convertible tablet part of that range, it doesn’t do it well enough to supplant its main rival. Apple’s iPad has a lower base cost, a higher-resolution display, a larger battery, and more impressive graphical chops. While the Surface Go might have greater productivity features with its option for a full Windows 10 operating system, that’s not what the average person usually wants to sacrifice for better accessibility.
The Surface Go is a worthy contender to the iPad’s entry-level crown, but it falls noticeably short of its classic rival.