Surface Go 2 vs iPad Air 3 tablet showdown: Giving Microsoft the win?

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The Surface vs iPad rivalry goes back a long time, even before the "what's a computer" fiasco. But, with both the Surface lineup as well as the iPad lineup becoming more diverse each year, the great cause for debate amongst Apple and Microsoft fans never seems to go away.

As someone who has an iPad Air 3 for multimedia purposes, I recently was intrigued by Surface Go 2 and decided to buy one with my Microsoft Rewards points. In its design and compactness. the budget-friendly Microsoft mini Surface tablet seemed a lot like Apple's own iPad Air, but with the benefits of full-blown Windows. Yet, it also seemed quite different, too.

While it is true that iPad Air 3 is now a generation older (you can now buy iPad Air 4 with slimmer bezels,) does the Surface Go topple the iPad for me? Let's find out.

Price and specs

Surface Go 2 Vs Ipad Air 3 Side Profile

First up in this comparison is price and specs. Apple's iPad Air 3 originally sold in May of 2019 starting at $500. The Surface Go 2, meanwhile, starts at $400, but with some caveats. In my opinion, if you're looking for the best price on a budget, the iPad might be better for you. But for a portable tablet that can really do most common things your PC can, the Surface Go 2, hands down, wins (more on that later.)

Please do note that there is now the iPad Air 4 for sale, too. The iPad Air 3 is considered "outdated," by Apple, but fact remains that it's still out there for sale at other retailers, and it's something that people might want to buy if they don't want to spend money on the latest iPad Air.

Anyway, no matter which iPad Air 3 you pick up, you'll get the same processor and RAM onboard --- Apple's A12 Bionic processor, and 3GB of RAM. Only storage is that outlier, with the budget $500 model coming with 64GB only, and an additional 256GB of storage bumping the price as high as $700. You also can find a keyboard case from Logitech, which gives the iPad a Surface-like Type Cover with a trackpad, for an additional $150. In total, I spent $650 on my iPad.

Surface Go 2, meanwhile, is very different. While $400 covers the "budget" model with an Intel Pentium 4425Y processor, and 4GB of RAM, and 64B of eMMC storage, you also can find a "higher-end" Surface Go 2 with a faster Intel Core m3 processor inside as well as 8GB of RAM and 128GB of SSD storage. This, though, bumps the price up to $629. And, the Type Cover Keyboard is an additional $129.

In total, you'd have to spend $758, to get the same Go 2 that I have, not including the price of the $100 Surface Pen. If you're going for the budget model, though, you'd save money, only having to spend $510, but be aware, the Pentium processor isn't as fast as the M3, as I touch on towards the end of this piece.

Winner: iPad Air 3

Design and connectivity

Now, for the design. In this area, I feel as though iPad Air and Surface Go 2 share some heritage. As tablets, both devices are super portable and super light. I still prefer the Surface Go 2's design though, mainly for its in-built kickstand.

iPad Air comes in at 1.02 pounds in weight and about 0.24 inches in thickness. It also has an aluminum enclosure in either Space Gray, Silver, or Gold colors. Oh, and there's a proprietary Smart Connector on the bottom, for connecting a keyboard cover.

Surface Go 2 is in the same area but only comes in one color, platinum. Weight comes in a little bit more at 1.2 pounds, and the thickness is about 0.33 inches. The difference is small when compared to the iPad, but it does feel just a tiny bit heavier than the iPad, though I think most people won't notice, especially when the kickstand is out. (This is something you can't do on iPad, without a case.)

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As for connectivity, the iPad doesn't do too well. If you're in the iOS ecosystem like I am, then you'll be happy with the Lighting port onboard the iPad. It's one universal Apple port for charging, as well as connecting accessories. However, you'll need a dongle if you want to plug USB things into an iPad. Most dongles are quite expensive (at $20-$30) due to the proprietary connection. I do want to mention, though, that the new iPad Air 4 fixes this with USB-C as its primary connection.

Surface Go 2 has USB-C, as well as Surface Connect, the POGO keyboard connector, and expandable storage with a micro SD card slot. Yes, you'll still need a dongle with the Go 2, but USB-C dongles are more readily available and cheaper than Lighting adapters. Surface Connect and USB-C also mean that you can charge via that port, or via USB-C, too. I also appreciate the SD card support on the Go, as it means you can bump storage as you want, which you can't do on iPad.

By the way, both tablets have a headphone jack. Very important if you're using the devices for multimedia, as I often do. No dongles are necessary for audio!

Winner: Surface Go 2

Display, and inking

As tablets, both Surface and iPad support touch, as well as a stylus for inking. On this front, I prefer Surface Go 2. Its bezels are a bit thinner than the iPad Air 3's, and it holds support for a wider range of generations of Surface Pen. The display also seems to be a lot brighter, too, at least to my eyes.

The iPad Air 3 has a 10.5 inch 2,226 x 1,668 (264 PPI) display. It supports the original Apple Pencil for inking, and brightness can get up to 500 nits. The bezels around the top and bottom of the iPad are also a bit thick, for housing the touch ID sensor for logins to the iPad. Side bezels on the iPad are super thin, too. The aspect ratio is rated at 4:3. Again, iPad Air 4 has slimmer bezels as the newer iPad Air model, but we're comparing last year's Air 3.

Looking at Surface Go 2, it sports a 10.5 inch 1,920 x 1,290 (220 PPI) display, which comes in at the 3:2 aspect ratio. Brightness on the display is anywhere between 400-450 nits, too. There's also a 5MP Windows Hello webcam on board. Bezels on Surface Go 2 have improved over the original Surface Go, and are on the same levels as Surface Laptop. It's a nice and uniform look, around all four corners. Pixel density isn't as good on Surface Go 2 when compared to iPad Air 3, but text and other items on Surface Go 2's screen still look great, and there's lots of contrast, too.

Surface Go 2 Display

Compared to the iPad, I really do enjoy the Surface Go 2's display. The bezels aren't that ugly as it is on the iPad, and it has a more uniform look to it. The support for all generations of Surface Pen is also a huge bonus, as Surface Pen is more compact in the hands, and has buttons on it, and a dedicated eraser. Not to mention, the 3:2 aspect ratio, which makes stacking things side by side easier, so you can fit more on the screen.

As for the inking experience, both iPad and Surface are again on the same page. Though the pens look and feel different, they both are pressure-sensitive and support palm rejection. I really like how compact and slim the Surface pen feels. It's a lot more comfortable than Apple Pencil, especially when taking notes in OneNote. It also charges via a USB-C cradle, whereas the Apple Pencil has to charge via Lighting and stick out of the port. Awkward.

Winner: Surface Go 2

Performance: iPadOS vs Windows 10 in S-mode

The other big part of the iPad vs Surface debate always comes down to software. While Surface has historically done badly in tablet mode, it has the benefit of Windows 10, which when paired with the Type Cover, feels right at home compared to what you get on a desktop PC. iPadOS, meanwhile, had made lots of gains, with multitasking, as well as support for keyboards and mice. This area is one of the hardest to pick a winner for me, as I really love iPadOS, but also love the versatility of Windows 10, too.

Anyway, the problem I had with the iPad Air 3 is that you're still getting mobile apps from the App Store. While it is true that the iPad feels more intuitive than Surface as a tablet, for reasons I've discussed and compared before, the apps you get are still designed for mobile experiences. This often means apps (like Microsoft 365 apps) are limited in scope compared to macOS or Windows 10 counterparts.

There's no hiding it, though, I do love the way that iPadOS feels. For a device with only 4GB of RAM, the iPad Air 3 is super snappy, especially when it comes to using the keyboard. iPadOS is well ahead of Windows' tablet mode, but for real work, the iPad falls behind.

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Now, for Surface Go 2. While you can unlock the full potential of Surface Go 2 by going to the Windows Store and leaving S-mode (to download any other app you want, not just store apps,) I kept my device in this locked-down mode. With Microsoft's Chromium Edge browser, I was able to enjoy most the things I would on my dedicated laptop. For web browsing and multi-media, the S-mode is just fine. The Core m3 processor also keeps up with all my tasks and never caused any slowdowns. As many reviewers have pointed out, the budget model with the Pentium processor isn't the same.

I do like the Surface Go 2 for the iPad Air 3 or a couple of reasons. First off, the performance is great, for a Windows device, it's quite snappy. Second, it allows me to expand the screen and plug into a monitor, and get more work done, using full-blown desktop apps. Third, the Type Cover makes it feel like a laptop. While the iPad can do all of this (except for the monitor support,) Surface Go 2 pulls ahead for me, thanks to Windows 10. It's just great to have a tiny Windows PC on the Go.

Winner: It's a draw

WiFi, LTE, Security, and webcams

This final section will touch on two things that are important during a global pandemic. Webcams, LTE, and device security. Apple and Microsoft have their own solutions here.

Surface Go 2 sports a 5MP 1080p front-facing Windows Hello webcam. This webcam is excellent for Teams and Skype Calls. I even used it for our Podcast, and the difference between it and the $40 1080p webcam I use was barely noticeable. On the rear, meanwhile, Surface Go 2 has an 8MP camera. Good enough for quick photos of whiteboards, etc.

iPad Air 3, meanwhile, has a 7MP 1080p FaceTime HD camera on the front, and an 8MP camera on the rear. The front camera is just as good on the Surface, especially for FaceTime calls.

In terms of security, I give the Go 2 the upper hand. With Windows Hello, you don't need to touch your device to log in. On iPad Air 3, you have to touch the home button each time to get into the device. The Touch ID sensor also adds to the bulk of the iPad, which is why Apple removed it on the Pro models and relocated it to the power button on iPad Air 4.

In terms of LTE. The Surface Go 2 supports only the Core m3 model, and it comes at a $100 premium. All iPad Air models have LTE as an option, at a $129 premium.

Winner: Surface Go 2

Surface Topples iPad for me

Although the Surface Go 2 is an expensive endeavor when compared to the iPad Air 3, I think it's the better buy. I really love the versatility of the Surface Go 2. I really do love how compact it is, and the built-in kickstand. The display and inking experience also is better for me, and I prefer having full desktop apps, rather than mobile versions as it is on iPadOS. No doubt, Microsoft could make changes to tablet mode to help improve Surface Go 2 as a tablet, for daily use, and getting work done, it feels a bit better than any iPad.

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