|Apple's iPad Mini and Microsoft's Surface tablet. (Supplied)
They say too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Dangerous? I’m not sure about that. But disappointing? Definitely. Especially when it comes to stuff like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and Disney theme park characters. (Did you know there’s a PERSON inside the Mickey Mouse costume? Oh, the disillusionment.)
So it is with tablets. While I don’t pretend to be an expert, I’ve gone hands-on with many, many flavours of mobile devices over the years. Enough to know the quirks, strengths and failings of each.
Which is why it’s hard to look at the two tablets getting a ton of attention right now – Microsoft’s Surface and Apple’s iPad Mini – with virginal eyes. If I had just awoken from a 10-year coma and was presented with either of these slabs of touch-friendly tech, I would fall to my knees in amazement and wonder what manner of sorcery was inside.
But no piece of consumer tech lives in a bubble, and it’s folly not to compare new stuff to other new stuff. Or to older stuff.
Let’s start with the iPad Mini, Apple’s shrunk-down version of the iPad with a 7.9-inch screen and prices beginning at $329. The Mini would be a great starter iPad for someone who has yet to take the plunge, as it’s basically a smaller version of the iPad 2. Almost identical, in fact, other than the size and price.
And the smaller size works great for most things, although not all. I love the Mini for reading e-books, on-the-go surfing and email, selecting and playing music for my Sonos system, most games... anything that either calls for added portability or one-handed use works well with the Mini.
But I don’t love the display. Having grown accustomed to Apple’s much-touted Retina Display on the 3rd- and 4th-generation iPads, I find the iPad Mini screen looks ever so slightly fuzzy to my eyes. And with its A5 processor, it’s also slower than the current-gen, full-sized iPad, with has a zippy A6X chip that make launching apps a bit faster, visuals a bit smoother and so on.
On top of that, you know with absolute certainty that Apple will release an iPad Mini with Retina Display next year. The obsolescence cycle for iPads and iPhones can now be measured in months – not even eight months separated the release of the 3rd-generation iPad and the new 4th-generation version that recently replaced it.
Is the iPad Mini, when viewed in isolation, a great device? It is. When viewed against other tablets – from its larger but technologically superior cousins to competing devices like the significantly cheaper Google Nexus 7 – is it a great device? Yes, but it leaves something to be desired.
Which brings us to Microsoft’s aggressive push into the tablet space, Surface. Beginning at $519 for the 32 GB model with Windows RT (the full Windows 8 version, called Surface Pro, should be available in a few months), the Wi-Fi-only Surface is one of the most confounding pieces of tech I’ve ever used.
On the one hand, it’s a beautiful machine. Wonderfully engineered, with ingenious touches like a sturdy pop-out kickstand that props it up at a comfortable angle for reading. When combined with a snap-on Touch Cover ($129.99 sold separately, $100 bundled with Surface) or Type Cover ($139.99), it makes a formidable laptop replacement.
And the Windows RT interface, which we’ve had a taste of previously with Windows phones and now the release of Windows 8, dares to try something different, with its mosaic of dynamic tiles instead of rigid rows of icons.
But for everything dazzling about Surface, there’s something equally baffling. The interface is slick and nifty, but it runs on top of an iteration of old-school Windows, which is all too often glimpsed behind the curtain. To use Microsoft Office, you’re dropped into standard Windows, a jarring experience compounded by the fact this version of Office is sludgy and feels more like a misplaced desktop program than a mobile app.
For all the innovative strides they’ve made with this interface, I can’t imagine how Microsoft thought it would be a good idea to confuse people with the dual, duelling experiences and all the PC-style complexity that goes with standard Windows.
Surface is even more restrictive than the iPad when it comes to futzing around with settings and customizing the way apps look and run, but it also won’t allow power users to go under the hood and install their own apps – the Windows RT version of the device only uses apps downloaded from the Windows app store.
While the screen is crisp and responsive, Surface is longer and heavier than many competing tablets. But it also has those amazing covers. The thin and light Touch Cover offers a non-tactile alternative to typing on the screen, while the Touch Cover is one of the best tablet keyboards I’ve used. Both have integrated trackpad and mouse buttons, which, if nothing else, is certainly handy when mucking around in old-school Windows’ guts.
If I’d never seen a tablet before and someone handed me a Surface, I’d be in love. And brand new tableteers might indeed be smitten, particularly if they are Windows PC aficionados.
But savvy users have certain expectations, and I can’t see Surface wooing anyone who has already used an iPad or Android tablet. The compromises it asks for in exchange for its innovative hardware and novel interface are just too costly.
Still, Microsoft is famous for improving upon its ideas with each successive iteration. Perhaps Surface Pro will be a more appealing option, or perhaps the second or third versions of Surface will hit all the right notes. Right now it’s a slick yet scattered device, withs lots to recommend but many caveats. Like they say: the more you know...