At NZ$700, Surface Go rounds out the bottom end of Microsoft’s tablet-to-laptop range. It’s a small, thin tablet with a 10-inch screen. No doubt people will compare it with another small, thin 10-inch tablet: Apple’s NZ$540 iPad.

Before going further, we should be clear, the tablets come from different ranges. They have different design perspectives. Despite the obvious similarities, few people will choose between the Surface Go and an iPad. For the most part, they aim at distinct markets. You also need to remember these are the cheapest models in each range.

That said, they are low-cost tablets from the two biggest names in personal computing. Both are versatile mobile devices. They both have large touch screens by mobile device standards. Each offers a huge catalogue of software covering almost every possible application.

Microsoft Surface Go

Size, weight

Apple’s iPad is smaller and lighter than the Surface Go. It measures 240 by 170 by 7.5 mm and weighs 470 g. Surface Go is about 10 percent heavier at 520 g. It’s thicker at 8.3 mm.

Although the frame is fraction larger at 244 by 178 mm, that’s used for a bigger screen. The Surface Go display is 10.6 inches, while the iPad is 9.7 inches. The Apple display has more pixels: you get 2,048 by 1,536. The Go is has 1,800 by 1,200 pixels. I’ll save you the maths of working out that means the iPad has 264 pixels per inch compared to Go’s 217.

Both support an optional pen for writing on-screen. Apple’s drawing tool is the Apple Pencil.

Processors

Microsoft uses a two-core Intel processor; the Pentium Gold 4415Y. Apple’s is the A10 Fusion chip. Without benchmarking, it’s hard to know which has the more powerful processor.

On paper Apple’s hardware choices give you a little more battery time than the Surface Go. How that works in practice is more a matter of how you use your tablet.

Apple appears to have an edge here, but we’d need to wait for formal tests to know. Both processors are a generation behind the top models in their respective ranges. As it says at the start of this post, people will use the devices in different ways. So their relative power is less important than the suitability for applications.

The Surface Go has a clear edge when it comes to storage. The extra NZ$140 buy double the Ram and double the built-in flash storage. The Go has 4GB and 64GB. Again it’s hard to know what these numbers mean in practice without testing, but as a rule more is better.

Surface Go expandable memory

You can expand the storage on a Surface Go. There is a MicroSD card slot. There is nothing like this on the iPad. This will matter a lot to some people. It would interesting to know how many people use a memory slot in a device like this.

Apple’s iPad runs iOS. It’s the same operating system as on the iPhone. In recent iterations Apple updated iOS to make better use of the iPad’s size and capabilities. As you’d expect it integrates well with an iPhone and the MacOS.

The Surface Go comes with Microsoft’s Windows 10 running in the S Mode. This limits your software choices, but it’s a piece of cake to upgrade this to Windows 10 Home.

At the risk of triggering angry comments, I find iOS has a better touch screen interface. Although Windows 10 handles touch, at times the old user interface peeks through. It can cause problems. Your experience may differ.

On the other hand, I find Windows 10 makes more sense on a tablet than a desktop. Again, you might have a different view.

Microsoft’s marketing makes a lot of fuss about the kickstand. This allows you to prop the Surface Go up in the landscape orientation on a flat surface. Some Surface Pro users love this feature, it’s popularity bewilders many iPad fans.

Microsoft’s Surface Go Signature Type Cover adds NZ$220 to the price. The Surface Pen is NZ$160. Apple’s Pencil is the same price. Apple has its own keyboard covers for iPad Pro models. For the plain iPad, Apple’s online store offers a NZ$150 Logitech Slim Folio Case with integrated bluetooth keyboard.

Storage options

Both ranges offer models with more storage. A 128 GB iPad is NZ$700, the same price as the basic Surface Go. For the well-heeled Microsoft has a 128 GB model with 8 GB of Ram at NZ$950.

Let’s put the Surface Go price into context. The same money will buy a Lenovo ThinkPad 11e Chromebook or one of a range of low-price Windows laptops.

By the time you add the official keyboard you could buy a ThinkPad with an Intel Core i3 processor. Of course these would not be as portable. Yet you will find a better processor, better keyboard and better screen.

If you’re already happy with Apple or Microsoft’s comforting embrace, then you’d do well to stay put. That way you can be productive from the moment you open the box. Most of the time, you will get more from your existing investments in software and services.

At first sight the iPad and Microsoft app store look to be roughly equal, after all, this is Windows we are talking about. Yet in practice many popular Windows apps are either not optimised for touch or have occasional touchability lapses. You may also find some popular, well-known apps are not there.

It’s odd, but on a personal note I find Microsoft Office works better on an iPad than on a touch screen Windows tablet. Although this could be a matter of familiarity and taste, you couldn’t say the same for MacOS where Office is noticeably inferior.

Microsoft Surface sales yet to take off

Microsoft-branded hardware has yet to strike a chord with buyers. The brand doesn’t register in the global PC sales statistics collected by IDC and Gartner. There have been reliability problems with Surface hardware.

Over the last three months of 2017 Microsoft’s Surface line made $1.3 billion in revenue. That’s impressive, but the dial hasn’t shifted from two years earlier. Sales are flat. That is despite a slew of new Surface products in 2017.

In round numbers Apple makes more than six dollars from its iPad models for every dollar Microsoft earns from all its hardware products excluding the Xbox.

There’s nothing to suggest Surface Go will change the market dynamic. The device looks neat and will meet an unmet need, but it doesn’t look like a surefire winner.

Apple 2018 iPadApple’s sixth generation 2018 iPad is a bargain. In New Zealand it costs NZ$540. For many people it is all the computer they will ever need.

Sure, there will be people who consider it dull next to the swept-up iPad Pro. It doesn’t have as many features. Yet it does one important thing that, until now, only the Pro model iPad could handle. The 2018 iPad works with Apple Pencil.

That’s great if you want to use an iPad to create art or jot quick notes without adding a keyboard or dealing with the device’s glass keyboard. This, coupled with the price should open up the iPad to new audience.

It’s a solid, reliable alternative to buying a low-cost computer. Some geeks will hate me writing that.

Half the price of an iPad Pro

While the 2018 iPad doesn’t have all the features you’d find in an iPad Pro, it’s close to half the price of the cheapest Pro. The basic model $540 2018 iPad Pro comes with 32GB of storage. In contrast, the cheapest iPad Pro model costs NZ$1100 and has 64GB of storage.

There’s a NZ$700 version of the 2018 iPad with 128GB. If you can find the extra $160 it’s worth it. If you have a large library of music, videos or photographs you’ll soon bump up against the limits of 32GB. With a 128GB you won’t need to continually swap out files to a back-up device or the cloud.

What you get with both models is the classic 9.7-inch iPad Retina display. There are not as many pixels as you’ll find on the 10.5-inch iPad Pro, but the resolution is much the same. It has 2048 by 1536 pixels compared with the Pro’s 2224 by 1668. The 2018 iPad weighs exactly the same amount as the 10.5-inch iPad Pro; around 480 grams.

At 7.5mm, the 2018 iPad is a sliver thicker than the Pro which is just 6.1mm. That’s enough to notice, but not much of a compromise. It’s about 10mm shorter and 5mm less wide. This means you can’t swap covers or keyboards between the two devices. Not that many people will be doing that.

Adding a keyboard

And anyway, the 2018 iPad doesn’t have the Smart Connectors found on iPad Pro models. These make it easier to use a keyboard without resorting to Bluetooth. If you want to run a keyboard with the 2018 iPad there are dozens of options, many are excellent.

The speakers are not as loud or as clear as you’ll find on an iPad Pro.

Another difference between the Pro and the 2018 iPad is that you only get a first generation Touch ID button. It’s a little slower than the newer version and more prone to stumble when you use a fingerprint to sign-in. This is noticeable in practice if you’re stepping down from a newer iPad Pro or have an iPhone 7 or 8.

There’s a software difference too. The 2018 iPad only allows two apps to appear on screen at any time. While the Pro models allow three, this is something I never use on my tablet. I doubt many others will miss it.

The 2018 iPad uses Apple’s A10 Fusion chip, it’s similar, but not as powerful as the A10x Fusion chip in the Pro model. In theory it doesn’t run as fast, you could probably prove this by running benchmarks. In practice, you won’t notice. I didn’t find any lag on the 2018 model, it doesn’t feel slower. In fact, when it comes to speed, it feels almost exactly the same as my first generation 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

Where the 2018 iPad fits

Apple launched the 2018 iPad with an emphasis on education. It’s a great choice for students. Apple critics will tell you the iOS operating system is a walled garden and restrictive. Although there is some truth in this, in practice iOS is as open to the rest of the computing world as all the alternatives. Chromebook, Android and Windows are all as flawed in their own ways – possibly more flawed given their business models.

I’ve spent much of the last year using a 12.9-inch iPad Pro as my main mobile computer. It doesn’t do everything I need, but for most purposes it is more than enough computer. It has travelled overseas and out-of-town with me several times. For the most part the limitations of the 2018 iPad would be the same. If you’re on a tight budget and don’t need a lot of fancy features it could be all the computer you need. It’s a great device for creativity, just don’t expect to edit movies on it’s 9.7-inch screen.

The key to the 2018 iPad is that you get a lot of computer for not much money. You can buy cheaper Chromebooks, Android tablets and, at a pinch, Windows PCs. Unless you’re looking for an app that doesn’t appear in Apple’s store, this beats all those devices for most people who have light computing needs.

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Apple iPad Pro 2015
Apple iPad Pro

CEO Satya Nadella has turned Microsoft around. It is relevant again. Things didn’t look that way when he took over the company. His switch of focus to the cloud was timely and has been a huge success. Much of what he says and does is sensible.

Much, but not everything.

In November, Nadella made a playful, off-the-cuff remark about an Apple iPad not being a proper computer. The comment should not be taken too seriously. But as Sahil Mohan Gupta notes at Tech Radar, Nadella’s words speaks volume about where Microsoft is heading and how it views computing.

Real computers

No doubt Nadella thinks all computers made by Microsoft are real computers. Even if some of those computers share a lot with the iPad Pro. Microsoft’s Surface models have many good points. They also have well documented flaws and angry customers. Making too much of a comparison with iPads could backfire on Microsoft.

Nadella’s comments got me thinking about the iPad, especially the large 12.9-inch iPad Pro. I use one now as my main mobile computer.

As far as I’m concerned it is a proper computer. It seems the best computer for a technology writer on the move, although others may not agree with me. Apart from anything else I find writing long documents on the iPad Pro is at least as easy as working on a Mac. There’s something about iOS 11 that helps me focus more on the job in front of me.

iPad Pro ready for serious work

A year ago the iPad Pro was not ready for serious use. The software didn’t handle files outside of application silos. Moving text from, say, a word processor to a text processor or a web-based app was simple enough. But opening a document in a different app was often tricky.

Dealing with attachments that arrived through mail was just as hard. There were basic things the iPad could not do. My router needed a firmware update. The new software arrived as a zip file, needs unpacking and uploading. The old version of iOS couldn’t handle that. The new iOS 11 makes it all possible.

While there are still times I need to reach for the MacBook, those ‘need’ times are fewer and fewer. It’s already a real computer.

There is a Windows computer that is mainly used for games, for running digital audio workshop software and for testing Windows apps. Increasingly Windows looks old-fashioned and iOS looks like the future.

This isn’t everyone’s view, many people reading this will scoff at the idea.

Yet despite Nadella’s comments, Microsoft takes the iPad seriously enough to make sure its key productivity apps and OneDrive all work on the iOS hardware and stay bang-up-to-date. I’d argue that Word is better on the iPad Pro than on a Mac and possibly even better than on Windows. What could be more serious than that?

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ipad-pro-12-9-inch second generation Smart Keyboard
Apple’s Smart Keyboard cover gives the second generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro basic protection from knocks and scratches.

Apple made the large screen 12.9-inch iPad Pro to travel. It may not be as portable as the 9.7 or 10.5-inch iPads, but the bigger display makes up for that. It is fast becoming my first choice travelling computer1.

The 12.9-inch screen on the second generation iPad Pro is tough. Even so, there is no point taking chances. What is the best way to keep it from damage?

Apple’s NZ$269 Smart Keyboard Cover is the obvious first option. It is light; only 340g. The 12.9-inch iPad is 723g. Together they weigh a shade over a kilogram. That’s a little more than the MacBook which weighs in at 920g.

Smart Keyboard cover

The Smart Keyboard Cover turns the iPad Pro into an effective laptop replacement. I’ve found it is good to type on. Not perfect, but good. One advantage is that it is as wide as normal laptop keyboard.

It is more comfortable for touch typing than the Surface Pro 4 keyboard. It compares with many modern laptop keyboards. This isn’t so true of the 9.7 or 10.5 inch Smart Keyboard Cover. I find the keys are almost too close together for comfort.

The larger keyboard is one reason why I prefer the larger iPad Pro.

In practice I’ve found the Smart Keyboard Cover provides enough protection around the house. It also works if I put the combination in my briefcase to travel to a meeting or work in a client’s office. The only downside is that it doesn’t accommodate the Apple Pencil.

More protection for 12.9-inch iPad Pro

You can walk about town with no more protection than the Smart Keyboard Cover. I have an Apple-made first generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro Silicon case. It’s helpful guarding against knocks and drops. This is also an Apple-made leather shell for the first generation model. Neither of these are still available on Apple’s New Zealand site. There are third-party shells.

The Leather Sleeve protects the 12.9-inch iPad Pro in style.
The Leather Sleeve protects the 12.9-inch iPad Pro in style.

Apple’s new protective case is the NZ$269 Leather Sleeve. As the name says it slips over the computer. There’s enough room inside to accommodate the Smart KeyBoard Cover as well. Apple has added a space to take the Pencil.

Leather Sleeve showing the Apple Pencil slot
Leather Sleeve showing the Apple Pencil slot

Although it is expansive, in practice it works better than the Silicon shell case. It is lighter and takes up less room. I’ve found it works great on airplanes, if you’re a regular flyer I recommend you invest in one. I also use the Leather Sleeve when I’m ducking out for a quick meeting in my car and don’t need to carry anything else.

Snugg Leather Sleeve

If the price of the Apple Leather Sleeve is too much, Snugg has a solid alternative. I first reviewed and used the Snugg MacBook Air 13 Wallet Case with my MacBook Air. It is ideal for protecting my 12.9-inch iPad Pro. After all, 12.9 inches is not a long way from 13 inches, so it fits well.

Snugg MacBook Air Leather case
Snugg MacBook Air Leather wallet case works well with the larger iPad Pro

You don’t get the dinky Apple Pencil holder, although there is more than enough space in the Snugg case to take that. I’ve come away from meetings and conferences with papers in my Snugg case alongside the iPad Pro.

One other thing, the Snugg case is chunkier, or if you like, more rugged. It can take more punishment than the Apple Leather Sleeve. There are plenty of colour options, including a soft pink if you feel the rugged look is not for you.

I’ve left the best thing about the Snugg to last. At US$25 plus postage, it works out at around a quarter of the price. The problem is that Snugg product is out of stock, although you can still find some on sale online. Snugg makes tablet cases, but I prefer the Wallet case.


  1. I’m thinking of from switching from a MacBook plus 9.7-inch iPad to a desktop iMac plus a 12.9-inch iPad Pro. ↩︎

Duet DisplayDuet Display started life as an iOS app to turn an iPad into a second screen for a Mac or Windows PC.

It has since moved on. The latest version adds a Touch Bar interface. There’s also an optional upgrade that turns an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil into an advanced drawing tablet.

I’ve been using Duet Display for a couple of years. It was great in its day. There are still times when it comes in handy.

Yet, changes to both Apple operating systems means it’s no longer as useful as it was. At least not for my purposes.

Turning an iPad into a second screen is a breeze.

You connect your iPad to a computer using the charging cable. This may seem odd in an era when everything is wireless. It turns out having wire between a computer’s USB port and an iPad’s Lightning connector gives Duet a huge advantage. The connection is fast, responsive and reliable. The two devices act as one.

Duet Display needs two apps

There are apps to install at both ends. The iPad app shows up as a normal icon, like any other iOS app. There is also an icon for the MacOS app. When the software is in use, you see a second, small icon on the Mac menu bar.

Duet Display takes no time to set up. It’s as easy as connecting the cable. Once connected, the iPad works exactly like you’d expect an external screen to work.

There are settings to fiddle with. My iPad is set up to work a 60 frames per second. There is a slower, more energy-efficient 30 frames per second option.

You can choose between four different resolutions. The highest Retina resolution on the iPad uses more power, you can wind it down. If I connect from my 1440 by 900 pixel MacBook Air there’s an option to mirror the screen.

Touch Bar

The other option is to add a Touch Bar to the bottom of the iPad display. While this can be handy with some apps, I find I don’t tend to use it.

In practice it pays to tinker with the settings to get everything right. Some of this is a matter of taste. Some of it is depends on the apps you use.

If, say, I run my MacOS Mail app on a 12.9-inch iPad Pro screen at the highest resolution, text is too small to read. It is worth cranking the resolution up that far to work with a graphics app.

Duet Display seems useful for productivity apps. I might have an editor open on the Mac screen and have a research document open on the iPad. This used to be the best way to work.

Today it is often simpler to use the Mac and iPad as standalone devices. Thanks to iCloud it is as easy to have the editor run on the Mac and use, say, Preview, to look at the research document on the iPad. Sharing documents between devices is trivial if you have iCloud.

Duet looks helpful if, say, I’m editing CSS or HTML and want to see my changes on the page in a browser. Again, this works as well, maybe better with two standalone devices.

Integration

If I had written this post 18 months ago, Duet Display would have been the best way to go. These days the Mac and iPad integrate so well with each other it is less essential. I can hit control-C on the Mac to copy, then post the information on my iPad.

There are still times when using it as a second screen is a productivity boost. Say, you’re working with two word processor documents. Having two open windows in the same instance of the application can be useful if you move text between them. It’s a fraction smoother than Apple handing over between iOS and MacOs.

Duet Display brings the iPad’s touch screen to the non-touch Mac. There are times when this is useful. MacOS isn’t designed for touch, so you won’t use it that much.

It also uses the Apple Pencil. Again, there’s not much MacOs support, so it’s of limited use.

The Mac app is free. I paid NZ$20 for iOS app. There is a NZ$32 in-app purchase to unlock the Pro version. That’s a lot of money by iOS app standards. Whether it is worth paying depends on your needs.

Pro version

Duet Display Pro version has more Apple Pencil support and better colour matching between devices. It means you can use your iPad as a drawing tablet with apps like Adobe Photoshop. That’s no use for me, I’m terrible at drawing, but if you have an artistic bent, it would be powerful.

You can use Duet Display with an iPhone, although it’s hard to see what benefit there is in having a tiny second screen.

At times Duet Display is useful and powerful. Those times are fewer than in the past. When they come around, it is an ideal and impressive way of solving a problem. It’s the kind of software you should know about and file away in your memory until you need it.

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