Best form factor ... Apple's iPad.

Best form factor ... Apple's iPad.

In the blue corner, we have the current reigning world champion, the formidable fourth-generation Apple iPad. In the red corner, we have the plucky new challenger, the Microsoft Surface running Windows RT. Which tablet will walk away with the title belt?

 

Round one: Value for money

More affordable ... Microsoft's Surface.

More affordable ... Microsoft's Surface.

The Surface is a shoo-in for this round. Selling for $559, the 32GB version is $90 cheaper than the equivalent iPad. The 64GB Surface works out to be $30 more expensive than its iPad counterpart, but the price includes a touch cover, which doubles as a protective cover and touch-sensitive keyboard (the closest equivalent for the iPad is the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover, which retails for $99.95).

The Surface also comes with Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 RT Preview and six months of unlimited music streaming through Xbox Music. Microsoft hasn't announced pricing for Office 2013, but the equivalent 2012 edition costs $189 RRP (street price is around forty bucks less). If you were to subscribe to Xbox Music for six months, you'd also be forking out $71.94.

Windows RT and Microsoft Office take up a large chunk of the Surface's storage, effectively halving the 32GB storage in the entry-level model to 16GB. Looked at this way, the 16GB iPad works out to be $30 cheaper, but Surface owners arguably still get better value for money thanks to the inclusion of Office and Xbox Music. Unlike the iPad, this storage can also be expanded by up to 64GB using microSD cards.

Winner: Microsoft Surface

 

Round two: Productivity

Again, the Surface steals this round. The combination of an integrated kickstand and the type cover accessory allows it to double as a laptop reasonably well. Using the type cover is weird at first, akin to typing on a spongy tablecloth, but it's something you can get used to fairly quickly. The keys are raised just enough that you can feel for them when touch-typing. If you prefer tactile feedback, there's also a type cover available with mechanical keys.

Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 RT Preview (which comes with Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote) will be upgradeable to the final version for free once it's available, and it's vastly superior to any of the Office apps for the iPad. It isn't a dumbed-down 'Lite' version for mobile devices — it's the full-fat Office suite, complete with all of the advanced functions, formatting options, formulas and templates that you may need for work.

On the iPad, file transfer is clunky: you need to funnel everything through iTunes on a desktop computer, or use workarounds such as emailing files to yourself or uploading them to a cloud service like Dropbox. The Surface works like a regular computer: you can simply transfer files using a USB flash drive or a microSD card; you can even download any file directly through the web browser.

Using Windows RT's "snap multi-tasking", you can also run two apps on the Surface side by side — a feature that's sorely missing on the iPad.

Winner: Microsoft Surface

 

Round three: Play time

The Surface puts in a good effort this round. It has the Xbox Games portal, a free six-month subscription to Xbox Music, and the Xbox Video service for buying and renting movies and TV shows.

But this offering is a pittance compared to what's available on the iPad. The quality and breadth of gaming titles is laughably superior, and while you don't get a free music streaming service on the iPad, you can take your pick from a dozen or so services such as Spotify, Rdio, MOG and Deezer — none of which are available for the Surface.

The Surface does a little better on the streaming video front, with TEN and SBS On Demand available through the Windows Store, but the iPad still beats it with apps such as BBC iPlayer, Quickflix, ABC iView and Foxtel Go.

Hardware-wise, the iPad also comes out ahead. The screen is a lot sharper thanks to the Retina Display (a difference that's noticeable even when you're playing standard definition videos), and the speakers are twice as loud.

Winner: Apple iPad

 

Round four: Apps

When it comes to apps, the Microsoft Surface isn't even in the same ballpark. Since it's restricted to running apps that are available through the Windows Store, which has been up and running for less than a month, the selection is extremely limited.

For every popular app that's available in the Windows Store, there are at least nine others that are missing. Skype, Evernote and Amazon Kindle are available, but there are no official Facebook, Twitter or Dropbox apps, no alternative web browsers, no Flipboard, Zinio or Pocket, and no turn-by-turn navigation apps such as TomTom or Navigon.

This means you can do a lot less with the Surface than you can with the iPad. Even Android tablets have it better; the selection of tablet-optimised apps for Android are still few and far between, despite the platform being available for a year-and-a-half now, but at least they can run Android smartphone apps — the Surface has no such fall-back.

Winner: Apple iPad

 

Round five: Form factor

The Surface's kickstand is incredibly handy, and the 10.6" display's 16:9 aspect ratio works well for running two apps side-by-side and watching widescreen movies in full-screen.

However the iPad still gets our vote as having the better form factor. While its 4:3 aspect ratio results in thick black bars above and below widescreen videos, it's more practical when you're holding the iPad one-handed, as it's not so tall. It's also 24 grams lighter than the Surface.

Winner: Apple iPad

 

Round six: Performance

For the most part, the Microsoft Surface is a speedy performer. Swiping between tiles on the Start screen, switching between running apps, zooming in and out using gestures — all of these feel exceptionally fluid.

However, apps take a little longer to open than they do on the iPad, and content such as email, contacts and social media updates appear gradually rather than instantaneously. Windows RT also seems a bit buggy; apps crashed quite a few times during testing, and all too frequently, the touchscreen would ignore our taps on the screen. Applying the latest software updates helps, but it doesn't completely eliminate the Surface's teething problems.

The iPad has no such issues. It has the benefit of an operating system that's in its sixth generation already, and Apple has had three years to fine-tune its performance to get it humming like a European sports car.

Winner: Apple iPad

 

Conclusion

It's no surprise to see the Apple iPad emerge the victor, winning four out of the six rounds. It has chewed up and spit out many devices before the Microsoft Surface, and it's going to take more than a jumped-up first-gen tablet to take it down. Yes, you'll have to pay more for it, but you'll also be able to do more with it thanks to the extensive range of apps available.

In a year or so, when there are more apps available on the Windows Store, and the bugs and performance kinks have been ironed out of Windows RT, Microsoft may have a real contender. Until then, unless you really need the full Office suite or are exceptionally enamoured with the matching keyboard covers, the Apple iPad is a wiser purchase.