It is no secret around here that we are excited about the Microsoft Surface, as we’ve spent a good chunk of the past week discussing the exciting new tablet PC being released by Microsoft. It also isn’t a secret that Microsoft has been championing the tablet PC form factor longer than anyone in the industry, so it is fair to say that they have a lot riding on the release of the Surface. This is Microsoft’s chance to finally get the tablet PC right.

Microsoft is entering in to a hardware space that they’ve never challenged before. Previously they’ve only made peripherals like keyboards, mice and webcams along with the Zune music players and the Xbox, so this is new ground for them. However, if all of the coverage so far has been accurate, it seems like they’ve done really well with the Surface for Windows 8 RT.

For the first time in the modern tablet era, Microsoft is competing with the big boy on the block from Cupertino – which is of course is Apple. Obviously there are other players in the tablet space, including Google and their Nexus 7 and Amazon with their Kindles, but even Google and Amazon are chasing Apple in the tablet space.

Microsoft is differentiating themselves from every other player in the PC market with Windows 8 and Microsoft Surface, as the Surface was designed as a device for both consuming, and doing. Google’s and Amazon’s tablets run customized versions of the Android mobile platform, while the iPad runs iOS, the same software platform that powers their iPhones and iPods.

Apple has a two and a half year head start over Microsoft in the modern tablet market, so how in the world can Microsoft’s Surface possibly compete with the iPad? I think much of that will have to do with their choice of direction, but let’s dive in to some key areas to see if Microsoft is on the right track with the Surface for Windows 8 RT. To do this we must ask ourselves, “what makes a great tablet?”

Usability
I believe the most important factors for a great tablet are extremely similar to the key factors for any great device, and usability and functionality should be atop that list. If the device isn’t easy to use and accessible, then it probably won’t be worth your time. If it is a device that has a high learning curve or that makes simple tasks into chores, you simply won’t continue to use that device. Many consumers have learned this the hard way with e-readers and smaller tablets like the Kindle Fire. Many find that they are simply far too limiting to be usable on a continued basis.

Is the Surface for Windows 8 RT usable, and is that usability comparable to the Apple iPad? It is clear that the Surface is extremely usable, and actually more usable than the iPad in several ways. As stated, the iPad runs iOS, which is a platform that was originally designed from the ground up for a mobile phone and then expanded to support a tablet. On the other hand, Surface for Windows 8 RT runs a platform that was designed form the ground up to be used on large screen touch-centric devices (tablets and hybrid PCs) and adapted to run on a mobile hardware platform (ARM).

An iPad is basically an iPhone or iPod touch with a larger screen while a Surface runs a desktop and touch OS that was built for pcs, tablets and hybrid devices. This means that the Surface (and Windows 8 RT) inherently functions like a more traditional PC when needed, which is a reason that the Windows 8 “classic desktop” is an integral part of Surface. That desktop, along with the keyboard covers greatly differentiates itself from other tablets, because they make the Surface a hybrid device for work or play.

Both iOS and Windows 8 RT are usable, and both have their limitations. However, iOS has far more limitations than Windows 8 due to not having a classic desktop. Providing an additional way to access apps and information makes the Surface a more usable device with a larger potential audience. Now this usability does not inherently mean that more people will use the classic desktop, but the fact that it is there as an option should not be overlooked.

Functionality
Functionality overlaps with usability on several levels, so it is equally as important. If a device doesn’t function well, you won’t continue to use it. Functionality may be the toughest factor to define as it can be affected by many aspects of the device, including design, hardware, software and size. There is of course some overlap between functionality and usability, but we’ll do our best to keep the two separate for this discussion.

The Surface (and Windows 8 RT) has the iPad beat in functionality it for no other reason that peripherals. Being a true hybrid device the Surface functions well with touch, but it also excels with the addition of traditional input devices like mice, keyboards and track pads. You can use a Bluetooth keyboard with an iPad, but you are limited on what you can do with it (no ASCII characters, keyboard shortcuts, etc.). iPads also don’t have an option of using a pointing device either, other than your fingers.

Using an iPad for day to day tasks can become extremely tiresome as you have to extend your arms and peck on the screen all day. I took courses in Chemistry in Physics after purchasing my original iPad, and remember becoming extremely frustrated in class when trying to keep up with the notes. Have you ever tried writing proper formulas and equations with the Apple Bluetooth keyboard on an iPad?  I certainly didn’t have time to do image searches on the web to copy and past in to my notes either. It was a frustrating semester to say the least.

The Surface also has the built in kickstand that instantly transforms it from a handheld device to a desktop or tabletop device. This is a function that can be accomplished with the iPad, but it requires an accessory and it isn’t an inherent part of the design. This is again compounded by the Surface’s addition of the Touch Cover or Type Cover keyboards and track pads. Thanks to the seamless integration of the keyboard, track pad, kickstand and even the classic desktop, the Surface is a far more usable device than the iPad.

Peripherals
Let us also not forget about the additional peripherals. Using the HD video port on the Surface allows you to extend your Surface display to an external monitor or television creating a dual screen mode, which can greatly increase productivity. You also have the ability to of course to use a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse as needed, but most importantly you can expand the memory by up to 64GB using the microSDXC slot or even further using the standard USB 2.0 port. That USB port can also be used to connect hundreds of thousands of hardware devices like printers, scanners, cameras, thumb drives and external hard drives to your Surface in seconds. Functionality galore.

Technical Specs
Technical specifications are probably next up on the list for many customers. Overall the hardware between the devices not including the ports and kickstand are fairly similar, and we covered much of that in yesterday’s Microsoft Surface versus Apple iPad spec comparison. The Surface gets the edge in screen size, memory, CPU, storage and available ports. The iPad has the edge is screen quality due to the Retina display, and has a 1080p front facing camera rather than 720p – it also has a slightly better battery.

Ecosystem
There is no doubt that in the sheer number of apps that Apple’s iPad is currently dominating the Surface and other Windows RT devices. As of 10/21 there were about 4300 apps in the Windows 8 app store, 3500 of which were listed as free. In the week leading up to 10/21 900 apps were added for the entire week, and that number seems to be increasing exponentially. Microsoft has said their goal is to have 100,000 apps within 90 days of the Windows 8 Launch. At that rate they’ll bypass the entire iPad apps by well before spring and the entire Apple app store before summer. There will be more than 400,000 million PCs running Windows 8 by the end of 2015, apps are not going to be a problem.

To those that say early adopters of Surface are screwed due to the lack of apps, I laugh because like most people 90% of my time on a device is spent in the web browser. There are also already fantastic apps for Netflix, Hulu Plus, Twitter, Reddit, SkyDrive, Skype, Kindle and countless other big names in the market place, with more definitely being released on launch day. I’ve been using Windows 8 for a  year, and as of now there is not one “must have app” on Surface for Windows 8 RT that I am missing. Let us also not forget that the Surface for Windows 8 RT includes Microsoft Office 2013 for free.

Accessories
Accessories are important to some buyers and in the sheer number of available iPad accessories is the clear winner, however in the innovation of those accessories Microsoft’s Touch Cover and Type Cover keyboards clearly steal the show. The two keyboards that are actually built in to a millimeters thin protective cover for the device are both brilliantly designed and executed. Throw in the included kick stand, HD out and the possibilities of the USB port and I think the clear edge goes to the Surface for ingenuity alone, but this is of course completely subjective. Remember that hundreds of thousands of third party peripherals also work with Surface.

Connectivity
One place the Surface may be lacking is the inclusion of 4G connection options. Microsoft opted for Wi-Fi only across their Surface line, so for those wanting to stay connected all the time on their tablet, I guess the iPad may be your best choice. However, now that most smart phones have built in internet sharing for around $0-20 a month, I’m not sure why someone would want to pay an addition $30+  a month simply for internet on your iPad. Why have connectivity on one device when you could have it on 5+ devices at a cheaper cost?

Cost
This is again a subjective category as what a device is worth to you is different than what it is worth to me. Both devices are at the same entry level price point, and adding various different models and accessories are all relatively tiered the same. $500 is a lot of money for a lot of people around the globe to fork down for a device, so I won’t even try to say which is the best value or which one people should purchase on price alone. People should always choose the device that does best what they need it to do at the price point that they can safely afford.

Choice
One fantastic aspect that continually gets overlooked in Surface reviews is the fact that you don’t even have to buy a Surface. That is the beauty of Windows 8 and Windows 8 RT, you can pick and choose which device works best for you from manufactures like Dell, HP, Samsung, Asus, Acer, Toshiba and Sony. The success of Windows 8 RT as a platform doesn’t rest simply on the shoulders of Surface. The Surface doesn’t have to beat the iPad in sales, because the entire RT family of devices just might – which is a huge reason Apple rushed out a new iPad yesterday. Apple now has three iPad models to choose from, there are and will be far more Windows 8 RT devices for consumers to choose from.

Conclusion
In the end it all comes down to preference. Do you want an excellent consumption device that can be sometimes used a productivity device or do you want a device that can excel at both interchangeably? Early adopters may have to go without a few key apps that they love for a some time, but I think the vast majority of people will be just fine with the Surface at launch. Of course new apps down the road will improve the experience, but in six months Apple is clearly going to be behind in that category.

In the end I see the iPad limiting their users, while the Surface is liberating theirs from the constraints of the tablet status quo. I am of course a Fanboy, but I owned an iPad for some time and the same frustrations I had with it’s limitations in 2009 are still a hindrance today for many iPad users. One thing is certain however, the Surface more than holds it’s own against the iPad, and anyone who tells you otherwise is clearly living in denial.

The Microsoft Surface for Windows 8 RT is a well built device that allows it’s users to experience and consume information in new and unique ways. Even if you’d never buy one, you have to give Microsoft kudos for that. Microsoft’s Surface challenges the iPad, and the gloves come off when it does so.