iPad Air 3 vs Surface Go: Which should you buy?

The iPad and Surface are always compared, but the truth is they're two very different devices. Do you want a Windows PC or a tablet to consume media, browse the web, and play casual games on? Sure, you can do work on the iPad, even edit photos and videos, but the workflow is very, very different.

Comparing Apples to oranges (or Surfaces)

iPad Air 3

It's easy to compare the Surface Go to the iPad Air. Both are tablets and, generally speaking, the iPad is, still, about the best all-around tablet money can buy. It runs Apple's iOS, which is efficient, easy to use, and has an insane app library. The iPad has come a long way since the early days, and it's now not only possible but fairly easy to write, edit photos and videos, play games, and plenty more on an iPad.

Despite all of the pros, it's still limited in a number of ways. iOS, as good as it is, is still a mobile OS. Windows 10 is what you find on desktop and laptop PCs, complete with full mouse support, something Apple won't give to the iPad.

The new iPad Air is a really outstanding piece of hardware. Here's how it stacks up against the Surface Go when it comes to specs.

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Header Cell - Column 0 iPad Air 3Surface Go
Display10.5-inch Retina Display
2224x1668 @ 264ppi
10-inch LCD
1800x1200 @ 217ppi
Camera (front)7MP f2.25MP
Camera (rear)8MP f2.48MP
ProcessorApple A12 BionicIntel 7th-gen 1.6GHz Pentium Gold 4415Y
Memory3GB (rumored)4GB/8GB
Storage64GB/256GB64GB/128GB + MicroSD up to 256GB
WiFiDual band 802.11a/b/g/n/ac802.11a/b/g/n/ac
PortsLightning, 3.5mmUSB-C, 3.5-mm
PriceFrom $499From $399

Even though the iPad Air runs an ARM processor and has less RAM, it will have the legs in terms of outright performance. Apple's platform is incredibly optimized, and the new Air has similar internals to the iPhone XS. While you probably wouldn't want to edit many 4K videos on the Surface Go, the iPad Air will eat them up. Likewise, it'll be able to play some games from the iOS App Store that you wouldn't be able to enjoy to the same degree on the Surface Go from places like Steam.

Surface Go makes a great tiny laptop

The Surface Go is a tablet and is sold this way, in that there's no keyboard included, but it's actually a full, 2-in-1 laptop. That means Windows 10, access to both Store and legacy win32 apps, a proper file system, mouse support, keyboard, digital inking, the ability to use external drives and accessories, and so much more.

Some of the iPad Air's media consumption capabilities can be applied to the Surface Go, as well, with apps for services like Netflix, Spotify, Plex, and many others. However, there are gaps. There's no Prime Video, for example, and the battery life when consuming media will fall short of the iPad.

However, none of this is really why you'd want a Surface Go. It offers a full PC experience in something you can toss in any bag. Write and draw with a pen, or use the Type Cover to get some work done. Use a mouse like you'd expect to on a laptop. Almost anything you would ever want to do on a PC you can do on the Surface Go. As a tablet, it is lacking, and that's mostly down to the lack of apps that truly touch-friendly and the fact Windows 10 also isn't as touch-friendly as iOS.

The iPad Air is a superb tablet you can work on

iPad Air

Generally speaking the iPad lineup is where you go if you flat out want a tablet. That hasn't changed in years and it certainly hasn't with the revival of the iPad Air. Apple's hardware and design is stunning, and the iPad Air boasts a beautiful display, a ridiculously slim form factor, a superbly-optimized OS, huge app catalog and now, even an optional keyboard and pen.

The biggest difference is the OS. MacOS is a more direct comparison and competitor to Windows 10, whereas the iPad Air 3 runs iOS, Apple's mobile platform. This means no proper file system, no mouse support, awkward multitasking, and a bunch of other issues you might come across if you're trying to use it like a laptop.

Simple things like dealing with email attachments and renaming files is an extremely convoluted process on the iPad. But that's also by design. Apple doesn't want the iPad to be a touchscreen Mac tablet. But with the scale of the iOS app catalog behind it, the iPad Air is an incredible tablet. Sure, you can use it to work but you'll probably have to change your workflow, and at some point, if a laptop is what you want, the iPad will frustrate.

So do you want a laptop or a tablet?

If the answer is the former, Surface Go is the one to go for. The iPad Air is more expensive, but it is a superior tablet if your use is more casual.

Richard Devine

Editor at iMore, part time racing driver, full time British guy. Follow him on Twitter and Google+