It's been a rocky road, but the idea of Windows tablets is becoming more established. Lest we should forget Windows tablet PCs have been around for a long time, but they were niche products aimed at the vertical industries. When Apple came along with the iPad in 2010 it invented a new category of tablets as consumption devices. Beautiful connected entertainment and communication devices. Grown up smartphones, unlike older Windows tablets which were shrunk down PCs. Windows tablets such as the HP Slate PC disappeared in the slipstream of Apple's must-have gadget.
For a year or two Apple had the market to itself, and then for the most part it was challenged only by the better Android tablets such as the Nexus 7. At the budget end of the spectrum cheap Android tabs offered something for very little. But Windows was really nowhere to be seen.
The launch of Microsoft's own Surface tablets, and latterly those from other manufacturers such as Nokia, Dell and Lenovo, have changed things. Now Windows PCs offer an alternative to the best that Apple can offer. In this feature we'll consider what Windows has to offer tablet users, and look at reasons for straying from the well-trodden path of choosing an iPad. There's no axe to grind: we're going to try to offer an unbiased comparison between Windows tablets and iPads, in particular Apple's flagship iPad Air.
Windows tablet vs iPad Air: Windows RT and Windows 8
Before we go any further we have to make clear one key aspect of the Windows tablet world: the difference between full-blown Windows 8.1, and Windows RT. It can be confusing. Look to buy a Microsoft Surface, for instance, and you'll be faced with this choice. In essence Windows 8 is - as you would expect - the full Windows. Buy the Surface Pro and you are getting a laptop without a keyboard, with all the usual Windows features and the ability to install any and all Windows software.
The Surface RT on the other hand is best described as a blown-up version of Windows Phone 8. Windows RT looks like Windows, and works like Windows. But you can't install third-party software except for apps from the Windows Store. There are some benefits, however. All Windows RT devices come with a version of Office pre-installed. And they are generally thinner and lighter, and have better battery life - like a smartphone as opposed to a laptop.
It would be fair to say that the iPad Air is closer to the Surface RT, and the MacBook Air akin to a Surface Pro. It's an important distinction.
Windows tablet vs iPad Air: software, apps and media
So with that disctinction in mind let's look at the ecosystems within which Windows tablets and iPads operate. Full Windows 8 tablets such as the Surface Pro exist in the traditional Windows PC world. You can install any x86 software, which in turn means you can access any media store from AmazonMP3 through Netflix to iTunes. Any Windows peripharel will work, too. Of course this in turn has security implications: I wouldn't want to run any Windows device without antimalware protection (Windows Defender is of course baked in to Windows 8+).
Windows RT and iPad devices are more limited, as befits consumption devices designed to exist in curated walled gardens. Windows RT devices can access apps only from the Windows Store. This is much better than it was an these days most major apps are featured, albeit on occasion via 'apps' that are little more than shells for web pages. The iTunes App Store is of course the best of all. In terms of the ability to install apps you'll never regret choosing any iPad. And iPad Air is the flagship.
Step across to music and movies and the choice becomes a little more nuanced. With an iPad you are really limited to iTunes. There's not much wrong there in terms of choice. But with a Windows RT device you can choose from a few music and movie stores - although not as many as we'd like to see. There really is no getting past the fact that the more established iPad Air is better served for apps and media than is Windows RT - for now.
But there is a benefit for Windows RT if you use other Windows devices. Windows RT tabs sync and play nicely with other Windows PCs and laptops, as well as the Xbox and Windows Phones. Of course the same is true of the iPad Air, and for users of Macs, Apple TV and iPhones it's hard to argue against that.
Windows tablet vs iPad Air: performance
The iPad Air is some performer. Geekbench 3 showed the iPad Air's processor clocked at 1.39 GHz – a tad higher than the Apple A7 in the iPhone 5s which reads 1.30 GHz – and it returned a score of 2703 points in multi-core mode; and 1487 points for a single core.
In the Egypt HD graphics test the iPad Air could play at an average framerate of 48 fps, and we really can't imagine anyone being disappointed by its gaming capabilities.
A new 2x2 wireless setup means two antennae inside to improve Wi-Fi performance. In our tests we found no perceptible speed difference, since most iPad use is loading webpages where the internet connection is likely slower than Wi-Fi anyway. Range may have increased though, maintaining a usable connection further from a base station, and that is a useful bonus.
Battery life is still exemplary, with Apple assuring around 10 hours continuous use, while we found that occasional but steady use meant it could last the best part of a week between charges.
We're a little troubled by the sometimes unsmooth interface. This is a general criticism of iOS 7 but one we didn't expect to see on the latest iPad with bestest-yet graphics processor.
Most apparent with app zooming, when you open or close an app and return to the home screen, we saw jittery animations. It's not always apparent, and we suspect many people will probably not notice, let alone be troubled by it. Elsewhere in text scrolling and pinch-to-zoom actions there were no such issues, as free and fuild as ever.
Nonetheless, you are unlikely to be put off from buying an iPad Air based on performance. The good news for those looking for an alternative is that Windows RT and Windows 8 tablets generally show good performance too - although you get what you pay for.
Again we have to make clear the distinction between Windows 8 and Windows RT, and if you are interested in a Windows 8 tablet we urge you to look at our Windows tablet reviews and best Windows tablet list. See: The 16 best tablets of 2014 and Best 14 Windows 8 tablets of 2014.
As a general rule Windows 8 tablets are likely to cost more for the same performance, and won't enjoy the same battery life as either an iPad Air or a similarly priced Windows RT tablet. That's because you're shrinking down a power PC rather than stretching out a smartphone. But remember that for Windows 8 tablets you are getting a full PC.
Windows RT tablets tend to have better battery life than Windows 8 tablets. The best match the iPad Air.
Windows tablet vs iPad Air: flexbility and versatility
Variety is one area in which the Windows world currently wins. Buy an iPad and you either opt for the iPad Air or its similar but less well specified and cheaper brother the iPad 2. For variety you can reach down to the (excellent) iPad mini or iPad mini 2 with Retina Display. As good as they are they are pretty much the same product at a different size (8in to 10in).
The very fact that there are two forms of Windows tablet reflects the variety of products available in that space. We've reviewed Windows tablets up to 20in tablet-top devices, or 13in slabs. You can also get convertible laptop/tablet devices. All-in-one PCs that transform into tablets. You could even consider touchscreen thin-and-light laptops in this category.
Apple makes only devices it knows its public will love, so it's unlikely you'd ever regret buying an iPad in general or the iPad Air in particular. But Windows tablets offer greater choice of form and function. (See also: 10 best budget tablets 2013/2014.)
Windows tablet vs iPad Air: price and value
And this is in turn reflected in pricing. We've recently reviewed Windows tablets for as little as £250 inc VAT, but ranging up to prices beyond £1,000. The iPad Air costs from £399 to £799. iPads are always good value, but never the cheapest option.
They are quality gadgets at a quality price. With Windows tablets and hybrids there is more chance of digging out a bargain, but it's by no means a given. If you are in the market principally to save money you are better off heading over to the Android world and taking your chances there. See also: 9 best tablets for children.