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Apple shipped its new iPad on March 16. Predictably, it was a smash hit, as the company said it sold more than 3 million of the devices during the first weekend. Microsoft, meanwhile, is planning its first serious entry into the media tablet market this fall when it will introduce Windows on Arm (WoA) tablets. The question for those who have yet to jump on the Apple bandwagon is whether to opt for the new iPad now, or to wait until Windows 8 tablets are available, most likely starting in October.
A feature-by-feature comparison of the two platforms is tricky, given that new iPad is a real, shipping product, while WoA systems have yet to arrive. (We've left the more conventional, Intel-based Windows 8 tablets out of the equation to keep things, er, apples to Apples.) The performance of Windows 8 tablets will depend greatly on how hardware makers like Nokia, Lenovo, Asus, and others, implement Microsoft's specifications.
Still, there's a lot we already know about Windows 8 and the hardware components on which it will run, so there is some basis for comparison, even if it's a bit speculative at this point. Here's a look at some key features on both new iPad and Windows 8 tablets, and how they compare with each other.
New iPad: Apple's latest tablet starts at $499 for a 16-GB, Wi-Fi only model, and ranges all the way up to $829 for a 64-GB model with Wi-Fi and 4G connectivity.
Windows 8 tablets: This is an unknown at this point, but if Microsoft's strategy around Windows Phone is any indication, expect the company and its partners, particularly Nokia, to be highly aggressive on price. Nokia introduced a solid Windows Phone, the Lumia 710, and it's now free with a contract on T-Mobile. Microsoft has shown it's willing to sacrifice margin for market share in areas where it's lagging. Tablets will be one of them.
Considerations: High prices doomed previous Windows tablets efforts, like HP's $699 Slate 2. But WoA tablets will most likely be sold under the mobile phone model, with manufacturers and carriers subsidizing hardware. So odds are there will be Windows 8 tablets that match or beat the new iPad when it comes to price.
New iPad: No surprises here. New iPad uses the familiar, icon-based iOS 5 home screen. It's also rich with utiltities, like Notification Center, that push content, such as alerts about email and social media messages, to the top of the screen. There's also plenty of one-touch links to services like Twitter, Newsstand, and iMessage.
[ Want to see the guts of the new iPad? Click on New iPad Teardown: Inside Apple's Tablet. ]
Windows 8 tablets: Windows 8 tablets won't look like any other tablet on the market. They'll all feature Microsoft's touch-friendly Metro interface, inherited from Windows Phone 7. The hallmark of Metro is Live Tiles, blocks that provide message notifications and single-click access to preselected apps and services.
Considerations: The choice between iOS's icons or Windows 8 Metro is purely subjective. But one thing is for certain--Metro is not another me-too mobile GUI and users seem to either love it or hate it. That makes the decision to go with a completely new type of interface a high-risk, high-reward move for Microsoft.
3. DISPLAY SIZE
New iPad: 9.7-inches is the standard size for all iPads, including new iPad. That's about the sweet spot for most tablets. Some, like the 10.1-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, check in a bit larger, while others, like Amazon's Kindle Fire or RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook, go for compactness with a 7-inch display.
Windows 8 tablets: Microsoft has geared Windows 8 to support numerous display sizes on tablets, as it expects its ecosystem of hardware partners to produce devices in a range of sizes. It's possible, however, that the initial WoA tablets will veer toward the larger end of the spectrum. A prototype publicly shown by Nvidia appears to be at least 10 inches, and in a blog post this week Microsoft noted that "Common sizes for Windows 8" start at 10.1 inches and range to 12 inches.
Considerations: By emphasizing size over portability, Microsoft appears to want to position WoA tablets as no-compromise devices for media consumption and productivity. But the difference between a 10.1-inch Windows 8 tablet and 9.7-inch iPad is pretty marginal.
4. DISPLAY RESOLUTION
New iPad: The most noticeable difference between iPad 2 and new iPad is that the latter has inherited the Retina Display technology from the iPhone. Through a combination of high resolution (2048 pixels by 1536 pixels, at 264 ppi), and technologies like oleophobic coating and in-plane switching, Apple has created a tablet display that is unrivaled.
Windows 8 tablets: Microsoft has said Windows 8 will support multiple display resolutions on tablets, up to and even slightly beyond that of Retina Display. For instance, the company has confirmed that Windows 8 will support a display of at least 2560 pixels by 1440 pixels, at 291 ppi, on a 10.1-inch tablet.
Considerations: Windows 8 may be able to match the new iPad in terms of sheer numbers, but the beauty of Apple products has never been about the stats, it's about how it all comes together. New iPad is no different, and Microsoft and its partners face a tough challenge to produce displays that match the crispness and vibrancy of Retina Display.
New iPad: New iPad is powered by Apple's ARM-based A5X chip, which is basically a souped-up version of iPad 2's A5. The A5X is dual core and runs at 1 GHz.
Windows 8 tablets: Microsoft has tapped three chipmakers to produce WoA processors--Nvidia, Texas Instruments, and Qualcomm. All of them will produce chips based on the ARM reference design for Windows 8 tablets.
Considerations: Apple's A5 architecture is getting a bit long in the tooth. The A5X is significantly larger than the A5, and has been blamed for the heat problems afflicting new iPad. Windows 8 tablets will benefit from having chips available from three ARM specialists that have proven themselves in the Android market. WoA on Nvidia's new Kal-El quad-core architecture, in particular, could be one to watch.
New iPad: Apple is taking heat for its decision to include a camera on new iPad that checks in at just 5 megapixels and has fairly limited optics, when the company already has an 8-megapixel camera in iPhone 4S. For HD video recording, however, Apple has increased output from 720p to 1080p.
Windows 8 tablets: Microsoft's wide ecosystem of hardware partners use a variety of camera technologies. Of note is the fact that Nokia, with its use of Carl Zeiss optics in Lumia smartphones, has chosen to make cameras a point of differentiation. It's likely that Nokia will pursue the same strategy with Windows 8 tablets.
Considerations: Tablets aren't what most people use for taking pictures, but the bottom line is that when Windows 8 tablets hit stores later this year, you'll likely be able to find one that has a better camera than new iPad.
7. BOOT TIME
New iPad: Apple hasn't released an official boot time for new iPad, but this somewhat unscientific video on YouTube seems to show that it boots in about 21 seconds. Fritz Nelson, VP and editorial director of the InformationWeek Business Technology Network, says it takes 30 seconds for his new iPad to boot up, compared to 25 second for his iPad 2.
Windows 8 tablets: Another factor that has doomed previous Windows tablets, those based on the Intel x86 architecture, is that they suffered from the same, drawn out boot times that afflict Windows PCs. Windows 8 systems, by contrast, will fully boot in as little as eight seconds. Microsoft said it has achieved this in part by not completely closing the kernel session when the system is switched off. Instead, the kernel session is hibernated so that memory contents and system state is saved.
Considerations: 10 or 12 seconds difference in boot time doesn't make much difference in the real world, but many users view boot time as a proxy for overall system performance. Super snappy boot times on Windows 8 tablets could go a long way toward helping Microsoft shake its reputation for delivering bloated, bulky software.
New iPad: Apple and third-party developers have to date produced more than 200,000 iPad-specific apps, and that doesn't include iPhone apps that have been blown up (usually not very attractively) to fit the iPad. If you want or need to do something on new iPad, there's probably an app for that.
Windows 8 tablets: Microsoft has adopted Apple's closed-loop approach for WoA apps. They'll only be available preinstalled, or as downloads from the new Windows Store. Microsoft has taken this approach to ensure that its tablets have the same ecosystem stability and security as iPad. The killer app for Windows 8 tablets could be the new, touch-enabled version of Office, Office 15, which will come pre-installed on every WoA tablet. It's likely that Skype will be offered as a preinstalled app on many Windows tablets. And for tablets aimed at business users, Office 365 may be an option.
Considerations: The success or failure of Windows 8 tablets could largely be determined by app selection. Some major publications, like USA Today, have already committed to Windows 8. And Microsoft has added tools to Visual Studio 11, now available in beta, to make it easier for developers to create Metro apps. Still, it's going to be difficult for Microsoft to match the vast ecosystem of apps that has grown up around the iPad.
More details about Windows 8 tablets are expected to emerge in the coming weeks, and most market watchers expect actual products to hit the stores in October. By then, many gadget fans will have opted for new iPad, but Microsoft and its partners are counting on the fact that a good number will wait until they can do hands on comparisons in stores. At the very least, buyers should have a lot more options this holiday season.
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