Switched On: Tablets and tradeoffs

This week saw the debut of two ARM-powered tablets by old rivals. One eschews traditional desktop input methods; the other embraces them. One occupies the high end of pricing in its class; the other is competitive with the market leader. One had the engineering goal of fitting in one hand; the other comes with a kickstand for being set on a desk or table. But perhaps the biggest contrast between the iPad mini and the Surface RT approaches is how well they take advantage of the hardware and software momentum of their predecessors.

The essence of Microsoft's approach with Windows has been to blend the traditional with the new -- Intel and ARM processors, touch screens and USB ports, desktop and Windows 8-style apps. Regardless of whether one believes that this is worth the tradeoff of regularly switching among two disparate environments, it provides a lot of flexibility both to Microsoft's hardware partners and device users. Surface RT includes many familiar options from the Windows world -- USB, a microSDXC slot and clever ways to attach a choice of two physical keyboards. Its chassis is made of durable and lightweight magnesium.

But, because it is based on Windows RT, what the first Surface doesn't bring forward is Windows' traditional greatest strength, its vast software library. As Switched On discussed last week, Surface RT is left to stand alone on the UI niceties of the Windows 8-style environment such as Live Tiles, Charms and its embryonic software library.

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Things could not be more different for the iPad mini. Apple pounded away at the 275,000 iPad apps that will work without modification on the (not much) smaller iPad. But that app compatibility has its share of tradeoffs. To preserve the iPad's aspect ratio at a relatively large screen size meant Apple had to trim the side bezels, making the appearance a bit more iPhone-like than iPad-like and, at best, a snug fit for smaller hands. The iPad mini, like its newborn larger cousin, also has the new Lightning connector, for which there is just a puddle of compatible accessories compared to the sea of options that featured its 30-pin predecessor.

So in this round, the company best known for hardware leads with a software advantage for its product, and the company best known for software leads with a hardware advantage for its product. For Apple, the next key steps are to encourage support for the Lightning connector; key to that will be the trajectories of its hot-selling products such as the iPad and iPhone. For Microsoft, encouraging the development of Windows 8-style apps has a broader imperative than just propping up the Surface RT (or Windows RT in general). As the Intel-based Windows 8 begins to proliferate across a wide range of devices and developers seek to capitalize on distribution via the Windows app store, a broader mosaic of Live Tiles will lie waiting to take advantage of Surface's attractive hardware options.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at@rossrubin. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.