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Productivity shootout: iPad Air v. Surface 2 v. HP Chromebook 11

updated 10:35 pm EDT, Sat March 15, 2014

iPad Air, Surface 2, HP Chromebook 11 go head-to-head

The mobile space is probably the most hotly contested space in the tech industry at the moment. It used to be the case that when you wanted to get work done on the go, a full-powered notebook was the one and only way to go. While notebooks and ultrabooks still play a vital role in keeping people productive on the go, the rise of tablets has led to a revolution in how people are staying productive on the go -- at least for light Office-style productivity and creative tasks. Three devices staking a claim for this space include the Apple iPad Air, the Microsoft Surface 2 and the HP Chromebook 11, although each is distinctly different. If productivity is an important criteria when choosing a mobile device, which of these is the one to get?

Office-style productivity on the iPad Air

Since its launch in 2010, the Apple iPad has made believers out of the doubters who thought that it was only a content consumption device. As Apple has effectively illustrated in its marketing campaign for the iPad Air, it is used by people from all walks of life in a wide range of ways to facilitate work and play. For the lucky ones, where work and play collide in the arts, photography, movies and music creation, the iPad is great device. However, when it comes to Office-style productivity, the on screen software keyboard won't cut it for most people necessitating the separate purchase of a Bluetooth keyboard. This, of course, affects the overall value equation when purchasing an iPad Air over the competition.

Thankfully, there are numerous accessories for iPad users that add keyboard input over a Bluetooth connection. Logitech, Belkin and Kensington are among the best options, although these tend to start at around $80 and go well over $100 and can add bulk and weight to the device. Although battery life is usually good for several months, it is yet another accessory that requires charging, while the overall typing experience is not the best, usually due to smaller keys and inadequate key travel. They also lack a mouse input and require users to use the iPad touch screen to navigate the cursor when working in a word processor or spreadsheet -- a solution that Apple has thus far avoided in its own notebook line as it believes that a multi touch mouse is ergonomically preferable.

Apple offers its iWork productivity suite to iOS users for free and while useful, and compatible with Microsoft Office, it is not really a fully fledged Office replacement. You can, of course, opt to use Microsoft Office in the cloud or Google Docs if you prefer. The experience can be quite comfortable if you are using an Apple Bluetooth keyboard and a stand of some sort for for your iPad, but you will need a table or hard surface. If you are using one of the folio-style keyboard covers for the iPad or a cover with in-built keyboard combination, you also really need a table to type on as well. Move this type of set up to your lap on a train or bus, and the overall experience is a lot less than desirable. Let's face it, if Apple thought that this was the way to go, it would have offered a similar accessory itself. But as it is currently a sub-optimal experience, it is hasn't bothered pursuing this approach itself.

Office-style productivity on the Microsoft Surface 2

The Microsoft Surface 2 followed on the heels of a disappointing launch for the original Surface. Microsoft wrote off nearly $1 billion in inventory having failed to convince consumers that it was a better option than the iPad, forcing it into steep discounts on the original model. The fact that they are still selling that model shows that they still haven't cleared inventory, despite their best efforts. Still, the company has pushed forward with the Surface 2, that ships with Windows 8.1 out of the box, and the much more powerful Tegra 4 quad-core processor. While Windows 8.1 has plenty of critics, and justifiably so, it actually makes sense when running on the Surface, perhaps more so than using Windows 8.1 on a notebook or a desktop. Switching between the tile-based Modern UI for entertainment and the desktop for Office productivity is a surprisingly good fit (if hard to explain to the average consumer from a marketing perspective - especially the bit about the differences between Intel and ARM-based Windows 8 devices).

The Surface 2 is what Microsoft likes to call a "tablet PC", which is designed to allow users to enjoy the entertainment possibilities of a touch screen tablet, but still enjoy the productivity of a notebook when on the go. Whether that is the best strategy for a tablet device is debatable, but it does help position the Surface 2 as an excellent proposition from a productivity perspective. Coupled with its controversial operating system is an innovative approach to tablet design. Like the original Surface, the Surface 2 incorporates a kickstand, although this time it can be positioned at two angles, the second of which makes it much more comfortable to type with the Surface 2 on your lap. It has also been designed from the start to incorporate a detachable keyboard, which comes in the form of either a Touch Cover, Type Cover, or Power Cover. The first two are also available with keyboard backlighting, while the latter does not include keyboard lighting, but includes an embedded battery, good for giving the Surface 2 an additional seven hours of battery life.

Sweetening the productivity deal further, the Surface 2 also comes with Office at no additional charge. Although Microsoft will eventually release a touch optimized version of Office for the iPad, the fact that it currently ships for the Surface is definitely an edge for users looking for a tablet that puts Office-style productivity first. Although Office for the Surface is not currently touch optimized, it works well with the integrated keyboard touch pad, which is quite accurate and usable. Setting it up for work and closing it up is a breeze, as is carrying it around the office for meetings. While it is not as comfortable as using a regular notebook on your lap, partly because the keyboard covers flex somewhat, getting work done on it is eminently possible, although remains best on a flat surface. The fact that it is purpose made with Office-style productivity central to its purpose makes it a clear pick over the iPad Air for this purpose. Yet, although it lacks the amazing app selection that iPad Air users enjoy, it is still a good entertainer when the job is done.

Office-style productivity on the HP Chromebook 11

The HP Chromebook 11 is the result of a joint design effort between Google and HP. The result is probably the nicest looking budget notebook that you can buy. Although not a tablet, it a direct competitor for the Apple iPad in the competition for the education market. This also makes it worthwhile considering as an option for consumers users looking for an alternative to the iPad for getting work done on the go. It also uses an ARM-based mobile processor, which helps to qualify it for this direct comparison. While the Samsung Exynos 5 Dual chip is nothing to write home about from a performance perspective, the overall design of the notebook, its excellent 1366x768 IPS LED backlit LCD display and 100GB of free Google Drive storage makes it an attractive proposition for someone looking for a productivity-first mobile device on the go.

The HP Chromebook 11 uses Google's much improved Chrome OS, which is much less dependent on having access to an always on Internet connection. Applications that can now be used offline include Google Docs and Email, and with Office compatibility you will be able to get plenty done on the go. As an added bonus, Chrome Remote Desktop also allows you to access your PC or Mac desktop when on the go as well, helping to ensure that if you're Chromebook hasn't got something you need to get the job done, you have a solid back up option although performance isn't going be like running Mac OS X or Windows natively. Chrome OS, like on the Surface 2, allows you to work with two documents side-by-side, which can often come in handy from an Office-style productivity perspective.

The HP Chromebook weighs only 2.3 pounds (1.03kg), which makes it the heaviest option here although this makes it lighter than many ultrabooks. It has a similar level of instant-on capability to the iPad Air and Surface 2, so it makes it very easy to toss in a backpack and get up and running in a flash, while throwing it back in your backpack is just as easy. The keyboard is comfortable to use and the trackpad works quite well too. A clever tapered leading edge also makes typing a more comfortable experience. The classy 11.6-inch display is also the largest and makes reading and viewing documents easier on the eyes. Downsides include the relatively short battery life at around 5-6 hours and a relatively poor stand-by time when not in use. Entertainment options are sound, but trying to control touchscreen-first games with a mouse isn't particularly enjoyable, though watching movies and listening to music while you work is possible.


If you are looking for a lightweight, compact, productivity-first solution, it is hard go past the Microsoft Surface 2. Even if Windows 8.1 RT has not exactly set the world on fire, the Surface 2 is the best tablet you can buy if you need to get Office-style productivity done on the go. The way that it integrates a backlit keyboard with its dual position stand means that you can set it up just about anywhere from a coffee table, or on your lap, and get meaningful productive work done. We prefer it to a notebook for its lightweight, rugged finish that makes it a snap to set up and pop away in a flash. It also has excellent battery life, and is right up there with the all-day power of the latest Intel 'Haswell' based notebooks. Although it lacks many of the apps of the iPad Air, including the creative applications like Garageband, the fact that the latest version of Office is included for free makes it a compelling option. Watching video, while also being able to simultaneously get other things done is a bonus.

The Chromebook is also a better productivity-first proposition than the iPad Air. Even if it is somewhat underpowered and suffers from its limitations as a thin client, web-reliant OS, its compact notebook form factor, ability to use Google Docs offline, excellent display and attractive pricing push it past the iPad Air. It's below average battery life counts against it, and while there are offline games available and access to Google Play Movies and Music for entertainment, it is not as compelling as the iPad Air or the Surface 2 from an entertainment perspective.

Although people are able to get plenty of work done on the iPad Air, it is more suitable for creative professionals in this regard. For creative professionals, the iPad Air may prove to be the most compelling option for getting work done. However, when it comes to Office-style productivity, even though Apple offers its iWork suite for free, you are still going to have to find a third-party folio/keyboard combination to make it properly useful in this regard. Even then, the overall user experience is not great, which is perhaps why Apple has declined to support the iPad in this way even though there is a booming aftermarket keyboard accessory market that it could easily tap into if it wanted.

If this was an entertainment first analysis, the iPad Air would come out on top, followed by the Surface 2 and then the HP Chromebook 11. If you want to get a more all-round look at the capabilities of each device, read our full reviews of the Apple iPad Air, the Microsoft Surface 2 and the HP Chromebook 11.

By Sanjiv Sathiah

by MacNN Staff



  1. rexray

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 07-15-02

    This author must normally be a Windows user, as that would explain the strange choice of the 2nd and 3rd-least business-adopted tablets, Windows RT and ChromeBook, over the most enterprise-activated tablet, which is the Apple iPad. The iPad app ecosystem is the overwhelming winner, including in the productivity category, compared to the other two ecosystems, which both lag so far behind that to think they will ever catch up is just blind wishful thinking. Considering the iPad app advantage only stands to improve with the long-delayed introduction of Microsoft Office for iPad, the conclusions of this article just seem all the more ridiculous.

    By the way, "sweeting" is a type of apple. The correct usage would be "sweetening."

  1. Sanjiv Sathiah

    MacNN Staff

    Joined: 06-05-13

    @rexray - Thanks for picking up the typo - I'm well familiar with the usage holding an Honors degree in Literature as I do. Just because Microsoft has made a better tablet when it comes to Office-style productivity doesn't by default make me a Windows user.. Quite the contrary. My default OS at home is Mac OS X, while I do also use Windows 8.1 and Ubuntu from time to time. I also use iOS, Android and Windows Phone as well and am quite prepared to use any operating system to give it a go as I love technology first and foremost. It is fair to point out Enterprise adoption of the iPad, which is great to see, but I would still prefer to do Office-style productivity on the Surface 2 over the iPad everyday. Don't get me wrong; I still think that the iPad Air is the best overall tablet on the market. That doesn't make it the best at everything though.

  1. aviamquepasa

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 10-22-11

    A lot of people need a pen, and for them the Samsung Note is best.
    Also, a lot of people need sometimes 3G connectivity, so Surface is out of choice.

  1. Inkling

    Senior User

    Joined: 07-25-06

    The writer seems trapped in the Microsoft Office ecosystem and perhaps deserves our sympathy rather than condemnation. Some of us consider the inability to run Microsoft Office under iOS a marvelous feature. At any rate, rumors that an iOS version of Office is ready for release, awaiting only clearance by corporate politics, should squash that argument. And the best counter to the claim that an iPad doesn't make a good laptop substitute is the fact that for two years I've been trying to convince myself that I need a MBA to replace an ancient MacBook that's trapped two OS Xs back. It hasn't worked. For what I use a laptop for, an iPad with Apple's Bluetooth keyboard is fine.

  1. prl99

    Mac Enthusiast

    Joined: 03-24-09

    "Thanks for picking up the typo - I'm well familiar with the usage holding an Honors degree in Literature as I do."

    You might have an honors degree in literature but not any degree in English composition. Your sentence structure is very poor. As for your review, I agree with @rexray. You probably only use Microsoft Office products so, of course, your recommendation is to purchase a worthless laptop running Windows. Since the Surface is a convertible tablet/laptop, why not include the MacBook Air, which is capable of running the Office suite. I see no reason to load what would be bloatware Office when/if it ever arrives for iOS since tablets were never seen as a full replacement for desktops/laptops. Pages and Numbers are fine for handling Word and Excel type of files on a small form-factor device, why try and cram applications that have no real-world reason to run on tablets? Microsoft is dying even in the enterprise because Microsoft charges way too much for client licenses and support. Enterprises and government installations are finally discovering that they can't exist if they have to continue being reamed by Microsoft. What new software product has Microsoft released lately? Nothing is the correct answer.

  1. SierraDragon

    Mac Elite

    Joined: 03-22-04

    "Productivity" is a function of the work intended, NOT a function of Office-type usage. For ereading or walkaround usage like counting warehouse inventory a Chromebook or a 2-pound Surface Pro flat fail for ergonomic reasons. Similarly, for large text or spreadsheet document production any tablet flat fails.

    The value of convertible flexibility is very, very limited. There is a reason that despite huge PR expenditures and the head start of 80% desktop OS market share the Surface Pros have sold so very few devices.

  1. justcurious1

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 03-18-13

    I have to concur with Sanjiv on this one. IT departments hate the iPad. We have one client that can't stand management constantly telling them to incorporate them. They can hardly way to supplant iPads with Surfaces because of Office and better connectivity with their Microsoft infrastructure. Once Microsoft creates a tile version Office then I think the gains that the iPad has made in corporate are going start reversing. Profit-wise it makes sense for Microsoft to release Office for iOS, strategically it doesn't. Better cloud integration and management is crucial for Apple. It sucks right now. Why do I have to go to my System Preferences to delete files in iCloud? Is Apple insane? Is that intuitive? Not having a natural keyboard is bad and finally please let us attach a mouse. You've made your point, Apple. You've successfully forced finger-based thinking into the minds of developers so now let us have a mouse.

  1. pairof9s

    Senior User

    Joined: 01-03-08

    I tend to disagree...Surface had Office from the get-go and was the crowning feature promoted at its launch. Corporate dismissed it, nonetheless. Some of that lies at the feet of Microsoft and its recent screw-ups in Windows one feels the trust in Windows, especially in a new hardware paradigm like tablets.

    iPad may not be the most powerful productivity solution, but what it excels at is being a tightly integrated, easy to use, highly mobile device that avoids the need to even require a mouse or regular keyboard (of which I find it puzzling that people greatly promote the Surface keyboard when it is a separate purchase just like any iPad add-on keyboard).

  1. Fonejacker

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 01-11-10

    Justcurious1; Re your comment; Not having a natural keyboard is bad and finally please let us attach a mouse. You've made your point, Apple. You've successfully forced finger-based thinking into the minds of developers so now let us have a mouse. Just in case you didn't know, you can add/attach many, many different types of keyboard from Apple's own wireless keyboard to 100 plus 3rd party keyboards. You can use any bluetooth wireless mouse or trackpad to the iPad. Apple gives you the option. I have yet to see any tablet apart from the iPad out in the wild, at coffee shops with a keyboard. If you really need a keyboard, that you will type hundreds if not thousands of words per day every day, you might as well get a laptop. MS Office is a truck of a program on a PC, it's still a truck on a tablet. Only Apple seems to understand people on the go need something smaller, thinner, easier, simpler to use and type, its called the iPad. I do think Microsoft's clickable keyboard a good design solution, but with the letters likely to disappear due to finger dirt, within weeks of use. Why don't you design a "natural keyboard" and sell it to iPad customers? What's stopping you? If you really think there is a market for "natural keyboards" that Apple forgot about.

  1. davidlfoster

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 12-06-05

    Correct me if I am wrong please, but isn't the version of Office installed on the Surface 2 non-commercial only. It would appear to be illegal to use it for commercial (aka business) use.

    Second, the Chrome device is NOT a tablet. It is consequently much less utilitarian for warehouse inventory and tracking or for use by medical professionals in practices and hospital environments -- these are use cases where tablets have undeniable, huge advantages. And its heavier weight and 5 hour battery life vs. 12+ hour life of the iPad Air which is less than half as heavy would seem to rule out its effective tablet-like utility to near ZERO.

    Finally, I agree with other commentators that Microsoft's less expensive RT devices came with Office from day one, gen one. I'm sure someone at Microsoft may be planning a landfill for the devices they still can't dispose of with fire sale pricing (aka - at loss pricing). Office is not such a big deal. I find the app 'Editorial' on the iPad is far superior for writing content than Office; Office can be used later to spiff up the document using styles and macros if desired; the world is rapidly moving more to web content. Editorial's sophisticated Markdown support and built-in Python programming support (surely businesses could contract a programmer to quickly write effective workflow solutions for their specific business needs) would seem well positioned for effective business productivity.

    From my limited experience with The Surface's keyboard cover, I find third party solutions for the iPad Air that are far superior for BOTH lap use and desk use (no flex -- which is horrible for typing). Plus there are a huge number of different solutions (too many perhaps) available for the iPad so a user of this platform has tremendous choice compared to users of the Surface (their covers or the highway). And the covers for the Surface 2 are ADD-ON's, just like 3rd party solutions for Apple's device -- a little fact that you seemingly sidestepped. And if a stand is truly considered essential, a extremely versatile one that is infinitely adjustable in BOTH portrait and landscape orientation just shipped from Zerochroma for $50. That sort of beats out two positions in one orientation, no?

    Simply stated, I think your inclusion of the Chrome device is apples vs. grapefruits, and your insistence for built-in MS Office capability decided the comparison from the start as a forgone conclusion. Right now I think the Surface is a great choice for people who need Excel for complex spreadsheet creation on the go and can get their work done in 8 hours or less with no need to hold it or use it in their laps.

  1. sportmac

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 04-20-09

    geesh. you can't give the "edge" to a product that ships with office. that's like giving the "edge" to because skype is built in. this is on ms to be cross platform.

    for apple to truly compete in office type productivity (which is one lameass baseline to begin with) it needs to implement a precision input. for email and writing this finger based copy/paste/select/etc does not get it done. it is awkward and time consuming. they need to put a frickin cursor capability in the os.

  1. pottymouth

    Dedicated MacNNer

    Joined: 11-19-03

    You lost me at the very first word. We each have our own qualifications for what constitutes "productivity". For me, a word processor is unimportant and a keyboard would only get in the way.

    You should probably change your A-head to "Office-style Productivity Shootout" as you did in the B-heads.

  1. ex2bot

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 01-17-06

    On March 16 at 11:20 A.M., Prl99 replied to the author:
    >>"Thanks for picking up the typo - I'm well familiar with the usage holding an Honors degree in Literature as I do."
    >>>>You might have an honors degree in literature but not any degree in English composition. Your sentence structure is very poor.

    Saying the author's sentence structure is "very poor" is just unfair, Prl99. I read through the article quickly, and then I re-read part of it after I read your post. The sentence structure is fine overall. Your comment seems mean spirited, so I'm calling you out on that one. I'm sure you can argue a different conclusion with better manners.

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