Over the last few months, I’ve spent a lot of time with tablets running Windows 8 and Windows RT, particularly the Microsoft Surface with Windows RT, ASUS VivoTab RT, Acer Iconia W510, and Samsung ATIV Smart PC 500T (above, clockwise, starting in the lower-left). All four tablets are good in their own right, but I’ve been especially pleased with the Surface RT and ATIV Smart PC 500T. My goal is not to declare an absolute winner. Rather, I will be comparing and contrasting some key aspects of the devices, pointing out each one’s strengths and weaknesses and noting my personal preference in each category.

Hardware Design

Aesthetically, the Surface wins the design category hands-down, followed by the VivoTab and ATIV. The Iconia, while decent, isn’t very appealing. Of course, there’s more to the hardware than just what it looks like. The Surface RT build quality is also quite excellent. What it doesn’t have, however, is a physical rotation lock button, something that Acer and Samsung’s devices include. While this feature is implemented in the Windows 8 OS, a hardware button is especially convenient.

Unlike previous versions of Microsoft’s OS, Windows 8 is very reliant on the Start button/key/Charm. The capacitive Start button on the Surface and the physical Start button on the ATIV both feel great, but I wasn’t as pleased with the one on the VivoTab and Iconia, with the latter being especially problematic.

In a world where tablets are constantly used for media consumption and – often times – productivity, a kickstand is very nice to have. While you can purchase keyboard docks or cases for the VivoTab, Iconia, and ATIV to keep the screen upright, the Surface has a kickstand built right into the device. This, more than any other feature, has spoiled me to the point where the Surface is my go-to device for watching videos on a tablet. It’s nice to be able to set it on my lap or on a table and just hit play.

For the most part, all four devices have the same ports and connectivity options, but the VivoTab and Iconia require a special dongle in order to use the USB 2.0 port. This can be frustrating if you’re out of the house and forgot to bring the dongle. Thankfully, the full-size port is built into the Surface and ATIV, so you can plug in a USB device at any time. As for the power cable, the ATIV’s offers the greatest length and it can be connected with the cable angling in any direction. This is in direct comparison to the Iconia’s power cable, which felt short at times and stuck out at an awkward angle.

Personal Preference: Microsoft Surface with Windows RT
Runner-Up: Samsung ATIV Smart PC 500T

Compatibility

This category is divided up into two sub-categories: Windows 8 and Windows RT. The Surface RT and VivoTab RT run – you guessed it – Microsoft’s new OS which has been designed to run on ARM processors. Unfortunately, desktop applications aren’t compatible with ARM processors, so you’ll only have access to apps on the Windows Store. Some of these aren’t compatible with ARM either, but the vast majority are. Windows RT has worked great for me in everyday use, although I probably wouldn’t recommend using one of these devices as your sole PC. While they are great for both consumption and productivity (Office 2013 RT comes free), they work best as companion devices like the iPad and Android tablets. And like these devices, Windows RT tablets are extremely secure.

The Iconia and ATIV, on the other hand, run full-blown Windows 8 thanks to their Intel “Clover Trail” processors. I was initially skeptical that they’d be able to meet the size, heat, and battery life standards of the ARM devices, but Intel and the hardware manufacturers were able to create devices which are comparable in almost every way. As a result, you can install everything from Outlook (which is not available in Office 2013 RT) to Photoshop and the SkyDrive for Windows desktop application. I’ve already run into a few situations where having a desktop application on a tablet has come in handy, even though I don’t need them in most cases.

The one downside is that the Iconia comes riddled with crapware. The situation with the ATIV is much better, but you’ll still have to uninstall a few applications before it’s ready to go.

Personal Preference: Windows 8
Runner-Up: Windows RT

Screen Size

All four devices run at a resolution of 1366 x 768, but they come in three different sizes. The VivoTab and Iconia have standard 10.1-inch displays, while the Surface has a custom 10.6-inch screen. But if the size is important to you, you’ll like the ATIV’s 11.6-inch display. The Surface’s screen size seems to hit the sweet spot between size and portability, but the one on the ATIV is very easy to carry around too, making it a close second.

Personal Preference: Microsoft Surface with Windows RT
Runner-Up: Samsung ATIV Smart PC 500T

Performance

While each device I’m comparing features similar specs – the biggest differences being the processor and screen size – the “Clover Trail” processor has a slight advantage over ARM. Apps opened up noticeably faster on devices with Intel’s processor, and things just seemed to run smoother. That being said, it isn’t a huge difference, and the ARM devices are perfectly usable. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be taking a look at the performance of individual desktop applications on “Clover Trail” devices. But for now, I’ve been very impressed by how little battery life applications like SkyDrive for Windows desktop have used up while running in the background. I’ve noticed a few performance hiccups with the Iconia, but it’s still slightly faster than the ARM devices.

Personal Preference: Samsung ATIV Smart PC 500T
Runner-Up: Acer Iconia W510

Keyboard/Stylus

The Surface, VivoTab, Iconia, and ATIV can all be purchased with or without a keyboard, but if a keyboard is important to you – and in my opinion, it should be - it will be a major factor in which device you choose. If portability is paramount, the Surface’s Touch and Type Covers are the way to go. They perfectly blend a magnetic cover with a 3mm touch keyboard or a 5mm keyboard with standard keys. I always have a physical keyboard with me when I carry around the Surface, thanks to how thin and portable the covers are.

If you’d prefer to emulate a laptop-like experience, the keyboard docks for the VivoTab and Iconia provide just that while nearly doubling the device’s total battery life. The ATIV has a keyboard dock too, but it doesn’t include a battery. These docks are much thicker and heavier than the Surface’s Touch/Type Covers, but the benefits will outweigh these costs for many people. I’ve only had hands-on time with the ASUS VivoTab RT Mobile Dock (look for our review on Tuesday), but my Samsung ATIV Smart PC 500T dock will be arriving soon.

The ATIV Smart PC 500T also comes with a digital S-Pen, allowing you to write notes directly on documents, draw diagrams and sketches, etc. A digital stylus is nothing new (I had a Toshiba tablet with a pen back in 2006), but it’s very nice to have around. This, combined with the keyboard dock, makes the ATIV the most versatile of the four devices.

Personal Preference: Surface Touch/Type Cover
Runner-Up: Samsung S-Pen

Battery Life

When it comes to battery life, these tablets are fairly similar across the board. Each offers approximately nine hours of battery life, which is plenty for day-to-day use; especially if you charge it every night. But whereas the Surface’s thin Touch/Type Cover is great for portability, the keyboard docks for the VivoTab and Iconia add an additional seven to nine hours of power, significantly extending your battery life. So if battery life is key, you’ll want to pick up one of those two tablets and a keyboard dock. If not, any of the four will work equally well.

Personal Preference: ASUS VivoTab RT with Mobile Dock
Runner-Up: Acer Iconia W510 with Keyboard Dock

Gallery

As you can see, each device has its strengths and weaknesses, but there are two obvious frontrunners. Still, you shouldn’t take this to mean that the other two are inadequate; this is just a brief look at each device. For more in-depth coverage, check out our reviews of the Microsoft Surface with Windows RT and the ASUS VivoTab RT. And stay tuned for our reviews of the Acer Iconia W510 (coming this Monday) and Samsung ATIV Smart PC 500T.

The Acer Iconia W510 and Samsung ATIV Smart PC 500T tablets were provided to me, by Intel, as part of the company’s #IntelTablets #TabletCrew program.