04 Dec 2012, Alastair Stevenson , V3
This has been a big year for tablets, with both Google and Microsoft looking to take a slice of Apple's pie releasing their first ever own-brand devices.
However, not resting on its laurels, Apple's come out swinging, releasing what we think is its best iPad to date.
Design and build
Answering which of the three tablets looks the nicest is pretty difficult and fairly subjective. The iPad, Nexus 10 and Surface are visually about as different as you can get, reflecting the varied design philosophies of their makers.
This means that the new iPad looks fairly similar to its predecessors, featuring the same metal back and slightly rounded edges. Microsoft's Surface by comparison has a much more industrial look, being entirely made of metal and featuring much harder edges.
Similarly, the Nexus 10 boasts a design that marks it as unmistakably Samsung built, featuring rounded corners and a slightly curved back that make it look similar to the Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet.
Despite their visual differences the three tablets all feature fairly similar dimensions, with the iPad measuring in at 241x186x9.4 mm, the Surface at 245x172x9.3mm and the Nexus 10 at 264x177x8.9mm.
It's only when you come to the three tablets' weight that you see a significant difference, with the Nexus being far lighter than the 662g iPad and 676g Surface. This is because the 603g Nexus is made of plastic not metal.
This means that even though the Nexus 10 is more comfortable in hand, it is the least durable of the three, feeling slightly less solidly built than the iPad and Surface RT.
Between the Surface and the iPad we found it more difficult to judge. The only factor we found to distinguish between the two, is that the iPad's chassis is slightly more scratch proof than the Surface.
We discovered this when carrying all three of the tablets home in a bag, with the black Surface managing to pick up a scratch along its rear side. With prolonged use we found this was systematic of a wider problem with the Surface's paint finish, which is fairly prone to chipping.
Winner: The Apple iPad
Next: Screen and software
Screen technology has become a key battleground in the device market. This started when Apple released its iPad with retina display earlier this year, claiming it was the clearest screen ever featured on a tablet or mobile device.
Since then every tablet manufacturer has looked to match or even beat the new iPad's 9.7in, 1536x2048 pixels, 264 ppi screen's performance. Keeping up this tradition, Google released the Nexus 10 touting its screen as the best currently used in a tablet.
Having put the screen to the test we have to concede there is some truth to Google's boast. As well as being very sharp, with icons, images and text appearing crystal clear even when zoomed in on, the Nexus 10's 10in 2,560x1,600 299ppi resolution display is brilliantly bright and vibrant.
Putting it head to head with the Apple iPad, testing the two by downloading high resolution images of a number of famous works of art, we found the Nexus 10's screen to be slightly better - though this was only after a prolonged period of staring intently at both screens and in general they are both close to identical when it comes to performance.
Below the two, the Surface easily sat in third place. This is because its 10.6in, 1366x768 pixels 148ppi touch screen, while more than usable, looks significantly duller and less crisp than the Nexus 10's and Apple iPad's displays.
Winner: The Nexus 10
Like their designs, the Nexus 10, iPad and Surface all run using radically different operating systems. The Nexus 10 features Google's latest Android 4.2 Jelly Bean OS, while the iPad runs using iOS 6 and the Surface Microsoft's Windows RT.
As we've said in past head to heads, picking between the Nexus 7's Jelly Bean and iPad's iOS 6 operating systems is a challenge. This is because the answer to which is better largely depends on which ecosystem you're already embedded in.
The iPad's iOS 6 operating system is great for those with other Apple devices. The operating system originally arrived on the iPhone 5 and added new iCloud integration features that help users share data across all their Apple products.
For example, the Safari web browser pre-installed on all Apple products can be set up to automatically open web pages loaded on a Mac computer on any iPhone or iPad synchronised with the user's iCloud account.
While it sounds small, we found the feature was useful when attempting to conduct research on the move, allowing us to continue researching an article we'd began working on at home when commuting to the office.
Next: Software (continued)
However, for those not embedded within Apple's ecosystem Google's Android offers a host of unique and compelling features.
Google Now is a good example of this. Google Now is a dynamic push update feature that aims to offer users up to the minute useful information on their immediate area.
The service does this using dynamic "cards". The cards appear the moment you turn the Nexus 10 on, or can be accessed by pulling up from the Nexus 10's home button. The cards show everything from nearby restaurants to local public transport information.
Another good example, is Jelly Bean's newly added ability to run multiple user accounts off the tablet. The new feature lets you have similar account management powers to those seen on a regular Windows PC. The feature will be useful for business users, letting IT managers set up the tablet for use by multiple employees or create bespoke work and personal accounts.
This means that while Apple's iOS does have a compelling complete ecosystem offering, as a standalone OS in our mind it isn't as interesting as Android. For this reason picking between the two is fairly difficult.
However, lording above the two when it comes to business use is the Surface's Windows RT OS.
Windows RT is essentially a stripped down version of Microsoft's main Windows 8 platform designed for tablets, adding support for ARM-based processors. This means the OS is full of services and features aimed at business users.
Chief among these are the OS' Office and Outlook features. Windows RT devices come with Office 2013 pre-installed. This means that users can create and edit Word, Excel and Powerpoint documents on the move.
This fact is helped by the OS' SkyDrive integration. SkyDrive is Microsoft's answer to Google's Drive service, letting users back up and sync documents on the cloud. Using SkyDrive, Surface owners can sync documents between their central work station and tablet, and carry on working on them from the exact same point they left them when away from the office.
While Google Drive offers similar features, its Google Docs editing software isn't as good, featuring a significantly less thorough spell checker and having a tendency to muck up document formatting when importing them from Office.
Additionally, we, found it was far easier to integrate Windows RT's built-in Mail and Calendar apps with our corporate Exchange accounts. For these reasons we really do think the Surface's RT software is better for bring your own device work purposes.
However, it's worth noting for entertainment purposes the Surface isn't anywhere as good, featuring significantly less apps. This is because, by using ARM architecture, Windows RT isn't compatible with earlier Windows software.
Winner: The Microsoft Surface RT
Next: Performance and camera
When it comes to performance all three of the tablets are very good, with the Nexus, iPad and Surface all using top end components.
However, of the three the iPad is the most interesting, packing Apple's A6X dual-core processor with quad-core graphics. Apple's yet to reveal the processor's exact speed, though traditionally iPad components have clocked in at lower than competing Android devices.
Yet, this doesn't mean the iPad is necessarily slower than the Nexus 10 or Surface RT. In the past despite being on paper slower than competitors, the iPads have managed to offer equivalent or superior performance thanks to their iOS software.
Apple has always used a closed development process when creating its products. The advantage of this is that it lets Apple optimise its software and components to work together, thus meaning they can theoretically match the performance of on paper faster products.
This meant that running against the 1.7GHz Cortex A15-powered Nexus 10, we found Apple's iPad generally offered equivalent to slightly better performance.
The same was true when we tested the iPad against the 1.3GHz quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 T30-powered Surface RT. Here again we found the iPad boasted slightly quicker performance, generally loading videos and launching apps a fraction of a second faster.
That said, this is all based on very basic speed testing. To date there isn't a benchmarking tool that reliably works on all three platforms, making it difficult to fully judge the three tablets' comparative performance.
Winner: The Apple iPad
When it comes to taking photos and shooting video the Microsoft Surface is the worst performer, featuring bare-bones 720p front and rear cameras. Both cameras are pretty dire at taking photos, with images coming out hazier and with poorer colour balance than on the iPad and Nexus.
The reality is that both the Surface RT's cameras aren't really good for anything but video calling.
Taken on the Microsoft Surface RT
The iPad and Nexus 10 however are slightly better, both featuring 5MP rear-facing cameras. Testing the two, neither tablet's cameras match the stellar performance seen on smartphones like the Lumia 920 or iPhone 5.
Taken on the Apple iPad
Images taken in normal lighting conditions generally come out fine on both devices, boasting decent enough colour balance levels and being reasonably crisp. However, in more difficult high or low light conditions both are close to useless, with photos coming out hazy and unevenly coloured.
Taken on the Nexus 10
This means that while, if desperate the iPad and Nexus 10 can be used as cameras, we wouldn't recommend it. Luckily the Nexus 10's 1.9MP and iPad's 1.2MP front-facing cameras are more than adequate for video calling purposes.
Winner: Tie between Google Nexus 10 and Apple iPad
Next: Connectivity, storage, battery and price
The Apple iPad is the only tablet to boast 3G or 4G connectivity options, with the Nexus 10 and Surface currently being Wi-Fi-only devices.
Outside of this all three feature bluetooth connectivity, though the Nexus 10 is the only tablet to boast NFC, packing Google's Android Beam service.
Winner: The Apple iPad
When it comes to storage, the iPad offers the most options coming in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB models. Below it the Surface comes in second being available in 32GB and 64GB options, while the Nexus ranks in last offering users 16GB and 32GB options.
However, despite only offering two storage options, Microsoft's Surface is the only tablet to feature a microSD card slot. This means the tablet is the only tablet that will let users expand the device past 64GB, making it the only valid choice for users looking to load the device full of large files such as video, music or digital artwork projects.
Winner: Microsoft Surface RT
The Google Nexus 10 and Microsoft Surface RT are both listed on paper as having nine hour battery lives with "multimedia use". Above them both Apple lists the iPad as having a 10-hour battery life.
Testing the three devices batteries by constantly looping videos with the screen set at automatic brightness, we found the Apple iPad lived up to its on paper dominance, outlasting the Nexus 10 and Surface.
Enacting our test three times we found the iPad lasted over 10 hours, even for continual video playback. The Nexus, which took second place, generally managed to make it to roughly the seven-hour mark before petering out. In third, the Microsoft Surface RT fared the worst with its battery dying at five and half hours on our first test, six on our second and roughly seven on our third.
Winner: The Apple iPad.
Of the three tablets, the Nexus 10 is the cheapest, costing £319 for the 16GB model and £389 for the 32GB version.
The similarly specced Wi-Fi-only iPad and Surface models cost significantly more, with the 32GB versions of both costing £479 and £399 respectively.
Winner: The Google Nexus 10
Next: Overall winner
Despite very stiff competition from its new rivals, the Apple iPad retains its crown as top 10in tablet, boasting a compelling complete ecosystem offering, a decent - albeit not on a par with the Nexus 10's - screen, fast performance and excellent battery life.
However, we should point out that for those looking for a full-on laptop replacement, the Surface RT is currently the only valid option, featuring support for Microsoft's email and a full version of Office 2013. The only downside of this is that people wanting to use the Surface in this way will have to buy its Touch Cover keyboard add-on, which adds an extra £80 to the device's cost.
Similarly, the Nexus 10 features its own unique selling points, boasting a host of custom Android software services like Google Now and more affordable price tag.