Microsoft's slick new Windows 8 Surface tablet looks great, though pricing remains a question. Get up close with 10 of its most compelling features.
Microsoft's initial player in the the tablet game appears promising, even if key questions about the product remain unanswered. Unveiled at a June 18th news conference in Los Angeles, the duo of new Windows 8-based "Surface" tablets target consumers as well as enterprise and power users. Chalk drawings of the mystery tablets (shown above) greeted the crowd outside the Microsoft event.
"The Surface is a PC. The Surface is a tablet. And the Surface is something new that we think people will absolutely love," said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer at the event.
Unfortunately, we won't know for several months if Ballmer is right. The first model, Surface for Windows RT, won't ship until Windows 8 arrives this fall. And the enterprise-friendly Surface for Windows 8 Professional will become available about three months later.
Sounds vague? Well, Surface's pricing is just as hazy. Surface for Windows RT will be available with either 32 GB or 64 GB of flash storage and will be priced "like comparable tablets" that use Nvidia's ARM processor, said Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft's Windows and Windows Live division. Surface for Windows 8 Professional will come in 64 GB and 128 GB models, feature an Intel Core i5 CPU, and be priced comparably with "competitive Ultrabook-class PCs." Microsoft will provide more pricing and packaging details as the Surface's shipping dates draw near.
The Surface tablets will have Wi-Fi, of course, but Microsoft has made no mention of cellular connectivity--an essential feature for the Pro model to succeed in the enterprise. Given the seemingly rushed nature of Microsoft's announcement--perhaps the intention was to steal thunder from Google's Android-based tablet rumored to arrive shortly--it's possible that negotiations with cellular carriers are ongoing.
Another question is how Microsoft will differentiate its tablets. As Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps pointed out in a recent blog post, Microsoft must be careful not to befuddle its customers:
"Selling x86-based tablets in the same retail channels as Windows RT tablets will confuse consumers and sow discontent if consumers buy x86 and think they're getting something like the iPad. Microsoft and its partners need to articulate a compelling strategy for how they will manage consumer expectations in the channel. Consumers aren't used to thinking about chipsets."
There's a lot to like about the Surface, and we've assembled a visual presentation of the tablet's 10 most compelling features. Dig in for a closer look.
Image credit: Jacob Dove
Microsoft believes a stand should be an integral part of a tablet's design. (Take that, iPad!) The Surface's built-in kickstand is made of the same sturdy VaporMg material--more on this later--that encases the slate. "The hinge design is like that of the finest luxury car," said Microsoft's Steven Sinofsky, sounding a bit like a car salesman. The stand does look ideal for landscape-mode viewing. But how well will it work in portrait mode?
You've gotta be thin to compete with the iPad. The Surface for Windows RT is 9.3 millimeters thick--or "thin," as the marketing folks are fond of saying. That's 0.1 millimeters thinner than the new iPad, not that you'll notice the difference. The Surface's edges are beveled back at 22 degrees, making the slate appear even slimmer than its specs might suggest. Surface is the first PC with a full magnesium case, making it light yet rigid, Redmond says.
The Surface's coolest feature isn't its 10.6-inch display or ultra-thin design, but rather the clever Touch Cover that's both a screen protector and a multi-touch keyboard. Just 3 millimeters thick--the Surface with Touch Cover attached measures a still-svelte 12 millimeters--the cover has a magnetic connector that secures it to the tablet.
The keyboard doubles as a track pad with left and right buttons, and has special keys for Windows 8's Metro interface. "On average, typing is twice as efficient as typing on glass," said Sinofsky. True? We'll have to wait a bit longer to find out. Microsoft didn't let reporters bang on the keyboard at the June 18th event.
The Surface's keyboard has a few more tricks up its sleeve. You can rest your hands on top of the keys, something you generally can't do with an onscreen keyboard. Microsoft invented a fast, pressure-sensitive digitizer that enables this feature; an algorithm helps determine whether you meant to press a key or not. Microsoft calls this feature "tap detection." One unanswered question: Will Touch Cover come with the basic Surface package or cost extra?
But wait, there's more: A second keyboard for fast touch-typists, or users who prefer the feel of tactile keys, will be available too. Called "Type Cover," it offers 1-millimeter key travel in an extremely thin package.
The iPad and other tablets are targeted primarily at consumers, but Microsoft is casting a wider net. While the Windows RT-based consumer model uses an ARM processor, the powerful Surface for Windows 8 Professional is designed for power users and enterprises. Featuring a 3rd-generation Intel Core i5 CPU, the Pro model runs Windows desktop apps, has full HD (1080p) graphics, supports digital ink for pen input, and even has a nifty magnetic-charging connector for a stylus.
Price? Microsoft says Surface Pro will be competitive with high-end Ultrabooks, which suggests it'll cost somewhere north of $1,000. During his presentation at the Surface event, Microsoft corporate VP Michael Angiulo kept referring to the Pro model as a "PC" rather than a tablet. Given its features, that's an apt description.
Microsoft is very proud of its VaporMg manufacturing process that enables the Surface's sturdy shell, smooth finish, sleek design, and intricate angles. The complex procedure begins with an ingot of magnesium, which is melted down to a molten state and molded to 0.65 millimeters thick; by comparison, a credit card is 0.75 inches thick. The resulting VaporMg case is thin yet strong. "They've stacked every component so tightly in the product that if you stuck a piece of tape in the middle of the device, it would bulge out," said Panos Panay, leader of the Microsoft team that created Surface.
The Surface may be ultra-thin, but it's thick enough for a full-sized USB port. Surface for Windows RT supports USB 2.0, while Surface for Windows 8 Pro supports the speedier USB 3.0 spec. The benefit here, of course, is that you won't have to cough up more cash for an overpriced proprietary cable to connect your USB-based peripherals. Are you listening, Apple?
Surface has two cameras--front and back--which is de rigueur for an iPad competitor. Microsoft hasn't release the cameras' specs yet, but has said the rear-facing "LifeCam" is angled to 22 degrees, allowing you to open the kickstand and conduct meetings hands-free. Surface's stereo speakers and dual microphones are "tuned for Skype," following Microsoft's high-profile purchase of the company last year. Given Skype's global popularity, a superior video-chat experience could help Surface gain a foothold in both the consumer and enterprise markets.
The Surface for Windows 8 Pro, powered by a speedy Intel Core i5 CPU, can run demanding Windows desktop apps that generate a lot of heat. So how does Surface stay cool? Microsoft's solution is "perimeter venting," a groove that extends around the outside of the case. The design allows air to be uniformly distributed across the entire tablet. Your hands won't block the airflow, either.
The 10.6-inch ClearType HD Display has a 16:9 aspect ratio and a wide viewing angle. Its optically-bonded design benefits stylus users by eliminating layers between the cover glass and the screen. "It feels like you're inking right on the page," said Angiulo. "The distance between the stylus and where I see the ink is only 0.7 millimeters. That's the thinnest and closest distance of any tablet PC--any inking tablet--ever." Good digital-ink capabilities will help Surface Pro's chances in the enterprise.
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