Microsoft has introduced its own range of tablets called Surface, a shift of gear into hardware that will take it into direct competition with Apple and its iPad.
Steven Sinofsky, Mike Angiulo and Panos Panay pose with both versions of the Surface tablet, and with a selection of Touch Covers. Image credit: Simon Bisson/ZDNet
On Monday, chief executive Steve Ballmer demonstrated two Surface tablets at an event in Los Angeles. The 10.6-inch Windows-based devices come with covers that can be used as keyboards to turn the tablet into a laptop-like set-up — a "new kind of PC", according to Windows president Steven Sinofsky.
The range is "another piece of the Microsoft Windows story", Ballmer said during his presentation, after looking back at the Microsoft's previous forays into hardware. "Windows 1.0 needed a mouse... and Windows 8 needed its own companion hardware innovation — hardware and software pushing each other."
Both models come with a detachable magnetic keyboard cover called Touch Cover. This uses pressure-sensitive sensors to provide a full keyboard and trackpad in a case only 3mm thick. Sensors in the Surface change the colours shown on screen to match those of a connected keyboard, which comes in several shades. An accelerometer in the cover can also detect what position it is in and switch it off if it is folded flat.
The magnetic connections means the Surface "feels like a book when you close it", Panos Panay, lead Surface designer at Microsoft, said during the demonstration.
A kickstand on the back of the tablet allows it to be set on a desk like a monitor. This means the Surface can be used in a typical display/keyboard laptop set-up, as well as a handheld tablet.
"We took the time to do something that is very different and very special," Ballmer said. "Because of Windows 8, the Surface is a PC, is a tablet, is something new that we think people will love."
Microsoft has been producing hardware for 30 years, but the Surface family will be their first PCs. With limited distribution through its own stores Surface is unlikely to have significant impact on Microsoft's OEM relationships, though it should encourage OEMs to deliver comparable hardware of their own.
The Surface models have a 10.6-inch Clear Type HD display with a 16:9 aspect ratio. They have a magnesium case with a vapour-deposition finish — a process Microsoft calls VaporMg. Built-in USB and HDMI connectors provide links to standard PC peripherals.
While they share many features, there are physical differences between the two device versions. The ARM-based Surface running Windows RT is 9.3mm thick, weighs 676g and is available in 32GB and 64GB versions. (By comparison, the most recent iPad measures 9.4mm and weighs 662g with Wi-Fi.) Unlike the other model, it comes with Microsoft Office pre-loaded — the Home & Student 2013 RT edition, part of Office 15.
The alternative Surface is an ultrabook-class tablet built on Intel's Core i5 processor, running Windows 8 Pro. It is 13.5mm thick, weighs 903g and comes in 64GB and 128GB versions. Dual digitisers mean there's support for pen input as well as touch input. It works with the same accessories as the ARM device, such as Touch Cover, and a full keyboard with discrete keys, the 5mm-thick TypeCover, will be available for this model only.
Pricing for Surface will be competitive with ARM tablets and with Intel ultrabooks, according to Microsoft. The devices will initially be sold online and in Microsoft stores and in key regions. Surface for Windows RT will go on sale when Windows 8 launches — no date has been announced, but this is widely expected to be near the end of August. Surface for Windows 8 Pro will follow after three months. Microsoft has yet to give details of UK availability.