Microsoft's new Surface tablets make a solid first impression

Microsoft's new Surface tablets make a solid first impression

Summary: Microsoft's new Surface tablets are exquisitely engineered, and no one can accuse them of being me-too products. Yesterday's launch was impressive, but it also left many questions unanswered.


Monday, at an invitation-only media event in Los Angeles, Microsoft got the tech press to do something almost unprecedented: wait with eager anticipation for a Microsoft product announcement.

Even more astonishing is that the reveal lived up to the hype.

Microsoft’s new tablets, to be marketed under the Surface brand, are remarkable for many reasons:

They are exquisitely engineered. From a distance, the magnesium cases and ClearType displays are drop-dead gorgeous. The impression of world-class design and engineering is even more striking when you actually pick one up and play with it, as I was able to do (albeit briefly) following the press event.

The ARM-powered Windows RT model is one-tenth of a millimeter thinner than the latest iPad. It has a 10.6-inch screen with a 16:9 HD resolution, compared to the iPad’s 9.5-inch screen with a 4:3 aspect ratio. The larger display on the Surface means more weight—24 grams extra, to be precise, or just under an ounce more than its rival from Cupertino.

A second model, built around an Intel Ivy Bridge CPU, runs Windows 8 Professional. Compared to its Windows RT cousin it’s slightly less thin (13.5 mm instead of 9.4 mm) and heavier (903 g, or a sliver over 2 pounds, compared to 1-1/2 pounds).

This is no “me too” product. Both Surface models are unapologetically unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. The signature feature—one that probably has some Apple product designers wondering “Why didn’t we think of that?”—is the magnetic cover that snaps firmly into place and doubles as a keyboard. The Touch Cover (3 mm thin) comes in an assortment of bold colors and includes a full-size keyboard with slightly raised keys and a trackpad.  The Type Cover, at 5mm, uses the same layout, but with keys that have the travel you would expect from a conventional keyboard. To appreciate the clever design and solid working of the magnetic latch, you really have to try it.

There’s also a kickstand integrated into the case itself. Snap it open to rest the tablet open at a 22-degree angle, which is ideal for watching a movie, chatting via webcam, or typing.

Both covers offer some of the power-saving features of the iPad Smart Cover, but the integrated keyboard and kickstand are a genuine improvement. You can turn a Surface tablet into the functional equivalent of a notebook without third-party add-ons. And the snug-fitting, rigid cover makes it possible to use the device in this configuration even on a lap.

Oh, and both models have full-size USB ports (USB 2.0 for the Windows RT model, USB 3.0 for the Windows 8 Professional version). That’s a key differentiator from the iPad.

It’s a bold break from Microsoft’s classic business model. For years, Microsoft has been telling OEMs to pay attention to user experience, stop loading machines with crapware, and concentrate on a few great models instead of a full line of dozens of mediocre offerings. This introduction is the same message, delivered with genuine emotion and the equivalent of a punch in the gut: “OEMs, please pay attention. This is how you build a PC.”

In the press release announcing the new tablets, Microsoft says, “OEMs will have cost and feature parity on Windows 8 and Windows RT.” But it’s safe to say that Steve Ballmer’s voicemail box is overflowing with colorful messages, delivered at full volume, by the heads of the OEMs who will have to compete with these new designs.

Microsoft kept this project secret, with not a single leak. One executive told me that the team working on Surface started its work three years ago, at the same time that development began on Windows 8. Using the trademark of an already-established product helped, as did a windowless lab protected by the kind of security normally reserved for government agencies with three-letter acronyms.

So how many other, similarly well kept secrets are in the pipeline?

The room full of reporters and analysts who watched the unveiling were generally approving and occasionally wowed by the spectacle. But the launch left many unanswered questions, a few genuine uncertainties, and a slight bit of disappointment.

How much will these gizmos cost? Microsoft isn’t talking details. The official line is relatively vague:

Suggested retail pricing will be announced closer to availability and is expected to be competitive with a comparable ARM tablet or Intel Ultrabook-class PC.

If one assumes that “comparable ARM tablet” means an iPad equipped with 32 or 64 GB of memory, then the equivalent Windows RT Surface models should cost $600 and $700, respectively. Of course, that price will presumably include the keyboard cover (available as extra-cost add-ons from Apple and third parties). It will also include Microsoft Office. (In my hands-on tests, I was able to try out the Microsoft Office 2013 apps on a Windows RT Surface.)

As for the Windows 8 Professional Surface, the current crop of Ultrabooks runs $999, give or take a couple hundred dollars. That is, not coincidentally, the starting price of a MacBook Air.

Of course, one could make the case that a single Surface device is actually two devices in one—a tablet and a keyboard-equipped notebook. If prospective buyers accept that proposition, then a “competitive” price will seem like a bargain.

When can you buy one? Put your credit card back in your wallet:

Surface for Windows RT will release with the general availability [GA] of Windows and the Windows 8 Pro model will be available about 90 days later. Both will be sold in the Microsoft Stores in the US and available through select online Microsoft Stores.

The smart money expects Windows 8 GA in October, which means a four-month wait for ARM-powered Surface tablets. And you’ll have to wait till early 2013 to get your hands on an Intel-powered Surface.

That’s disappointing. As I wrote yesterday, “Whatever Microsoft unveils tomorrow, I hope it’s not another big announcement of an exciting future product that won’t reach customers for 4-6 months or maybe even until next year.” Oops.

One possible reason for the long wait is competitive pressure. If other OEMs will be releasing their own devices to compete with Microsoft’s designs, it would be unsporting—and attract the attention of antitrust regulators—for Microsoft to beat them to market.

Detailed specs are sketchy. In the private demo area after the event, Joshua Topolsky of The Verge and I peppered Microsoft reps for details on specs like screen resolution, but we got no definitive answers. The press release says the Windows RT model has a “ClearType HD display,” while the Pro model has a “ClearType Full HD display.”

In his onstage introduction of the Pro model, Microsoft’s Mike Angiulo noted its “1080 resolution,” which would explain the “Full HD” label. Based on my inspection of the Windows RT version, I suspect it’s a 1366x768 device, which can handle 720p HD content.

Still, we shouldn’t need to ask for basic specs like this.

Battery life? No comment. It’s reasonable to expect that the two devices will be able to match Apple’s specs for the equivalent devices, but we won’t know until we can test shipping hardware.

This announcement was unprecedented both in its form and in its substance, and it will take some time to digest the impact of it all.

Will these new, unquestionably impressive designs put to rest the doubts that some critics have expressed about the Metro user experience?

Will consumers be confused by the differences between two similarly named devices with very different capabilities? A TV reporter I spoke with struggled with what should be a simple question: Do both these devices run Windows 8?

How will Android device makers react? The current crop of Android-powered tablets is incredibly weak compared to the iPad. The new Surface designs offer another point of comparison where Android falls far short.

How will Apple respond? Tim Cook’s dismissive remarks about Windows 8 tablets—"You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator..."—might ring a little hollow now that the real thing is available for comparison.

We’ll learn the answers to those questions over time. Meanwhile, I can’t wait to get my hands on one of these sleek new devices for more than 10 minutes.

See also:

Topics: Hardware, Laptops, Microsoft, Mobility, Operating Systems, Software, Tablets, Windows

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  • Ecosystem

    Very happy to see Microsoft with a strong offering in the still developing tablet market. I'm hoping this will be the benchmark Win8 tablet that the rest of the OEMs will attempt to live up to as they produce their own versions of Win8 tablets. It will be interesting to see the relationship Microsoft will have with other hardware providers. The best tact Microsoft can now that they have a flagship device is to allow other hardware vendors take creative liberties with innovative offerings. Their goal should be the distribution of Win8. Microsoft seems like they are well on their way to creating a true computing ecosystem across mobile, business front/backend computing, home entertainment, and home computing. I don't see any other heavyweights coming close to doing the same anytime soon.
    • Good timing too

      Gives OEMs notice on development direction and enough time to put together something similar in time for the Holiday timeframe. Between this and the new UB's, we (consumers) should see some pretty sweet devices/deals.
      • Good timing for who?

        OEMs now know that their primary supplier is now their primary competitor.

        Didn't we go through all of this when IBM was bundling hardware and software? Does anyone recall the result there?
      • Or leave Microsoft without OEM support

        Now that MS has stabbed its OEMs in the back MS may be on its own in the tablet market. Apple wins.
      • @patrickgood1 You sir have my respect

        Reading through the comments, I don't know if you are in fact accomplished or not... Nonetheless, if you are and I hope really are, you have my respect for being a great person and as a big part of IBM... That aside, go give that deusmachina kid some beating... he's like a persistent religious preacher on a park yelling and arguing that everyone is going to hell... I have nothing against religion or religious people, I just hate it when people try to reason out and shove their opinion up your a-- that it is definitive and there is no other way or opinion around it.
      • Thank You @zaghy2zy

        Thank you and I can honestly and humbly say I did not embellish my accomplishments in any manner. As a matter of fact I did not pull out the big gun. This one is huge. August of 2010 less than 2 months after the death of my father, I was laid up with four broken ribs from crashing my Segway. My mother was diagnosed with an incurable bone marrow cancer. When I became ambulatory I flew to her home in TX to keep her company and cook her meals. Over the next month I put in about 300 hours of research on the subject. A very short summary to a very long and interesting story I came up with a combination of chemotherapy drugs. In a 30 minute conversation at a his level of understanding of the disease, at the cellular level, her oncologist did not put her in the Mayo Clinic trial he was conducting and used the drugs I chose. I have no medical education. My mother's Father had died a horrible excruciatingly painful death from the same disease in 1973. Within two months of treatment I was able to say to my mother, "Mom you will not die from cancer" After two months of treatment she was in complete remission, so much so, that her oncologist agreed the disease would not return. After that not much else matters. Again thank you for your kind words. The oncologist was Dr. timothy Wassaner at Waukesha Memorial Hospital in Waukesha Wisconsin. The work I did for IBM was while I was employed with Ungermann Bass in Boca Raton. The Ethernet card was subed out because IBM did not support Ethernet. Their Milford CT Academic division said they could not sell the yet unannounced MicroChannel PC to a University without an Ethernet card. The board was featured on the cover of PC Week in April of 1987. If you go to TMCnet dot com slash voip and search for arlinx you will find the Arlinx CEO, not coincidentally, shares the same first name as me. And you can verify the recipient of their Spring 2007 Internet Telephony Expo's Editor's Choice Award. There is someone on Pinterest with a profile with a profile name the exact same as the one I use here. On that Pinterest profile you will find some very good screen shots made with an iPad. Going to the PoS software site featured on one of the Pinterest "boards" associated with this profile, you will find on their About page a very similar story.
      • @zaghy2zy One More

        Anyone can spout their mouth. Credibility is earned. Last week there was story on this site "What if the rumored 'Microsoft tablet' isn't a Windows tablet?" with talk about the Tablet not being an actual tablet but rather an eBook reader. I made a post where I took a minority stand and posted what I thought the tablet would (or should?) be. So far with what has been announced was spot on and I am batting 1000. The main thing still up in the air is display resolution and video performance. The resolution should be on par with the iPad3. I would hope the video performance would make the Tablet something an Xbox gamer would desire to own. I am not familiar with the current display market and do not know if there are is plentiful supply of 2048-by-1536 resolution displays available. Monday evening a columnist in attendance quoted an MS Representative saying it would have 1080 resolution and there was an HD marking on one of the units. If I am off on the video I will not be off by much.
    • "hardware vendors take creative liberties" is exactly the problem.

      Because up to now it's meant "crapware." PC OEMs have been on a constant race to the bottom using ever-thinning margins as WMDs against each other. First Apple comes into the tablet market with a vertically integrated hardware/software stack that allows them to create the great user experience that can justify huge gross margins. Now Microsoft, ostensibly their OS "partner", comes in and does the same. So now, not only do they have to directly compete against Apple, they also have to indirectly compete against the, still somewhat nebulous [at least on price and availability] Surface. Not a good place to be.

      Personally, I wouldn't be surprised if, after doing all the development and production calculus, several notable OEMs just forgo tablets altogether. Basically, the writing is on the wall, they would have to do a product as good as the Surface [i]appears[/i] to be at the price that iPad actually is. I'm not sure that's feasible.
      • ipad isnt the same product as this

        This is a real computer, real software... not a oversized ipod touch...
        it has usb ports, you can in theory load itunes on the win 8 intel tablet and sync your ipad!!!!!
        • Amen

          $1250 is a bargain!
      • Agree

        The tablet race was hopeless in the first place. Competition didn't have a real reason to produce tablets other than to try to carve out a piece of the Apple market. MSoft has had the guts to hit the market with full quality (and likely higher prices), targeting business, where Apple has the consumer market. To me, that's exciting.

        So now IT guys can breathe easily and simply install MSoft mobile devices like the Surface (and upcoming phones) - including deals to pay for them (at least partially), and not have to worry about setting up special systems to handle Apple in business products.
      • Yes it is

        First, the iPad is a "real computer". It can do things no machine from ten years ago, that you freely called a computer, could possibly do. Or do you think you can just reset the goal posts on definitions when they don't fit your argument.
        More importantly, I would like to see you try running Win8 desktop exes on the WinRT model. Good luck with that.
        As to your silly attempt at ad hominem, the world got past the "oversize iPod Touch" argument two years ago.
      • Actually, notrozer ...

        The iPad is *extremely* similar to the WinRT version; you'd just need a couple of third-party add-ons. Add that to the fact that the iPad has a gajillion apps for pretty much everything, and yep: it's basically an iPad competitor.

        BTW, the USB ports are a non-issue: for desk work, most people still want a bigger keyboard than this, or any tablet, has, so they'll still have a computer to dock with. If you're not at the computer and want to share files, there are a slew of ways to do that via the cloud (including Microsoft's SkyDrive). USB is required for a small, small number of people, but not for the vast majority of users - consumers or enterprise.

        As for the Win8 version, *most consumers* at least will see it as an iPad competitor, no matter what the IT folks think. The similarities are too strong.

        I see it as greatly appealing to enterprises and a small number of consumers. As the article says, though, it's a great way to push the OEMs to actually make a good product; they can't hide behind the excuse of, "Sure - Apple's slick as whale snot, but this is *Windows;* we're just not *like* that." Microsoft won't be minting money on these like Apple does on the iOS hardware (no one, but no one, has the Apple supply chain); it *has,* however, changed the conversation so that Windows hardware no longer has to be seen as functional-and-plain. I think that's a great thing for everyone.
      • deusexmachina??: You make some good points, but, the poster above also had

        some good points.

        The iPad is a computer, but, with limited capabilities. It doesn't have the storage capabilities of most PCs/Macs, and it doesn't have a keyboard that's not an afterthought, and it doesn't run most programs that a PC or even a Mac can run.

        By your definition, even a smartphone is a computer, with more power than a PC from ten years ago, but, we know it's not as capable as a "real" computer.
      • USB use

        The usb is very helpful, as many places does not have a good net access to use the cloud. Also many places 3G/4G bandwidth is expensive.
      • iPad is Not a Real Computer

        The only use for me, other than Browsing, is screen shots. It makes great screen shots of mobile websites I have created. Trying to find a usable app in the App Store is a nightmare. If it were a REAL computer I could create and load my own apps and AT LEAST a put a document on it without having to use iTunes. It crashes when I am viewing PDFs (78.75 inch page length). Safari crashes a lot especially when javaScript option selectors e.g. jQuery Mobile. My guess is that Apple has banned use of option selectors that do not use the iPads internal pop up. When I first got the iPad3, I thought my scroll swipe gestures were somehow closing the app, like I was moving the window. Then my daughter, the Apple Fan, says very matter-of-factly, "no it's just crashing".
        Touch response is slow as molasses. That does not happen on a REAL computer. Until the touch response time improves it is useless for Web Apps. As I see it I have a $500 screen shot generator. A nice screen shot generator. Every "Top 10 iPad Apps" article I have read, had nothing for me. Games? No! Camera? No! Organizer? Never going to happen. The iPad looks funny on a tripod. If I want to take a picture, I will use a camera, certainly not my screen shot generator.
      • There's An App for That and That and That

        From PC Mag (St. Patrick's Day) 3/17/12: The 32GB LTE iPad, priced at $729, costs Apple $375.10. Microsoft may (should) want to do no better than break even with the hardware to grab some market share. Then load it up with all the software they got laying around to increase the Value. Price means nothing when you offer value. THEN you have a functional tablet out of the box. No need to get an App for That and That and That.
      • More points

        The iPad is a computer, but, with limited capabilities. It doesn't have the storage capabilities of most PCs/Macs, and it doesn't have a keyboard that's not an afterthought, and it doesn't run most programs that a PC or even a Mac can run."

        The Window RT version will be limited to 32 GB, will not have nearly the Battery life, as it will have to power the keyboard. I understand the Kickstand, as after a few hours you won't want to be holding it in your hand. The Intel version might make it an hour, before it gets "too hot" to touch.
        Jumpin Jack Flash
      • MSFT OEMs haven't lived up the MSFT's and the consumer's expectations

        I couldn't be happier...and the OEM's worth anything will take the challenge to produce something that sets them apart. If the threat from Apple didn't light a fire under the OEMs to produce nicer looking and higher quality builds, then maybe MSFT's Surface will. There are some out there that will still rise to the top... Samsung, Lenovo, HP, Dell, Acer, ASUS...beyond that I don't know if the others care much and will compete solely on price...and go for the cheap Windows 8 like they do know with Windows products.
      • @Jumpin Jack Flash

        OK I will concede iPad is a "Limited" computer. All I ask in return is you allow me to substitute Limited with Useless. Good $500 screen shot generator / USELESS Computer.

        @deusexmachina A 386 is computer when compared to an iPad even today. On the 386 I can create Apps, load apps myself, and no one is setting rules to what I am allowed to run on a 386. I would rather have a tablet powered by a 386 that I could use than this iPad useless computing device I have.

        Yesterday, Microsoft referred the Surface as a PC, not so much as a Tablet. They even went as far as to correct someone that called it a Tablet.