Microsoft finally takes the wraps off its Surface hardware

Microsoft finally takes the wraps off its Surface hardware

Summary: Until now, Microsoft's ARM-powered Surface device has been a nearly mythical creature. With less than two weeks till its on-sale date, the company has finally offered details and given reporters hands-on time with the hardware. Here's what you need to know.

TOPICS: Hardware, Microsoft

Last June, when Microsoft unveiled its Surface line of PCs in Hollywood, someone at Microsoft registered the @Surface Twitter handle.

On October 14, after a four-month slumber, that account finally woke up and published its first tweet.

You could not ask for a better metaphor for Microsoft’s communication strategy about its first-ever foray into the PC hardware market.

At that June intro, which I attended, Microsoft provided only the barest of details about the hardware. Reporters and analysts who attended the event were allowed only a few minutes of hands-on time with the hardware and weren't allowed to use its signature add-on, a combination keyboard and tablet cover. Since then, Microsoft has been stubbornly silent about prices, specs, and features, and no one outside Microsoft has been allowed access to the hardware.

Until now.

Yesterday, at an invitation-only press event in Redmond, Microsoft finally began answering those questions and allowing the press to use the actual Surface hardware. Windows Division President Steven Sinofsky and Panos Panay, General Manager of the Surface division, took questions and led reporters on a tour of the previously top-secret Microsoft facilities where the Surface hardware was designed.

GALLERY: An inside look at Microsoft's Surface RT

They also provided extensive details about the device itself, including a teardown:

Surface Teardown

Beginning today, October 16, at 9:00 AM Pacific Time, customers will be able to preorder the Surface with Windows RT directly from Microsoft in six markets worldwide. (The Surface Pro, which runs Windows 8, will be available about 90 days after Microsoft launches Windows 8 on October 26.) It will also be available in Microsoft's 27 existing retail stores (plus four more stores scheduled to open in November) and 34 holiday pop-up stores in the United States. The product itself will be available on October 26. 

Before you place an order, here’s what you need to know.

What does it cost?

Despite some wild (and frankly insane) rumors, Surface RT is priced competitively with its most direct rival, Apple’s iPad. A stripped-down 32GB version is priced at $499 without a keyboard. That base unit costs $599 with a black Touch Cover that doubles as a keyboard. The 64GB version is $699 with a black Touch Cover.

If you want a cover in a color other than black, you can pay $120 for a Touch Cover in white, cyan, red, or magenta. And if you’d prefer a keyboard with a more traditional feel, the Type Cover (available in black only) is $130.

PS: I called that price back in August:

Where will it be available?

The initial markets will include the United States and Canada, Hong Kong, China, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Australia.

What are the specs?

The Surface RT is powered by a Tegra 3 (Nvidia T30) and includes 2 GB of RAM. The case is made of molded magnesium in a dark titanium color. Here’s a more detailed list of specs:

  • Dimensions: 10.81 x 6.77 x 0.37 inches
  • Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Display: 10.6” ClearType HD, 1366 x 768, with 5-point multitouch
  • Wireless: Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n) and Bluetooth 4.0
  • Power: 31.5 W-h battery, 24W external power supply
  • Cameras: Two 720p HD cameras, front- and rear-facing
  • Sensors: Accelerometer, gyroscope, compass
  • Expansion: Full-size USB 2.0, microSDXC, headset jack, HD video out

How well does the hardware work?

I was able to pick up and use multiple Microsoft-supplied units and get a quick first impression of the feel and operation of the Surface RT. I was also able to use the touchscreen and Touch Cover keyboard for a brief period. My hands-on time wasn't enough to do a review or even a first look, but I can share some impressions.

The magnetic latch that attaches the Touch Cover to the Surface tablet snaps in place with an authoritative click. It worked perfectly every time, no matter what bizarre angle of attack I tried. Likewise, the touchscreen was fast and responsive, with absolutely no lag. The kickstand snaps into place smoothly and precisely.

The Touch Cover keyboard took a few seconds to adjust to, but I was able to type quickly and accurately. A Microsoft engineer who worked on the product said in their testing most users adjust fully to the keyboard in four or five days and are able to type at top speed after that period of adjustment.

Overall, the hardware felt light, comfortable, and incredibly solid. The engineering is marvelous. I inspected the hardware carefully under a bright light and couldn't see a single seam. If you pick one of these things up, you won't want to put it down.

In the lab, we watched a drop test that subjected a Surface device to a fall onto a hard floor from 36 inches. The device survived intact. On stage, Sinofsky held the device by the Touch Cover and shook it vigorously. It didn't detach. (In the lab, I tried the same test, with the same results.)

One Microsoft engineer offered a detailed look at the technology behind the display. The demo included a blind A-B test of two tablets: a Surface RT and an iPad with Retins display. Despite the difference in resolution, the Surface offered a clearer, sharper image. (Resolution alone is only part of the story.) That's a test I'll want to replicate when I'm able to spend extended hands-on time with one of these devices.

What's the software like?

It looks just like Windows 8. I tried several of the built-in apps, which worked exactly as they do on a desktop PC running the full version of Windows 8. I also tried the included version of Microsoft Office 2013 Home and Student (the installed version is a preview, which will be updated to the final release automatically via Windows Update.

How about battery life and heat?

Microsoft claims the Surface RT will get "all-day battery life." A reader notes that Microsoft's German store claims 8 hours of battery life in "normal usage," and 7 to 15 days in Connected Standby mode. We'll have to wait and see what that translates into in practice. In theory, at least, the absence of power-hogging third-party desktop software and the ARM underpinnings should allow these machines to run considerably longer and cooler than equivalent x86 devices.

As for the rest of your questions, they'll have to wait until reviewers (like me) are able to spend hands-on time with the actual devices outside a lab environment. Stay tuned.

Topics: Hardware, Microsoft

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  • Laughed

    Yeah, I laughed at the $199 rumor, too. My guess is that there's a 7" RT e-reader/tablet in the works that will be released at that price and that's how the rumor came about.

    I will say that it's pretty cool (and geeky) of Microsoft to feature a teardown of the device during their press event. Kudos.

    I can't wait to get a chance to see one in person. I'm leaning toward a more traditional latop style hybrid for my next Microsoft OS machine, but I'm eager to play around with this one, nonetheless.
    • How is this better than the ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity?

      The ASUS Pad Infinity with it's keyboard dock in superior in every way.
      • Its software is inferior

        It's running Android, a slow, laggy, unoptimized, OS with most of its app designed for tiny smartphones. No, I am going to go with a Windows tablet, which is 100X better than the laggy, skinned, never updated, phone OS android is.
        • Agreed

          Android is a mess in my opinion. It's slow, ugly, buggy and every day it seems to get more split and disconnected. The OS has no real consistency or substance IMO.
      • Ya. Not to cut you down...

        But if you want Android, your right. But lets be serious here.

        Your asking the very same dumb question every Linux enthusiast asks over and over again about any Windows based computer.
  • Microsoft finally takes the wraps off its Surface hardware

    The Microsoft Surface is a great little device. Great specs, great price, nice and solid. I'm already sold on Surface and looking forward to pre-ordering a couple of them for my needs before they sell out. That and it will give me bragging rights at the office. I'll be telling most people to hold off on any notebook or tablet purchases and wait for the Surface to be released then make the decision.
    Loverock Davidson-
    • Real deal?

      But isn't the "real deal" Surface still to come? This "RT" thing doesn't seem much like Windows, it can't run Windows apps (well not the ones we all know). It seems utterly pointless.

      Now the Surface with Windows 8... that seems much more interesting. I've seen (and played with) Microsoft's Wedge Keyboard and it's super nice. I can't imagine using this stupid cover thing, especially when they are making such a nice keyboard. I've not see the matching mouse, but really, they're screw that up are they?

      Trouble is the ad is really dumb, makes it look like a laptop (albeit a weird one). They STILL don't get the iPad do they?

      However, I am interested to see the "real deal" Intel one. After all, why have Windows if you can't run Windows apps?!
      • The real deal

        Microsoft Windows RT is a great Windows based OS. It will work well with the surface and you can find plenty of apps available in the store. The cover is great as its dual purpose, one for a cover which simple snaps into place and the second as the keyboard making it pretty much a notebook. Its a great form factor. The ad is brilliant as it shows the energy people have for this device and the things you can do with it. You can use it, you touch it, swipe it, dance with it, so many possibilities. You are right, Microsoft doesn't get the iPad and after seeing the Surface its a good thing that they don't.
        Loverock Davidson-
        • Waiting for...

          I'm waiting to see the "grown-up's" version. I've never felt the need to "dance with my computer" - maybe it's me that's weird (but I don't think so).

          They "Type Cover" looks like an ergonomic disaster.
        • "Microsoft Windows RT is a great Windows based OS"

          Except, it has nothing to do with Windows.

          What an irony...
      • Yeah

        And why would anyone want an iPad? iPads can't run MacOSX apps! Oh, everybody wants one? Oh, my bad.
        • Because...

          It has a large software library already. Essentially "first mover advantage" at work, any existing application you can think of (that might conceivably work on a tablet) has been written for the iPad.
          • Microsoft's "ace in the hole" is the commonality of "metro style"

            The iPad (and Android) library of apps would likely be an insurmountable obstacle to coming in late with a tablet. However, by making all versions of Windows 8 and Windows RT run the same tablet-ish apps, developers get enticed by the hundreds of millions of Win8 licenses that will be floating around in a year. There will soon be hundreds of millions of good reasons to write a "Windows Store" app.
          • The Future

            This may be true. Or this could face the "Apple III" problem.

            History Lesson: When Apple created the Apple III the Apple II was THE huge hit, it had a huge library of applications. Apple felt it was important that the Apple III could run them, and it did - rather too well in fact. Developers continued to churn out Apple II applications, and virtually nothing specifically for the Apple III. This made the Apple III feel like an expensive Apple II.

            I think Microsoft are aware of the danger, which is why we're seeing Windows RT first. A machine totally incompatible with what's gone before, if developers want their applications to run on this device they need to use the new "modern UI". I think it's an attempt to "prime the pump" for "modern UI" applications for Windows 8.

            Maybe this approach will work, but there are significant challenges ahead. What Microsoft are attempting to do here is hard.

            As a buyer, the iPad is a safer bet - today, in 12 months time thing might be different and Windows RT could have established itself. Nobody really knows.
          • I use Apple products...

            And iPad apps like all the iOS apps are mostly junk.

            There are good ones, I have some, but lets get real here, thousands on thousands are practically a joke.

            Once the Windows store has several thousand apps they will be on par. Unless all Win 8 developers decide to go with the junk app theory. You never know I guess.
          • F*rt Apps

            This criticism could be levelled at any platform, is the Windows application market any different? There is plenty of utter rubbish there too.

            If you think developers won't write lousy apps for Windows RT, you're a bigger optimist than I am.
          • "all the iOS apps are mostly junk"??

            What about Pages and Numbers?

            Pages is a superb word processor and it's completely iCloud integrated with Pages on Mac OS X; Pages for OS X is the best word processor and page layout program available on any platform.

            Similarly, the Numbers spreadsheet is better than Excel.

            (Whenever I say this, all these people come out of the woodwork saying "Oh, but I'm a Wall Street quant and I need to run legacy macros that download data into my trading model" or "Where is the support for Bessel functions? Oh, it's got that. What about the Riemann Zeta function? Yeah, well I use the Zeta function every day!"

            I'm always amazed that so many Excel users need this sort of stuff, and yet they cannot work out how to use the free compiler to rewrite their code!)
    • The salesman must love you

      Loverock I suspect you would have claimed to have "ordered a couple - before they sell out" even it they said MS on the front but were dark brown and still warm.
      • Are you talking about brownies?

        While I see it being a problem getting brownies shipped here and still kept warm I'm betting they would taste delicious. Microsoft would hire only the best caterers and use organic ingredients.
        Loverock Davidson-
    • So M$

      will at least sell a few ...