Microsoft finally takes the wraps off its Surface hardware

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.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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