Earlier this week, Microsoft unveiled the Surface tablet. In a radical departure, the software giant took a page out of Apple's book by directly designing and selling the device. But can it compete with the wildly popular iPad? Let's take a closer look, and consider some of the questions that are still being asked after the media's sneak peek.
First, we'll check out the specs. Microsoft plans to release two versions of the Surface tablet, one aimed at consumers and one for the enterprise. The consumer version will run Windows RT on an ARM processor – a typical chip for a mobile device. It will be thin and light, at just under a pound and a half, and less than half an inch thick. It will include a 10.6 inch high definition display, and feature microSD and USB 2.0 slots. It will come in 34 GB and 64 GB versions.
The enterprise version of the Surface tablet, on the other hand, will run the full-fledged Windows 8 Pro operating system on “a third-generation Intel Core processor.” I'm guessing that means some variant of Ivy Bridge. It will be slightly heavier and thicker than the consumer model, at nearly two pounds and a touch over half an inch thick. It will feature the same display, but better connectivity, with slots for microSDXC and USB 3.0. It will come in 64 GB and 128 GB versions.
But these stats don't tell you anywhere near the full story of the Surface tablet. It feels very sturdy, thanks to a new, proprietary manufacturing process. Dubbed VaporMG, Microsoft says it is a unique “combination of material selection and process to mold metal deposit particles that creates a finish akin to a luxury watch.” So it feels sturdy. It also comes with a built-in kickstand that holds the tablet at a 22 degree viewing angle. Dual cameras and microphones give you a great Skype experience and help you record and play back meetings (the camera on the back is adjusted for that 22 degree angle).
The part that gets a writer like me most excited, however, is the keyboard. Forget trying to type on a “soft” keyboard on the glass display. The Surface tablet comes with an extremely thin rubber keyboard (available in five colors) that doubles as the device's cover; a strong magnet locks it into the right position. Microsoft claims that the keys on the keyboard offer enough elevation to make a touch typist comfortable; that may be why it's referring to this keyboard as the Touch Cover. It almost has to be an improvement over typing on glass. If it isn't quite good enough, however, the tablets also come with a Type Cover, which the company says “offer classic typing experience for those who prefer a more traditional keyboard.”
Clearly, the Surface tablet shows that Microsoft can put enough thought into the details when it wants to. But I'd like to know about some other details connected with this device. First, what's the battery life? I know Apple's iPad delivers in this area, and the Surface will likely offer lots more juice time than the Dell laptop on which I'm typing this, but would a user really want to charge a mobile phone from it, as Microsoft suggested? As a consumer I need more information, which one can only hope will be forthcoming when it actually hits the market.
Which brings me to my second question: when will the Surface tablet be available for purchase, and how much will it set me back? This isn't a fan girl question; with Apple unveiling new systems last week (including a new iPad), I need to compare prices and time lines. Microsoft will only say that Surface RT will come out first, followed by the enterprise version about three months later. Paul McDougall noted that the back-to-school shopping season starts in August. That sounds like a logical date for the Surface RT to appear in stores; if the Surface Pro comes out three months after that, it will be just in time for the holiday shopping season.
As to price, the consumer Surface tablet, powered by ARM processors, should come in at around the price of an iPad, since Microsoft said it would be comparable. But the Surface Pro will probably be more expensive. I don't know about you, but at that point, I'd need to start comparing prices and ask myself if I'd do better by paying a little more for an ultrabook. If the Surface Pro comes in too close to the base price of the MacBook Air, potential customers might at least take a look at what Apple has on offer.
What Apple has on offer, incidentally, includes a LOT of third-party applications. As CNN Money noted, with the Surface tablet Microsoft must “prove its ecosystem is attractive to consumers and developers, the programmers responsible for developing all sorts of time-sucking apps for people to play with.” In this area it's fighting Apple on the consumer front and Google-powered Android tablets on the work front. Microsoft is no slouch when it comes to creating software, of course, but it can't think of everything.
This of course reminds me of something Microsoft may not have thought of, or at least didn't think all the way through: the reactions of its hardware partners to the Surface tablet. The Surface Pro is aimed at businesses, after all – the very same businesses to which Microsoft OEM partners Dell and HP sell their hardware. Heck, HP put out a tablet not so long ago that folded after about a month. Dell currently sells both Windows- and Android-based PCs. They won't be happy about their partner suddenly becoming a rival.
Then again, this may have been Microsoft's intention with the Surface tablet all along. More than oneobservernoted that the lack of innovation among hardware makers may have driven Microsoft to do this. It's as if the software giant is saying to the OEMs, “Between the crapware bloat you load your PCs with and the copycat, unimaginative hardware, you've provided consumers with a lousy experience for years. We can't afford that with Windows 8, so we're taking matters into our own hands. Let's see if you can do any better.” While the company has had its share of flops when it tried to produce both the hardware and software for a product (*cough* Zune *cough*), if that's really what's motivating Microsoft, it's a heck of a big risk. We'll see if it pays off.
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