Microsoft recently unveiled its Surface tablet, a sleek in-house design running Windows 8 and soon to be available in two models: Surface and Surface Pro. The basic model will run Windows RT, a lighter, tablet-oriented version of Microsoft’s new OS that focuses on Metro apps, while the Surface Pro will run full-fledged Windows 8.
While the company didn’t announce specific release dates or pricing, the Surface will release alongside Windows 8 — probably around October — at a price “competitive with similar tablets,” with the Surface Pro dropping shortly thereafter, likely in the Ultrabook range of $900 to $1000.
Should you start saving your pennies? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons.
A really smart cover
The coolest feature of the Surface, bar none, is its cover. Magnetic, colorful, and ultrathin like the iPad’s SmartCover, Microsoft’s cover doubles as a fold-out keyboard and trackpad. It’s brilliant and beautiful, immediately distinguishing the Surface from the competition — and finally giving a tablet the very real possibility of becoming a total laptop replacement. We’ve seen tablet keyboards before, but this is seamless, portable, attractive, and intuitive: a natural element of the hardware rather than an awkward accessory.
If it works as promised (and hell, even if it doesn’t), this marks the first time a tablet manufacturer has made a complete conceptual end-run around Apple. iPad users will want a cover like this, and Apple’s going to have to scramble to catch up.
A match made in Redmond
We’ve really only seen two successful tablets so far: the iPad, and the Kindle Fire. Three, if you count the Nook Color. What do they have in common? The software is made for the hardware, and vice versa. Companies that slap a build of Android on a black square and maybe futz around with the launcher fail to make an impression, and it’s not hard to understand why. iOS on the iPad is built from the ground up for its device.
Amazon didn’t just play with icons and notification bar colors when it opted to use Android on the Kindle Fire — it built a brand-new UI experience. And Microsoft is learning from these lessons, building its own hardware and software together. Which brings us to the sticking point…
Two is a crowd
Only time will tell if releasing two versions of the Surface is a sound business move. But here’s what excites me: the thought of using a tablet for light games or web-browsing, then unfolding the keyboard and opening Word to do some work. Then, when I’m done, booting up Diablo III, because I can run it on my tablet. Running the full range of Windows software is a hell of a coup, and it seems like Microsoft should play that up with every model rather than restrict it to the more expensive Pro. I also worry about brand confusion — someone might hear that you can run Windows software on a Surface, run out and buy a basic model Surface, only to be very confused and disappointed.
Even with these doubts, though, the Surface is an exciting development sure to push the tablet market in innovative new directions. I know I can’t wait to play with one.