Microsoft Takes Wraps Off ‘Surface’ Tablet

Editor of eWEEK and repository of knowledge on storage, amongst other things

Follow on: Google +

Microsoft has given its first look at Surface, a competitor to iOS and Android tablets that is being billed as a complete workstation

Microsoft clearly copied its secrecy-in-product-launch approach from Apple, but the new Windows tablet PC it launched on 18 June to compete with the iPad appears to be quite an original piece of work.

At an invitation-only media event held at the obscure Milk Studios on Cahuenga Blvd. in Hollywood, Microsoft unveiled the Surface, a long-awaited competitor to the iPad and all those Android and Blackberry tablets that currently flood the consumer and business markets.


The launch conference, the location of which wasn’t revealed until 10 o’clock that morning for an event that started at 3:30 p.m., offered a number of specifics about the new device. But Microsoft avoided other facts, and because chief executive Steve Ballmer, product manager Steven Sinofsky and designer Panos Panoya did not answer questions from reporters, several important things were left hanging.

What Microsoft spoke about included:

  • The Surface is a 10.6-inch-wide, 3.3mm-thin tablet that will run Windows RT (and Windows 8, when it is launched later this year).
  • It weighs 1.5 pounds.
  • It is the first PC with a magnesium case.
  • It will have “the best Wi-Fi available”, according to Ballmer.
  • Surface for Windows RT will be available first in 32GB and 64GB but will have expanded storage capabilities later.
  • Windows 8 Surface will run on an Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge processor.
  • It will be a multitouch device, with a touch screen and two optional keyboards.
  • It will be equipped with USB 2 ports and a PVD (physical vapor deposition) finish.
  • It has a magnetic cover that can be taken off, plus an integrated “kickstand” that snaps back into the unit and disappears.
  • It is being marketed as a complete PC workstation in the form of a tablet.

What the company didn’t disclose included:

  • Pricing, saying only that it will be “competitive with ARM tablets or an Intel Ultrabook-class PC”.
  • Battery life expectancy.
  • Screen resolution.
  • The still camera and video capability.
  • When exactly it will become available, although Microsoft indicated sometime this autumn.
  • Which OEMs will make the device.

Thus, there are still a lot of questions Microsoft needs to answer before the Surface comes to market.

‘A stage for Windows’

“Surface is a stage for Windows,” Sinofsky told the audience of about 100 people. “It’s a tablet that works and plays the way you want to. A tablet that’s a great PC. A PC that’s a great tablet.”

Microsoft calls the thin keyboard the Touch Cover, claiming that many people will always prefer a real keyboard over touch screens. It also has another option: a thicker keyboard with clickable keys called the Type Cover.

“What if you prefer tactile keys? We have another product – the Type Cover,” Panay said. “I can touch type on this as fast as I can type on any keyboard. Full trackpad with clicking buttons.”

Panay, the chief designer, had several comments about how the Surface came to be the shape and size that it is.

“Putting a kickstand in this product breaks seamless lines, but we needed to do it,” Panay said. “We couldn’t take chances. Take a look at these three hinges you see on the product. They are custom, and they were spec’d to feel and sound like a high-end car door.

Getting the sound right

“We really wanted to get the sound right, so you get that visceral feeling, that emotional attachment. It’s there when you need it, and goes away when you don’t,” Panay said.

“This sits in your hand very comfortably. You can use it all day in comfort. When you talk about the hardware fading to the background, it needs to not get in the way.”

Suggested retail pricing will be announced closer to the availability date, Sinofsky said. OEMs will have cost and feature parity on Windows 8 and Windows RT, he said.

How well do you know your operating systems? Take our quiz.