What We Know So Far About The Windows 8 “Surface” Tablet

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In Los Angeles on Monday, Microsoft pulled a surprise out of the bag in their Windows 8 strategy – a Microsoft manufactured and branded tablet, called the Surface. It’s a sleek device to rival the iPad that comes complete with a detachable keyboard and stand, and it looks as if it could really have an impact in the tablet market when it’s released alongside Windows 8 later this year.

There are two versions – Surface for Windows 8 Pro and Surface for Windows RT – with significant differences you ought to know about, so here’s a full rundown on what we know so far.

Before we start, check out the official launch video:

The Name

Microsoft Surface was actually an existing product so they already owned the domains and trademarks. It was a $10,000 multitouch table that you may have seen in corporate environments and upmarket bars. In fact, I previously lambasted Microsoft for failing to make it affordable or to sufficiently bring developers on board. That product has now been renamed Pixelsense, and all associated YouTube videos have been deleted.

Surface now only refers to this new Windows 8 tablet PC. Personally, I love the name. It’s a singular, clearly defined name, and Microsoft hopes it will become as recognizable to the average consumer as the iPad is today.

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The Hardware

Details of the exact hardware are thin on the ground at the time of writing this. We do know that there are two distinct models available – Surface for Windows 8 Pro, and Surface for Windows RT.  NVidia’s Tegra 3 is powering the ARM-based Windows RT version (more on the different OS versions in a bit), and there will be 64GB and 128GB SSD drives in the Windows 8 Pro model and 32GB/64GB in the Windows RT model.

Both have a 10.6″ screen, but the Windows 8 Pro model will be full HD (1080p), while the RT model is just ‘HD’, which presumably means 720p. The Pro model is also slightly thicker and heavier – 13.5mm/903g against 9.3mm/676g.

For ports, the RT model is equipped with MicroSD, USB2, and Micro HD video; while the Pro model comes with MicroSDXC, USB3.0, and a mini DisplayPort.

Following in the trend of “hardware specs don’t matter” laid down by Apple, no other details have been released about memory or processor. Honestly, if it provides a fluid, comfortable experience, who care about the exact specs?

The casing is being marketed heavily though; built using a patented magnesium alloy they’ve named VaporMG. It provides a solid feel, with an attractive finish with strong scratch resistance, and has been moulded for that custom unibody-style design. Basically, this thing is as sexy as an iPad, and Microsoft is going to make sure you know it. A stand can be folded out from the main case to provide angled viewing.

The Keyboard

The surface can be docked into a SmartCover-esque case, with a keyboard built in. There are two versions announced currently; one thinner version called Touch Cover with pressure sensitive keys, and one thicker with mechanical action keys called Type Cover. Both make use of magnets to snap onto the tablet securely.

The Software

There are some very important differences between the two OS versions running on these devices:

  • Windows 8 Pro version will be able to run legacy Windows applications, ie. every Windows app released to date, including desktop, Metro apps, and anything else.
  • Windows RT version will only be able to run Metro apps.
  • The Windows RT model will come complete with Office Home and Student 2012 RT pre-installed.
  • There will be a desktop on both; however traditional desktop software will not run on Windows RT – the option to use the desktop will be there for new Metro-developed applications, and presumably a familiar file explorer.
  • Windows RT version will be locked to Internet Explorer as the only available Internet browser.
  • Windows RT version will also be subject to secure boot, meaning installing another OS is unlikely. Windows 8 Pro version may also be subject to this, but we cannot confirm that yet.

If you’re still unsure, think of the Windows 8 Pro version as a regular laptop / ultrabook, able to run all your existing software. Windows RT however is a pure Windows 8 tablet, with restricted apps and limitations, more directly comparable to the iPad.

Pricing & Release Date

Microsoft has said that pricing will be “competitive” in the market, which I suspect means the same as an iPad for the RT model and similar to existing ultrabooks for the Pro model. Surface for Windows RT will be available “around the time” of the official Windows 8 launch, with the Pro model coming 3 months later.

On the surface of it (see what I did there?), the Microsoft branded Windows 8 tablet has a lot of potential – a lot more in fact than other OEM Windows 8 tablets. By taking the Apple approach of controlling both hardware and software, Microsoft stands to make a cohesive and well supported product. I can’t imagine how furious OEM manufacturers are at the moment.

Microsoft themselves have said that the Surface is designed to be the pump that drives the sales of other Windows 8 devices.  I predict the Surface alone may actually take a large chunk of the tablet market. Android tablets have failed to gain traction, whilst the Android-based but self branded Amazon Kindle Fire has cornered the lower end of the market. Is there space for Microsoft? At this point, certainly.

The site is currently down, but check out Surface.com for the official marketing.

Let us know in the comments what you think of the Surface.  Will you be buying one when they become available?  Do you think it stands a chance of making a sizable dent in the iPad’s current dominance of the tablet market?

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