Rarely does Microsoft-branded hardware generate the kind of anticipation that the brand new Surface tablet is getting in some places.
Sure, Microsoft's popular Xbox gaming system has a loyal fan base. And through the decades, Microsoft has produced fine mice, keyboards and other peripherals. But the gang in Redmond, Wash., is still thought of first and foremost as the software behemoth behind Windows and Office -- and certainly not a company dripping in coolness.
That doesn't necessarily change with Friday's arrival of the Surface tablet. It is Microsoft's premiere showcase for the next generation of its venerable operating system software, Windows 8. But the slim, light and handsome new personal computer is an impressive piece of engineering, with certain caveats -- on and beneath the Surface.
First unveiled in June, and pretty much kept under wraps until now, Surface is a potential big deal on several levels. Most important, it is a proxy for Windows 8, which is a radical departure from the Windows software that you've come to know, if not always love.
There's enormous pressure on Microsoft -- and by extension the entire PC ecosystem -- at the moment. Last week, the company reported disappointing quarterly earnings rooted in sluggish PC sales. That has raised the stakes on the ultimate success or failure of Windows 8.
What's more, in building its own personal computer for the first time, Microsoft is not only competing against Apple's popular iPad with Surface but against the very hardware partners that will sell their own Windows 8 computers, many with innovative designs.
Microsoft has put much detail and thought into the Surface design -- right down to the clicking sound that Surface makes when you attach a clever optional touch-keyboard cover. But you won't like Surface unless you take kindly to the touch-friendly new operating system at its core.
I happen to be pretty keen on Windows 8, especially on a touch-capable machine such as Surface. Windows 8 is approachable and contemporary.
Information on the new Start screen is presented as "live" colorful touchable tiles or widgets. For example, the People tile scrolls with Facebook feeds or pictures of your social-networking contacts. The Mail tile shows the header and top line or two from incoming messages. The tile for Microsoft's Bing search engine shows you the topics that are trending.
You can pinch to see all the tiles on the screen at once. And you can take your finger and swipe in from the right edge of the screen to summon "charms," icons that, among other things, let you search, alter computer settings and share what's on the screen. (You can also call charms into duty with a mouse or touch-pad by directing the cursor to the upper-right corner of the screen.)
But the Windows 8 transition won't be an easy one for everybody. Though the new operating system is smooth and mostly intuitive, there's still a bit of a learning curve, especially for the masses schooled on traditional mouse-and-keyboard computing, and potentially resistant to change. Gone is the traditional Windows Start menu. But you can get to a modified Windows desktop by tapping a tile.
Microsoft has designed Windows 8 so it works on traditional PCs as well as on tablets. And this one-size-fits-all mentality is how Surface was constructed. You're meant to use it for work and for play, but there are risks in Microsoft's approach. By contrast, Apple is keeping its OS X and iOS operating systems separate.
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