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.
Unfortunately, Microsoft has also caused a fair bit of confusion, because the first Surface devices to hit the market, and the unit I've been testing for slightly less than a week, runs a Windows 8 variant known as Windows RT. You'll have to wait about three months for the Surface model that runs the version known as Windows 8 Pro, and that's too bad. The distinction is important, because on the Surface RT version, you cannot run any of your programs that are on your older computers, a turnoff for some folks who might have been otherwise inclined to buy now.
Surface RT is preloaded with a specialized version of Microsoft Office for home and student use that includes Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote. It does not include Outlook. Surface RT has its own Mail program. Any versions of Office you have on any other Windows computers you own, or any other PC software for that matter, are not compatible with RT.
As you'd expect, Surface is tied into other Microsoft properties, including SkyDrive (an online storage locker), Internet Explorer 10, Bing and Xbox Music, Video and Games. I also downloaded Xbox SmartGlass, which turns Surface into a remote control for movies, TV shows, music and games you play on an Xbox 360 console.
A closer look at other aspects of the Microsoft Surface:
Third-party apps. You can purchase or fetch free third-party apps by entering the virtual corridors of the new online Windows Store, which is pretty but spare. I downloaded apps for Amazon Kindle, Cut the Rope game, iHeartRadio, Netflix (I ran into some connection snags during my testing), StumbleUpon, TED HD and, yes, USA TODAY.
Microsoft says there will be thousands of apps at launch, with a constant stream of more coming, but its apps offerings pale next to the number Apple has made available for the iPad.
Examining the hardware. Surface is a pleasure to look at and hold. Housed in a dark titanium-color, so-called VaporMg casing, the 1.5-pound device is light but sturdy. There's a kickstand on the back to prop it up when you're watching a movie or using the touch keyboard. The 10.6-inch widescreen display on Surface holds up well in a side-by-side comparison against the latest iPad, though the screen isn't quite as sharp.
Surface has two built-in microphones, plus stereo speakers that the iPad does not have, but Apple's tablet actually plays louder than Microsoft's.
You won't find as many ports or connectors as on a standard laptop, but there are more than you'll find on the iPad. Surface has a single USB 2.0 port, plus a microSDXC memory card expansion slot that is conveniently hidden under the kickstand. The iPad has neither of those. Microsoft sells $40 adapters for connecting to an HD digital display or VGA screen.
Surface is equipped with two cameras that adhere to the 720p high-definition standard. I doubt you'll capture too many pictures or videos with it, though the ones I took were decent. You can use the front camera to engage in video chat using the newly designed Skype for Windows 8 app.
Surface RT runs on an Nvidia processor and comes with 2 GB of RAM.
Pricing. Surface RT feels expensive and is priced accordingly. Potential buyers who hoped Microsoft would undercut Apple will be disappointed. The $499 Microsoft is charging for a Surface RT model with 32 gigabytes is the same price as Apple's entry-level third- and fourth-generation iPad. Initially, Surface will be sold only in Microsoft retail stores and online.
The keyboard cover. If you are bent on getting work done, spend extra for the cover/keyboard that turns Surface into more than a tablet. The 32-GB model with the cover costs $599. For $699, you get a 64 -GB model with the keyboard cover. All models have Wi-Fi, but there's no 3G or 4G cellular offering as on the iPad.
The keyboard cover represents a breakthrough in design. It barely adds any weight to the machine, but when you prop Surface up with the keyboard in front, you have what resembles a compact laptop.
If the cover is folded so that the keys are exposed on the outside of the tablet as you carry it around, you need not worry that pressing them will make anything happen -- Surface is smart enough to detect when they're not in use.
While the cover accessory won't likely make you forget the best laptop keyboards you've ever typed on, this thin Microsoft touch cover is quite usable and beats typing on the on-screen virtual keyboard.
As an accessory, it costs about $120 and comes in five dressy colors. Or for $130, you can order a slightly thicker (but still thin and light) cover that has more give on the keyboard keys, making it easier to touch-type on.
Battery life. One of the benefits of the RT version of Surface is supposed to be long battery life. Microsoft says you can get just over eight hours of full-screen movie playback under default conditions with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth turned off, or up to 10 hours of work. The claims seem reasonable, based on my own harsher test in which I cranked up the brightness full tilt, played a movie for most of the session, and had Wi-Fi going. I got about six hours.
Thought of separately, Surface would be a good, but not the best, laptop. And it would be a good, but not the best, tablet. The promise was that by fusing these together with Windows 8, you'd end up with a portable computer that just might make Microsoft cool.
Surface RT is a strong first effort. But I'd consider it more of a hotshot if it could run old Windows software.
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