I’m not entirely sure how to take Microsoft’s recent announcement that it is entering the hardware market with its own tablet. On the one hand, leading by example is a great idea and I’m sure many OEMs will try to mimic or augment Microsoft’s vision for tablets running Windows 8. It looks good and the first impressions are very promising. From a tablet standpoint, its a better fit for many users than the iPad, assuming that Surface actually uses proper x86 processors. I’ll still comment on Windows 8 on ARM Runtime (WART) in a later article, but for Surface to really succeed it needs to run in a proper x86 environment. If its on WART, it will fail.
On the other hand, the supreme dominance of both the iPad and Google’s Android ICS partners might leave the Redmond-based company’s endeavor hanging in limbo when it launches. There are a lot of people looking for a proper tablet-focused Windows OS so its more the software than the hardware that will be taken up the most. But undoubtably, things are really going to heat up as more people eventually drop their iPads and their Transformers for Surface or one of its siblings/competitors.
Firstly, you’d have to look back at Intel’s Letexo design to get a feeling of where this would fit in the tablet market. In reality, Surface is best described as a touch-enabled laptop with a very thin, nicely removable keyboard. As a tablet it has potential to dominate in a market where users are increasingly focused on mobility – Windows 8 also functions more as a touch-enabled OS than a desktop one and Surface is best-sized for this use-case by sporting a screen only 10 inches in size with 1366 x 768 resolution.
The tablet is encased in aluminium, is only 9.3mm thick at its widest part of the chassis and weighs only 676g. Despite the slightly larger and heavier chassis, it only squeezes in a 31.5Whr battery, 11Whr smaller than the competing iPad. In real-world tests, I’d expect Surface tablets to achieve roughly a ten-hour battery life while watching videos or browsing the net thanks to the lower hardware requirements, drawing up neatly next to the New iPad.
The rear end of the chassis also sports a kickstand for use on a desk for watching videos or reading, or, with the use of the detachable keyboard, for replacing your desktop. Its spring-loaded, bringing back memories of when I first laid hands on the utterly fantastic Nokia N82, with a wrap-around kickstand what would open and close with a snap years on after heavy use. The stand is integrated and is a nice add-on, something that obviously took a bit of consideration to see how it would work. As some bloggers have pointed out, there’s a lot of love with the number 22 – the stand props up the tablet at 22° from the table, all the edges are angled at 22° and the cameras are angled 22° from each other.
That has some interesting results for users using it as both a desktop and tablet replacement. If you’re sitting facing the tablet while on a desk with the kickstand up, your camera looks directly level at you without any adjustment necessary. If you’re out on the move using the rear camera for shooting a video or taking a picture, you no longer have to angle it to keep the lens in the proper perspective – you can look down at the screen and shoot at the same time, very useful outdoors particularly if there’s glare about.
Next up are the accessories. There’s really only two keyboard docks at the moment, both offering something unique to the tablet. The regular “Type” keyboard is a netbook-esque, featuring closed keys and two physical mouse buttons, as well as support for gestures and swipes. It doesn’t have an integrated battery like the ASUS Transformer Prime (more on that for you later in the week) or any expansion ports, as all of those are on the tablet already.
The second one available, “Touch”, is a touch-aware membrane with a soft-touch plastic surface measuring only 3mm thick. It gives you a similar feel to typing on a real keyboard, similar to those really icky roll-up keyboards some people demand to bring to LANs in all the colours of the rainbow. Microsoft has five colours to choose from for the “Touch” – you can pick from black, white, orange, pink and baby blue. Both keyboard docks have a felt-lined cover, making the tablet feel more like an old, leather-bound book when its closed.
So my initial thoughts were that the design is catchy – with the choice of colour palette for the Touch keyboard, Microsoft’s certainly going to actively market Windows 8 for younger buyers, those who would have otherwise been ensnared in the traps Apple set recently with the launch of the New iPad and the latest family of Macbooks. Whether Surface will command the same price point as the entry-level Macbook Air is a good question. I’d expect it to fall under the $800 price point, where its more competing with the 3G-packing iPads, the Transformer Primes and perhaps a Nexus tablet or two.
For the Windows world, it opens up a large number of doors for manufacturers to follow similar design aspects for their own products. Microsoft never talked to any hardware partners prior to the Surface reveal and understandably some of them are miffed about it – trying to sell your partner’s software product while they’re competing with you with a complete package that might retail for cheaper isn’t something any industry player wants or needs. But it is competition nonetheless and an enjoyable watch with some popcorn. If you were looking for a tablet, Windows 8 might give you what you need.
Redmond hasn’t come out with any specs, however. Its more likely to have a range of Intel-powered “Core-i” solutions with the HD4000 GPU under the hood, although I would’t be surprised if they allow AMD to join the party. I’m really looking forward to trying one out come the worldwide launch, even if I’ll never own one personally. If Nvidia puts in some chips, you might even have a mildly capable Photoshop or 3DS Max companion for when you’re on the move.
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