First, a caveat: I was not at the Los Angeles unveiling of Microsoft's entry into the tablet PC market last night (Monday, June 18). My observations here are based entirely on what I've read and videos I've seen on other tech news sites.
My mission here is to translate what my fellow media geeks have written about the new Microsoft Surface tablets into advice for any of you pondering an iPad or Android tablet purchase.
My advice: go ahead with your planned iPad or Android tablet purchase.
Based on what I read and saw, you can pretty much ignore all the tech sturm und drang. Nothing to see here, move along. It seems Microsoft raised more questions than it answered with what appears to me to be a premature introduction.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
In case you missed the news, last night Microsoft introduced two tablet PCs, the Surface Windows RT and the Surface Windows 8 Pro.
Both versions will sport 10.6-inch screens, nearly an inch more touchscreen area than the 9.7-inch display on the iPad and a half-inch more than on the 10.1-inch Samsung Galaxy tablets.
While larger, the screen on the Windows RT Surface will have a resolution similar to the iPad 2. Surface Windows 8 Pro's display will be slightly higher than the Windows RT Surface, but no where near the resolution of the Retina screen on the iPad 3.
But, the Surface screens will have a 16:9 aspect ratio, identical to the wide shape of your HDTV and not the more squarer area of the iPad display. This means movies on the Surface won't be letterboxed top and bottom, but it also means Web pages will be either too skinny if viewed with the Surface held vertically (portrait) or too short if held horizontally (landscape).
Reports from last night's event say the Surface screens have a wide viewing angle, which means two people will be able to watch a film without too much trouble.
Each tablet also can be matched with an Apple-like smart cover held on via magnets, but Surface covers will incorporate a QWERTY keyboard on the inside - they're called Type Covers. The Type Cover on the Windows RT Surface will be a sort-of touch keyboard (not real key tiles) and will come in five colors (the screen background will automatically match the color of the cover – cute!), while the Type Cover for the Windows 8 Pro Surface will be a bit thicker (5 mm thick) with actual physical keys and a small track pad.
You can view more specific physical and technical specs in several places - I'll direct you to Engadget's exploration.
Instead I want to explore the questions Microsoft left hanging - and why you should feel free to not wait and go ahead with your pending iPad or Android tablet purchase.
After reading and viewing all I could about the Surfaces, here are the unanswered questions I thought were most pertinent.
When and how much?
As noted, Microsoft said they'd be coming sometime this fall to coincide with the release of the company's next-generation Windows 8 desktop operating system.
The Surface Windows RT tablets (with either 32 GB or 64 GB of built-in memory) will probably start at around $500 or so and will come first, the Windows 8 Pro models (with either 64 GB or 128 GB) starting around $1,000 or more probably a few months later.
There's no word if the Type Covers will be included or will be extra. If I were a betting man (which I'm not), I'd say extra, not included, at least on the Windows RT version.
That $1,000-plus price on the Surface Windows 8 Pro seems a bit steep to me. With its Type Cover, it is essentially a laptop with a 10.6-inch touchscreen. If this Surface/Type Cover combo costs the same as a complete 13-inch UltraBook laptop - well, this seems like a value mismatch to me.
What's the difference between the Surface Windows RT and the Windows 8 Pro? What's Windows RT?
There will soon be three Windows operating systems with similar looks-and-feels:
- Windows Phone 8, a successor to the current Windows Phone 7.5 Mango found on smartphones such as the Lumia 900
- Windows RT, a tablet-specific version of Windows Phone 8 (you'll be able to do a lot more on each screen, including run two apps side-by-side)
- Windows 8 Pro, which will be the desktop successor to Windows 7, Windows Vista, Windows XP, et al, but will also run on higher-end tablets, such as the Surface Windows 8 Pro.
That's right - two Surface tablets that run different operating systems. Surface Windows 8 Pro is obviously aimed at the professional market, so perhaps you can just pretend it doesn't exist to begin with.
What apps will run on Windows RT and Windows 8 Pro?
Full Windows software such as desktop versions of Microsoft Office will run on the Surface Windows 8 Pro but not on the Surface Windows RT, although there will be a Windows RT version of the Office suite.
My guess is the difference between the Windows Phone 8 and Windows RT apps will be similar to the difference between iPhone-specific and iPad-specific app, mostly concerning resolution and the use of screen real estate.
There'll also be some integration with Microsoft's Xbox, but I'm not clear what form this integration will take.
How many Windows RT apps will there be?
Ya got me. Certainly not anything near the 225,000 iPad-specific apps (Google won't say how many Android tablet-specific apps for Android 3.x Honeycomb there are, but it's a small fraction of iPad's total).
How do the Type Covers work?
Apparently, none of the Type Covers were actually working. I'll assume they work fine (the magnets provide both the data and power connection), but my questions is one of ergonomics.
Behind the Surfaces are a kickstand so the tablet can be set upright on a table (not sure if the kickstand angle can be adjusted - from the photos I've seen, I think not or only limited choices). This means you can lay the Type Cover on a cable surface to type.
But most tablets I see in the wild are used either on the go or propped on a lap or just held up - no table. That renders the kickstand/Type Cover layout useless unless you have a Wilt Chamberlain-sized lap.
Tablets just aren't being used for heavy text input chores by most folks. There are plenty of accessory keyboard covers for the iPad, but I only ever see them used at press events by reporters. You'll be able to wrap the Type Cover around the back of the Surface (which will disable the keyboard), which is good because I just don't see anyone getting much use out of it as a keyboard.
Will other manufacturers make Surface Windows RT models?
I think Microsoft hopes so.
Surface Windows 8 Pro and Surface Windows RT? These are the tablets names?
Um, hopefully the Microsoft marketing people will come up with something a little less unwieldy.
So, as previously noted, if you had already planned to buy a tablet, don't let Microsoft's announcement of the Surface stop you. It'll be months before Surfaces hit store shelve surfaces, and there will be questions about them even after those posed here are answered.