Microsoft Surface is the name given to a new line of tablets designed to compete directly with the Apple iPad in the premium end of the market, and it marks the first time that Microsoft have come to market with their own-branded hardware in this segment.
The name might seem familiar, because "Microsoft Surface" was the name that Microsoft gave to an earlier touchscreen product that used a 30" or 40" tabletop screen. This product has now been renamed Microsoft PixelSense, but this re-use of names might cause some confusion.
There are two main variants of the Surface devices. The smallest and lightest device runs the new ARM-based Windows RT operating system, then there is a bigger and heavier Intel-based version running Windows 8 Pro. Both devices are clad in magnesium and come with a range of magnetically attached covers and accessories, including an integrated kickstand on the back.
The Windows RT device is much closer to a traditional tablet, weighing just 676 grams and measuring just 9.3mm in thickness. It sports a 10.6" ClearType HD display and ships with either 32GB or 64GB of internal flash storage. The RT Surface has a microSD slot, USB 2.0 connectivity, a micro HD video output port and an advanced WiFi antenna. This version comes with a special home and student version of Microsoft Office 2013 RT, plus a protective "Touch Cover" and a thicker "Type Cover" which is a 5mm thick keyboard.
Microsoft Surface The Windows 8 Pro version of the Surface is broadly similar, again with a 10.6" display but this time upgraded to full HD (so presumably 1080p), coming in 64GB and 128GB configurations and with a different port arrangement of USB 3.0, and a Mini DisplayPort video connector instead. MicroSDXC cards are supported, and the Surface for Windows 8 Pro has a Touch Cover, Type Cover and a pen for finer control of elements on the screen. At 903 grams and 13.5mm thick, the Windows 8 Pro Surface is not as slim and light as the RT version, but it is still impressively lightweight nonetheless.
Windows 8 and Windows RT will both use the "Metro" interface that was first seen in Windows Phone 7, however Windows 8 Pro users should have the option of a more traditional desktop if they want. RT users are restricted to the Metro interface, and this is very much a tablet operating system rather than the full-featured Windows 8 Pro.
Microsoft have said that partners will get cost and feature parity with their own line of devices, so Microsoft is presumably paying itself licence fees for the software. Apart from a few hiccups with the Xbox line, Microsoft have a good reputation when it comes hardware quality over the years. Also, this move into computer manufacturing might stoke rumours of a takeover of Nokia's hardware business.
Microsoft Surface Pricing is not known at present, although the RT based Surface will have to be competitive with the iPad 3 when it hits retailers. The Surface for Windows RT devices should be available when Windows 8 launches, with the Windows 8 Pro version following 90 days later.
Corporate customers may well be interested in Surface as it should be easier to manage Windows-based devices in their environment. But for all customers the Metro interface is a "love it or hate it" affair, which looks refreshingly different from Apple and Android products, but it is also very different from the traditional Windows environment. However, more choice is always good and Windows 8 and Windows RT will certainly be a welcome addition to the market.
WiFi (3G connectivity unknown)
10.6" 720p / 1080p
Tablet / Slim notebook
9.3mm or 13.5 mm thick
Windows RT or Windows 8 Pro