Microsoft’s Surface Tablet: iPad Usurper?

eHow Tech Blog

Did you see the news this week? Rather than being content to wait for other manufacturers to produce a genuine iPad competitor running Windows — something which PC companies have been trying for years — Microsoft finally got serious and just did it themselves.

And as a result, it looks like the Surface is Microsoft’s future. Maybe even the future of the entire tablet market.

Microsoft has announced two versions of its new touch-friendly tablet. One is for the average consumer — you, me, mom, dad. The other one is aimed at the professional crowd; those who need both a tablet and PC in one do-it-all device. Both are built using a new manufacturing process called VaporMg, which results in extremely lightweight, yet very strong gadgets. In fact, the entire magnesium casing of the Surface is a bit of a techie dream: A concealed kickstand, wafer-thin frame, 10.6-inch “ClearType” display, and 2×2 MIMO antennae for better Wi-Fi performance.

Consumers will want to keep their eyes on the Surface for Windows RT, which Microsoft said will compete with devices like the iPad and Kindle Fire. At 9.3mm thick (thinner than the iPad), the 1.4-pound device runs a version of Windows that’s made specifically for tablets (that’s what the RT distinction means).

Windows RT is essentially a “lite” version of Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 8. While built to run new Windows 8 apps, it won’t run traditional Windows desktop programs. Bottom line: It’ll do stuff like streaming video (Netflix), gaming (Angry Birds), and possibly even a mobile version of Office.

Then there’s Surface for Windows 8 Pro, which is like a PC and tablet rolled into one small device. Imagine starting with Surface for Windows RT, but throwing in a few more bells and whistles: a speedy i5 Ivy Bridge processor, USB 3.0, and up to 128GB of internal storage. All that extra tablet goodness comes at a cost – it’s 13.5mm thick and weighs in at almost 2 pounds.

Weight and thickness aside, Microsoft’s Surface for Windows 8 Pro runs the full version of Windows 8, so you basically have a full desktop PC (complete with the ability to run traditional desktop programs) in tablet form. Equipped with a Surface tablet, you might choose to ditch the huge tower computer at home, and rely on just your tablet. That means software like Office and Photoshop can go with you wherever you need it — you can touch, manipulate and create stuff with your hands, or switch to mouse and keyboard if you prefer.

And I’ve saved the best for last: Microsoft also introduced two “smart” covers with built-in keyboards and touchpads. One version of the cover has actual keys for a traditional typing experience — no doubt for touch typists — and the other relies a super-thin “touch” surface to simulate a keyboard, great if you want the thinnest, lightest device money can buy.

If you’ve ever seen or used a smart cover with the Apple iPad, you know how these work. The cover magnetically attaches to the Surface and automatically turns the tablet on and off. But by integrating the keyboard and touchpad, Microsoft has demonstrated the company is thinking outside of the traditional tablet box.

Today, the Surface is nothing more than a promise, and there’s still a lot we don’t know. At Monday’s unveiling, Microsoft didn’t announce a price, only saying the RT version will “compete” with today’s tablets, while the Pro version will “compete” with ultrabooks. In addition, the company is apparently targeting a fall release (to coincide with the rollout of Windows 8), with the Pro hitting the streets about three months later. That means we’re looking at perhaps a six month wait.

Still, if Microsoft’s Surface lives up to what I saw this week, the tablet market might just have a new king.

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