Software giant jumps into tablets

GERARD CAMPBELL
Last updated 05:00 26/06/2012
Microsoft Surface
Getty Images

THE SURFACE: Microsoft's proposed tablet computer in laptop mode. It doubles as a tablet.

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In announcing its tablet called Surface, Microsoft may have changed the face of mobile computing.

The device, unveiled in Los Angeles last week, is part of what Microsoft calls a "whole new community of computing devices" the company was working on – and I'm intrigued.

There's no denying Surface looks good, with bevelled edges and clad in a magnesium-based casing – and the top-end Pro model will offer the portability of a tablet but the power of a PC.

And in the days after the announcement, many posters on social media sites claimed Surface will spell the end of the iPad and Apple's suite of laptops. From what Microsoft has revealed so far, I'm not convinced Surface will sound the death knell for the iPad – Apple has too large a fan base for that – but it's a wake-up call for existing tablet makers and ultrabook manufacturers. Specifically, those that for years provided the hardware to run Microsoft's software. They'll be unhappy with this news.

The Surface – strangely bearing the same name of a larger table-top touchscreen computer that Microsoft launched in 2008 – will come in two options. One will run Windows RT (a tablet operating system) and directly compete with the iPad. The other will run Windows 8, the company's next operating system. I'd love to be a fly on the wall in the offices of Apple and Google right now.

Each model has a 10.6-inch Gorilla Glass touchscreen display, front and rear cameras and USB (USB 2.0 on RT model, USB 3.0 on Pro) and HDMI ports (making it easy to connect with existing technologies like an external display). The Pro model supports digital ink using a stylus that attaches magnetically to the device. A detachable keyboard with trackpad attaches to the units magnetically and this doubles as a screen protector.

Surface will support apps from the Windows Marketplace and Microsoft claims it will have the best wi-fi performance of any tablet to date, thanks to two MIMO antenna. The device has vents through a groove running around the perimeter of the casing and a built-in stand that can flip out to prop the device up on a surface for watching movies or displaying other media.

The entry-level RT sports an ARM CPU, weighs 676 grams, is 9.4mm thick and will be available with 32Gb and 64Gb of storage. The Pro model seems more aimed at power users and comes with an Intel Ivy Bridge CPU, tips the scales at 903 grams, 13.5mm thick, and will be available with 64Gb and 128Gb of storage.

It could also be the model that is best suited for gamers, given it will be running Windows 8 and has a USB port for a controller. No information was given on how much memory each has.

Personally, given the Windows 8 Pro model's specs, ultrabook manufacturers should be scared.

Traditionally known as a software company, Microsoft's greatest hardware triumph to date is the Xbox 360 console – but it has now given its OEM partners, those that have developed the hardware to run the company's Windows OS, a huge snub. Essentially, Microsoft is saying they're not up to the task of producing the hardware the company wants for its tablet.

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I have some concerns, though. The announcement was light on specifics. And if Microsoft doesn't make it clear to consumers there are two models of the Surface, buyers will get confused about which to buy (one is more tablet-like, the other is more PC-like).

And let's hope Surface doesn't turn out like Windows Phone 7: a great operating system that sadly not enough consumers know about.

It appears the Windows RT Surface will be available when Windows 8 launches (October has been rumoured) and the Windows 8 Pro Surface three months later.

Microsoft has said both tablets would be sold "in the Microsoft Store locations in the United States and available through select online Microsoft Stores". There was no mention of availability in countries, like New Zealand, that don't have Microsoft Stores.

Another concern is the pricing: Microsoft has said Surface will be "priced to compete". I'd like to know what I should expect to pay.

While Apple will now need to look over its shoulder more closely, I think Microsoft is ultimately challenging the makers of ultrabook devices and Android tablets with Surface.

They need to up their game or else they'll find themselves left behind.

Exciting times await.

- The Press

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