The press conference Microsoft held yesterday was mired in ambiguity. For starters, they didn’t reveal the location of the event until the morning of. Despite this lack of detail, many were quick — and ultimately correct — to predict that they were going to announce a new tablet. Called Microsoft Surface, it features a 10.6 inch display, a built-in kickstand, and a truckload of other interesting features.
I should probably start by mentioning that there will be two different types of Surface tablets: A Windows RT-based one and an Intel-based one. It’s always good to give customers options, but this strikes me as a distinction that will be largely indiscernible to the non-tech savvy. It’s one area I feel Microsoft could learn from Apple, as their different models stand out based on very obvious components: Wi-Fi/3G etc. That said, a clever wave of advertising could potentially solve the problem.
Regardless of model type, the Surface tablets will serve as a springboard of sorts for the Windows 8 operating system. The Windows RT version will boast — believe it or not — the Windows RT operating system. For those unaware, RT is basically a variation of Windows 8 that’s suited for tablets. The Intel version, on the other hand, will feature Windows 8 Pro.
Tablets they may be, but Microsoft isn’t shying away from the fact that it wants you to treat them like laptops. Users will be able to equip a keyboard (dubbed “Type Cover”) and prop their tablet up with the aid of the aforementioned kickstand. Cleverly, the keyboard is built into a magnetic cover, meaning you can roll it out and use it whenever you like. And for those who require some kind of feedback, there will also be a keyboard with physical keys.
If that doesn’t draw enough of a distinction between Surface and the iPad for you, perhaps some of Surface’s built-in ports will. There’s a USB 2.0 port, a micro HDMI port, and a microSD card slot. That isn’t to say these additions immediately make Surface the better tablet, of course; it just goes to show that Microsoft is putting some serious thought into bringing something new to the market.
Another great example of this is stylus support, a feature many iPad users have wanted for quite some time (and, admittedly, there are ways around this problem). But Microsoft’s support of the feature right out of the gate — as well as a built-in digitizer for detecting a stylus — could make it a huge hit with artists and designers.
As neat as all of this hardware is, I realize there’s a massive elephant named “software” in the room. Microsoft revealed little on the matter, short of the announcement of Word, Netflix and the inclusion of “all Windows apps for music, movies and more.” So… news on gaming is a little dry at the moment, something I suspect Microsoft will remedy in the near future. Assuming they realize how integral it is to the tablet experience for many, that is.
If I may don my speculation cap here, I imagine there will be a bit of a gap in the kinds of games we see between the two tablet models. Over on the Intel side, there’s more potential for PC-esque gaming experiences, where we may see something a little more comparable to iPad gaming in the Windows RT models. But I could be wildly wrong here, for better or worse.
Of course, a strong userbase is crucial if Microsoft wants a lot of support from game developers. In order for that to happen, the company needs to price the tablets reasonably. They’ve chosen to stay mum on the matter for now, but they did mention that they would be priced “competitively.” I realize that’s a very noncommittal remark on their part, but I suppose it’s better than, “Hey you should probably start saving up right this very second.”
The Surface fills a much-needed gap in computing, offering a convergence between the tablet and the PC. Despite my concerns over a dearth in announced software and potential model confusion amongst the more casual users of tablets, I can’t help but feel like Microsoft knocked it out of the park here. There was a certain air of cynicism that filled up Twitter and many tech sites beforehand, and the reveal of Surface has dissipated much of that. I don’t necessarily view Twitter as an infallible tap into the cultural zeitgeist, but that’s still got to be a good sign, right?