2012-06-19

Microsoft’s new tablets: overview and thoughts

Update 2012-06-20: More information on pen input, new section “More information on the web”.

Yesterday, Microsoft introduced two new “Surface” tablets: One ARM-based version and one Intel-based version. This blog post summarizes the introductions and mentions a few thoughts of mine.

The introductions

Microsoft’s Surface Tablet with the Touch Cover.

Microsoft’s Surface Tablet with the Type Cover.
The following are the specs of the two models:

ProcessorARM (NVIDIA Tegra 3)Intel Core i5 (Ivy Bridge)
OSWindows RT, including Office Home & Student 2013 RTWindows 8 Pro
Weight676 g903 g
Thickness9.3 mm13.5 mm
Display 10.6" ClearType HD Display
(TBA, e.g.: 139 ppi at 1280×720)
10.6" ClearType Full HD Display
(TBA, e.g.: 208 ppi at 1920×1080)
Battery31.5 W-h42 W-h
PortsmicroSD, USB 2.0, Micro HD Video, 2x2 MIMO antennaemicroSDXC, USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort Video, 2x2 MIMO antennae
AccessoriesTouch Cover, Type CoverTouch Cover, Type Cover, Pen with Palm Block
ChassisVaporMg Case & StandVaporMg Case & Stand
Storage configurations32 GB, 64 GB64 GB, 128 GB

Compare with the iPad 3:

  • Size: 185.7mm x 241.2mm x 9.4mm (width, height, depth)
  • Weight: 652g (Wi-Fi-only) or 662g (Cellular)
  • Display: 9.7", 2048×1536 pixels, 264 ppi
Availability and pricing. Paraphrasing “10.6-inch Microsoft Surface tablets announced, powered by Windows 8” by Tom Warren for The Verge:
  • Pricing will be announced closer to availability.
  • The Windows RT model will be available at the same time as Windows 8 (probably October).
  • The Windows 8 Pro model will be available three months later.
Build quality. Quoting “A first look at Microsoft’s new Surface tablet” by Peter Bright for Ars Technica:
What makes Surface special is the attention to detail. The standard of the fit and finish of the prototypes on display was extremely high. The shell of the Surface is made of cast magnesium, with a vapor-deposited finish called VaporMg. The result is an attractive, scratch-resistant finish that's easy to grip and comfortable to hold.
...
And this is one high quality kickstand. It's an integrated part of the system's shell. It fits flush when closed, feels sturdy when opened, and makes a reassuring click as it settles into place. It apparently took dozens of iterations to get the right sound. It does a good job of propping up the screen.

A few thoughts

Technology:
  • The covers are clever (or, you could say, smart):
    • Touch cover: The cover is one big pressure-sensitive touch surface. However, it should be much more fun to type on that glass, because it will have a structured surface. Touch-typing seems a definite possibility.
    • Type cover: Thicker, but with a real keyboard.
    Both covers include a trackpad which I think is a good decision (read more here: [2]).
  • It’ll be interesting to see how the Surface’s 16:10 aspect ratio works out compared to the iPad’s 4:3. In my experience, 16:10 works well for phones, but less so for tablets. Tablets feel a bit strange when used in portrait mode (which I prefer on the iPad).
  • I’d be worried about the stand breaking, but Ars Technica’s Peter Bright thinks it’s sturdy, so that might not be a problem.
  • The pen is really well done. Its input is taken from different sensors than touch. When it approaches the screen, touch input is switched off, meaning that it won’t infer with pen input. When not in use, the pen can be attached magnetically to the side of the device. Alas, a pen is only available for the Intel model. Apple really should offer its own pen.
  • There doesn’t seem to be a model with built-in cellular connectivity.
Marketing:
  • I’m not too fond of the fairly generic name “Surface”. At least it’s not worse than “iPad”. Furthermore, the word “vapor” (as in VaporMg) is firmly associated with Vaporware in my mind, but that may be a software engineer thing.
  • Why are there two versions with completely different hardware architectures? They are currently not even distinguished by different names. At least they roughly run the same operating system. I don’t understand why Microsoft chose to give the ARM port of Windows 8 the name Windows RT.
  • The official Surface website is only so-so. I find its structure and language confusing. For example: Why is the spec sheet only available as a PDF? Apple usually does a better job of explaining its products.
  • Why doesn’t Microsoft tell us the screen resolution? It must already be fixed by now.
  • For tablets, Microsoft has radically changed its business model: It now competes directly with its hardware partners. That’s a remarkable change. Quoting Joshua Topolsky for The Verge:
    Ballmer let us know that hardware partners were indeed made aware of this announcement in advance of the event today. [...] When pressed on what he thought Microsoft could bring to the table that other hardware-makers couldn't, Ballmer demurred, but he did say part of the Surface's purpose was to "prime the pump" for the coming release of Windows 8. [...] Surface is "an important companion to the whole Windows 8 story. It's an important piece; it's not the only piece."

More information on the web

Related reading

  1. A Windows 8 keynote review by a JavaScript programmer and Apple user
  2. Why I want the iPad to have a mouse cursor
  3. A wish list for iOS 6

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