"We're here today to talk a little bit about Surface with Windows RT," said Steven Sinofsky, President of the Windows and Windows Live Division at Microsoft. And with that minimal preamble, Microsoft rolled out its first true tablet, the flagship device running its entirely new Windows RT operating system.
It's a very promising product, and Microsoft did a good job of running over the features, albeit without actually revealing much had not already been shown in previews.
Panos Panay, General Manager of Microsoft Surface, emphasized that the Surface has been custom-designed using "over 200 custom components," from the VaporMg magnesium body to the laminated Gorilla Glass 2.0 display. He demonstrated the strength of the construction by dropping a unit from about five feet onto the thinly carpeted stage.
The Surface RT is a true tablet, Panay said, with the light weight consumers have come to expect of these devices. "It has to feel great when you hold it. It has to feel light, it has to feel right." He noted that the "moment of inertia is minimal," so that when held the unit will feel lighter than its actual 1.5 lbs (680g sans cover).
The screen is 10.6", with a 16:9 aspect ratio. "A lot of people ask why did you pick 10.6 inches of screen," said Panay. "It's the perfect expression of Windows. It's exactly what the software was intended to run on."
Panay also lauded the "clarity and beauty" of the 1366x768 ClearType display, which has a Gorilla Glass 2.0 screen bonded to a five-point touch-sensitive layer in the thinnest possible way. This is said to improve contrast, as well as reducing distracting refraction effects that might seem to distance a fingertip of stylus from the LCD image itself.
Panay spent quite a bit of time similarly singing the praises of the unique Touch Cover (without mentioning, however, that it's an extra-cost option). Just 3mm thick, it's essentially a soft cover that incorporates an ultra-thin physical keyboard. Although key travel is inevitably almost nonexistent, the electronics are said to compensate, for instance distinguishing when a user is typing, as opposed to just resting fingertips on the keys. When folded back under the unit, the keyboard disables itself. You can see Panay's demo of the Touch Cover in the video below.
The Touch Cover attachment system is magnetic, and quite positive, as Panay demonstrated by dangling the Surface by holding just the keyboard. He noted that there are "a couple of clamping magnets and one alignment magnet" on each side of the device. "It just clicks in," he said. "You can never miss."
Another novel feature of the Surface RT is the Kickstand, a flap that hinges out from the lower back of the unit to hold it upright. Three custom-designed hinges are said to offer the feel of "a high-end car door." (Presumably, that's a good thing.)
The Kickstand is certainly convenient for working on a flat surface. Panay showed how the front-facing camera was angled so that the user would be properly framed when making a Skype call. He also demonstrated that the rear-facing camera would capture the room horizontally, despite the 22% tilt imparted by the Kickstand.
Other nice hardware features include a micro-SD slot tucked under the Kickstand, on the underside of the Surface RT. Also a full-size USB 2.0 port, and HD video output. Wireless connectivity is via 802.11a/b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0.
Panay used the Wi-Fi connection to show off Microsoft's new SmartGlass technology. He started a movie streaming from the Xbox Video service onto the Surface, then switched it onto the big room-sized presentation screen via an Xbox 360. (He neglected to mention, however, that Microsoft will be making the same capability available on both iOS and Android devices.)
A significant added value is the inclusion of Office Home and Student 2013 RT. This incorporates Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote. Panay showed it off working with the split-screen capability of Windows RT. A user could, for example, keep a video view running in the narrower part of the split, while taking notes in OneNote on the wider side.
Other built-in apps include Mail, Internet Explorer, and Microsoft's three content services: Xbox Music, Xbox Video and Xbox Games.
"Surface is an amazing tablet," Panay summed up. "All the tradeoffs we made, we made to make it a great tablet."
Sinofsky closed the presentation by muddying the waters just a bit. "Is it a tablet or a laptop? For me, Surface is not just a tablet, but it's actually the best tablet that I've ever used. It's also not just a laptop, but it's the best laptop I've ever used as well."
Of course, this effusive statement glosses over the fact that Surface with Windows RT can't run traditional Windows software. This sets it firmly apart from the new Windows 8 laptops and hybrids now appearing, and puts it in more direct contention with something like an Android tablet running Documents to Go using an accessory Bluetooth keyboard.
It's a distinction that consumers will need to be aware of. But it doesn't diminish any of Microsoft's design accomplishments. Anyone shopping for a tablet will definitely want to give Surface with Windows RT a long look.
Surface with Windows RT is $519 Canadian with 32GB of storage. The Touch Cover is $129.99 extra, in a choice of five colours. Availability starts Friday, October 26, "in over 60 Microsoft stores in North America," as well as online.
Photos and video by John Thomson