Microsoft’s big reveal – two new own-branded Windows 8 tablet computers

19 Jun 2012

You get the sense that Microsoft has been storing up a lot of emotion over the last three years. Well, it has done something unprecedented, it has manufactured two new own-branded tablet computers enigmatically called Surface and has shown it, too, has a flair for industrial design.

The Surface computers that Microsoft revealed last night are a new departure that will see Microsoft actually compete in the hardware business against manufacturing partners. These are own-branded machines not manufactured by Samsung, Dell or a partnership with Barnes & Noble, as was widely and incorrectly reported.

Instead, Microsoft is reminding us that it, too, manufactures more than just software. “Conceived, designed and engineered entirely by Microsoft employees, and building on the company’s 30-year history manufacturing hardware, Surface is designed to seamlessly transition between consumption and creation, without compromise,” it gushed.

Two models of Surface

So what are they? Two models of Surface will be available: one running an ARM processor featuring Windows RT, and one with a third-generation Intel Core processor featuring Windows 8 Pro.

According to the details provided by Microsoft, the 3mm Touch Cover represents a step forward in human-computer interface. “Using a unique pressure-sensitive technology, Touch Cover senses keystrokes as gestures, enabling you to touch type significantly faster than with an on-screen keyboard. It will be available in a selection of vibrant colours. Touch Cover clicks into Surface via a built-in magnetic connector, forming a natural spine like you find on a book, and works as a protective cover. You can also click in a 5mm-thin Type Cover that adds moving keys for a more traditional typing feel.”

Surface also includes a full-sized USB port and a 16:9 aspect ratio – the industry standard for HD. “It has edges angled at 22 degrees, a natural position for the PC at rest or in active use, letting the hardware fade into the background and the software stand out.”

The casing of Surface is created using what Microsoft calls a unique approach called VaporMg (pronounced Vapor-Mag), a combination of material selection and process to mold metal and deposit particles that creates a finish akin to a luxury watch.

“Starting with magnesium, parts can be molded as thin as .65mm, thinner than the typical credit card, to create a product that is thin, light and rigid/strong.

“The VaporMg approach also enables a built-in kickstand that lets you transition Surface from active use to passive consumption – watching a movie or even using the HD front- or rear-facing video cameras. The kickstand is there when needed, and disappears when not in use, with no extra weight or thickness.”

Verdict on Surface

So what does this all mean? My first reaction was that somewhere deep in the bowels of Microsoft there is clearly a momentum that isn’t about chinos and polo shirts. Thank God. Microsoft may have just rediscovered its mojo.

Remember those horrible video ads Microsoft revealed of kitchen parties talking about software around the time of Windows 7’s launch? Either someone inside had a left-field sense of humour or there was a terrible disconnect with real life outside Microsoft.

In the intervening three or more years I get the sense that Microsoft has had to endure a lot, watching from the sidelines as devices like the Apple iPad and iPhone changed the landscape dramatically. Watching the apps revolution for mobile and desktop devices lift off knowing this was what it was born for. Knowing it had the technology, the know-how, yet it had to merrily champion real, but abstract to most street-based mortals, revolutions like cloud computing, but also knowing instinctively that on the street people care about the things they can touch and are willing to pay hard-earned cash for.

Microsoft is current again.

Surface specs

The real test of course will be what consumers and professionals make of these new machines. It sounds brave and foolhardy to take on the iPad – Samsung has tried with its Galaxy Tab but to limited success. But either way, Microsoft will somehow have to try and create the same buzz that accompanies every Apple reveal.

The real litmus test, of course, will be how much of an exponent these machines will be for the Windows 8 experience and how well they gel the distortion that exists between the tablet and desktop computing experience. Bridge that gap and they are on to a winner here.

While Microsoft has not yet announced availability or pricing for the new machines, it offers the following specs:

Surface for Windows RT

·        OS: Windows RT

·        Light (1): 676g

·        Thin (2): 9.3mm

·        Clear: 10.6” ClearType HD Display

·        Energised: 31.5 W-h

·        Connected: microSD, USB 2.0, Micro HD Video, 2 x 2 MIMO antennae

·        Productive: Office ‘15’ Apps, Touch Cover, Type Cover

·        Practical: VaporMg Case & Stand

·        Configurable: 32 GB, 64 GB

Surface for Windows 8 Pro

·        OS: Windows 8 Pro

·        Light (1): 903g

·        Thin (2): 13.5mm

·        Clear: 10.6” ClearType Full HD Display

·        Energised: 42 W-h

·        Connected: microSDXC, USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort Video, 2 x 2 MIMO antennae

·        Productive: Touch Cover, Type Cover, Pen with Palm Block

·        Practical: VaporMg Case & Stand

·        Configurable: 64GB, 128GB

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years