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Tech Report – Microsoft’s Surface Tablet

By Paul O’Reilly

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote about the expanding Microsoft ecosystem, which was given a boost by the introduction of Xbox Music at the E3 video gaming event in Los Angeles. Yesterday, Microsoft went back to that same city to introduce another huge leap forward in its battle to maintain its dominance in computing with a brand new tablet called Surface.

As we noted in the earlier article, the biggest gap in the Microsoft ecosystem was mobile, where iOS and Android were the dominant software options and where Windows Phone was struggling along in a distant third place. That could be about to change with the introduction of Surface. It’s almost as if Microsoft has tired of waiting for manufacturers to come up with a suitable device to showcase its software and has decided to go the Apple route and build one itself instead.

The initial Surface tablet, to be known as the Surface RT, will run a new mobile version of Windows 8, Microsoft’s flagship operating system that is due out this fall. The Surface RT will feature a 10.6-inch Gorilla Glass touchscreen wrapped in a magnesium case that Microsoft is calling VaporMg. The Surface RT is just 9.3mm thick (but thick enough for a full-size USB 2.0 port), weighs less than 25 ounces, and comes complete with front and rear-facing HD cameras.

But perhaps the most innovative features of the Surface RT are the two magnetically attached covers, which fold down and function as full touch keyboards. First there is the Touch Cover, which is just 3mm thick; or you can opt for the 5mm-thick Type Cover, which comes with a built-in track pad. (Shown in the picture above) A cleverly designed “kick stand” completes the conversion of the Surface RT from a pure handheld device to a serious productivity tool.

Recognizing the appeal of a device that can transition from the pocketbook to the desktop, Microsoft is also planning for a more heavyweight version of the tablet called the Surface Pro. The Pro will feature the full Windows 8 OS running on the same Intel chips that are found in ultrabooks and other laptops. The Pro will also offer more battery life, twice the storage capacity of the Surface RT, and better peripherals support.

While many details surrounding the Surface are still unknown, including price and cellular support, it’s in the corporate arena area where Microsoft clearly sees an opportunity. Despite its huge success as a consumer device, the iPad is still less than ideal when it comes to business applications, with Apple’s reluctance to provide a USB port and the onscreen keyboard proving to be the most serious of a long list of limitations.

Up until now, almost every tablet device has had the misfortune to be compared to the iPad and has suffered out of the box as a result. (The Kindle Fire and the NOOK Tablet are possible exceptions.) With the Surface, Microsoft may be able to avoid that comparison and carve out a much-needed new hardware category, which is part tablet, part mini-PC. And that’s a category in which Microsoft can excel.

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