On Monday Microsoft announced their new “Surface” tablet PCs. The Surface family (not to be confused with the older Surface PCs which were tables with a built in touch screen) will have two very different models: a Standard model similar to iPads and Android tablets, and a Pro model with functionality more like a laptop.

The standard Surface tablet will run Windows RT on an ARM processor similar to the processors used in Android tablets and iPads but the Pro version will run Windows 8 on an Intel processor allowing it to run current Windows applications (if they are compatible with Windows 8 which many are not) as well as Metro style apps. I don’t think the Standard/Pro or (Surface for Windows RT/Surface for Windows 8) names will make this clear to the consumers.  And this will  lead to returns of the Standard version when consumers realize that they purchased the wrong device.

Both Surface tablet models use a 16:9 10.6 inch wide screen display and are longer for their width than are other tablets. The Standard model’s screen will be HD compatible (1366×768 resolution?) and the Pro model screen will be “Full HD” (1920×1080 resolution?). The wider screen format will allow watching of wide screen videos without bars or letter boxing, but would also be expected to make the screen more fragile leading to cracked screens. Microsoft recognizes the potential issue and states that it has been addressed by using Corning’s extra strong Gorilla Glass for the screen and a “super strong magnesium frame” called VaporMg (pronounced VaporMag) to prevent the tablets from flexing or twisting. While the screens are larger than those of the new iPad, the resolution is lower than the iPad’s “Retina” displays.

All models have a built in stand for positioning the screen for comfortable viewing on a table and magnetically attached and aligned keyboard covers can be used much like a laptop.  Two keyboard covers will be available: the 3mm thick Touch Cover with a pressure sensitive keyboard and touch pad; and a thicker Type Cover with actual keys (1.5 mm depression) for touch typists.

I was surprised to see that the Surface Pro tablets have a vent all around the case to provide air for cooling. This is an improvement over the usual fan slots that I always seem to block when I hold a laptop. It seems that the Surface Pro models will generate more heat than most tablets (which run cool enough to not need venting) but I wonder if having a slot around the case will expose the tablet to spills when placed flat on a desk or table.

The Standard model is announced with 32 or 64 GB of solid state memory, similar to current tablets, and the Pro version will come with 64 or 128 GB. While Microsoft is pushing the Pro model as a full laptop replacement the storage is much smaller than the current laptop minimums of about 320 GB. To fully replace a laptop you might also need an external USB hard drive. The Pro model includes a USB 3.0 SuperSpeed interface for high speed external drives, but of course an external drive is contrary to the tablet advantages of portability and will add to the total system cost. On the other hand, without loading the device with many videos, 128 GB is enough for many business users, and an external drive could be used to make videos available when the tablet is used at home.

Unlike iPads, the Surface tablets include a normal compliment of external device ports for storage (MicroSD), USB 2.0 or 3.0 and video.

Microsoft’s announcement emphasized styling as a feature of the Surface tablet development process (probably a nod to Apple’s advantage in product design), even to the point that the sound of closing the stand was optimized and “the surface finish is perfect”. The tablet even knows the color of the cover and can change the desktop background color to match when a cover is attached.

It is also interesting to consider what Microsoft did not announce:  availability, pricing, and battery life. Availability was only given as “when Windows 8 becomes generally available” for the Standard model and about 3 months later for the Pro model. Rumors claim this will be some time in October (Standard model) and after the end of the year for the Pro model. It could very well be that the first Windows 8 tablets will be available from the major laptop manufacturers months before the Surface Pro is released.

The price for the Standard model was stated to be like ARM tablets and the Pro model will be priced like Ultrabook laptops. I expect that the Standard model will be priced more like iPads and high end tablets (over $500 for 32 GB) and not like low end tablets (around $200) and that the Pro version will cost about $1,000 since only recently have Ultrabooks dropped below this price. Surface tablets contain “over 200 custom parts” and while custom parts can lead to unique features they also increase costs and tend to be more error prone than using standard parts.

Microsoft did not state how long the batteries will last in either model. The batteries are sized similar to current laptop and tablet batteries so battery life should be about the same.

Surface tablets will weigh in at between 1.5 and 2 pounds.

My take:

I think the Standard model will have a hard time competing with iPad and Android tablets. It will probably cost about the same as an iPad and while it will have a larger screen (but lower resolution), it will not have the Apple fan base and will have many fewer available applications. On the other hand, it will probably cost much more than equivalent Android tablets which also have more apps.

If priced right the Pro model could hurt Ultrabook sales, assuming that the keyboard covers work as advertised, since the user can switch between the keyboard and the touch screen and it has much the same weight/performance characteristics as the new Ultrabooks. You don’t even have to remove the cover since the keyboard is disabled when the cover is folded back behind the screen. On the other hand, Ultrabooks (and the similarly priced Surface Pro) come with an Ultra price, so I don’t think the Surface Pro model will compete strongly against most laptops. As a laptop replacement the limited storage, Windows 8 OS and possibly shorter battery life will also be limitations. With the expected 3 month delay from Windows 8 general availability to when the Surface Pro models become available, other Windows 8 tablets will have time to become established in the market before Microsoft’s entry into the market and in time for holiday shopping which will be missed by Microsoft.

The complete Microsoft presentation is available at http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/news/presskits/windows/videogallery2b.aspx.

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