FIRST LOOK: Surface RT

A broad screen, and that keyboard is like something you've never seen

Microsoft's iPad killer called Surface RT tries to cover all the bases that Apple has with its wildly popular tablet and then added a few.

Microsoft's iPad killer called Surface RT tries to cover all the bases that Apple has with its wildly popular tablet and then added a few. It's got a keyboard; it's got Office applications; it's thinner; it's got a bigger screen. It's also got something the iPad will never have: the Windows 8 or Windows RT operating system, which may be an asset or a liability – the jury's still out on that one. These slides offer some photos of the devices and go through some of these differentiators. The devices themselves are available Oct. 26. There's also a few slides on Surface 8 Pro, the more traditional laptop version.

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The keyboard

Surface has a 3-millimeter-thick detachable cover ($100) that doubles as a keyboard and connects to the main body of the tablet via a magnetic hinge. iPads have similarly attached covers, but that's all they are – covers. You can buy third-party keyboards (typically $150) but they don’t attach and aren’t as thin. The Surface Touch Cover keyboard has no mechanical keys, but the areas marked as keys are touch sensitive, and Microsoft claims they respond more quickly to taps than a traditional keyboard. A second version of the keyboard called Type Cover does have mechanical keys and is 5 mm thick. Microsoft claims that it, too, responds faster to touches. The covers come in orange, aqua, pink and black.

The kickstand

Unlike a traditional laptop, the Surface keyboard is too lightweight to sit flat when the screen is raised; the weight of the screen would flop the tablet over and leave the keyboard sticking up in the air or leave both the screen and keyboard flat on the table. So Surface has a kickstand that flips out of the back, propping up the screen at what Microsoft says is an optimal angle, good for viewing and for aiming the front-facing camera for video calls. While the kickstand might work great on a table, it could be challenging to use Surface as a laptop on an actual lap.

The screen

Surface has a 10.6-inch display, larger than the iPad's 9.7-inch screen. Surface also has a different aspect ratio, meaning its shape is a longer, thinner rectangle at 16:9 than the iPad's at 4:3. 16:9 is a familiar shape; it's the ratio used on HD TVs. Microsoft says the display is either HD or full HD depending on model, but it doesn't define what that means. The minimum resolution Windows 8 requires is 1024x768 pixels. The new iPad's Retina display features 265 pixels per inch; Windows 8 supports 291 ppi on a 10.1-inch tablet, making the density for Surface potentially in the same ballpark.

The case

Windows RT has a stiff, light case made of magnesium that Microsoft says is fabricated to have a surface called VaporMg that it likens to the finish on a fine watch, whatever that means. The material is stiffer than a similar thickness of plastic, so gives the tablet a solid feel.

Surface 8 Pro

This is the full Windows 8 version of Surface. The other version – Surface RT – is built around a similar but different operating system tuned for ARM processors. Surface 8 Pro is built on an Intel Core i5 processor, and the software supports traditional Windows applications, something Surface RT does not. While it's called a tablet, it has that keyboard so it really behaves as a traditional laptop. Because of that fuller feature set and heavier processing power, it is likely to cost more than Surface RT. Microsoft says it will ship 90 days after Surface RT, which will give Microsoft's hardware partners the chance to launch their own versions of Windows 8 laptops before they have to compete with the Microsoft model.

The logo

Keeping true to its Metro style commitment, Microsoft has updated the logo it stamps on the Surface devices. You can see it there on the kickstand in the accompanying photo. It's got that spare, clean Metro look that the operating system environment embraces. Contrast it with the old logo, which has the wavy lines that make the image appear to be more of a flag than a window. It's not an apple with a bite out of it, but it is distinctive.

The joy

Beyond all the design features, Surface devices just makes you happy. Look at what it does for Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

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Microsoft Surface: 'A PC, a tablet and new'

The lack of wireless broadband

This is not cool. Surface RT’s wireless support consists wi-fi, and that’s it. If you’re away from your home wireless router or there’s no available wi-fi hotspot you’re not getting on the Internet. Microsoft really needs to address this, perhaps in conjunction with service providers.

The processor

Windows RT uses ARM processors, meaning less power consumption. So far Microsoft isn’t making promises about battery life, but it’s certainly better than it would be with traditional x86 processors using the same battery. Depending on what the company considers good battery life that means the battery used can be smaller and therefore weight less, contributing to the overall sleekness of the device.

Office
Office

Windows RT comes with Office applications – Word, Excel, Powerpoint, OneNote – bundled as Office Home & Student 2013 RT. That’s great for people who want to use these productivity applications, something the iPad can’t support natively. But they can’t use the standard version of these applications that come with the device at work. The standard version is for consumer use only. Instead they have to buy a supplemental version whose license includes commercial use.