Save for a single evening mingling with folks at Samsung at the Galaxy Note II launch event, I spent all of last week (and part of the week before) meeting with a number of Microsoft's OEM partners to check out their first batch of Windows 8/RT-ready hardware. I got to see and get some hands-on time with a myriad of notebooks, Ultrabooks, tablets, and all-in-ones from some large OEMs, and I think the early Windows 8 hardware story is a good one, for the most part.
Getting on-the-record comments regarding Microsoft from its OEM partners proved to be fruitless, but I will say there is clearly some resentment over Surface and Steve Ballmer's recent proclamation that Microsoft is now a "device and services" company. Regardless, none of them are going to stop making hardware just because they've got another competitor to deal with, and they all seemed to be on the ball with their own designs anyway. Perhaps the fire Microsoft lit under them all with Surface is already paying dividends.
I'm not going to write much about the standard form factor systems that have simply been updated with Windows 8 and newer components, but it's worth pointing out some of the more innovative designs about to hit retail. Asus, Lenovo, and Acer, in particular, have some cool products on the way that blur the line between traditional systems and the new-generation of touch-enabled, ultra-mobile devices. The Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11, for example, looks like a standard 11-inch machine, albeit with a smallish screen, but its dual-articulating hinge allows the Yoga to be used in a number of different configurations. Flip the screen all the way around and the Yoga looks and works like a tablet. The machine can also be stood up in "tent" or "stand" modes that make using its touch screen easy with one hand, while the machine stands up on its own.
Lenovo's WIndows RT-based IdeaPad Yoga 11 has a dual-articulating hinge that allows the machine to be used as a tablet or traditional notebook, and allows for new "tent" and "stand" modes as well.
Acer's also got some ultra-small form factor machines that are as sexy as they come. The S7 line of Ultrabooks in particular are so thin and light that it'd be easy to believe they were based on ARM SoCs and run WIndows RT. They're actually full-blown, Intel Ivy Bridge-based systems running Windows 8. The Acer Iconia W510 is also an Intel-based device, but in a 10.1 tablet form factor. It does, however, also have a keyboard dock, should users want to use it like a more traditional notebook. Acer definitely stepped things up with this launch.
Asus also has a slew of Windows 8/RT-based products coming down the pipeline that are worth checking out, from the dual-screen, Intel-based Taichi to the diminutive Tegra 3-based Vivo Tab. Asus has a sub-$500, 11.6-inch touch-enabled notebook coming too, along with an array of all-in-one systems that feature hinges that let the screens be angled as you'd expect or even pushed all the way down flat like a tabletop.
When Steve Ballmer said that this latest batch of Windows 8-ready machines really were the "best Windows PCs ever", he wasn't lying. Say what you want about the OS, but the hardware backing it up is more innovative, better performing, better looking, and more affordable than ever. Microsoft's hardware partners have clearly put more thought and design effort into their Windows 8/RT line-ups than any point before, which will ultimately benefit consumers.
Marco Chiappetta is a freelance journalist specializing in PC and consumer device hardware reviews. Or in his words, Marco is a "self-confessed keyboard geek." In addition to covering Microsoft for Network World, Marco's work also appears in PC World and he is an editor at Hothardware.com.