Handson with Microsoft Surface for Windows RT

We're here live at Microsoft's press event in Los Angeles, where it just unveiled not just the rumored tablet you were hoping for, but two tablets: Surface for Windows RT, which has an NVIDIA chip inside, and Surface for Windows 8 Pro, which runs off Ultrabook-grade Ivy Bridge processors. (Yes, Surface here is the name of a tablet line, not software optimized for large touchscreens. Get that out of your system now.) Though the two differ slightly in dimensions, with the Pro model measuring in slightly thicker, both have a slim kickstand, about as thick as a credit card, that folds out of the backside like the tail of a photo frame. Both are made of magnesium and, perhaps most importantly, work with either of two magnetic covers that double as keyboards (one with multitouch input, and one with physical, three-dimensional keys).

No word on pricing -- just that Surface for Windows RT will cost about what you'll end up paying for other Windows RT tablets, and that the Pro version will fetch similar prices as Ultrabooks. We saw Surface for RT as well as both keyboards on display at the demo area here following Microsoft's big press event. We've got a gallery of hands-on shots, as well as impressions past the break.

Gallery | 61 Photos

Microsoft Surface for Windows RT hands-on

Hardware

None of this might make sense until you touch one yourself, but it's our job to at least help you understand: the Surface really is as rigid and lightweight as Microsoft's executive team promised us it would be. The magnesium casing makes it wholly inflexible, and we mean that in the best possible way. As thin and light as it is (9.3mm / 1.49 pounds), there isn't a hint of give in the whole chassis. Were it not for fear of scratching that 10.6-inch display (HD on the RT model, Full HD 1080p on the Pro), we wouldn't have too many qualms about accidentally dropping it: the magnesium is as smooth and scratch-resistant as it is sturdy. Heck, even the display is coated in second-generation Gorilla Glass, so maybe we shouldn't handle this thing with kid gloves. Bonus: the whole package seems relatively impervious to fingerprints -- at least on the rear. And remember, this is after dozens of tech writers put their curious paws on it.

The kickstand, too, is as thin as they say (3mm thick on the RT model). It folds out in a controlled, reassuring motion; we're not worried about this snapping off. It also seems like it'll take a little more than a breath of air to make the whole thing knock over. Our first thought was that the stand looks like the fold-out back to a frame, but unlike a frame, which might fall face-down on your shelf, the tablet stayed put, even after rigorous handling from all the press here.

Take a tour around the device and you'll see a mix of ports -- we use the word "mix" deliberately because it's a medley of sockets you'd expect to find on either an ARM-based tablet and a full x86 one. On team ARM, you've got a microSD slot, befitting the sort of low-powered consumer tablet you're used to. But, unlike most Android tabs you've seen (much less the iPad), it also has a USB 2.0 port and HDMI output. Inside, you'll get either 32GB or 64GB of built-in storage, along with a 31.5Wh battery, though that last spec is fairly meaningless until Microsoft clarifies the rated battery life.

Display

Right now, Microsoft reps are refusing to clarify the resolution for either the RT or Pro Surface tablets. For now, then, suffice to say the 16:9 display is indeed crisp, but you know what's even more impressive? The viewing angles. Try following along with a demo, standing off to the side while someone else has his turn taking photos from dead-center. Turns out, it's no so hard. Factor in that kickstand and you've got the ingredients for some easy movie watching between friends.

Performance

As for performance, we'll be honest: tech press were treated to about two minutes at each of several stations, some of which demoed design, and not so much the power that lies inside that thin frame. (Microsoft has only said that the ARM chip is made by NVIDIA. No one ever said it's a Tegra 3 SoC, but that is naturally our best bet.) Still, in our brief hands-on the optically bonded screen was incredibly responsive to our various taps and swipes. Fast, slick and very, very promising. Now if only we could see the Core i5-powered Pro model in action. As for pen input, it's very possible, including PDF mark-ups and all, but we didn't get to see that demoed today. Sorry, Charlies.

Touch Cover and Type Cover keyboards

Unfortunately, we didn't get to see a working demo of the keyboards. As in, we weren't permitted to type sample sentences and feel what it's like to hammer out characters on a flat keyboard, or on keys that have just 1.5mm of travel. It's a shame, because what makes both keyboards special is that they have built-in accelerometers that allow the keyboard to tell which key you're hitting, how fast and how forcefully. An intriguing idea if ever there was one, but difficult to weigh in on if all you're allowed to do is peck at a lifeless demo model.

Still, they were on display in the demo area and we did get to, you know, put our fingers on them. Starting with the flat one (that'd be the Touch Cover), the keys have a slightly scratchy surface that seems like it would make one's fingers feel just a bit more anchored. Still, we're curious about the learning curve for a keyboard that's so... what's the opposite of "tactile?" What else can we say having not been allowed to actually type on a working model? Oh yes, it will be available in five colors.

Interestingly, with the Type Cover, the cushier of the two keyboards, it's still difficult at first blush to tell one key from another if you're not looking down at them. Each manufacturer has a different way of conserving space when building a set of keys for a 10-inch device, and it's clear that Microsoft decided using a chiclet layout would have been inefficient: the keys are packed fairly tightly, with the flat keycaps almost blending into one another.

Based on remarks by Steve Ballmer and others during the presentation, it sounds like a lot of thought went into the two keyboards, so we wouldn't be surprised if a large focus group of touch typists were able to prove Redmond's engineers right. But having played with both, we don't imagine this being like settling in with a new laptop or Transformer-style dock. You might have to re-learn how to type (or at least teach your brain to fuhgeddaboutit and trust your fingers to land where they're supposed to.)

Wrap-up

It's impossible to weigh in on Surface when we only handled one of the two tablets, and when each hands-on opportunity amounted to a Supermarket Sweep-style tour of various demo areas. Still, even after some brief handling, we feel impressed, almost sobered by what Microsoft's managed to produce after vowing to take the Windows 8 hardware-software package into its own hands. Surface for Windows RT is well-made, polished, durable and carefully engineered. And yes, that's sobering news: Microsoft's own OEM partners, everyone from ASUS to Acer to HP, should feel a tinge of defensiveness. If Redmond's mission until now has been to showcase all the possible form factors for Windows 8, it may have just taken a step in the opposite direction by upstaging everybody else.

Myriam Joire contributed to this report.

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Hands-on with Microsoft Surface for Windows RT, Touch Cover and Type Cover (update: video!)