Surfaces. Turns out, the plural form of Microsoft's new tablet range rolls off of the tongue with ease, but understanding the differences between the first two models may not be quite as easy -- particularly for the everyman, or folks intimately familiar with Microsoft's other Surface. Two editions -- Surface for Windows RT and Surface for Windows 8 Pro -- were unveiled today in Los Angeles, and while the exterior of each one looks nearly identical, the innards expose major differences in architecture. Let's break it all down after the break, shall we?
Surface for Windows RT tablet
Processor: NVIDIA Tegra-based ARM chip
Weight: 676 grams
Thickness: 9.3 millimeters
Display: 10.6-inch ClearType HD capacitive touchpanel
I/O: microSD, USB 2.0, Micro HD Video, 2x2 MIMO antennae
Software: Windows RT + Office Home & Student 2013 RT
Accessories: Touch Cover, Type Cover, VaporMg Case & Stand
Capacity: 32GB / 64GB
Availability: "Around" the Windows 8 launch (fall 2012)
Pricing: To be determined
Surface for Windows 8 Pro tablet
Processor: Intel Core i5 (Ivy Bridge)
Weight: 903 grams
Thickness: 13.5 millimeters
Display: 10.6-inch ClearType Full HD (1080p) capacitive touchpanel
I/O: microSDXC, USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort, 2x2 MIMO antennae
Software: Windows 8 Pro
Accessories: Touch Cover, Type Cover, VaporMg Case & Stand, Pen with Palm Block
Capacity: 64GB / 128GB
Availability: "Three months after" the Windows 8 launch this fall
Pricing: To be determined
So, what's the story? Well, for one, Microsoft's playing coy when it comes to both CPU speed and available memory. Not unlike Apple and its iPad, actually. We're guessing that the company will try to push the user experience instead of focusing on pure specifications, and it's frankly about time the industry started moving in that direction. Pure hardware attributes only get you so far, and judging by the amount of integration time that went into this project, Microsoft would be doing itself a huge disservice to launch anything even close to not smooth-as-butter.
It's worth pointing out that the ARM-based WinRT (psst -- you can catch up on what exactly Windows RT is here) model is both thinner and lighter than the version with Windows 8 Pro. Moreover, the battery is sized up in the latter, presumably to handle the higher power drain of the 1080p panel and the Core i5 processor. Strangely, microSDXC and USB 3.0 are only supported on the Win8 Pro model; we're guessing it's either a platform limitation, or just run-of-the-mill cost cutting. That said, bundling Office with the WinRT edition is apt to make Win8 Pro buyers salty; why not include it with the slate that'll be priced like a laptop (i.e. well north of what a lot of buyers will be willing to pay)? While we're comparing and contrasting, it's also vital to note that the WinRT variant won't ship with a 1080p panel; Microsoft didn't get specific on screen resolution, but a paltry 1366 x 768 is going to look mighty pixelated sitting next to a 1080p Win8 Pro sibling, a Retina-equipped iPad and ASUS' 1080p Zenbook / Transformer lines.
Those looking for a complete Windows experience in the form of a tablet will obviously need to pony up for the Windows 8 Pro model; those content with new, Metro-style apps engineered for Windows on ARM will likely save a few bucks by selecting that Surface. The real issue here is the murkiness when it comes to pricing. Microsoft is shying away from specifics, only saying that "pricing for Surface for Windows RT will be on par with other Windows RT tablets," and "pricing for Surface for Windows 8 Pro will be on par with Ultrabook-grade laptops." Unlike Apple, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, Microsoft is in a tricky situation; it can only do so much on its own before it ticks off those all-important OEMs that'll also be making Windows-based slates in the near future, and undercutting those guys on pricing won't go over well in terms of business relationships.
In fact, we'll be eagerly awaiting reactions from the likes of ASUS, Acer, HP, Toshiba, Dell and the rest of the lot -- Microsoft just made itself a rival in a lot of ways, and only time will tell how prudent that decision was. It's also bizarre that Microsoft isn't opening up pre-orders on these right away. As we've seen with Palm, announcing a hugely hyped product with no concrete launch path and no way to get dollars funneled in with pre-orders doesn't typically turn out well -- or, as well as it could have. It's also downright worrisome that no battery life figures were bandied about. Windows-based tablets of the past have always fallen short due to simply running out of gas in three to four hours, and today's tablet expectations are far different than even a few years ago. Is it possible for a Windows 8 Pro tablet to last 6+ hours on a single charge? Only time will tell, but we sure wish MS would've provided some sort of idea from the get-go.