Microsoft has unveiled its new Surface, a reborn brand that now lives as two products. It was a showy event with a strong conclusion: at the unification of software and hardware lies great things. Microsoft has found that greatness with the Xbox 360. Can it do so again with a new series of tablets? Here's what we think.
Let's take a moment to realize what just happened here. Microsoft just pulled off a showy, big-time event in which they unveiled not one but two pieces of hardware (plus a suite of accessories) that we'd speculated about but not actually seen in the flesh. That's a hell of an achievement, and even more impressively, that hardware looks good. Really good. But, things aren't perfect. Recycling the name "Surface" is a bummer, having two very similar pieces of hardware running two different (yet similar) operating systems is going to be confusing -- and then there's the pricing.
The hardware looks great, the keyboard covers are a brilliant idea and I can't wait to try one out for myself.
Microsoft needed to come out and have these priced at parity with the iPad 2 and the new iPad. This needs to be competitive on a monetary front to stand a chance, and right now having a vague notion about something being priced "comparable" to a vague classification of tablets and laptops is not encouraging. And, finally, having the Pro model ship 90 days after the RT model reeks of kowtowing to Microsoft's partners to keep from blowing them out of the water with such a (seemingly) polished device.
But ignore all that for now. The hardware looks great, the keyboard covers are a brilliant idea and I can't wait to try one out for myself.
This is the product I wanted. The Surface for Windows 8 Pro, that is. It's a tablet with a full-fledged OS; one capable of entertaining me on the go, yet making me productive when docked. I already asked Apple to make an iPad with OS X, but Microsoft managed to beat 'em to the punch with its own OS. Too bad I set my expectations so high.
You see, Microsoft somehow managed to do all of the wrong things in "launching" this product -- if you can even call it that. First off, "Surface for Windows 8 Pro." That's a horrible name. When I think Microsoft Surface, I think of giant multitouch tables. The name of these slates is just awful for potential buyers. Imagine a curious 20-something walking into a Best Buy and requesting "one of those Microsoft tablets." "Well, there's one for Windows RT and one for Windows 8." At this point, they'll probably just ask for an iPad and call it a day. Harsh, but true. (It's worth noting that "MacBook Pro with Retina display" is equally horrendous from a naming standpoint.)
What else? No battery life estimates. No hard pricing details. No RAM figures. No CPU / GPU clock speeds. No resolution details on the Windows RT model. A maximum of 128GB on the Windows 8 Pro model (sorry, I need more space than that for a full-fledged PC operating system). And if the Win8 Pro edition costs as much as an Ultrabook... I'm just going to buy an Ultrabook.
Steve Ballmer didn't smile much (if at all) while introducing this product range.
Finally, there's passion. Steve Ballmer didn't smile much (if at all) while introducing this product range. Call me crazy, but shouldn't he be amped about this thing if it's truly engineered to change the game? Part of me wonders how many consumers will still be around to care about this when it ships in six months. People loved Palm... but they didn't love 'em enough to wait. I'll happily reevaluate things once it's shipped into the marketplace, but if you wanted some gut reaction, that's what I've on offer.
From a pure hardware standpoint, Microsoft looks to have nailed it down: simple but attractive designs, distinctive hardware touches and a few perks (the cover, the stylus) that are made for day-to-day use, not just as one-off gimmicks. There are still many questions left unanswered that could torpedo the whole affair, of course. But Redmond has jumped the first hurdle: it got the tech press, already cranky about flying out to yet another special event, to come out of the venue more interested than irritated. That's no mean feat.
There will be precious little incentive for those near Microsoft Stores to buy a tablet from Acer, ASUS or others.
What I'm most concerned about is the impact to Microsoft's hardware partners. Quite simply, the company just pulled a Zune. Surface tablets won't be competing in every area, but there will be precious little incentive for those near Microsoft Stores to buy a tablet from Acer, ASUS or others that may not get the same top-flight treatment as Microsoft's own hardware. There's certainly no guarantee that the Surface designs will repeat the Zune's fate -- cannibalizing partners' market share, only to stagnate and fade away -- but witnessing the early signs of a repeat isn't exactly confidence-inspiring. I hope Microsoft keeps itself at arm's length more than it did with its MP3 player line, or its strategy could have a vicious effect on the very companies it needs for help.
Not to mention that the final launch needs to be perfect. Pitch perfect. Prices can't be at all higher than those of the iPad for similar features. Battery life can't be significantly lower. There can't be any glaring launch day glitches or examples of half-finished software. It may be trite to say, but it's still very much true that a successful competitor to a product can't just be a little bit better; it has to be dramatically better. We can't say that unambiguously just yet, and that's worrying.
I see Microsoft's decision to release the Surface tablet lineup as the company's most instrumental decision yet in the buildup to Windows 8. There's no denying that it's late to the modern tablet game, and to succeed, the platform will need a serious push to do battle with the iPad. I've no doubt that numerous PC manufacturers will step up to the plate with compelling Windows 8 / RT tablets -- and some may ultimately be better devices -- but without Microsoft's own product, it'd be far too easy for consumers to get lost in this sea of tablets and then gravitate elsewhere.
These are the products that Microsoft needed to generate genuine interest in the Windows 8 tablet initiative.
Microsoft Surface will give consumers a halo product (and another platform) to evaluate, which is necessary given the intense popularity of the iPad. At the very minimum, these two devices will set a benchmark for consumers to evaluate how Windows 8 tablets should behave, and the level of functionality they can expect. Whether the tablets are ultimately hits with consumers is almost beside the point, because these are the products that Microsoft needed to generate genuine interest in the Windows 8 tablet initiative.
And here it is, the day I've been dreading since I caved in and bought a Transformer Prime. As much as I enjoy ASUS' Android-powered transforming slate, I've never been able to shake the feeling I'd like it even more if it ran Windows 8. I thought the hybrid tablets of Computex would scratch that itch, but that was before the Surface's Touch and Type Covers. Paired with the slab's own built-in stand, these lightweight keyboards tease us with a full PC experience in a charming, easily detachable form factor. The jury's still out on how these accessories play out in practical use, but the idea has my attention.
And here it is, the day I've been dreading...
So does the tablet hardware itself, of course, but not for the same reasons. As much as I'd love to gush about the potential I see in the Surface's design, I feel like Microsoft is putting consumers on the fence, unbeknownst to them. Really, it's a tech support phone-jockey's worst nightmare: "What do you mean my old programs won't run, it's Windows isn't it?" Savvy Engadget readers may know the differences between Surface for Windows RT and Windows 8 Pro, but the common shopper won't -- they'll just see a less expensive slate with longer battery life. Microsoft could get everything right on the hardware end, but Surface won't be worth all the Zunes on eBay if Redmond confuses consumers. Your move, marketing.
This could be it. I've been meaning to replace my wife's six-year-old laptop for quite a while now, and Microsoft's Surface could be the one.
I've watched three generations of iPads hit the streets and I've held off from grabbing my wallet each time. I think my wife would love the form-factor of a tablet, but she still needs the usability of a laptop from time to time. Meanwhile, I enjoy the portability of my ASUS Transformer Prime and appreciate its optional keyboard dock. I just wish it ran the Windows programs I use every single day.
Questions remain, of course. This was just the first reveal and there are still plenty of details left unannounced -- price and availability to name just two. Battery life, heat dissipation and third-party Metro support also remain up in the air. I like what I see and hear about the tablet's rigid frame and responsive display. Having played with the Windows 8 OS on a standard laptop, I'm cautiously optimistic about the software's abilities on a fast, multitouch device.
Still, the last time I invested in a device based purely on its potential for greatness, I bought a Windows Phone... and I'm still waiting for that to truly pan out. Before that, I picked up a Zune HD hopeful of the promise it held and... well, we all know how that ended up.
And that's my dilemma here. On first blush, I'm supremely impressed by the potential of the Surface tablets. Yet, I'm waiting to see which Microsoft is behind these devices – the all-in juggernaut that willed millions of Xbox 360s into homes, or the tentative newcomer that dipped its toes into the water with the Zune.
It shouldn't be a surprise to learn that Microsoft is a frustrating company to follow. It has a fantastic capacity to innovate, produce great hardware and offer a few surprises, but its decision-making is eye-wateringly suspect. We've forgiven Surface it's confusingly reheated name thanks to that rock-solid magnesium body, we like how different Metro's UI is from iOS / Android and we're desperate to try typing on the cover.
Had Steve'n'Steve packed up there and gone home, we'd be twitchy with excitement to see the review unit arrive at our door. But no, then came the pro model, which comes out months after the regular edition, with an incompatible OS, vague words on pricing ("akin to an ARM tablet" "similar to an ultrabook"), features that don't span across the range like pen input and Office home.
Had Steve'n'Steve packed up there, we'd be twitchy with excitement. But no.
Imagine the millions of consumers out there as they stand in their local store when Windows 8 launches. They've got the choice of an iPad, or Surface... or Surface Pro -- but you can't buy one and switch to the other, because they run different versions of Windows, except they look the same. Oh, and one has Office, but it's not the expensive one you're thinking about buying for work. Oh, and the pro version won't turn up for three months because Microsoft had to keep Dell happy... It's hardly rocket science to suggest that people will be turned off by such a complex proposition.
Oh, and about Microsoft's hardware partners. They're quickly going to find that as Microsoft flexes its hardware muscles, their space in the tent is going to shrink with nowhere else to go. We kinda hope Meg Whitman wakes up this morning and thinks "Oh, that's why Mark Hurd bought Palm."
Well done Microsoft. Seriously, what happened last night was important for many reasons. Most notably, it shows that the stuff old Microsoft is (largely) on the way out. Ballmer and co showed that they can do product releases just like the rest of 'em. Also, it shows that the firm's not just tagging the line. Sure, it could have just released another tablet with a "lite" version of its main platform (or worse, a scaled up Windows Phone,) but it didn't. Instead we've got a new take on the tablet-story. Surface for Windows 8 Pro shows that a slate can be both portable, and full-fat. Okay, so it's not the first time we've seen something like this, but for some reason, this time it feels like they mean it.
...it's not the first time we've seen something like this, but for some reason, this time it feels like they mean it.
The only small concern I have is the size. Nudging over the 10-inch mark isn't an absolute no-no, and hey, it's far from the biggest we've seen, but it does set them very much on the business side of the fence. When you add in those keyboard covers, it all starts to look like we're back in notebook territory. That said, those covers are a darn nice addition, and a bit of a slow palm across Apple's Smart Cover face.
There are a few other wrinkles too, of course, like the name... it's no zinger. Also, hedging bets between a Windows RT and a Windows 8 version might prove confusing to some. Over all, though, this seems a confident step, and a good indicator that Microsoft is in no rush to catch up, and will just do what it thinks is right. Whether public ultimately agrees, or not, is another matter.
Tablet or notebook? If that's the quandary you've been pondering since last night's Microsoft announcement, you've hit the nail on the head. The answer, of course, isn't quite so simple -- and that's kind of the beauty of the new Microsoft Surface tablets. Rather than launching full bore into the overcrowded tablet world, the company is taking a different route -- offering up slates that harness the "heart and soul" of Microsoft, as Ballmer put it during yesterday's press conference. That heart and soul, naturally, is Windows, the operating system that made the company such a dominant force in the computing world. It's a move that marks a bit of a change amongst the company's offerings over the past several years, a different take on a space rather than what feels like a me-too product.
Microsoft would do well to go aggressively after the business space.
Interestingly, it also marks something of a return of the company's original vision for the space: a tablet built around a full desktop operating system. Of course, there are some major differences all these years later. For one thing, Redmond has really baked that functionality into the operating system. The early Microsoft tablets felt like square pegs in round holes, an operating system hastily jammed into a new form factor. Of course, until we actually get extended hands-on time with the product, it's hard to say how much better things are this time out, though judging from what we've seen of Windows 8's embrace of the Metro UI and the time we've spent with the tablet, things are certainly looking a lot brighter.
Its success obviously depends on these factors as well -- and price will certainly play a big role in how the device is perceived. Consumers may balk at pricing on-par with ultrabooks -- after all, standard tablet pricing has already been set by the competition, and even with the added functionality of a full operating system, it may be a hard sell. Microsoft would do well to go aggressively after the business space. Granted, many companies have already made tablets a part of their workflow, but there's still a lot of ground to grab there -- especially when offering access to Windows' already familiar ecosystem. It's a ball the company dropped with the introduction of the new Windows Phone -- the time is right to pick it up and run with it.
Hollywood has something to be proud of this year. Well, perhaps -- we've only yet seen the previews. What we're still missing is a hint of price, which leaves me skeptical that Surface will be the next big thing in computing, but we do at least know the fate of the tablet's giant cousin -- that other 1080p Surface has since become PixelSense.
As my Engadget brethren are well aware, the Galaxy Note is the only tablet in my life, and while I'm more than merely curious about the Windows 8 experience, I won't likely be queuing up around the corner to make Microsoft's homegrown darling my own. Still, the hardware is intriguing, and if the price is right, Surface could very well be a hit. I'm even the slightest bit remorseful that I sat through the product launch while awaiting a delayed flight home from a long weekend in Canada, rather than on an overnight trip to LA -- thus delaying the chance to go hands-on for weeks, if not until the tablets' launch "around" the time we expect to see the next-gen MS OS this fall.
Surface is hardly Microsoft's first stab at the tablet space. Heck, when it first broke out the "Surface" name 2007, Redmond already had more experience with touchscreens than that other company with a quick selling slate. But, despite experiments like Windows for Pen Computing, folks simply weren't getting hooked on tapping, touching or scribbling with a stylus. The same was true of touchscreen XP, Vista and Windows 7 machines. None of them seemed to be able to get off the ground -- but I'd be pretty surprised if Surface suffered the same fate. Sure, we have our complaints about Windows 8 and its clear efforts to discourage true multitasking, but it's definitely a finger-friendly OS. In fact, the Metro interface makes iOS look staid and boring. Now, by stepping into the design process itself, Microsoft has hardware attractive enough to match its software. Surface may not have a "Retina" display and battery life is still a mystery, but it's unbelievably thin, beautiful and clever in its execution. And it doesn't sacrifice personality for functionality as "PCs" are often accused of doing. Am I already counting the days, waiting to drop my hard earned cash of one? No. But I'm certainly intrigued and convinced it'll be a success. In fact, it seems that Microsoft may have finally found its recipe for success in the increasingly mobile and touch-based future. An announcement like Surface is the sort of thing that will keep Apple and Google from getting too complacent. Now, we'll just have to see how Mountain View responds with its Nexus slate before I decide who gets my hard-earned tablet dollar.
Microsoft seemed to think its clout in the PC world -- not to mention the buzz surrounding Windows 8 -- was enough to draw tech journalists to an event without providing any hints about the announcement to come, and, unsurprisingly, it was right. Though exactly how Windows 8 will fit into the already-crowded tablet space remains to be determined, the OS is clearly inspiring OEMs to create hardware that walks the line between PC and slate, and Redmond's new Surface tablets appear to be among the most promising of this bunch. It makes sense that the company behind Windows 8 would be one of the most capable at tailoring a product to that ecosystem, and yesterday Microsoft showed off slates that not only look solid, but work with accessories made to help users leverage the OS to its full productivity potential.
The thing is, clout can only get you so far. While the Surface tablets have already been met with overwhelmingly positive feedback, they haven't exactly been put through their paces. And while those Touch and Type covers seem great, they're testaments to Redmond's need to outpace Apple. There are worse things than coming late to the party -- and it can even lead to better products that learn from others' mistakes -- but the pressure is on for Microsoft to deliver products that are truly in a league of their own.
Microsoft Surface Windows RT