The Surface tablet is a key component in the software giant’s strategy to use the Windows 8 “look and feel” to unite desktops, laptops and mobile devices including tablets and smartphones.
If you don’t qualify for either of these, the full version of Windows 8 Pro will cost $70 via the Microsoft Store or at local retailers. Note, however, that this version requires an existing version of Windows to upgrade. Users without an existing version of Windows who want to load the new OS (for example those who want to run it in a software “virtual machine”) will reportedly need to obtain an OEM version from a specialist computer store.
Surface RT tablet
The key thing to note about the first Surface tablet is that it doesn’t run the full desktop version of Windows 8. This “Surface with Windows RT” tablet uses a special version of Windows designed to run on ARM chipsets rather than the Intel processors used in most desktop PCs and laptops.
On the surface (pardon the pun) the RT version of Windows looks identical to the standard Windows 8 interface. However, it won’t run your existing Windows 8 programs. The apps have to be written specifically for Windows RT and will only be available for download via the online Microsoft Store.
If you want to run Windows 8 programs you’ll have to wait for the Intel-based version of the Surface with Windows Pro, which is due early 2013.
To get you going, the Surface with Windows RT tablet comes with an RT version of Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 (actually a preview version, with the full version to be installed as a free download via Windows Update when available). The tablet also includes apps for Windows Mail and Messaging; SkyDrive online storage, Internet Explorer 10 and Xbox Music, Video and Games.
The tablet hardware includes a 10.6-inch touchscreen with 1366 by 768 pixel resolution, front-and-back 720p cameras, stereo speakers, two microphones, a full-size USB slot and microSDXC memory card slot, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 wireless networking.
Something to be wary of is that the Surface models start with a 32GB version, but you only end up with about half of that as usable space. The rest is taken up by the operating system, recovery tools, built-in apps and Office RT.
The Surface also takes a clip-on keyboard that folds up over the screen for protection when not in use. It comes in two versions – the Touch Cover and the Type Cover. The 3mm-thick Touch Cover has pressure sensitive “keys” that printed onto the cover. There are grooves to indicate the key boundaries but the “keys” don’t move. The Type Cover has keys that actually move, for a more natural typing feel.
The keyboard covers also include a touchpad area, complete with left and right-click buttons, just as with a laptop computer. Because both keyboard covers hinge from the edge however, they take up quite a bit of room in front of the tablet. At the rear of the tablet the built-in kickstand flips out (via a groove that is on the left-side edge only) to stabilise the tablet in landscape position. You can’t adjust the angle and it won’t support portrait viewing.
We found the combined effect of the kickstand and the size of the keyboard means the Surface can’t really be used on your lap. The whole ensemble needs a hard, flat area to rest on, such as a desktop. Maybe that’s why they called it the Surface?
So, if you plan to use the Surface on-the-go, you’ll have to make do with the onscreen keyboard. The keyboard folds back up behind the Surface for “tablet” use. Fortunately, this stops the keys from working, so you don’t have to remove it or worry about accidentally-pressed keys.
If you want to use the Office RT apps though, you’ll appreciate the Touch Cover or Type Cover keyboards because the menu items are quite small on screen and often difficult to select with a finger touch. That’s where the keyboard’s built-in touchpad with left-right click keys comes in handy. If you’re using the Office RT apps on the Surface in on-screen keyboard mode you’ll probably find a compatible stylus quite handy to have.
The Surface with Windows RT is available to order now and is expected in stores from 6 Nov, with pricing as follows: $559 for the 32GB version with no keyboard; $679 for 32GB with black Touch Cover, and $789 for 64GB with black Touch Cover.
The Touch Covers come in five colours (black, white, magenta, cyan and red) for $140 each. There’s also the Type Cover in black for $150.
Software is the key
It’s not price alone that sells tablets however. If you’re considering a tablet you need decide which content system you want to use - Apple, Google have their own “eco-systems” of apps, music, movies, TV shows and books. And now Microsoft is taking the same approach with the Surface RT, but being a first-generation product it has a lot of catching up to do.
If you want to stick with the “full” version of Windows 8, you can do so with the Surface with Windows Pro tablet due early 2013. But if that’s the case you should also weight that model up against the considerable range of third-party Ultrabooks with Windows 8 (some with touch screens). And you can use them on your lap with a full keyboard and adjust the screen angle.