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Microsoft’s Surface tablet something to get excited about

Microsoft's introduces Microsoft's new tablet SURFACE during press conference Milky Studios  June 18 2012 Hollywood California. AFP PHOTO/JOE KLAMARJOE

Microsoft's introduces Microsoft's new tablet SURFACE during the press conference in Milky Studios on June 18, 2012 in Hollywood, California. AFP PHOTO/JOE KLAMARJOE KLAMAR/AFP/GettyImages

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Updated: October 23, 2012 6:50PM

On Monday, while waiting for Microsoft’s special media event to begin, I read the dumbest thing I’d seen on Twitter all day. I was in a conversation with someone and he claimed that Microsoft was unlikely to ever produce a competitive tablet. That’s the point at which I rolled my eyes and stopped replying.

Less than an hour later, I and the rest of the world learned about Microsoft’s new tablet computer. It looks amazing. If Apple made a device with these specs and features, I’d be vibrating with excitement.

It’s called Microsoft Surface, and it’s a bipartite (bicameral? Well, there are two of them) tablet. One is designed to be lighter and less expensive; it’s built around an NVIDIA mobile CPU, runs Windows RT and Metro-based apps, and comes pre-loaded with a version of Office. The other runs Windows 8 Pro, is built around Intel’s i5 Ivy Bridge CPU, is slightly thicker, is definitely more expensive...and it runs anything that any other Windows 8 Pro desktop or notebook will run.

Both packages are so slim that when I first saw it in CEO Steve Ballmer’s hands I mistook it for an e-reader. Nope: the screen is a full 10.6” with a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio, making it larger diagonally than the iPad.

But Surface bears little comparison with the iPad. Microsoft is clearly pursuing a different design philosophy: it’s designed to bring in as much desktop PC functionality as possible.

Toward that end, in addition to both multi-touch and pen inputs it also uses thin covers that double as ultraslim multitouch keyboards, complete with clickable trackpads. The devices also sport standard USB and HDMI ports and card slots; you can dock the senior Surface tablet to a keyboard and screen when you get to your desk and use it as a conventional desktop PC. Bluetooth is baked in, so presumably you can use any keyboard or mouse you like if you prefer a little extra luxury in the coffeeshop.

It was a killer debut. But keep in mind that it’s just a staged event. We’re all still waiting to hear some potentially dealbreaking details. How much will these devices cost? The RT model will be “comparable to ARM-based hardware.” $499 is a reasonable guess. The Pro model will be priced like an Ultrabook, which, yikes, puts it closer to a thousand bucks.

Is that a fatal blow? Not at all. Keep in mind that upper-end iPads are also priced in the Ultrabook range...and the senior Surface is being marketed as something that can be a “real” PC as well as an ereader. If Microsoft can keep that price comfortably under a grand, I don’t think this alone will be a major issue. The RT model will be out at around the same time as Windows 8 (so, sometime this fall), with the Pro to follow a few months later.

But how long will these things run on battery? Will they run silently, or will heat be such a major issue that the Pro model will be synonymous with singed fingers and screaming fans? Will Microsoft really nail the user experience? Will developers come on board with the Metro apps that separate a true multi-touch tablet from a mere “notebook with a touchscreen”?

And a simpler problem that ranks at the very top of the Must-Do list: will Microsoft communicate the concept clearly to consumers, or will people be left thinking “this is a clumsy notebook” and “this is a really expensive Kindle”?

Still, I’m optimistic. I saw nothing in Monday’s event that made me suspicious or skeptical (he said, checking to make sure he’s already noted all of the details that Microsoft left out of the presentation).

This reaction comes mostly from the fact that Microsoft seems to have built a tablet that works the way that I use my iPad. I most certainly do not use it as a content consumption device: I use it as an ultraportable PC. I walk around with a big external keyboard and I keep looking for apps that deliver the power of a desktop app.

And I continue to be frustrated by my need to sometimes travel with a full-sized notebook as well as my iPad. It seems like a clumsy duplication of hardware. If I were in an Apple Store and had a thousand bucks to spend on either an 11-inch MacBook Air or an identical Mac that worked like Surface, it wouldn’t be any sort of contest: It’d be the Apple Surface.

Faced with the same kind of choice in early 2013, would I choose the Windows tablet over the Mac? I will nervously and rationally say “Oh, well, we don’t know enough about Surface yet, do we? Rather pointless to speculate, I reckon” and then slink off.

(OK: Maybe I would. Happy now?)

The huge, unanswered question will be whether or not Surface exceeds the sum of its parts in actual operation, or if it’ll turn out to be yet another Interesting Idea that never takes off. Microsoft is taking the unprecedented step of designing and manufacturing this PC on their own, rather then just suggesting it to other makers and then hoping for the best. That certainly works in Surface’s favor; it gives the devices a couple of years to build their audiences and their developer support, instead of getting Touchpadded after just a month of weak sales.

Will Surface be that “competitive Microsoft tablet” that my Twitter correspondent serenely doubted would ever come to pass? Let’s not take any bets. But they’ve built a tablet that seems like it’s relevant and fills a void in the market. My Spidey-sense is tingling over this one.

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