In a radical shift for Bill Gates' 37-year-old software company, Microsoft unveiled a tablet in Los Angeles on Monday. The Surface aims to be a direct competitor to Apple's iPad, sporting a form factor that's thinner than Apple's tablet, and it also tackles several things the award-winning iPad can't do, like type well or stand up straight.
Microsoft did not reveal many of the tablet's specs at Monday's event, but at least from the outside -- I was tempted to say surface -- it looks like Microsoft could give the iPad a run for its money. No other tablet can say that so far; Android's current strategy to tackle Apple is too fractured, and the initial excitement surrounding Amazon's Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet has subsided considerably. But the Microsoft Surface is thinking outside the box with its tablet, and it looks like it could be a prime iPad competitor -- if it's priced right.
From touch to type, office to living room, from your screen to the big screen, you can see more, share more, and do more with Surface, Microsoft proclaims on its website. Create, collaborate and get stuff done with Office. Explore your world with fast, fluid Windows 8 apps. Discover new music, movies, and games in the Windows Store.
Here are five key features about the Surface that may have you thinking about Microsoft for your next tablet purchase.
(In full disclosure, I am a proud owner of an iPad, and I would never give it up.)
Why You Might Want A Microsoft Surface Over An Apple iPad
- The Kickstand. The Smart Cover for the iPad was a good idea: Essentially, Apple built a magnetized, self-cleaning cover for its tablet that, in addition to protecting the screen from scratches, also served as a way to hold the device. The Smart Cover has a low-angled typing position -- which is good for typing but not viewing -- and a high-angled viewing position for watching movies, but there is no adequate position in between. While some people have ideas on how to improve the Smart Cover, Microsoft thought outside the box and created a kickstand that disappears into the device when it's not needed, but sprouts out of the back of the tablet like a car door when you need it to stand up.
- Full Keyboard and Trackpad. One of the few major flaws in the iPad is the lack of a physical keyboard. Steve Jobs always dreamed of creating a beautifully simple tablet that needed no added interface -- no stylus, no second screen, no nothing -- but typing is the one thing that is not intuitive on the iPad. Users simply don't know what keys they're typing unless they're looking directly at the screen, but fluid typing should let the user focus on other activities besides looking at the keys. Microsoft has a solution: Build a keyboard and separate trackpad right into the back of the tablet cover.
The results are the Touch and Type Covers for Microsoft Surface. The Touch Cover includes an integrated multitouch keyboard and trackpad, which adds only a total of 3 mm to the overall thickness of the Surface. The Touch Cover also senses keystrokes as gestures, which will apparently make typing much faster and easier. Microsoft also created the Type Cover for Surface, which is a full tactile keyboard with actual moving keys, clickable buttons, and a multi-touch trackpad. The Type Cover, since it includes physical keys, is only 5 mm thick, but at least Microsoft has plenty of typing options for its tablet customers. Apple doesn't make any first-party keyboard accessories for iPad, so users would have to buy a Bluetooth keyboard from a third-party like Radio Shack; Microsoft's solution is all-in-one.
- Different Interface. The two most popular mobile platforms -- iOS and Android -- look almost exactly alike. Who copied whom here doesn't necessarily matter; what matters is that if you choose to buy a Microsoft Surface tablet, you're working with a completely new tablet design. The Metro UI in Windows 8 is that same geometric-based design you would find in a Windows Phone or on the Xbox 360, and its live-updating tiles are great at providing up-to-date information that can be viewed at a glance. The interface is also far less about icons and much more about photos, colors and tiles. The iPad's beauty is in its simplicity; the Surface's beauty is in its thematic design. You can't go wrong with either, but Microsoft's UI is certainly refreshing for those a bit tired of Android and Apple.
- Sleek and Sexy. The Microsoft Surface is actually slightly thinner than the new iPad -- the Surface running Windows RT is 9.3 mm thick compared to the 9.4 mm new iPad -- but the device also sports a slightly larger 10.6-inch ClearType display that can play 1080p HD. The resolution of the Microsoft Surface is still unknown, so we don't know how it'll stack up to the razor-sharp 2880 x 1648 pixel Retina Display, but the bottom line is same thickness, bigger screen.
While the iPad is certainly sleek and beautiful, its color scheme is highly conservative. Apple's tablet comes in just white or black; the Microsoft Surface, on the other hand, comes in several pastel colors, including charcoal, pink, blue and red.
- The Microsoft Ecosystem: Apple was always about building the complete solution; not just the hardware, not just the software, but the complete experience. While Microsoft traditionally kept its platform open, the company has been slowly getting into building integrated solutions. At the E3 Expo in early June, Microsoft unveiled a stunning new technology platform called SmartGlass, which essentially connects the television and the Xbox to smartphones and tablets, letting users consume their media in a much simpler and more enjoyable way.
By connecting the Xbox 360 with Xbox Live and Kinect, users can vocally or digitally command their TVs to play movies, music, TV shows and games, and now surf the Web -- Microsoft officially announced Internet Explorer will join the Xbox experience. But SmartGlass is primarily an application: By downloading a SmartGlass app to their smartphones or tablets, users can watch shows or listen to music on the TV, but when it's time to head out the door, users can pick up exactly where they left off directly on their smartphones and tablets. It's similar to Apple's version of AirPlay, which connects the Apple TV with MacBook, iPhone, and iPad devices. Owners of the Microsoft Surface will be able to enjoy SmartGlass in ways other viewers cannot. For example, the SmartGlass app will make the tablet into an intelligent supplemental screen when content is being shown on your TV via Xbox. For instance, if you're watching HBO's Game of Thrones, SmartGlass can offer useful contextual information, like watching the characters' locations on a world map as they travel in the show. In games like Madden, players will be able to use SmartGlass to draw up the next play on their smartphone or tablet. All in all, SmartGlass is packed with features, but it's an incredibly simple and fluid experience. More importantly, users can't enjoy the experience without owning an Xbox.
Of all of the tablets out there, the Microsoft Surface is by far the most useful-looking non-iPad there is. Microsoft has added a lot of physical features to the surface -- sorry, couldn't resist -- but we still have yet to know what really powers Microsoft's foray into tablet hardware. We'll see what makes up the display, the battery life it gets, and more features inside the device that make it tick.
But what we know about the Microsoft Surface will be enough for customers to buy. It's a thin, sleek tablet with a big beautiful screen and a functional cover that acts as a keyboard and trackpad, but more importantly, the user interface is completely different.
Apple has been telling consumers to Think Different since 1997, but since most tablet owners seek out the iPad, consumers would actually be thinking different if they bought a tablet without an app layout. The Microsoft Surface is easily the greatest departure from the app layouts on the iOS and Android platforms: The Metro UI is just as sleek and sexy as the device itself, and the live tiles will certainly be gratifying to eyes and fingers on such a big screen. We'll know more once Microsoft unveils more about its own device.
Microsoft will reportedly sell the Windows RT model of the Surface before the holiday season starts, and the Pro version running Windows 8 several months later.