Microsoft has announced that it is going into the tablet hardware business with the new Surface for Windows RT and Surface for Windows 8 Pro tablets. Pocket-lint was at the launch event to get the nitty-gritty.
Microsoft’s first tablet PC is crammed with neat technical ideas and it looks the part of a thin, sleek, stylish tablet. You can’t get your hands on it for a couple more months - and three months after that for the Intel-based Surface for Windows Pro - but when you can, it’s going to feel good. Surface for Windows RT is never going to be mistaken for an iPad; that’s probably very deliberate. From the black case, with a vapour-deposited protective coating and discreet Windows logos on the front and back, to the square corners and chamfered edges, Surface has its own style, which is minimalist. The idea is for the hardware to disappear into the background, leaving you with just Windows.
That’s why Surface has a screen with the Metro-happy 16:9 aspect ratio. The two hardware versions of Surface will have different screen resolutions, with the Windows RT Surface getting a 720P HD 10.6-inch screen and the Surface for Windows 8 Pro squeezing in a hefty 1080p in the same size display.
Described as ClearType screens - which is about as helpful as calling something a Retina display - they're clear and bright. When Microsoft says you can’t distinguish individual pixels on screen at arm's length, we agree. Both Surface RT and Surface Pro have Gorilla Glass 2 touchscreens, though the Surface Pro adds a second digitiser and support for pen input. The pen snaps into place on the side, magnetically, in the same way the power connector snaps into place.
The combined keyboard covers also attach magnetically, and the kickstand hinge at the back stays tucked away when you don’t want it, thanks to more magnets. This makes the design feel very smooth; you don’t have to fumble around getting things in exactly the right place, nothing flaps loose and generally the Surface has the kind of attention to detail you expect from Apple.
The kickstand is a good example of this. Running the width of the tablet and made of the same magnesium alloy as the device, it’s as thin as a credit card and strong enough to hold up the weight of the Surface even without a keyboard attached to help balance it. The Surface doesn’t wobble around when you swipe or tap on screen. When you close the stand, it shuts with a solid click that makes it sound like something much thicker and heavier. Microsoft wanted it to sound like the door of a sports car closing, it tells us. The magnets hold it very securely, but there’s a groove cut out of one end so you can easily get your finger under it to flip it open.
The camera is in the centre of the top edge, so when you have the Surface standing up on the hinge the angle points it right at your face without your having to hunch down to get into the frame.
Windows 8 and Windows RT are obviously designed for touch, and Surface is designed to show that off. We were able to try out some applications on the ARM-powered Surface, and we found its display quick and responsive, with similar performance to Windows 8 on a x86 PC. Running two apps side by side works well. You can have Mail or a video call in a narrow window and an Office RT document or browser open in a 4:3 window next to it.
The bevels are utterly seamless, so it’s easy to swipe across them to bring up the Charm bar or get back to the last application. Even the Windows button on the front of the screen is touch-sensitive, although it’s designed so you can swipe across it without accidentally triggering the Start screen.
By virtue of they compact design, tablets don’t usually have many ports, so the connections on the Surface RT aren’t particularly mean but, again, there are differences between Surface RT and Surface Pro. At 9.3mm the Surface RT is just thick enough for the USB 2 port with the micro HDMI port looking tiny next to it. There's also a microSD port tucked away, along with twin speakers and dual-array microphones.
Surface Pro tablets get a microSDXC port that takes higher capacity cards, mini Display Port instead of HDMI and a faster USB 3 port. Neither model gets Ethernet - there wouldn’t be room, even in the 13.5mm-thick Surface Pro, which has to make room for a heat vent that runs around the edge.
Microsoft makes a lot of the VaporMg process it uses to put the protective layer on the aluminium chassis and certainly the surface of the, erm, Surface feels good to touch. The chamfered edge makes it fit neatly in your hands, and with either of the ultra-thin keyboard covers on, holding the Surface feels like holding a book. It works perfectly well in portrait mode and it doesn’t feel unbalanced in your hands the way the 10-inch Galaxy Tab does, but it feels very natural to hold the Surface in landscape most of the time - the way you use a notebook today.
Hardware is well, hard. You don't expect computers to feel soft. But that's what Microsoft is delivering with its Surface Touch Cover and Type Cover. They're covered in what Steven Sinofsky described as being the same material used to make fleeces – and they certainly feel very different to the touch. That doesn’t mean they're fragile, the Touch Cover is a seven-layer design that’s both thin and strong – like the Surface itself, it doesn’t bend when you twist it by the corners, despite being only 3mm thick.
Available in five colours, all with the bright bold Metro look-and-feel, the Touch Cover will change your Metro start screen to match as soon as it's connected. The result is pleasingly coherent (even when you've plugged a hot pink Touch Cover on to your Surface). Type Cover is a physical keyboard with the same soft but hard-wearing material on the back in understated grey and soft-touch keys that feel very like the surface of the Surface tablet.
Typing on a touch surface feels a little odd at first. There's no give like a traditional keyboard – and if that's what you want there's the option of the sprung keys of the Type Cover – though the keys are certainly more comfortable than typing on screen. Microsoft has used the same technologies as its capacitive Sidewinder X5 keyboard, able to detect the pressure you use to hit a key, so you'll be able to touch type - or use complex gaming key combinations - without worrying about losing a keystroke. But just because your hand is on the keyboard doesn’t mean Surface thinks you're typing - that happens only when you hit the keys. You get an optional click sound as you type, something we listen for on a physical keyboard, so having that feedback should help speed up your typing.
The gaps between the keys on the Touch Cover aren’t obvious and it’s hard to make out the buttons of the tiny touch pad, but the size of the keys is fine for typing on. The Type Cover looks like a traditional keyboard, complete with function keys and obvious buttons on the touch pad. What it doesn’t look like is a Mac keyboard - it doesn’t have isolated keys - which makes the top of each key as large as it can be. And as thin as it is, the Type Cover has an excellent action with good travel and a good key layout. Microsoft has left the rarely-used "insert" key off altogether, for example.
All of this means the keyboard feels like it should be far too thick to make a comfortable cover, so it’s a surprise when you pick it up and feel how thin it is.
Microsoft has made the Surface keyboards the first to be Windows 8 ready, with keys for the accessing charms. You'll be able to launch search and share without lifting your hands from the keys, or bring up devices or settings. It’s also a helpful reminder that this is how you get at basic features such as printing and connecting to Wi-Fi.
Both the Touch and Type Cover work with Surface for Windows RT and the Intel Core i5 Surface for Windows 8 Pro. They fit into the same magnetic connector - with two prongs to lock the connector in place. They’ll be sold separately from Surface, although we expect the Microsoft Store will have a bundle with tablet and cover - and the smooth-writing digital pen that works with Surface Pro - and it’s hard to imagine wanting a Surface tablet without wanting one of these excellently designed keyboards.
The Surface tablets are so secret that they have been designed in an underground bunker. But has Microsoft delivered? It certainly looks like it, and Surface is a very desirable piece of technology.
It looks good, it's comfortable to use, and it's certainly innovative. Microsoft has done what it said it was doing, and produced devices that showcase Windows 8, and that nudge OEMs into producing better laptops. That's going to be a win for us all - especially as it gives Microsoft a tablet that it can update as frequently as it wants.