Microsoft Surface

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer launched Windows 8 and the company’s new Surface tablet today in advance of the holiday season.  They will begin selling at midnight tonight online and in the company’s new popup stores around the country tomorrow.

The new touch-screen on Windows 8 looks very Apple-esque. There are still many applications that will only work on Windows machines, so as someone who has wanted to throw my Windows laptop through the wall on numerous occasions, the new touch screen may work better.

But it will require investment in new hardware in order to be able to enjoy full functionality of Windows 8.  “Broadly, anyone using Windows 8 on a touchscreen device loves it, while those using a keyboard and mouse tend to be of mixed minds” says Joel Johnson.

The new Surface tablet will run on Windows RT, a spin-off of Windows 8 for ARM-based processors (in this case 1.3-GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 CPU).  RT will not be able to run Windows “legacy” apps, but it does come preloaded with  Office 2013 Home and Student, which includes fully functional versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and One Note.

microsoft kiosk

Microsoft pop-up stores open tomorrow

The Surface is pricey, with the same $499 base price as the new iPad 4 with Retina Display  (which comes with 16GB of memory vs. the 32GB for the Surface).  The new keyboard attachments will cost between $119 (for the flat Touch) to $130 (for Type with actual keys).  A new version that runs on Windows 8 pro will be released in January.

The Surface will start selling at midnight tonight, and Microsoft is set to open 32 holiday “popup stores” starting tomorrow — 29 of which are located in the same malls as Apple stores, so let the steel cage death match begin.

The big thing that makes the Surface intriguing is the keypad, and there’s no question that it is the defining design feature.  It’s almost impossible to blog with an iPad touch screen, and I hated the awkward Apple keyboard attachment so much I gave it to Dan Ellsberg.  If this keyboard really did make it possible to have a keyboard readily available that would allow me to dispense with lugging a bulky laptop around, the price might be worth it.

The reviews of the keyboard range from awkward to superlative:

  • NYT: [The Touch is] an incredibly slick idea, but the keys don’t move. You’re pounding a flat surface. If you type too fast, the keyboard skips letters….Fortunately, Microsoft also offers the Type Cover ($130), with real keys that really travel. At 0.24 inches thick, it’s not as unnoticeable as the Touch Cover, but Microsoft says it’s the thinnest moving-keys keyboard on earth, and it types nicely.
  • CNET:  The Touch Cover is an incredibly useful and capable accessory that feels as essential to the Surface experience as its kickstand, but given the choice, I’d recommend most buyers spring for the $130 Type Cover keyboard instead. It’s all the best things about the Touch Cover but with very comfortable, wide, depressible keys. It is a bit thicker than the Touch Cover, but not by much. If you’re looking to leverage the Surface’s capability as a productivity machine, you’ll definitely want to spring for one of these cover keyboards.
  • NBC: Microsoft has long been a major designer of mice and keyboards, and Panos Panay, the hardware guy in charge of Surface development, came from keyboards, but that still doesn’t prepare you for how elegant a job the company did on this. I hate to say that it’s Apple-like in its simple yet high functionality, but there’s really no other company that could integrate such an accessory with such grace.
  • Engadget: You wouldn’t think a 3mm-thick piece of polyurethane could make for a comfy keyboard, but the pressure-sensitive Touch Cover is a compelling companion to your written missives. Just give yourself a little time to get used to it. Microsoft warns it could take four to five days to reach your peak touch-typing speed.

Engadget notes that  with the addition of the keyboard, the Surface”becomes a surprisingly capable laptop replacement. Or surrogate, at least.” But therein lies the rub — since they say it takes 5-6 days to get used to, you pretty much have to buy it in order to know if it’s ever going to work for you.

Ballmer has a lot riding on the success of Windows 8.  “[His] margin for error is slim after being consistently outpaced by Apple and Google in his nearly 13 years as CEO” says AP.

So what do you think?  Thumbs up or down for the Surface?