An Overview of Microsoft Surface Tablets

There are two models of the Surface tablets, one with a low-energy processor featuring Windows RT, and another with an Intel processor featuring Windows 8 Pro.

Pricing and Models

Microsoft has currently only released the prices for the RT version. The Windows RT Surface tablet is now available for purchase. The Intel version will be on sale later in November 2012.

 Windows RT version of SurfaceWindows 8 Pro version of Surface

$499 USD for 32 GB version
$699 USD for 64 GB version

Not yet announced.
Weight About 1.5 lbs. (676 grams) About 2 lbs. (903 grams)
Connectivity Tablet Wi-Fi: $9.95/moTen times faster than 3G. Not yet announced.
Thickness 9.3 mm 13.5 mm
Screen 10.6 inches (diagonal) with ClearType HD Display 10.6 inches (diagonal) with ClearType Full HD Display
Ports microSD, USB 2.0, Micro HD Video, 2x2 MIMO antennae (for wireless communications) microSDXC, USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort Video, 2x2 MIMO antennae (for wireless communications)
Storage 32 Gigabytes and 64 Gigabytes 32 Gigabytes and 64 Gigabytes
  • Type Cover costs $100 with the 32 GB version.
  • The 64 GB version comes with the Type Cover.
  • Type Cover costs $120 if bought separately.
  • Type Cover with moving keys costs $130.
Not yet announced. 
Processor ARM Process Intel Processor

Microsoft has created a device that feels solid in your hands. The display is bright and sharp. The Surface feels responsive. The device gives a great first impression.

Reviewers have labeled the device as feeling like version 1.0 and some of the limitations of the Surface tablet become very clear, very fast. This version of the Surface is designed to showcase Microsoft's new version of Windows, which features an overhauled interface designed for use with touch-based devices, as well as a version of the classic desktop. Surface is Microsoft’s way of saying to the PC industry that this is how to build a tablet for Windows 8 / Windows RT. It is the de-facto prototypical starting point for Windows 8 Tablets, just like the Nexus was the prototypical tablet for Android, as created by Google.

Processors and Compatibility

Traditionally, Windows ran on an x86 processor architecture, developed by Intel and used by AMD. The x86 processors are fast and capable but are not particularly efficient at managing power and get rather hot. These are not a great characteristics for a tablet processor. Tablets require cool and low power consumption processors that conserve battery life and are comfortably-cool to hold in your hands. ARM processors are more efficient and generate less heat, making them more suitable for devices like tablets and smartphones.

Windows RT is built for ARM processors and cannot run applications that have traditionally run on Intel-based versions of Windows. Consider Windows RT a forward compatible device with no backward compatibility with applications built for any operating system before Windows 8. While the Surface has other issues, this is its primary limitation of Windows RT Surface tablets.

Strong Technical Specs

The Surface has great technical specs, on paper. A 1.3-GHz nVidia Tegra 3 video processor, two gigabytes of RAM, a 10.6-inch display with a resolution of 1,366-by-768 pixels.

The storage goes from 32-GB to 64-GB with a microSDXC slot for memory expansion.

Ports include a USB 2.0 port, mini-HDMI port.

Network and connectivity includes Bluetooth and both 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi connectivity. (There’s no cellular broadband capability.)

720p HD cameras on both the front and back.

The Form Factor

The Surface’s 11-by-7-by-.37-inch case made of magnesium and a form of liquid metal – Microsoft calls it VaporMg – and it is light and feels very sturdy. It’s charcoal gray. The edges are tapered for comfortable handling.

The back of the Surface features a kickstand that pops out to keep the display standing up. The click sound that is heard when it snaps out was carefully engineered and is featured in the Microsoft television commercials for the Surface.

Cover / Keyboard / Touchpad All In One

The kickstand works best with the keyboard covers that are available for the Surface.

There are currently two keyboard options– the Touch Cover, which has touch-sensitive pads representing each key, and the Type Cover, which has physical clicky keys. The keyboard connects to the Surface magnetically. The magnets are strong enough that you can pick up the tablet and the keyboard will stay attached.

Both covers have integrated touchpads, similar to a laptop touchpad.

The covers work like the Smart Covers on Apple’s iPad, so when you close them, the Surface goes to sleep.

Metro Apps

Other reviewers have complained about the lack of app selection for the tile-and-text-based Metro interface. Indeed, you don’t have the choices you do with the iPad or Android tablets.

There are some big names– Amazon Kindle, Netflix, Hulu, Urban Spoon, the New York Times, USA Today, Angry Birds. It is the early days so don't expect the depth and breath available for more established platforms like Android and iPad. The available apps are also not particularly fully-featured because developers are still learning how to work in the Metro development environment.

The App Store can be difficult to browse and apps are grouped into large categories where you are faced with hundreds of titles to swipe through. This is probably deliberate to conceal the fact that there are not as many apps available.

Windows RT will not run traditional Windows applications so what is in the app store is what you get. You cannot install traditional Windows software. This is a brave new world.

Battery Life

Microsoft claims a 5 to 8 hours of battery life. Reviewers have reliably received 5 hours of battery life with average use (email, some streaming video, staying connected via Wi-Fi, using Office).

What To Do?

If you think you can live with the current selection of Metro-style apps you may become frustrated when you actually have to. I would recommend waiting until developers have built more feature rich, more innovative, and more efficient Metro apps. A device is only as good as the software available for that device.

Microsoft will release a version that runs Windows 8 Professional, which means it can run Metro as well as traditional Windows desktop software. There’s no word on pricing or an exact shipping date. Because this device will use an Intel processor it will have fans, run hot, with shorter battery life. This will not be a fantastic tablet in my opinion because of the short battery life, warm temperature, more weight, and thicker width. The Windows 8 Intel tablet is a bridging product from the past to the future.

The future will be Windows RT and Metro apps.

My advice is to wait for version 2.0 of the Surface Windows RT tablet when the app store has more compelling software titles and a better overall selection of Metro apps. Surface is a great product introduction from Microsoft and there is no doubt Surface will change the tablet landscape significantly in the year ahead.