Get ready for a whole new type of tablet. Today, Microsoft announced pricing and started accepting pre-orders on Surface.com for its long-awaited Surface tablet with Windows RT. Starting at $499 with 32GB of internal storage but no keyboard cover, the Surface is also available with a black Touch Cover for $599 or with both a Touch Cover and 64GB of storage for $699. Colorful Touch Covers with flat keys are available in five colors for $119 while a black Type Cover with tactile keys goes for $129.
First shown in June, the 1.5-pound Surface features a 10.6-inch, 1366 x 768 screen with 5-point touch, a quad core Tegra 3 CPU and 2GB of RAM. Front-and-rear facing 720p cameras allow you to either video conference (with the dual microphones) or snap photos of your surroundings. With a full-size USB port, microSDXC card slot, HD video out port, Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, the tablet also provides plenty of ways to connect to networks and peripherals.
However, the real star of the show with surface is its optional 3mm Touch Cover which comes in blue, red, pink, black and white colors. Using a unique magnetic dock connector, the Touch Cover attaches to the top of the tablet and can flip around 360 degrees to either cover the screen, sit on the back while you use the screen or sit flat on a table or your lap as you type on its touch-sensitive QWERTY keys.
In an extensive lab tour at Microsoft headquarters, we had a very brief opportunity to type on the keys and were impressed by how accurately we were able to hit them, despite the total lack of tactile response. The keys themselves are elevated, but have no dome or spring mechanism beneath them. But because the keys are raised just enough to feel them, we were able to type the sentence "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country," with only a couple of errors on our first attempt.
Microsoft President of Windows and Windows Live Steven Sinofsky told us that it typically takes a few days for users to get used to typing on the Touch Cover, but when they do, they can expect a typing experience that is almost as good as typing on a keyboard with moving keys. To address the needs of users who prefer a more robust typing experience, Microsoft will also be selling a Type Cover that is marginally thicker and more expensive at 5.5mm and $129.
The cover forms a magnetic connection with the Surface that is so strong that you can hold onto the Touch Cover and let the tablet dangle from it, without fear of the slate detaching and falling on the floor, something we saw Microsoft executives demonstrate several times during our lab tour. Microsoft's first commercial for the Surface also highlights the strength of this magnetic bond by showing a dance routine where the dancers are attaching, detaching and otherwise waving around the Touch Cover and the tablet.
By placing such a heavy emphasis on the Touch Cover as a differentiator in its advertising, Microsoft's decision not to include it as standard on all models of the Surface seems puzzling. When asked why the company had chosen not to bundle a cover with its base model, Sinofsky answered that the company wanted "a base product that will allow people to enter the market" for under $500.
Whether the Surface tablet succeeds in the market may well be determined not only by its hardware, but also by the ecosystem of apps available for its Windows RT operating system that only supports Modern-style Windows 8 apps. With less than two weeks to go before the launch of Windows 8, the fledgling Windows Store had just over 4,000 apps, with few big-name games or entertainment apps available. However, with the power of Microsoft behind Windows RT, we're sure to see some of the top titles being ported to it soon.
Microsoft will begin fulfilling preorders for the Surface on October 26th and, on the same day, the tablet will be available for sale at all of its retail outlets, including several pop-up stores that are designed to sell the device to holiday shoppers. The company has no immediate plans to sell the Surface through third-party retailers.