When you attach the Touch Cover, your tablet's desktop assumes the keyboard's color. Photo: Alexandra Chang/Wired
Microsoft stole headlines and wowed us with two Windows 8 tablets, dubbed Microsoft Surface, at its LA event on Monday. If you followed our liveblog, then you got the details of what was announced, and the promises Microsoft execs made about Surface’s many charms.
But how does the device actually look and feel up close?
I spent some hands-on time with Microsoft Surface for Windows RT right after the announcement. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take a device home, but I did get a chance to hold the tablet, swipe around the software, look at the display, and play with the Touch Cover and Type Cover — two offerings that double as full-sized keyboards with trackpads.
The Surface tablet is definitely impressive, and it’s clear that Microsoft is serious about manufacturing full-fledged mobile hardware. The company’s hardware division, most known for making mice and keyboards, has come out of its software counterpart’s shadow to create a tablet that can rival the iPad and wipe out Android devices.
First off, the magnesium-based VaporMg chassis material is as smooth to the touch as Microsoft claimed in its announcement. And VaporMg is incredibly rigid — the tablet didn’t budge when I tried to flex or bend it. This is particularly impressive when you consider how thin and light the Surface is at just under 0.37 inches and 1.5 pounds.
Microsoft had raw, disassembled VaporMg case pieces at its product demo, and while these extremely thin samples yielded a bit of flex, they still felt incredibly strong. VaporMg might not be the “perfect” chassis material — the industry will always be looking for thinner, lighter, stronger, cheaper materials — but it’s definitely one of the best I’ve seen on a tablet.
The 10.6-inch widescreen display, covered in Gorilla Glass 2, looked crisp and bright. Also, its 16:9 aspect ratio is a smart move considering the Metro experience. You’re able to see more of your Start Screen tiles on the display, and effectively use Windows 8′s split-screen view. (For more on Windows 8 software, see our hands-on here.)
Microsoft Surface comes with a built-in kickstand. Photo: Alexandra Chang/Wired
As for the much-discussed kickstand — Microsoft execs must have dedicated at least 10 minutes to talking it up — it worked exactly as expected. Could you potentially break it off of the tablet in some freak accident? Absolutely. But it sits flush against the tablet when not in use, and is very easy to flip open using a small ridge along the side. And beneath the kickstand, you’ll find a microSDXC slot, which is a nice use of space. (Other Surface for Windows RT ports include a USB 2.0 and Micro HD Video.)
And I can’t talk about the kickstand without mentioning that it issues a pleasantly soft sound when flipping shut. A Microsoft spokesperson even put it up to my ear so I could hear it up close. I’m not sure how many consumers will actually care about this small detail, but it’s worth mentioning, as it illustrates how Microsoft is taking every small design detail into serious consideration.
Speaking of sounds, the most satisfying click comes from the magnetic connection between the Touch Cover and the Surface tablet. I played around with this feature for a good five clicks, pulling off the Touch Cover and putting it back on.
It’s a simple setup, and again, it just plain works. You just bring the cover close to the edge of the tablet, and it’ll snap on — and stay on. Even with heavy shaking, the Touch Cover didn’t fall off. The cover is also designed to feel like a book, albeit a very thin one. With the cover attached, Surface is very easy to grip and carry around.
The Touch Cover easily snaps onto the Surface. Photo: Alexandra Chang/Wired
But as much as the tablet promises stellar build quality, there are still several question marks. For one, Microsoft wouldn’t let anyone actually test the keyboard function of the Touch Cover or the Type Cover. Nonetheless, PR reps kept assuring us that you can type very quickly on it — more than 50 words per minute, according to one Surface team member.
What about the internals? Microsoft didn’t reveal many details. We don’t know Surface for Windows RT’s processor speed, only that it runs on an Nvidia chip. And Surface’s RAM allotment is still a secret. (Or maybe Microsoft just doesn’t know?) As for price and release date, all we know is that the Microsoft Surface for Windows RT is going to be priced comparably to other Windows RT devices and be released around the same time as Windows 8.
From what I saw at the event, Surface is a serious, refined, clever piece of hardware. The tablet is well-built, and comes with a lot of cool features — like the kickstand and available ports — that comparable tablets lack. But there are still quite a few important missing details. That said, if Microsoft can pull off selling its tablets at the right price and everything works as promised, then Surface should definitely be a worthy competitor to the iPad.
Microsoft's Surface could be a worthy competitor to the iPad. Photo: Alexandra Chang/Wired