What measures .36-inches thin, has a USB port, and sports a crystal-clear 10.6-inch screen? The USB port is a major hint, given that the iPad and most Android tablets eschew that old-tech port.
That’s right... it’s a new Microsoft tablet and it's a surprising new competitor to the Apple iPad.
At a late afternoon press event on Monday, Microsoft announced two devices: the Surface for Windows RT tablet and the beefier Surface for Windows 8 Pro tablet.
They're both named after the existing Microsoft Surface table, which also uses a touchscreen interface but is bigger than the ottoman in your living room. (You can find them still in the lounges at plush Las Vegas hotels and in some restaurants.)
The Windows RT tablet comes in 32GB and 64GB versions; the Windows Pro model comes in 64GB and 128GB models. Microsoft has not announced pricing or the specific launch date. What I do know is this: The RT tablet will ship the same day as Windows 8 this fall, and the Pro version will ship 90 days after that.
Both tablets offer a 10.6 inch screen size but the devices are slightly different. For example, the Windows Pro version comes with a microSDXC memory card slot that will let you use higher capacity cards. The Pro model is thicker, a bit heavier, and has a longer-lasting battery.
The surprise is that Microsoft is releasing company-branded tablets, a direct assault on Apple’s stranglehold on the touch tablet market.
What’s not surprising is that the new tablets run Windows 8 using an interface called Metro, which I’ve already tested extensively in beta form. Metro is a slick UI that uses a tile interface. The main screen consists of tiles for selecting photos, music, and videos. For business, the tile interface allows you to browse contacts using thumbnails.
The new tablet uses a touchscreen keyboard with a place for a mouse cursor. One brilliant idea: There is a built-in stand that puts the tablet at a 22-degree angle--perfect for video chats and office use.
So what can you do with that USB port? Plenty. While Apple competitors like Asus and Toshiba offer Android tablets with a USB port, support for many hardware products is hit or miss. Yet, the Surface tablet is a true Windows machine, which means you can plug in webcams, keyboards, and even odd-ball items like digital sewing machines and expect there to be a compatible driver.
The tablet has some brainiac hardware features not found on the iPad. For one, the tablet can use “digital ink” for taking notes. When you write, the device turns off the touch input automatically. It uses the Intel Ivy Bridge chipset, which means long battery life. A DisplayPort connection means you can hook up the tablet to a desktop monitor for computing in the office.
Surface will offer the all-important “killer app” at launch: namely, a touch version of Microsoft Office 15. This alone is enough to make Apple a little nervous, given the vast market share of Windows and how many companies will like the idea of keeping Office running on the desktop and on mobile devices.
There is not enough information about pricing, extra features, and which apps will be available at launch to make a sound judgment about whether these two new tablets will attract business users. Safe to say, though, that Microsoft will be ready to take on Apple with all its might this fall.