Surface touches the right keys, but not a complete picture

It's not an Xbox. It's not a Kindle Fire-quencher. But while Microsoft's Surface reveals some unknowns about Windows 8 tablets, it has yet to address other important questions.

Editor's note: For CNET's complete analysis of Microsoft's new tablets, check out our First Take of the Surface RT.

LOS ANGELES--Microsoft debuted the Surface line of tablets here today, part of Windows 8's attempts to be all things to all people. The tablets are Microsoft's most aggressive entry to the tablet market to date, but the company has yet to do more than whet our interest.

Two Surface-branded tablets were announced today. One will be running Windows RT, the other Windows 8 Pro. There are some sharp differences between the two versions of Windows 8, but it's telling that the company doesn't even have names locked down for them yet.

Names are both superficial and belie what a device is capable of; the also reveal a company's one-word summation of hope and strategy for a device. What kind of company reveals a product line as aggressively as Surface without product-specific names? It feels amateurish for 2012. But there's more missing than just a name.

We have some hard facts. The Windows RT Surface will weigh 676 grams, be 9.3mm thick, have a 10.6" ClearType HD display, and be available in 32 GB and 64 GB models. It will have a microSD card reader built-in, along with a USB 2.0 port, micro HD video port, and 2x2 MMO antennae.

The Windows 8 Pro will have the same screen but weigh in at 903g, be 13.5mm thick, and initially offer 64 GB and 128 GB hard drives. The card reader will be a microSDXC, the port will be USB 3.0, video will be Mini DisplayPort video, and it'll have the same 2x2 MMO antennae.

Both will work with today's announced keyboard covers, the Touch Cover, a super-thin, flexible keyboard; and Type Cover, a slightly thicker, more laptop-style keyboard. The Windows RT version will come with Office 15 apps, as expected, and the Windows 8 Pro Surface will come with a digital ink stylus.

One important unknown is price. If Microsoft wants the ARM-powered Windows RT Surface to be competitive, it will have to be in the $500 range for an entry level device. The Windows 8 Pro, Intel-powered Surfaces will have to be comparable to the Ultrabook entry point of around $700-800.

Another important question is apps. The Windows Store made dramatic leaps of improvement from the Windows 8 beta to the Windows 8 release candidate, but app development will naturally lag behind the Windows 8 public availability for some time -- maybe even years. While gives the apps a platform, killer apps drive interest. Things like semantic zoom and deep widescreen viewing give Windows 8 apps a unique look and visual depth, but those aren't a guarantee of that must-have app lust.

Third, what in the system of Sol will Microsoft's manufacturing partners think of the tablets? Microsoft was careful to name-check them, and legacy Microsoft hardware like the mouse and webcam, as drivers of innovation. Competition could be a very good thing for the market, and drive down the price of early Windows 8 tablets. But given that there are three versions of Windows 8 available -- Windows RT, Windows 8, and Windows 8 Pro -- it's not hard to imagine OEMs simply ignoring the OS they like or believe in the least.

The Surface line of tablets are an excellent start for connecting innovative hardware to Microsoft's big push to reimagine its OS with Windows 8. A tablet with a stand and a physical keyboard that can also run Adobe Lightroom and knows the difference between a stylus and a fingertip is a seriously compelling piece of hardware, but only if people can afford it, and if they think it can work for them.

From updates to viruses to peripherals with buggy drivers, nobody wants yet another computer to be a slave to.

 

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