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Microsoft Surface RT Microsoft launches a full-on competitor to the iPad -- and tablets from its own Windows hardware partners. We go hands-on with the Surface tablet.

Microsoft Surface unveiled: The first Microsoft-branded Windows tablet.
Watch this: Microsoft Surface unveiled: The first Microsoft-branded Windows tablet

On October 26, Microsoft will make its entry into the tablet war with its Surface tablet. The initial version of Surface will run WIndows RT and will start at $499 for the 32GB version. $599 will net you the same 32GB tablet; however, with a Touch Cover Keyboard and for $699, a 64GB version with a Touch Cover keyboard can be yours.

A got chance to briefly play around with the Touch Cover keyboard in one of Micrososft’s labs recently. Check below for my impressions.

Hands-on with Microsoft's Surface tablet (pictures)

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Family Surface
The Surface tablets will be available in two distinct versions. The first, running Windows RT -- effectively the "light" version of Windows 8 -- will launch on October 26, starting at $499 and run on an Nvidia Tegra 3 CPU. While it won't have the full desktop version of Windows 8, running only the Metro apps available through the Windows app store, it will include a version of Microsoft Office at no additional charge.

Approximately three months later, a Windows 8 Pro version of the tablet will follow. The Pro will offer the full Windows 8 OS running on an Intel Ivy Bridge CPU (the same chips found in ultrabooks and other laptops). The Pro version will also be slightly thicker, offer a more robust battery, and boast better peripheral support (USB 3.0 versus 2.0, DisplayPort, and an SDXC expansion slot) and twice the storage capacity of the RT version.

Surface tablets will be available in Windows RT and Windows 8 versions. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

The surface of Surface
Surface uses a 10.6-inch optically bonded ClearType display. The screen's 16:9 aspect ratio (AR) is identical to that of an HDTV, so many of your favorite movies and all newer TV shows will run in full-screen on the tablet, with no stretching or letterboxing. The vast majority of Android tablets feature a 16:10 aspect ratio, while the iPad uses the same squarish 4:3 aspect ratio you may remember from pre-HD TVs.

The RT version of Surface sports a 1,366x768 screen, while the Surface Pro will boast at least 1,920x1,080 pixels (1080p).

Surface for Windows 8 Pro will support digital inking, and during a demo at the conference the company demoed this by writing on the screen using a stylus and then zooming in on the writing, which still looks smooth without any of the "jaggies" you'd expect. According to Microsoft, this is thanks to the 600dpi sampling rate the screen records your writing at. Ostensibly, this allows digital inking to be much more precise.

Thanks to the optical bonding process, there are no layers between the Gorilla Glass 2.0 and the display. Microsoft demonstrated that when you use the Stylus, it feels like you're writing directly on the page, not the glass on top of it and it touts optical bonding as the reason behind this level of pen-to-page intimacy. According to Microsoft, there's only a 0.7-millimeter distance between the Stylus and where you see the ink.

Optical bonding allows the screen to sit very close to the Gorilla Glass 2.0 cover. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Surface will also make use of Windows' support for something it's calling palm block tech. Windows uses two digitizers: one for touch and another for digital ink. As long as the Stylus is in close proximity to the tablet screen, Windows will shut off the touch sensor, so that your hand doesn't accidentally swipe the screen while you're trying to write or draw. Once you're done, the Stylus can then adhere to the side of the tablet, magnetically.

During our brief hands-on, the screen didn't feel as responsive as we expected. We swiped the screen briefly to rotate around a panoramic picture Microsoft had on the device, but the feedback of the animation felt rough and didn't seem to respond as quickly to our swipes as we would have liked. That said, this was early preproduction hardware, so we'll have to see how the final version behaves when it's released commercially.

(Microsoft's) The stand
During the conference the Microsoft reps were keen to continually mention the VaporMg (pronounced "Vapor Mag") process it used to build Surface. According to the company, the process allows Microsoft to melt metal and then mold it down to a 0.65mm thickness for any given part. The layering of components is apparently so efficient that even sticking a piece of tape in between them would cause the tablet to bulge.

The full magnesium case is both scratch- and wear-resistant and weighs about 1.5 pounds. We only got to hold the tablet briefly, but it felt substantial -- fairly light but not airy.

Microsoft also credits VaporMg as the reason it was able to seamlessly include the Surface's built-in kickstand. We've seen kickstands on tablets before and being able to easily prop up your tablet is something we definitely appreciate.

The integrated kickstand makes for easy media viewing. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

The bottom rear third of the tablet is all kickstand, but it's not something you'd quickly notice without being told it was there. There's an inch-long groove that allows you to easily pull out the kickstand and prop the tablet up. When combined with the cover, the combination gives the tablet a laptop look and, ostensibly, feel.

However, Microsoft may want to point out the stand mechanism a bit more obviously. There were a few journalists during demos (us included) that couldn't figure out how to enable the kickstand without being shown. Still, the kickstand feels very well-integrated into the design and is actually useful, so thumbs-up here.

Two tablets, two covers
If you took the keyboard attachment used by the Asus Transformer family of tablets and melded it with Apple's Smart Cover, you'd get the basic idea behind Microsoft's cover implementation for Surface.

There will be two types of cover and keyboard attachments: Touch Cover and Type Cover. Like Apple's Smart Cover, the covers are magnetically attached to the edge of the tablet. Both types of cover can act as either a cover for the screen or as a full keyboard, with a two-button touch pad and buttons for navigating Windows' Metro UI. When flipped back, the keyboard automatically shuts off.

Let's face it: no one likes typing on a tablet screen for long periods of time, and Microsoft certainly made it clear that typing on its cover-keyboards was just as accurate and enjoyable (and in the case of Type Cover, possible more enjoyable) as typing on a normal keyboard. At least according to the Microsoft reps.

The Touch Cover is one of 2 magnetically attachable keyboard covers that will be available. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

On October 15, I toured Microsoft's Studio B R&D division. During one of our many lab stops I got a few brief moments to type on the Touch Cover while it was connected to a working Surface RT tablet.

Inside Microsoft's Touch Cover development lab. Microsoft

Microsoft was keen to point out that due to Surface's larger than usual (for tablets) 10.6-inch screen, Touch Cover -- which is just as wide -- hits the sweet spot for spaciousness, so your hands are less likely to overlap while typing.

I now can indeed attest to its ease of typing and the keyboard's surprising comfort. It's definitely more spacious than typical tablet keyboards like the Asus Transformer Infinity's accessory and thanks to bongo drum-like feedback sound effect, I didn't really miss that the keys don't depress.

Also, even with its thin build, I was impressed that the keyboard could accurately determine when I was actually pressing the keys versus the times I was simply resting my fingers on top of them.

I'll definitely need to spend more time with Touch Cover to determine just how effective it is at emulating an actual keyboard, once I get the chance.

As the conference went on, we started to notice how much thought and detail Microsoft has added to the experience it wants you to have with Surface. One of the coolest little details was that depending on which color Touch Cover (five colors were shown) is connected to the tablet, the color of the screen background in the Metro UI would change to reflect it.

We didn't get to play with the thicker and much more traditional Type Cover keyboard, but Microsoft gave a pretty detailed demo of it in action. Unlike the stationary buttons on the Touch Cover, Type Cover keys have a 1.5mm travel, while still being packed into what seemed to be a relatively thin (5mm) enclosure.

Also, the keys sense the grams of pressure you're applying to them. Unlike a touch screen, this allows you to place your fingers on your home keys without them interpreting that placement as keystrokes.

Other specs
Aside from confirming that the Surface boasts front and rear "HD" cameras, Microsoft was mum on imaging details. That implies at least 720p image capture capability (which is merely 0.9 megapixels), but we're hoping for something at least closer to the multimegapixel resolution you find on middle-of-the-road tablets and smartphones these days.

Here's a rundown of the official specs as we know them:

Surface (Windows RT) tablet key specs

  • Windows RT operating system
  • Nvidia Tegra 3 CPU
  • 9.3mm thick
  • 676 grams/23.85 ounces
  • 10.6-inch ClearType HD Display
  • 31.5 watt hour battery
  • Ports: microSD, USB 2.0, Micro-HD video, 2x2 MIMO antennas
  • Storage options: 32GB and 64GB for Windows RT
  • Front- and rear-facing "HD" cameras
  • Surface (Windows Pro) tablet key specs

    • Windows 8 operating system
    • Intel third-generation Core i CPU
    • 13.5mm thick
    • 903 grams/31.85 ounces
    • 10.6-inch ClearType "Full HD" Display
    • 42 watt hour battery
    • Ports: microSDXC, USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort video
    • Storage options: 64GB and 128GB
    • Front- and rear-facing "HD" cameras
    • What impressed us most was not the specs, but the sheer attention to detail that went into building this product and the obvious effort put into integrating its features. It seems to be a truly impressive design and engineering feat. However, there are just too many important, unanswered questions.

      Hands-on with Microsoft's Surface tablet (pictures)

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      (And speaking of) Unanswered questions
      Overall, we like what we've seen so far, we just felt we were left hanging in terms of information. Of course, that was probably Microsoft's goal with this early announcement: to intrigue people and leave them wanting more.

      We were also left wanting from a software perspective. A tablet is useless without apps and we were disappointed we didn't get more information on types of apps to expect and how (or if) apps would be handled differently from iOS or Android apps.

      Luckily, Surface doesn't go on sale today. If it did, we would not be in line to buy one (or even purchasing one online). That's not to say we aren't intrigued, nor that we won't buy one in the future; it's just too early to tell. We need more information on apps, Xbox integration (there was no SmartGlass mention at all), pricing, and the expected battery life in order to make a clear decision. That said, we can't help but walk away looking forward to seeing more.