At the moment, Microsoft Surface is hot

Microsoft's new Surface tablet is generating enough interest to grow lines and pack stores.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read
First Look
Watch this: Microsoft Surface is the best productivity tablet yet

CENTURY CITY, Calif.--As of this weekend, Microsoft has a hot product on its hands.

Reviews notwithstanding (some have been pretty negative), on Friday my local Microsoft store in Century City (in Los Angeles) was buzzing with curious customers keen on trying the Surface RT tablet, as lines snaked outside. Other stores drew crowds too.

(And all three Surface models are back-ordered three weeks on Microsoft's online store.)

I was surprised to see any line at all. After reading some reviews, you would have thought that the thing was DOA.

Fortunately, I had plenty of time to try out the tablet for myself. Ill-conceived, unusable keyboard? Nope. Yeah, it takes getting used to, but the 3mm-thick keyboard is far from unusable and beats a virtual keyboard any day.

And besides, for a few bucks more you can get the other Surface keyboard that Microsoft is selling, which is a real keyboard -- responsive and easy to use.

And as I've been saying for a while now, as an interface, I like Windows 8 and its split personality.

For Microsoft, one of the more encouraging signs (I saw) was the intensity of interest. Customers had lots of questions about Surface and some sat there for 30 minutes or even an hour kicking the tires (or, in this case, pounding on the 3mm keyboard).

If Microsoft can maintain that kind of enthusiasm, it has a chance to make a run at the iPad and MacBook.

The other unmistakable change at the Microsoft store (which I visit often) was a crop of new Windows 8 laptops with touch screens.

There were new Asus, Acer, and Sony clamshell laptops -- all touch capable. For me, this is a watershed feature and big leg up on Apple.

Some reviewers believe that touch screens and clamshells go together like oil and water. Not me. I want the option to use the touch screen. I mean, why not have a touch display? It's there if you need it. And I know I need it.

And new touch-capable Windows 8 laptops, like the razor-thin $1,299 Acer Aspire S7 (it boasts a 13.3-inch 1,920x1,080 display), are very capable rivals to the MacBook Air.

And there are less expensive touch-screen laptops too, like the $699 Acer Aspire V5 and the $549 Asus VivoBook X202E.

And note that these all run the full Windows 8 on Intel. So you're not getting shortchanged on applications -- a common complaint cited by Windows RT reviews.

Which brings us to the next Surface tablet -- the Intel version with Windows 8 Pro. Though under 2 pounds and only 0.53 inches thick, it will pack a 10.6-inch 1,920x1,080 display, Mini DisplayPort, 4GB of memory, up to 128GB of solid-state drive storage, and a Core i5 chip.

It will obviously be more expensive, but it may be a more viable version of Surface for consumers worried that RT won't cut it. (Or for those who take it home only to find that RT doesn't run all of their favorite Windows applications.)

Will the Pro version prove to be more popular than Surface RT? We should know by early next year when it debuts at the Microsoft store.

Acer Aspire S7.  A  very thin, slick, touch-capable Windows 8 laptop.
Acer Aspire S7. A very thin, slick, touch-capable Windows 8 laptop. Brooke Crothers
When the Century City (Los Angeles) Microsoft store opened at 10 a.m. there were long lines and the store was packed.
When the Century City (Los Angeles) Microsoft store opened at 10 a.m. there were long lines and the store was packed. Brooke Crothers