Microsoft Unveils New Surface Tablet: What Are They Thinking?

Microsoft held a surprise press conference in Los Angeles this week to reveal its new Surface touchscreen tablet. Surface looks sleek and sexy, and hopes to compete against the iPad and even potentially replace your laptop.

Of course, in true Microsoft fashion, it starts getting confusing right away. There will be two versions of Surface, which look nearly the same but will work almost entirely differently. Surface for Windows 8 Pro is basically a skinny laptop. It’ll run the upcoming Windows 8 OS, work with programs like Photoshop as well as PC games, and act pretty much like a regular computer. So far, so good, but it will definitely be more expensive than an iPad, and won’t come out until December at the earliest.

The less-expensive Surface RT uses a stripped-down version of Windows 8 for tablets. It won’t run the Windows software you already have, tops out at a small 64GB hard drive, and is locked into Microsoft’s iPad-like “Metro” interface — no traditional Windows desktop. It should be available at the same time as Windows 8, rumored to be October.

Judging from the long list of failed Windows tablets before it, the odds are stacked against Surface. Does it have a chance? We debate its merits:

Dan: After years of waiting for a good Windows tablet, Surface does a lot of things right. It’s about the same size as an iPad, it has a bunch of the video and USB ports the iPad lacks, and it runs Windows, which you probably already have on your work or home computer, so it’s familiar. I also really liked the cover, which looks like Apple’s Smart Cover for the iPad, except there’s a full keyboard built into the inside flap. That looks pretty brilliant, and it’s what I’ve heard most people raving about, even more than the tablet itself.

Libe: Everyone loves to talk about tablets, but so far, people only seem to want to buy the iPad. Do you know anyone with a Blackberry Playbook? How about an HP TouchPad (probably not, HP cancelled it after about two months of dismal sales). Plus, Microsoft is a software company. Why get into making tablets now? The focus should be on making a great operating system — leave the hardware to the experts.

Dan:It’s true, the first thing I hear people say is that Microsoft isn’t a hardware company, so why are they making a tablet? But that’s not really the case. Microsoft doesn’t do it a lot, but it has made some very successful hardware, namely the Xbox and Xbox 360, as well as some real dogs, like the Zune music player.

Libe: Are you serious? Do you remember the Xbox 360’s Red Ring of Death? The first generation of consoles had close to a 100-percent failure rate; they all had to be replaced, and that debacle cost Microsoft $1 billion dollars to fix. I’m not sure I trust Microsoft to design and build hardware. Plus, if something goes wrong with your iPad, you can take it into an Apple Store. Are you going to take your Surface tablet to a Microsoft Store? There are about 25 of them across the whole country, in places like Scottsdale and Orlando. There are five Apple Stores in Manhattan alone.

Dan: I’m still willing to give Surface a shot. Windows 8, in the preview versions I’ve played with, feels like the first time Microsoft has really taken tablets and touchscreens seriously. I’m not saying it’ll replace the iPad, but I’d maybe take one of these on a long plane trip instead of a laptop if I needed PowerPoint or some other Windows software.

Libe: I guess that’s my biggest question. Who is this really for? If you want a tablet, you probably already have an iPad — maybe an Android tablet. The cool keyboard case seems like Surface’s biggest selling point, and that may not be enough to justify trying something new and unproven.

Microsoft has not announced price or availability information for the Surface tablet yet, but it’s expected in late 2012.


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