We saw plenty of crazy transforming tablets at Computex Taipei a couple of weeks back, even some that ran Windows 8, but nothing that could have prepared us for what Microsoft itself is building. The company unveiled a pair of 10.6-inch tablets dubbed "Surface" today, and they sound pretty sweet, with built-in stands, covers with embedded keyboards, and cases molded out of vapor-deposited magnesium ("VaporMg") with neatly beveled edges for a (hopefully) comfortable grip.
What sets apart Microsoft's two tablets from one another, though, and how do they stack up against the competition? Let's run down the spec sheets to get a better picture.
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Surface vs. Surface
As we said, Microsoft revealed a pair of tablets today: one that runs the full Windows 8 desktop operating system, and one that runs Windows RT, a cut-down version of Windows 8 that still has Office and a desktop mode, but can't use legacy x86 software. As such, you can expect the Surface for Windows 8 Pro to come with a Intel Ivy Bridge processor, but the Surface for Windows RT will have an ARM-based chip from Nvidia, likely the same Tegra 3 that's expected to appear in Asus' Tablet 600. Microsoft's being coy on exact specifications, so we can't tell you which processors or memory is inside, but the company claims both tablets will cost and perform similarly when all is said and done:
"Suggested retail pricing will be announced closer to availability and is expected to be competitive with a comparable ARM tablet or Intel Ultrabook-class PC. OEMs will have cost and feature parity on Windows 8 and Windows RT."
That said, the two machines are actually quite a bit different when you look at their spec sheets closely. The Windows RT tablet is an incredible 9.3mm thick and weighs just 1.5 pounds, but the Windows 8 Pro version clocks in at nearly 2 pounds and 13.5mm thick. You get some extra functionality in that bargain, though: while the Windows RT version only has an "HD" display, a microSD slot, 32GB or 64GB of storage and USB 2.0, the Windows 8 Pro version bumps up the resolution to "full HD," upgrades the ports to microSDXC, USB 3.0, and Mini DisplayPort, and starts with 64GB of storage along with a 128GB option. Oh, and don't forget legacy app support.
The Intel-powered machine also has a 42Wh battery, a good bit heftier than the 31.5Wh pack that comes with Windows RT, but we don't have word on battery life yet. Perhaps that additional juice gets sucked up by the higher-res display and Intel chip. Perhaps most importantly, only the Windows 8 Pro machine was listed or shown with a stylus that attaches magnetically to the tablet.
Surface vs. existing tablets
Without having full spec sheets for the Surface tablets, it's hard to compare them against existing slates, but we can definitely say that they've got the edge on most competitors when it comes to the combination of weight, port and keyboard convenience. Apple's iPad has a variety of third party keyboard options, but the company has infamously resisted putting standard ports on its tablets so far, while the Surface have full USB ports, microSD slots, and miniature video-out as well.
The closest competition is Asus' Transformer Prime, a rather thin tablet with an optional (and fairly good) keyboard dock, but the combination is 19mm thick, compared to the 14.3mm thickness for the Surface for Windows RT with the Type Cover, or 12.3mm with the Touch Cover with an integrated multitouch keyboard. Jury's out on how well either of Microsoft's covers type, though, and Asus has an extra battery built into its dock.
When it comes to screens, however, we're eager to see if even Microsoft's "full HD" display in the Surface for Windows 8 Pro can catch up: the third-generation iPad's 2048 x 1536 display is gorgeous, and now that Acer's Iconia Tab A700 has a 1920 x 1200 display as well, the similarly-specced Asus Transformer Pad Infinity probably won't keep us waiting much longer.
Software is the real key. Will Windows 8 and / or Windows RT feel like a more versatile, business or entertainment-friendly operating system than iOS and Android? That remains to be seen.
Surface vs. the Windows 8 competition
If you're sure you're buying into Windows 8 or Windows RT, though, and have a while to wait, there are all kinds of stunning incoming slates. The Asus Tablet 600 is basically a Transformer Prime with Windows RT, and the Tablet 810 does it with Intel, Windows 8 and a larger 11.6-inch screen, while the Acer Iconia W510 is not only detachable, but flips the keyboard all the way around to stand its screen at a comfortable angle for multitouch manipulations. If a portable keyboard isn't of prime importance, the Iconia W700 turns its tablet into a miniature all-in-one PC, with a charging dock that props it up and multiple angles and gives it several USB 3.0 ports for peripherals, and a Thunderbolt port for even faster file transfers and external monitors. Don't forget that Toshiba has prototypes, too, and we haven't even seen what vendors like HP, Dell, and Lenovo might offer soon.
There's a lot to consider as you weigh your lightweight computing options going into the Windows 8 launch, and some of these devices may even fail to make it to market in the intervening months, but it's never been a more exciting time to see what the traditional laptop and tablet might become.