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First Microsoft Surface tablet reviews show a worthy iPad competitor is coming

by Ray Aguilera

June 21 2012

Microsoft's Surface announcement this week made a big splash, and even without much hands-on time the tech press has plenty to say.

On Monday, Microsoft showcased two new tablets set to launch in the coming months. One, Surface for Windows RT, will be powered by an ARM processor and is considered more of a consumer model, while the other, more oriented towards business and enterprise users, is based on an Intel chip and will be called Surface for Windows 8 Pro.

Both models feature a 10.6-inch display, a little bigger than the iPad. But the big point of distinction versus other tablets on the market is the Surface's new Touch Cover and Type Cover magnetic snap-on keyboards.

At the event, Microsoft gave some attendees very brief hands-on time with the devices, although we can't be sure how close these prototypes will be to the released tablets. Microsoft is careful to note on the Surface website that "actual size and weight of the device may vary due to configuration and manufacturing process." Still, that limited exposure hasn't stopped the tech press from weighing in with first look reviews of Microsoft's attempted iPad killer.

Over at USA Today, reviewer Ryan Nakashima says that "Microsoft seems to have gotten the design and form factor right with its new Surface tablet computer. But the user interface, not so much." 

While it's anyone's guess how closely the demo units shown will reflect Surface tabs when they actually ship, Nakashima was underwhelmed with what he called a "sluggish" interface. More impressive was the Touch Cover, though like other reviewers Nakashima said he didn't have a chance to actually try it. Microsoft reps assured attendees that they can hit upwards of 50 words per minute using the keyboards, but press on hand weren't able to test that assertion. 

At Techworld, Melissa J. Perenson writes that Surface definitely lives up to all the hype surrounding the device. Perenson lauds the integrated kickstand, and the USB port (2.0 for the RT version and 3.0 for the Win8 version) in particular. It remains to be seen what the USB port will be used for, but iPad users longing for additional external storage and direct connections to peripherals will no doubt be keeping a close eye when the Surface for Windows RT launches in the Fall, followed by Surface for Windows 8 Pro in early 2013.

Covering Surface for PC Magazine, Mark Hachman writes that Windows RT running on Surface "feels fresh and new," although that assesment comes with the caveat that, like others, he was only allowed very limited time with the devices. Other reports have indicated that Microsoft allowed event attendees to handle powered-off Surface devices for only a few minutes.

Giving the iPad a run for its money

Hachman notes that the Surface and Windows RT may well give Apple a run for its money, calling RT a "third viable tablet OS." For tablet users of any stripe, that's good news, as increased competition will no doubt push Google and market leader Apple to step up innovations in their products.

Based on reactions so far, it's clear that techies are excited about the possibilities that Surface offers. Jesus Diaz at Gizmodo sees Surface cutting into a few of Apple's product lines, calling it "a coherent product that can be a tablet like the iPad and an ultrabook like the MacBook Air."

Because of the hybrid nature of Surface afforded by the Touch Cover and Type Cover, Mat Honan says Microsoft's physical keyboard options are the way they can beat the iPad, because "input is everything." 

We'll have to wait a few months to be able to put Surface through its paces and see if this enthusiasm holds up, but the early indications are that Microsoft is building a solid product that may well be the iPad's first serious challenger for market dominance. TabTimes will have a full review as soon as units are availble to test.

Ray Aguilera is the Technology Editor of TabTimes and is based in San Francisco

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