Technologizer

Microsoft Surface: The Price Is Out but Mysteries Remain

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Harry McCracken / TIME.com

Microsoft's Steven Sinofsky and Panos Panay show off the Surface tablet to journalists at an event in Redmond, Wash. on October 15, 2012

It’s $499, with 32GB of storage. Or $599 if you want one with the slick keyboard cover. And $699 for a 64GB model with the cover.

Those are the answers that tech watchers have been seeking since Microsoft announced its Surface tablet at a press event in Hollywood last June without mentioning the price. Those of you who have been on tenterhooks can take a deep breath now–and, if you so choose, may pre-order a Surface starting at noon ET today. Along with Windows 8, Surface will go on sale at Microsoft Store locations and on Microsoft.com on October 26. (This first version runs the Windows 8 variant that’s known as Windows RT, designed for processors based on ARM’s power-efficient technology; Surface Pro, a more potent model with an Intel chip and full-blown Windows 8, is due about 90 days alter.)

Microsoft

You know what, though? If you’ve been obsessing over Surface’s price for the last four months, you were missing the point.

Sure, it would have been a big deal if the rumors about it costing $199–implausible though they were–had somehow panned out. But instead, Microsoft merely did what it had said in June that it would do: It gave Surface a price that’s competitive with the prices of other tablets. (It has the same starting price as Apple‘s current-model iPad, but with twice as much storage and a larger screen.)

(MORE: Here Come the Touchscreen Desktops and Laptops)

Even if Surface’s price had been surprisingly cheap or steep, this tablet was never going to be defined by its price tag. Good products rarely die purely because they’re too pricey; bad ones don’t become landmarks simply because they’re affordable. Surface–the first PC Microsoft has built, after more than three decades of building software for other companies’ PCs–is a radical rethinking of what a PC should be in 2012 and beyond. It’ll do well if it makes sense to consumers, and it’ll flop if it doesn’t.

Microsoft, which had revealed precious few additional details about Surface since the June unveiling, disclosed the pricing to a small number of journalists (including me) during a hush-hush briefing at its Redmond, Wash. campus yesterday. The session was short on hands-on time with the new tablet–more on that later–but long on behind-the-scenes details.

The event began with an introduction by Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live Division, and Panos Panay, general manager of Surface. Then we visited with some of the people who’d been covertly working on Surface for years, in the facilities where the tablet was created. We saw stacks of rejected prototypes; we saw 3D printers and CNC machines cranking out test components; we saw automated test equipment that dropped Surfaces onto hardwood flooring and opened and closed its cover over and over and over and over again.

Surface Prototypes

Microsoft

Signs of secrecy were still everywhere–guards, copious amounts of lockable storage, tacked-up memos explaining the proper procedures for getting rid of trash. Microsoft showed us journalists an awful lot, but we were asked not to quote anyone except for Sinofsky and Panay, and we weren’t permitted to take photos except at the very start. For one chunk of the event, we were even required to surrender our cell phones.

Just to emphasize the unique nature of the event, the company presented us with Wonka bars wrapped up with golden tickets labeled SURFACE before we set off on the tour. Sinofsky even cheerfully ordered us not to dip our hands in the chocolate river.

Throughout the day, the aspects of Surface that are most classically Microsoftian–the fact that it runs Windows and comes with Office–were barely mentioned. Instead, the presenters focused on the tablet’s hardware. And they dwelled on the decisions they made to make Surface more, well, perfect. (Again and again, Panay used that word when describing the company’s goals for its tablet.)

A few notes:

  • After considering a bevy of sizes, the company’s engineers settled on a 16:9 10.6″ screen even though it’s a non-standard size. They think it’s the closest thing possible to the ideal form factor: Big enough to give Windows breathing room and allow for a roomy keyboard, yet small enough to be ultra-portable.
  • Surface’s 1366-by-768 resolution sounds skimpy compared to the iPad‘s 2048-by-1536 “Retina” screen. But a Microsoft researcher argued at length that Retina displays aren’t inherently superior. For one thing, he said, aging eyeballs can’t always tell the difference. For another, like the iPhone 5–but unlike the iPad–Surface uses a touchscreen that’s been bonded directly to the LCD. That improves contrast and reduces reflection, permitting Retina-like clarity without the Retina display’s battery-sapping tendencies.
  • The tablet’s Vapor Magnesium case and Gorilla Glass 2.0 screen are remarkably sturdy, Microsoft says. To prove the point, Sinofsky briefly stood on top of a Surface that had been equipped with skateboard wheels.
  • Like Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD, Surface is equipped with MIMO wi-fi, which uses two internal antennae for better wireless performance.

Above all, Sinofsky, Panay and other Microsoft staffers kept returning to two specific details of Surface’s design:

  • The cover with the built-in keyboard and touchpad–dubbed the Touch Cover–uses magnets to precisely and firmly attach itself to the tablet. It’s reminiscent of the way Apple’s Smart Covers work, but if anything, the magnets feel more insistent about aligning everything properly–the cover practically lunges out of your hand and grabs ahold of Surface. (In doing so, it makes the electrical connection that provides the keyboard and touchpad with power.)
  • The tablet’s kickstand lets Surface stand upright when it’s folded out; along with the Touch Cover, it gives you a laptop-like working experience. But when you fold the kickstand away, it shuts with the same satisfying feel as a luxury-car door, and is perfectly flush with the case. Microsoft devoted untold hours to making the kickstand not only feel sold but sound solid, and ended up using an extra hinge devoted entirely to the audio effect.

I could tell that Sinofsky, Panay and crew were smitten with the magnetic magic of the cover and classy clack of the kickstand because they kept snapping on covers and opening and closing kickstands. And actually, these two features are about the only things that Surface’s first TV ad (which premiered on Monday night) tells you about the product:

Several months after Microsoft first announced Surface, the level of attention it’s showing to nitpicky little details still feels nearly as disorienting as the fact it’s making tablets at all. A few years ago, its marketing honcho mocked Mac fans as wanting computers that had been “washed in unicorn tears.” But Surface, unlike the vast majority of Windows PCs, is the product of a unicorn-tear approach to design. We were even told that the stands and signage which will be used to promote Surface at Microsoft Stores feature the same 22-degree chamfered edges as the case of the tablet itself.

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25 comments
Joe Morales
Joe Morales

Microsoft is no stranger to making beautiful hardware (Zune HD), their problem though has always been their marketing execution—I, for one, hope Surface succeeds and reaches the mind of consumers!

Big Screen
Big Screen

"bad ones don’t become landmarks simply because they’re affordable."

I could argue this is exactly the case for the first gen kindle fire.  It was barely usable btw the crippled app store and crazy lag out of thebox

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

At the Microsoft Surface Web site, it says the Surface RT works (exclusively) with software from the "Windows Store".

Not dissimilar to Apples IPad and ITunes.

Only one problem, I cant find a "Windows Store" that references any software for the Surface RT at all.

Perhaps a small oversight.

Alex
Alex

my 64gb Ipad cost me $599 plus a logitech keyboard that was $50 and a case $20, as compared the $599 version comes with a keyboard/case cover which is the one i'll be getting so not to shabby

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

The Surface RT is priced exactly the same as the full sized IPad.

The IPad has 3 things going for it: a huge and fully mature and very well supported set of Apps, An excellent user interface and a much higher resolution very high quality screen.

The RT's interface is brand new, has no history, it's performance is untested and App quality and quantity are unknown.

And in spite of Microsoft's defense of their surface bonded technology, the higher resolution screen is much more desirable.

It is going to be a hard slog for the Surface RT.

Tanmay Deathberry Pradhan
Tanmay Deathberry Pradhan

Sh*tpad doesn't really hold a candle to this. Mainly because of iOS. No Flash, no USB.

Oh, and Apple Maps, really, what more could you want ?

I ma gonna buy a Surface Pro. Yay.

Mike Scarpiello
Mike Scarpiello

Wouldn't they be better off to sell these as loss leaders to better penetrate an incredibly crowded market?

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

Actually Microsoft said between three and eight hundred dollars and based on that a lot of people figured the entry level RT would be around three hundred and the Pro more around eight.

At this price the unproven and as yet unsupported Windows 8 RT is not going to have a large crowd standing in line for them.

Most of those who are interested are going to wait and see how the functionality of Windows RT develops or, better still wait for the Surface Pro due out in another 3 months which promises to be a real honest to God Ultrabook with full Windows computer functionality.

This Christmas is going to be about the seven inch tablet market, and a ten inch Surface RT was never really a candidate, their pricing has reinforced that view.

(This was censored by "DISCUS" for using dollar signs and numbers.)

(GET RID OF DISCUS, it is garbage !!!!)

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

Actually Microsoft said between $300.00 and $800.00 and based on that a lot of people figured the entry level RT would be around $300.00 and the Pro more around $800.00.

At this price the unproven and as yet unsupported Windows 8 RT is not going to have a large crowd standing in line for them.Most of those who are interested are going to wait and see how the functionality of Windows RT develops or, better still wait for the Surface Pro due out in another 3 months which promises to be a real honest to God Ultrabook with full Windows computer functionality.

This Christmas is going to be about the 7+" tablet market, and a 10" Surface RT was never really a candidate, their pricing has reinforced that view.

Quryous
Quryous

Interesting, but I'll be waiting a few years. Need time for everything to sort out, sizes to become more standard, prices to drop like a rock, better color cases, add an actual numeric keypad, smoother software, RT versions to go away, Galaxy Note 2 like apps and stylus,  things like that. See me about this time in 2015.

JohnCz
JohnCz

Love the design and potential of Surface.  I still haven't decided which companion device I'm getting, either Surface or a Thinkpad Tablet 2.  I'm leaning towards the ThinkPad Tablet 2 because it supports an active digitzer / stylus.  However, Surface's built-in kick stand and keyboard cover have the potential to win me over.

As far as retail presence, Microsoft will have to announce something beyond their 27 permanent amp; 34 holiday kiosks and online stores if they plan to sell a couple million units.

Joseph Benfante Jr.
Joseph Benfante Jr.

Fucking Fail. Way too expensive for the RT. 699+ should been starting price for Surface PRO with the keypad... cant believe i wasted so much time supporting this thing.

Eric K. Holbrook
Eric K. Holbrook

Well the theory with "apps" is that unlike a mac and ipad which are two entirely different ecosystems, the apps that run on the surface will run on Windows 8 desktop and if you have the surface "pro", it will run all your desktop apps as well. So basically it's a laptop. The low-end Surface with the ARM based CPU will not run x86 apps. To be honest, it's a bit muddled, but that's the going theory as I understand it. The "Cheap" surface is a tablet, tablet apps. That I believe will run on Windows 8 desk as well. The expensive Surface will do it all.  

Eric K. Holbrook
Eric K. Holbrook

What's wonky here is that they give the impression in the opening shot that the keyboard is a separate piece you carry around with you... instead of being the cover. Sort of lost me on that a bit. I would have had the guy open the thing as one piece, THEN take off the cover and throw it to someone or something. 

Smail Buzzby
Smail Buzzby

Windows RT will be crap with no apps.  Bundling Office 2013 probably means MS added $100 to the price for something that they should be charging $10 for later, if you want it.

I am still interested in the real models, whenever they appear (90 days later my ass), but $499 and up for a Microsoft version of an iPad is too much.  When you can run any Windows apps on one it will be worth a look, but this is stupid and overpriced.  If they want $499 for this then they will probably ask $999 for a real one - no thanks.

Congrats, Ballmer!  You just keep screwing up and staying employed.  It's like you have tenure or are too big to fail...

SizzlingFTW
SizzlingFTW

The surface is simply beautiful, Microsoft at its very best. They should be incredibly proud

Rene  Arizmendi
Rene Arizmendi

@twitter-164242819:disqus That I believe will run on Windows 8 desk as well. The expensive Surface will do it all.  My last pay check was $9500 working 12 hours a week online. My sisters friend has been averaging 15k for months now and she works about 20 hours a week. I can't believe how easy it was once I tried it out. This is what I do,>>..Xfd.qlnk.Net

Jens Schwoon
Jens Schwoon

it simply stolen from some another companies - the idea is over 10 years old ....

Jens Schwoon
Jens Schwoon

nice joke. its completely stolen - but who cares about it?

ClinicalPosters
ClinicalPosters

Great article, well timed. The only appealing thing about Surface is the keyboard cover. Thanks to cross-licensing with Apple, something similar may make it to the iPad. I think people will be looking for info on keyboard durability, comfort and the Touch Cover's protection ability.

By itself, I don't think the Touch Cover is enough to make an Apple fan jump ship but their ar many Windows devotees.

Spencer Evan Breland
Spencer Evan Breland

My question is, will it be supported with great apps?  That is the only thing I am hesitant of.  I am looking forward to it having Microsoft Office though, but other then that, what can we expect?

wadedorrell
wadedorrell

I'd say if you're an adult, it already is, and if you're a kid, maybe. This is just one datapoint of course: I'm a long-time daily iPad user (reading, web/social-media, light productivity) and parent of kids who use the same, and by having a PC I could install the Windows 8 trial on I've been able to check out what's already in the app store.

There's a quality equivalent to every iPad app I stuck with for more than a day. I'd be out about $10 to get to equivalence.

Not every app the kids use has an equivalent (interactive books, rich music experiences like GarageBand.) There seems to be no lack of games and puzzle/math apps. I'd be out about $10 again to get back to equivalence on the games amp; puzzles.

What can we expect? Whatever the market will bear. My opinion is the interactive books amp; music tools will fill in: the production costs of some of the higher quality *free* games already on the store are a proxy for production costs of those kind of apps... and the well-known interactive books amp; music tools on iPad were all *non-free* apps. The many developers of games for the Windows platform (coming over from the vast Xbox Indie platform) will figure this one out.

Spencer Evan Breland
Spencer Evan Breland

Thanks for the reply.  I have Windows 8 right now on my laptop thanks to my college and I have looked at the Windows App Store and nothing has really grabbed my attention yet.  I figure once they release Windows 8 to the general public, more apps will pop up.  I would love to see some games from the Indie developers on Xbox.  I guess I will have to wait and see.  I'm just trying to debate whether to get the Windows tablet or the iPad for college/entertainment purposes.

Ronnie
Ronnie

And again what is the devices battery life?