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.)

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.

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.

During Monday’s press event, I spent enough time fiddling with the Touch Cover and kickstand to be impressed by them. But my biggest question about Surface in general involved another aspect of the cover: I wanted to know how its almost-flat, one-piece keyboard felt.

When I attended the Surface announcement in Los Angeles last June, I took the praise Panay lavished on the Touch Cover seriously enough that I wondered if it might render conventional mechanical keyboards irrelevant–even though Microsoft will offer a mechanical model, the $129 Type Cover, as an option. (It’s thicker than the Touch Cover but strikingly thin by any other standard.)

This time, I got brief hands-on time with a Surface with Touch Cover in one of Microsoft’s labs. I was standing up and it was on a pedestal, so it was hardly a real-world scenario. But it was enough to leave me thinking that the Touch Cover is less of a mechanical-keyboard killer than a pleasing upgrade from an on-screen keyboard.
The keys don’t have travel in the traditional sense, but they’re gentler on the fingertips than thudding your hands against glass. They feel spacious, and there’s no need to switch into special modes to get at numbers or punctuation. I started out making lots of typos and was making fewer of them a few minutes later. And the entirety of the screen was devoted to documents, rather than a sliver above the on-screen keyboard.
Overall, for a keyboard that barely increases the tablet’s thickness and weight, and which can be folded back like a magazine cover, it was remarkably good. But I understand why Microsoft will offer the Type Cover as well.

Even Sinofsky thinks that plasticky little keys still have their place: He told the assembled journalists that he uses the Touch Cover most of the time, but sometimes swaps in the Type Cover for keyboard-intensive work.

After letting us try out the Touch Cover, Microsoft whisked us off of its campus and drove us to a Microsoft Store — one particular Microsoft Store, known as Store Zero. It’s not open to the public: Instead, it’s a concept store where the company tries out ideas before putting them before real people. It’s full-sized and full of real stuff (as well, in some cases, as foam models posing as computers.) We were there to learn about the role the Microsoft Stores will play in the Surface rollout.

The tablet is so new that it will benefit from the sort of explanation that a well-trained Microsoft Store employee might provide. But the still-dinky retail chain is all out of proportion with the grandeur of Surface’s ambitions. There are currently 27 locations, all in the U.S., with another four scheduled to open by the end of the month. (Apple, by contrast, operates around 400 Apple Stores around the world, with more than 50 Apple Stores in California alone.) Microsoft will supplement its permanent outposts with another 34 pop-up “holiday stores” in the U.S. and Canada, which will be open for Surface’s debut, then go away.

Store Zero has already been bedecked as all Microsoft Stores will be come October 26, when Surface and Windows 8 go on sale. To a degree I wasn’t anticipating, it had been converted into a Surface Store. The entire middle of the place, from front to back, was devoted to Surfaces and Surface signage; other Windows 8 computers from other manufacturers were relegated to the sides.

Consumers who buy a Surface at a Microsoft store will get personalized “white glove” introductions to their new Surface Tablet, including an unboxing by a store employee, help setting up a Microsoft Account if necessary and a walkthrough of the Windows Store app marketplace.
Those store staffers will also be responsible for telling shoppers how Surface relates to Windows 8 tablets and various forms of laptop/tablet hybrids. They’ll need to explain what software Surface’s Windows RT operating system can run (new programs designed for the Windows 8-style interface) and can’t run (everything else ever written for Windows, except for Office 2013, which comes bundled with it).

Plenty of pundits–me included–are worrying that millions of normal folk who don’t spend much time reading tech blogs will be confused by Windows RT and may buy Surface tablets under faulty assumptions. At Monday’s event, Sinofsky pretty much brushed aside the concern. “I don’t think a lot of people go to an Apple Store and stare at an iPad and ask if Mac Quicken runs on it,” he said.

Starting a week from Friday, we’ll begin to get a sense of whether pundits like me were fretting unnecessarily, or if Sinofsky was too blasé. In fact, the response of consumers in general–including ones who understand exactly what Surface is and isn’t–is going to be fascinating.

It’s still far from a given whether Windows RT will have what it takes to be an even modestly successful alternative to the iPad juggernaut, but the Surface hardware looks like it’s the thoroughly polished product Microsoft worked so very hard to create. If people don’t want Windows RT on a device this nice, it’s hard to imagine that they’ll want it on anything.

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