Microsoft made a little bit of history Monday -- it announced that for the first time it was going to make its own tablet computers, called Microsoft Surface. There's lots of excitement around Microsoft's new foray into the hardware business. Below you'll find the basics on these new tablets and what it means for the tablet wars.
What is the Microsoft Surface Tablet?
The Microsoft Surface tablet is Microsoft's very own line of tablet computers. There are two versions -- the Microsoft Surface RT and the Microsoft Surface Pro. These are tablets designed and made by Microsoft, not by one of their partners, like HP, Dell, Lenovo, or Asus. The tablets run Windows 8.
What is Windows 8?
Windows 8 is Microsoft's next version of its Windows operating system. It was announced last year and then released for a public preview in February. The operating system is the biggest overhaul of Windows since it was first introduced. There is a Desktop as on earlier versions, but most of Windows 8 centers on a Start Screen, or a home screen of live tiles. The tiles are apps. When you launch the apps you can see them full-screen, or you can place two apps side by side.
Windows 8 was built with touch screens in mind -- you can tap or swipe or pinch to get things done -- but it also supports a mouse and keyboard.
What are some of the key hardware features of Surface?
Microsoft is talking up the build and design of Surface. Its frame is made of rugged magnesium, which Microsoft calls VaporMg. The Surface RT is only 9.3 millimeters thick and weighs just 1.4 pounds. It also has a full USB port. Both versions of the Surface have high-quality 10.6-inch HD displays (Microsoft isn't sharing the resolution) and integrated kickstands, which pop out of the back. See our first impressions here.
What are the differences between the Surface RT and Surface Pro tablets?
The main differences are in the processors and heft, and each tablet has its own version of Windows 8. Windows 8 RT is designed to run on ARM processors, the lower-powered processors found in smartphones and other tablets, such as the iPad. The RT tablet is Microsoft's thinnest and lightest.
The Surface Pro, on the other hand, has Intel processors inside and is thicker and heavier (13.5 mm / 1.99 pounds). The Pro tablet will also come with a stylus.
What are these Type and Touch Covers? What are the differences between them?
Among the coolest things Microsoft announced with the tablets were two different covers with built-in keyboards. Similar to the iPad smart covers, the Touch and Type covers connect easily to the edge of the tablet. The Touch cover, which is extremely thin, has a touch keyboard built in; the panel feels rubbery and the keys don't depress.
The heftier Type cover has a more traditional keyboard with real keys. It is still really thin.
How much will the Surface tablets cost? Where and when can I get them?
Microsoft isn't talking price right now. It is merely saying it will be "competitive" with other tablets on the market. Microsoft's Steven Sinofsky did say the Surface tablets will be commercially available when Windows 8 is ready; a few weeks ago he had said Windows 8 was on track to ship before year's end.
Microsoft plans to sell the Surface tablets online and in Microsoft's own retail stores.
Will there still be other Windows 8 tablets and laptops?
Yes. Microsoft said it wanted to create a "halo product" for Windows 8, and that's what the Surface tablets are all about. But many companies are planning to bring Windows 8 PCs to market this year, including Toshiba, Asus, and Acer. They are planning to bring touch to laptops and create Windows 8 PCs of many different sizes. Click here for a look at some of the crazy types of computers coming.
Is the Surface better than the iPad or the Kindle Fire?
It is simply too early to tell. Microsoft didn't allow journalists to try the Surface tablets for more than two minutes or so at the event. From what we saw, we were impressed with the hardware and its interaction with the software, but we are going to need more time with it to know how well it can take on the iPad and the Android tablets on the market.