Technology Brief: Microsoft Surface

Microsoft SurfaceOn June 17, 2012, Microsoft announced their Surface tablet design. Two types will be sold: an ARM-based version that should arrive in time for the 2012 holiday shopping season, and an Intel-based version that is expected in early 2013. These products will be the first Windows-based computers ever sold by Microsoft.

Design

Microsoft's basic design for Surface follows that of many other tablets in the 10-inch range, but there are some interesting features. The cases are magnesium and feature an integrated kickstand along with 2x2 MIMO antenna that should allow superior WiFi reception and speed. There are front and rear facing cameras, a 10.6-inch widescreen display covered with Corning's thinner and lighter Gorilla Glass 2, and a 5 pin magnetic charging connector.

The two versions of Surface differ substantially. The ARM-based "Surface RT" version weighs about 1.5 pounds, is about 0.37 inches thick, and comes in 32 GB and 64 GB versions. It comes with an HD (1366 x 768) display which renders at 148 pixels per inch (ppi). Connectivity includes microSD, USB 2.0, and Micro HDMI video. Like all ARM-based Windows 8 devices, it comes with Windows RT, a version of Window 8 that only runs the new touch-centric Metro applications (not traditional Windows applications) and has limited manageability.

The Intel-based "Surface Pro" version includes an Ivy Bridge Core i5, adds a stylus and a TPM chip, weighs almost 2 pounds, is about 0.53 inches thick, and comes in 64 GB and 128 GB versions. It comes with a Full HD display which renders at 208 ppi (the third-generation iPad is 264 ppi). Connectivity includes microSDXC, USB 3.0, and Mini DisplayPort video. The included operating system is Windows 8 Professional, and thus the Intel-based Surface supports full Windows manageability and domain control.

The Surface is available with two separate physical keyboard options, both cleverly built into screen covers. One (Touch Cover) is a virtual keyboard and trackpad with accelerometers for detecting finger force, while the other (Type Cover) is a thicker keyboard and trackpad for at least somewhat of a more "normal" tactile typing experience.

Neither pricing information nor precise specifications are available for either version of Surface. Microsoft has stated that the ARM version will be priced similarly to competitive ARM tablets, while the Intel version will be priced at Ultrabook price points.

Analysis

Microsoft evidently has decided that the Windows 8 touch experience is too important to be left to its OEMs: nothing else could generate this momentous a change in basic business philosophy. This makes the Surface press conference much more than just a product announcement.

Moving to the hardware itself, there is much clever design. The physical keyboards built into the screen cover are a classic "why didn't I think of that" feature: easy to comprehend and certain to be copied. There are also high-quality components: the magnesium case, the Gorilla Glass 2 display protection, and the Full HD display on the Intel-based product.

Unlike the portrait/vertical screen orientation that is the iPad's default experience, the Surface has a strong default toward the landscape/horizontal, reflecting both the Ultrabook competition and the orientation of the Windows 8 Start screen. This allows for a nice keyboard width match but is less appropriate for ebooks. Of course, the display functions in either landscape or portrait mode - this is just a different optimization choice.

Microsoft will have to execute extremely well over the next nine months to effectively launch Surface, but the products have much promise. Information Systems & Computing (ISC) will be following up with further communication as Surface and Windows 8 gets closer to market.

Microsoft Surface graphic courtesy of Microsoft

--John Mulhern III, Lead for Client Technologies, ISC Technology Support Services (June 12, 2012)

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Date Posted: May 25, 2013

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