First look: Microsoft Surface tablets

Some sharp edges, but two cool covers doubling as keyboards (see slide show, video below)

My quick hands-on with the new 10.6-in. Surface tablets at Microsoft's launch on Monday gave me a little surprise: The edges on all four sides are sharp.

I was expecting something a little smoother or rounder, for whatever reason. The black magnesium back cover and the black bezel on the front around the screen make the Surface tablet seem to be more in the Android camp than in iPad's.

The Microsoft Surface tablet

The Microsoft Surface tablet, unveiled late on Monday, comes with a built-in kickstand.

In pictures: Microsoft Surface -- 'A PC, a tablet and new'

But the weight, at less than 2 lbs., felt great. Engineers showed off the materials in the tablets and emphasized the durability of the case, along with the Corning's Gorilla Glass screen. I guess this is the direction Microsoft wanted to take with Surface tablets: durable, with an emphasis on seriousness.

We didn't get a lot of time to examine the display, and the lighting wasn't the best, but the resolution seemed fine. I found the fact that Windows 8 and touchscreen functionality is present to be encouraging; it seemed well implemented.

Keyboards in the covers

The keyboards embedded in the two covers are, to me, the secret sauce with the new Surface tablets. They are the same size; both covers work on the Windows RT and the Windows 8 Pro tablets. However, they have definite differences. The flat Touch Cover has keys with no travel, but it had a good tactile feel, almost like soft cloth. The Type Cover has keys that have some travel; they were of the right size and spacing, and offered the right amount of resistance. It felt like a typical keyboard on a laptop, with a little more friction than the slick keys on an iPad, and it provides resistance for touch typing. However, I didn't have time for a full typing evaluation.

The Type Cover also has more information in the top row of keys; it shows they can be used as shortcuts to various apps that might run already in Windows.

There's also an onscreen keyboard, but Microsoft didn't demo it at the event.

The covers are attached with magnets to the long sides of the tablet. Inside each cover is an accelerometer that can tell the cover's orientation compared with the tablet, so it knows whether it is being used folded over the screen or if the back or is being used as keyboard. The advantage is that you don't have to remove the cover for various purposes, which could be a good thing. I've fiddled with the iPad's cover a lot.

There's a kickstand on the back of the tablet, so you can prop it up without the cover. I've learned by craning my neck over my iPad while using the onscreen keyboard that my neck can get tired quickly. So bravo to Microsoft engineers on behalf of my neck.

One minor thing I learned, though, is that if you open the kickstand, you have to have the cover attached at the end of the Surface near the kickstand in order to use it as a keyboard. Not an inconvenience, really, but a point of interest.

Bottom line

I think much of the success of these tablets will come down to price and how well users like Windows 8, either the Pro edition or in Windows RT. Nothing in the design is a fatal flaw. But unfortunately, I can't say that they're dream machines, either.

The Microsoft Surface tablet.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at  @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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