FAQ: what we don't know about Microsoft's Surface tablet

If the saying 'What you don't know can kill you' is true, how much danger are Microsoft and its customers in?

Microsoft's introduction Monday of the new Surface tablet may have been dramatic -- one analyst said it was "radical" -- because of the company's decision to circumvent its hardware partners -- but the presentation left as many questions unanswered as it resolved.

Some are critical to the Surface's success, like its price point, while others may influence only a minority of would-be buyers as they weigh it against those already in the market, such as Apple's iPad, the current king of the tablet hill.

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We've selected some of the up-in-the-air topics, and although we don't have answers for most, we've tried to use what is publicly known about tablets -- and Microsoft -- to give you some clues.

If you have questions you suspect Microsoft didn't answer this week, you can either wait for more revelations from the company -- it will undoubtedly disclose more as a launch grows closer, probably in dribs and drabs -- or add them to the comments below. (We'll likely do a follow-up to this initial Q&A a little later.)

What will these tablets cost? We don't know. Microsoft declined to set prices Monday, saying only that the Windows RT Surface (just "Surface" from here on out) would be "competitive with a comparable ARM tablet," and that the Windows 8 Pro Surface (Surface Pro) would cost about the same amount as "an Intel ultrabook-class PC."

Without definitive information from Microsoft -- not surprising since it's three, maybe four, months until Windows RT tablet goes public, six or seven before the other one shows up -- analysts are forced to guess. Their estimates for the Surface ranged from a low of $400 to a high of $700, while the Surface Pro will probably cost anywhere from $800 to more than $1,000, with many betting on the latter as the target.

When will they go on sale? Only Microsoft knows. The company also declined to pin itself to a launch date.

The most it would commit to was that the Surface would debut around the same time as Windows 8's release -- most expect that in September or October -- and that the Surface Pro would follow 90 days later.

That means the Pro could miss the holiday season if, for example, Windows 8 doesn't ship until the second half of October -- as did Windows 7 in 2009 -- which would push the Surface Pro launch into January 2013.

How long will the tablets' batteries last between charges? We have an idea, but it's just a guess.

Microsoft spelled out the watt-hour (Wh) capacity of the two tablets' batteries, but oddly, made no claims about how long those batteries would keep each device running under average conditions. (A 10Wh rating means the battery can produce one watt of power for 10 hours, or, say, 10 watts of power for one hours.) The Surface's battery is rated at 31.4 Wh, while the Surface Pro's is 42.

Some back-of-the-envelope comparisons between the Surface and new iPad (42.5 Wh), and between the Surface Pro and the 11-in. MacBook Air (35 Wh), results in rough -- very rough -- estimates:

Surface Windows RT: 7.5 hours

Surface Windows 8 Pro: 6 hours

How long will it take to charge a Surface? We know you're shocked, but we don't know. Microsoft hasn't said, and like the battery lifespan, didn't include that information in the too-short spec sheet.

There weren't shots of the case or ports -- by the way, the images on Microsoft's website weren't even photographs, but according to the company were "design renderings," or in other words, Photoshop images -- to show us whether there was a dedicated power port or whether the single USB port would fill in instead via a link to, say, another computer.

What's the screen resolution? We're not sure. Microsoft called the Windows RT tablet's display "ClearType HD," which isn't even as descriptive as Apple's "Retina" marketing label. The Windows 8 tablet, meanwhile, was tagged as sporting "ClearType Full HD" screen. Whatever that is.

The speculation consensus is that the Surface has 720p, or 1280-by-720-pixel resolution, while the Surface Pro boasts 1080p, or 1920-by-1020-pixel resolution.

For comparison, Apple's new iPad has 2048-by-1536-pixel resolution, last year's iPad 2 offers 1024-by-768-pixel resolution and the 11-in. MacBook Air 1366-by-768-pixel resolution. And the new Retina-equipped MacBook Pro, though, sports resolution of an amazing 2880-by-1800-pixels.

Why didn't Microsoft start taking orders? We think we know this one: Because it hasn't yet decided on prices. If it had made up its mind, Microsoft would have been smart to set prices and use Monday's buzz to pre-sell the tablet. People would have likely hammered Microsoft's servers trying to order one (or more).

It was a major missed opportunity, but not unique: Apple has also blown chances for earlier sales. Although then-CEO Steve Jobs held up the first iPhone on Jan. 9, 2007, the smartphone didn't go on sale until June 29, almost seven months later.

The lag was shorter three years later, when Jobs revealed the original iPad on Jan. 27, 2010. Apple started taking pre-orders for its first tablet on March 12, and shipped the device April 3.

How much RAM is in these tablets? Unknown. That's not unusual, as tablet makers often decline to name the number. But it's important to know how much memory is in the Surface Pro because that model is just a PC in a tighter form factor.

We have to know the onboard memory to know how many applications can be run simultaneously, and even which will run well. To complicate matters, it's unlikely that the tablet's RAM will be upgradeable, so what we get is what we'll have.

When the tablet ships, people will spy out the RAM quantity, but until then, it may remain a mystery.

What's the deal with the covers? Does one come with the tablet? Okay, this is getting repetitive ... we don't know. Microsoft's executives spent an inordinate amount of time Monday on the covers and their built-in keyboards, and perhaps for that reason many analysts tagged those covers-cum-keyboards as a top feature of the Surface, and a major differentiator from rivals.

(Apple's Smart Cover was unique when it debuted, but it's showing its age...and Apple has shown no interest in adding a keyboard to the tablet, with CEO Tim Cook famously dissing the idea of a hybrid as akin to creating a combination toaster-refrigerator.)

Later, Microsoft refused to clarify the cover situation, which we thought odd, again because of the attention paid to the keyboards by the company.

Not surprisingly, questions about the covers came fast and furious: Does one come with each tablet? Is the Touch Cover, with its pressure-sensitive plastic for a keyboard, bundled with the Surface? Does the Type Cover, a thicker but more tactile keyboard, come with the Surface Pro? If they're not included, what will they cost? $50, like the new Smart Case for the iPad? Over $100, like some third-party case-keyboards for Apple's tablet?

We're in the dark here.

Who will manufacture and/or assemble the Surface? Hope you know, because we don't. Microsoft didn't clue anyone in on what company -- maybe one of its OEMs? -- it's contracted to build the tablet.

We may never know: Only recently did Apple publicly name its suppliers. Foxconn -- the Taiwanese-Chinese firm that builds the bulk of Apple's iPads -- could be the maker, but it could also be anyone from Nokia to Samsung.

It's possible, though unlikely, that there will be clues inside the Surface, but we won't know what's there until units ship and teardown specialists like iFixit pull one apart.

Does the Surface or Surface Pro support cellular wireless? That's for Microsoft to know and us to find out.

The tablets do include Wi-Fi connectivity, of course -- if they didn't, they'd just be expensive doorstops or devices that dangled off a Windows PC -- but Microsoft didn't bother to detail any links via mobile data networks.

Most rivals offer the latter as an option, so we're assuming Microsoft will, too. They may have skipped past that part this week because they don't yet have deals done with mobile service providers, or an even better bet, because the Surface hasn't gone through the necessary testing and certification by government agencies, such as the U.S.'s Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

We'd also like to know whether the Surface will connect with only 3G networks, or the faster LTE (4G) as well.

You can depend on one thing: Surface tablets that will access the Internet over a cellular link will cost more than the Wi-Fi-only models.

Can I use the USB port to expand the tablet's storage capacity? We're not certain, at least not on the Windows RT-powered Surface.

The Surface Pro, being a Windows 8 PC for all intents and purposes, should let you use the USB port -- there's a USB 3.0 one on that tablet -- for the same purposes as other PCs, including using it to jack in an external drive, a printer, keyboard, what have you.

On the Windows RT tablet, we don't know whether the USB 2.0 port can be used for an external drive, but do know that you'll be able to plug in some peripherals. In the footnotes, in small print, on the Microsoft Surface website, is this: "Works exclusively with printers, mice, and keyboards certified for Windows RT."

Is the Surface a tablet or a PC? We know what it is, but Microsoft seems to think different, so we're counting this as an "unknown" for now.

During the Monday introduction, Microsoft executives used the word "tablet" 14 times, but the word "PC" 37 times (we counted them in the transcript on seekingalpha.com).

The disparity was even greater in the press release Microsoft issued Monday. There, "tablet" was used only once outside of the footnotes, but "PC" was referenced four times.

So, is the Surface a tablet with a (possibly optional) keyboard, or an ultrabook with a detachable, touch-sensitive screen? Microsoft seems to think the latter -- hence all the time spent Monday talking up the keyboard covers -- but others, including those here at Computerworld, will keep calling it a tablet.

Will I be able to sync a Surface to my Mac? Not certain. But we expect so.

Microsoft has had Windows Phone 7-to-Mac synchronization tools in circulation for some time, and maybe it will port that to Windows RT before the Surface launch.

On Windows 8 (for the Surface Pro), users can sync files using SkyDrive, which is available as a client for OS X. And Microsoft may build a more complete sync tool for the Surface that would let you keep more than just a few files up-to-date. But the company has been mum on that subject, too.


See more news, analysis and blogs about Microsoft Surface.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at Twitter @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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