What Microsoft’s Surface tablets promise

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The Microsoft Surface tablets, announced yesterday for fall availability, promise to be more businesslike than Apple’s iPads, while seeking to replicate Apple’s tight integration of hardware and software into a user-friendly “ecosystem.”

How well might they accomplish that? Microsoft’s history in making hardware, and in creating and sustaining systems to support them, offers reasons for both optimism and skepticism.

The iPad, the newest version of which tops our tablet Ratings, has always been more about play than work, thanks to its rich and responsive screen and access to Apple’s unequaled selection of games, movies, apps, and music. The Surface tablets–both a regular and Pro model were announced–seem to tilt in the other direction, emphasizing productivity and (necessarily) downplaying entertainment.

Microsoft hasn’t provided a lot of information on apps available for the Surfaces. However, where the iPad has apps that are compatible with Microsoft Office, it seems the Surface tablets will actually run versions of that productivity suite, and thus should provide virtually seamless compatibility with Office on your other computers. The regular Surface (which will run the Windows RT OS and use an AMR processor, a type commonly used in other tablets) will run a less full-featured version of Microsoft Office, called Office Home & Student 2013RT.

The other Surface, with an OS based on Windows 8 Pro for computers and a faster, third-generation Intel Core processor, will run a more robust Office. What might be missing from the lesser version Office for RT? In Microsoft Office 2010, for example, the Home and Student version lacks the e-mail client, database tool, and publishing apps found in higher-priced Office versions.

Based on what Microsoft has shown so far, the Surface tablets, despite differing operating systems, will try to bring to computers and tablets the simple touch interface, using onscreen “tiles” that we generally praise on Windows Phone smart phones, including models from HTC, Nokia, and Samsung, in our Ratings.

Where the iPad includes only a virtual keyboard that’s awkward for sustained typing, the Surface tablets will have a full physical keyboard built into one of two screen covers. The regular, 3-mm-thick, Surface Touch Cover will supposedly interpret gestures as keystrokes, with the goal of faster typing–and, perhaps, a curve to relearn how to type. The second, 5-mm-thick Type Cover will have physical keys, presumably for a more familiar typing experience.

The 10.6-inch-diagonal Surface screen is about an inch larger than the iPad’s, pushing the device close in screen size to the smallest laptops. At 9.4 mm thick, the Surface will measure a tenth of a millimeter thinner than the newest, third-generation iPad. The Windows RT-based Surface will weigh about 0.8 ounces more than the iPad, though, and have a slightly smaller battery; no battery-life figure has yet been announced. The Windows 8 Pro Surface will weigh about 30 percent more than an iPad and have a battery with about the same capacity. It’s also the first tablet we know of with the option of 128 GB of storage.

How good a device the Surface tablets are, and how well developed their ecosystem will become, may depend on which past Microsoft devices best reflect the company’s chops at creating its own devices. On the one hand, there’s Microsoft’s thriving Xbox gaming console, with its host of compelling games and well-conceived online gaming capabilities. On the other, consider the now-defunct Zune media player and Kin smart phone, which floundered for lack of content and other shortcomings and were quickly abandoned by Microsoft.

Microsoft didn’t announce pricing for the Surfaces, which will be sold at Microsoft retail stores and select online Microsoft stores.

Whatever their caliber, the Surface tablets promise to add yet another choice to a fall tablet market that will already boast bigger screens (the 13-inch Toshiba Excite, for example) and, almost certainly, tablets from other manufacturers that will run Windows RT or Windows 8 Pro.

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