Microsoft has been teasing us with Surface, its upcoming iPad equivalent, for months. The tablet has a 10.6 inch screen, larger than the new iPad's but not Retina-sharp, and has a kickstand to prop it up so you can type with its unique Touch Cover accessory. Now Microsoft has revealed that it costs only $499 ... and that for the same price as the 16 GB Wi-Fi iPad, you get twice as much storage space. Preorders have already begun, and will be delivered on Oct. 26.
The downside? We don't fully know the Surface's downside yet, since Microsoft has been pretty cagey about letting people play with the device. There are a few things we do know, however, which are worth considering before putting down $499 (or more) on a Surface preorder.
Keyboard not included
The Touch Cover may be Surface's best feature, or at least its most original. Imagine something like the iPad's Smart Cover, an extremely thin and flexible screen cover that snaps closed magnetically. Now imagine that instead of folding it backwards to prop up your tablet while you type on its screen, you lay it out flat in front of it and use it like a keyboard. The outlines of netbook-sized keys are embossed on its surface, and as a bonus, it even comes with a touchpad.
This key feature doesn't actually come bundled with Microsoft Surface, however. Instead, you have to buy it for an additional $100, and that's if you buy them together and you want a black cover. Colors like magenta or cyan are $119 extra, as is the black Touch Cover if you buy it separately. And a Type Cover, which has actual physical keys, costs $129 extra.
Apps not included
Remember "there's an app for that?" The iPad's greatest strength isn't its peerless hardware design, but the breadth of its game and app collection. It's still unrivaled even by Android, although the Google Play store comes pretty darned close in some categories after having years to catch up.
Microsoft, on the other hand, is basically starting from scratch. Windows 8 changes a lot of things about Windows, and Windows 8 RT -- the version that comes with Surface -- can't run what you think of as "Windows software," because it's incompatible with Surface's Tegra 3 processor. Microsoft has bundled Microsoft Office, or at least a "preview" of the RT version, and a few of its partners have written apps too. For the time being, however, there may not be an app for what you're planning to do with Surface, at least not until Microsoft attracts more developers.
Decent performance ... included?
At the few events where Microsoft has demoed Surface, over the past year, it's been very strict about what tech reviewers can do with the tablet, even demoing it on stage instead of letting people poke at it. Back in July, pseudonymous Microsoft insider "Mini-Microsoft" blogged about a possible reason why, when he asked "which are the preferred deities we should be praying to" to make Windows RT "actually fast and fluid?"
Reviewers like Engadget's Dana Wollman and Myriam Joire were allowed roughly two minutes of hands-on time with Surface at a press event back in June. They reported that it seemed "incredibly responsive," but that just like with the on-stage demos, they were only allowed to put it through specific "demo areas." Surface debuts on Oct. 26, though, so we'll find out soon enough whether the deities are smiling on Microsoft's iPad challenger.
Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.