Microsoft announces new Surface tablet, but no price or software details in sight

Microsoft has rushed into the tablet race, announcing a new Windows 8 enabled device called “Surface” which the company says is one of the thinnest and most advanced tablets on the market – but it hasn’t yet announced any pricing or software details.

The announcement has left many analysts confused, with Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer only saying that pricing would be “competitive”, and that the tablet would be introduced later this year.

But he confused the offering by announcing two different versions of the same tablet, running on different processors.

Ballmer said the company “wanted to give Windows 8 its own companion hardware innovation”.

“It’s a whole new community of computing devices from Microsoft,” Ballmer said at the event, the location of which was kept a secret until the last second. “It embodies the notion of hardware and software really pushing each other.”

The Surface tablet is 9.3mm thick, weighs just 676 grams, and will run Windows RT, a version of the Windows 8 software specifically built for mobile devices. Connectivity includes a USB port, Micro HD Video, a MicroSD slot, while the device will come with 32GB and 64GB of storage. The screen is 10.6 inches across.

The tablet borrows its name from the “Surface” technology used for the massive touchscreens sold to businesses and other venues. But it’s super-compact, featuring a new kickstand to prop the device up like a picture frame.

Ballmer said the Microsoft team spent a significant amount of time working on the kickstand – he wants it to feel like opening the door on a luxury car.

One of the biggest surprise additions was the new “Touch Cover”, which attaches itself magnetically to the Surface tablet. But it’s not just a cover – it actually serves as a touch-type keyboard, printed directly onto the cover.

When the stand is up, and the cover in play, the device almost looks like a laptop computer. Ballmer used the cover to spin the tablet as a content creation machine, not just something for consuming entertainment.

“If you use your PC to design and create things, this is for you,” Ballmer said. “Imagine if we built this so we could use all the apps you’re familiar with.”

Microsoft also included a new type of venting system, which means users won’t have to worry about where to place their hands, while it also announced support for a stylus, which works with the gadget’s “digital ink” technology.

But Microsoft made a confusing announcement – the tablet will actually come in two versions. One will run Windows RT, built for mobile devices, while a second version will run a more professional version of Windows 8.

This second tablet will be slightly thicker and weigh more, but it will only be available three months after the Windows 8 launch.

So the first tablet will be released later this year, and the second in 2013. But Microsoft neglected to announce any pricing or software details – a point picked up by analysts who said the announcement may confuse users.

“Consumers aren’t used to thinking about chipsets,” Forrester analyst Sarah Epps said in a statement.

“Choice is a key tenet of Windows, but too much choice is overwhelming for consumers,” she said.

“Apple gets this, and limits iPad options to connectivity, storage, and black or white.”

However, she did note the product “makes a crucial pivot in Microsoft’s product strategy”.

“It puts the focus on the consumer rather than the enterprise… And it lets Microsoft compete with vertically integrated Apple on more even ground.”

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