Surface RT: Pricing details, spec updates, and impromptu Touch Cover testing

The waiting game is over. Surface RT makes the leap from hardware cipher to hardware reality.

The waiting game is over. Microsoft's Surface RT tablet makes the leap from hardware cipher to hardware reality. Today I can answer many of the questions the world has been asking since June 18, the day when Microsoft first announced Surface RT, the company's bid to become a full-fledged provocateur of hardware lust in this age of fetishized iPads, Fires and Nexus 7s.

First up, pricing and availability: A "limited quantity" of Surface RT tablets will be available for pre-order Tuesday on Surface.com, starting at 9 a.m. Pacific time. The 32GB version costs $499, and if you want to bundle in the ballyhooed Touch Cover keyboard attachment (which I'll describe in first-hand detail at the end of this report) you can get the tablet and a black Touch Cover together for $599. The 64GB version of Surface RT sells for $699 with the black Touch Cover included.

For another $119.99, you can purchase a standalone Touch Cover in either black, white, magenta, cyan or red. And if you want an integrated cover with real keyboard keys and key travel--as opposed to the Touch Cover, which relies on pressure sensors, but no physical keys--you can purchase the Type Cover separately for $129.99.

So that's the pre-order story. Surface will also be available for direct purchase on Oct. 26 (the same day Windows 8 launches) in all 27 Microsoft Stores strewn throughout the U.S. and Canada, plus 34 North American "pop up" stores that are pushing Surface RT sales for the holidays.

It's impossible to avoid comparisons between Surface RT and the new iPad, so how does Microsoft's new toy stack up in terms of pricing? The answer: quite nicely. The 32GB Wi-Fi-only version of iPad costs $599--$100 more than the 32GB version of Surface RT.

Also, as Microsoft likes to brag, the widescreen display of Surface RT offers a bit more screen real estate than what you'll find in the third-gen iPad. And with that extra real estate, you get a 42 percent larger viewing window for HD video content (this is one of the reasons Microsoft spec'd its tablet with an oddball 10.6-inch diagonal dimension). Yet even with the larger screen dimensions, Surface RT manages to keep overall device weight and thickness directly in line with the new iPad's specs.

Speaking of specs, now is a good time for a Surface RT refresher course.

What Microsoft shared in June

In June we learned Surface RT is packed with an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor and boasts an optically bonded display (optical bonding reduces screen glare and improves text legibility, among other benefits). The tablet is 0.37-inch thick and weighs 1.49 pounds (the new iPad clocks in at exactly the same thickness but is lighter, if imperceptibly so, at 1.44 pounds). The Surface RT chassis is made of VaporMg--an insanely lightweight, magnesium-based alloy that's incredibly durable yet can be molded to the width of a credit card.

Back when it was first announced, we also learned that Surface RT includes an integrated kickstand, pairs with the aforementioned keyboard covers, and will come with Microsoft Office. Surface RT is squarely aimed at the consumer space, but these three features present a compelling productivity story for business travelers, as well as students bivouacked at their local cafes.

But what about the specific screen resolution? And what about processor clock speed, system memory, and battery capacity? Will Surface RT support either 3G or 4G? Will we get a full version of Office, or a truncated version designed for the architectural limitations of the tablet's ARM processor? And what about those two keyboard covers, the Touch Cover and Type Cover? How do they actually perform when they're connected to the tablet?

These have all been open questions since June 18, but today I have answers.

The new information

On Monday I spent the day at Microsoft's campus with about 30 other tech journalists, touring the company's R&D labs, and learning more about the tablet that Microsoft is positioning as, well, not just a tablet, but almost a new hardware category.

As Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows group, describes it, "I've used a lot of tablets, and this is not a tablet. But it is the best tablet I've ever used. And I've used a lot of notebooks and laptops, and this is not a notebook or laptop. But it's also the very best laptop I've ever used."

Sinofsky and crew also cleared up some Surface RT unknowns.

Microsoft has always described the Surface RT's screen as HD, but now we know for sure that the resolution is 1366-by-768 with a pixel density of 148 pixels per inch. The company wouldn't reveal the clock speed of the Tegra 3 processor, but it does list 2GB of accompanying system memory, and the specific battery spec is 31.5 watt-hours.

The new iPad's battery is rated for 42.5 watt-hours, but Microsoft is quick to point out that Apple's higher capacity battery must power a much more demanding Retina display. Indeed, throughout my time on the Microsoft campus, the Surface RT leadership continually celebrated how their tablet is a perfect study in technical compromises--and they weren't using "compromise" in a pejorative sense.

"Perfection is the goal we're going for, and that perfection comes with trade-offs," said Panos Panay, general manager of Surface. "It comes with making the right decisions for the people who are going to be using our device. We take as much as we can--the research that we have, the great hardware that we have, and the great software experience. We bring all that together, and we make those trade-offs to get to the device we wanted."

And here's another trade-off made in the service of a greater goal: Surface RT won't ship with any 3G or 4G option (though Sinoksky said it could be included in a future iteration of the hardware). Sinofsky referred to a report that stated only about 80 percent of all iPads ever leave the home, and questioned the wisdom of including a price tag-inflating feature that so few people will use.

Office on Windows RT

As for Microsoft Office, all Surface RTs will ship with Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 RT Preview--how's that for an absurdly long product name? This suite includes new Windows 8 versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote.

The RT version of Office actually runs in the desktop side of Surface RT. It is not a new Windows 8 app imbued with what Microsoft calls the "modern" UI, though its design definitely refers to the new modern UI behaviors.

Also note the word "Preview" in the name--this isn't the final version of Office for Surface RT. Sinofsky said the final version will be installed automatically via Windows Update, but wouldn't comment on a timeframe other than to say the final build will be done "soon."

It's worth nothing that on the Surface RT's updated spec sheet, the reference to Office has a notation attached: "Some features and programs unsupported. See http://office.com/officeRT." As of press time, the URL wasn't yet active, but on Monday I asked Sinofsky to describe the RT-specific Office experience.

"Things like the ribbon--the controls are spaced out to ease in touch," he said. "There's also been a bunch of work within the Office code itself to work with the onscreen keyboard. The UI has been cleaned up overall to be more immersive and better mirror the design language of Windows Store apps. There's less Chrome and more content. On the technical side, it's been not just compiled to run on ARM processors, but it's been tuned for power management as well."

A brief session with Touch Cover typing

I didn't get a chance to play with the RT version of Office on Monday, but I did spend about three minutes typing on a Touch Cover attached to a working tablet in one of Microsoft's engineering labs--this is three minutes more than any journalist experienced at Microsoft's June 18 product unveiling.

Granted, three minutes isn't long enough to form a fair opinion. And, granted, I'm not a touch typist, but rather a very fast two-finger hunt'n'pecker. Nonetheless, I did find typing on the Touch Cover to be immediately faster than typing on a virtual keyboard, and my speed steadily improved as I became accustomed to the unique feel and responsiveness of the keyless keyboard.

My typing problems were all related to finger pressure: Lacking the tactile feedback of actual key travel, sometimes I under-pressed the laser-etched keypad surfaces (leading to no text entry), and sometimes I over-pressed them (leading to clumsy mistakes). I also had trouble using the integrated trackpad for cursor insertion. Obviously, it's too early to make a judgment, but I can't wait to compare the Touch Cover to the Type Cover in a real-world setting with plenty of testing time. (Oh, and in case you're wondering, I saw not a single Type Cover during my entire day at Microsoft.)

The two cover accessories represent serious innovation on Microsoft's part, and speak to the excruciating attention to detail--and engineering and science--the company has thrown at every element of the Surface RT experience. The tablet is neither a simply designed product, nor necessarily a device for people who crave simplicity. But it's packed with great productivity potential, and it will be interesting to see if the relatively steep learning curve of Windows 8 is a trade-off consumers are willing to make.

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