LOS ANGELES - Microsoft launched a family of Surface tablets on Monday night, which will be the showcase platform for the company's next-generation Windows 8 operating system, Microsoft executives said at an event there.
The Surface tablet comes in two flavours. There are consumer-targeted slates powered by an Nvidia Tegra processor and running Windows RT, Microsoft's first OS designed for devices using ARM-based chips, and there's also a "professional" version of the tablet for content creators that uses an Intel Core i5 chip and runs the x86-optimised flavour of Windows 8 for mobile devices.
The new tablets include a "kickstand" for viewing content, as well as a cover that also doubles as a keyboard and touchpad for content creation. A version of the tablet will include a "TypeCover" designed to replicate a full-size keyboard.
Microsoft chief executive, Steve Ballmer, said that the company had set out to work with OEMs, but also has a history of designing its own hardware to showcase the best designs. Ballmer cited the Microsoft Mouse, the company's own keyboard, and the Xbox game console and Xbox Kinect sensor accessory as examples.
Rumours that Microsoft was planning something along these lines were rife ahead of the event.
The Surface tablet incorporates the brand of Microsoft's Surface, a tabletop UI that is regarded as more curiosity than must-have product. But this Surface will compete in a thriving tablet market against the best-selling Apple iPad and numerous Google Android tablets, many of which vary greatly in quality, capabilities, and price.
"With Windows 8, we did not want to leave any scene uncovered," Ballmer said. "Much like Windows 1.0 we wanted to give Windows 8 our own companion hardware."
Surface for Windows RT will be available in 32GB and 64GB models and priced in the range of "comparable" tablets, Microsoft said. The professional version will be available in 64GB and 128GB configurations, with prices in the range of Windows-based ultrabooks.
Additional details will be announced at the unnamed launch date, executives said, which will be timed for Windows 8 general availability. Microsoft is expected to officially launch Windows 8 and Windows RT this autumn.
The professional version of the Surface will be launched three months after the Windows RT tablet, Microsoft said.
The Surface tablet was designed organically like a book, executives said. The tablets are slim - just 9.3mm thin on the Windows RT model, and just thick enough for a full-sized USB 2.0 port. The display is a large, optically bonded 10.6in widescreen. According to Microsoft's Steven Sinofsky, who led the design of the device, the edges are bevelled 22 degrees away. The Windows RT tablet weighs in at just 676g and is formed from a magnesium composite that Microsoft calls "VaporMg."
The professional model will be slightly thicker at 13.5mm, Microsoft said. It will weigh 903g. The heftier dimensions are to accommodate the more powerful Core i5 processor, which will be cooled through an array of peripheral vents that Sinofsky promised would not vent hot air onto the user. "You won't even feel it," he promised.
The professional Surface will also include a large battery providing 42 Watt-hours in total capacity. The Windows RT tablet's battery capacity is 31.5 W-h.
Surface for Windows 8 Pro will also support digital inking, Sinofsky said, which will allow professional users to add high-resolution mark-up to Windows 8 software from Autodesk and other vendors, he said.
Both versions of the tablet will include an external HDMI port.
One of Microsoft's innovations is the TouchCover, which somehow turns blue when connected. The TouchCover, which snaps on with a carefully engineered sound ''like a car door'', is thin at just 3mm, executives said. A thicker, 5mm TouchCover will also be available for a more natural typing feel.
Behind the tablet is a kickstand, which "magically" fades into the tablet when not in use, executives said.
Opinion about the wisdom of Microsoft launching its own Windows 8 tablet has been mixed, but keep an eye out for an ITProPortal review.