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Microsoft Surface: Further details on battery life, the display and more

As if sensing our trepidation at the lack of Surface tablet details, Microsoft’s Surface team has conducted a Reddit Ask Me Almost Anything (AMAA). With just a week until its release on 26 October, we finally have real-life data on battery life, screen resolution and quality, typing speed on the Touch Cover, and that all-important kickstand. Oh, we also found out that the 32GB Surface doesn’t actually have 32GB of storage; it’s more like 20GB.

Battery life

For a start, the Surface RT tablet will have “all day” battery life. The spec sheet says “8 hours” (from a 31.5 Watt-hour battery), and that figure was calculated from mixed usage (surfing, watching videos, etc). If you use the Surface RT tablet just for video watching, you’ll probably get less than 8 hours of battery life; while if you do something less strenuous, like surfing, you might get 10 or more hours of battery life. In the words of one Microsoft Surface engineer, “Surface RT will provide you all day battery life. I’ve tested on the ride from Seattle to Beijing with a stop in Tokyo,” which is at least 12 hours.

32GB of storage? Not quite

At £399 for the entry-level 32GB model, the Surface RT tablet is £80 cheaper than the equivalent 32GB iPad 3 – but it turns out, after the OS and Office are taken into account, actual usable space is nearer 20GB. Compare this to the 32GB iPad (or a 32GB Android smartphone), where you have around 28GB of usable space. Windows RT – the cut-down version of Windows 8 for ARM – is obviously not that svelte.

On the flipside, though, the Surface RT tablet does support Micro SDXC cards, which will one day allow you to add up to 2TB of removable storage. For now, Micro SDXC cards seem to top out at 64GB.

The Surface team also confirmed that the tablet’s full-size USB socket is only USB 2.0 (due to a lack of ARM chipsets that support USB 3.0), and that it can be used to attach “100s of millions of existing USB devices.” You can also use the USB socket to charge your smartphone – which might come in handy, as the Surface tablet doesn’t include a 3G or 4G radio (or NFC or GPS, incidentally).

About that low resolution display…

As unbelievable as it sounds, Microsoft keeps saying that the Surface RT screen, with just 1366 x 768 pixels, is better than the iPad 3. To put this into perspective, the iPad 3 is generally considered to have the best mobile display in the world – and even compared to desktop monitors, it still performs admirably. According to Microsoft Surface engineer Steven Bathiche, there is a lot more to image quality and resolution than just sheer pixels. He notes: “Screen resolution is one component of perceived detail. The true measure of resolvability of a screen is called Modulation Transfer Function (MTF), not Pixels. MTF is a combination of both contrast and resolution. There are over a dozen subsystems that effect this MTF number. Most folks just focus on one number out of dozens that effect perceived detail.”

To prove that resolution isn’t everything, the Surface team started from scratch – including designing its own, custom-made 10.6in display. According to Bathiche, they “optically bonded the screen with the thinnest optical stack anywhere on the market.” This results in significantly less reflectiveness (around 6 per cent) than the iPad 3 (10 per cent), thus increasing perceived resolution and image quality.

Bathiche then goes on to mention ClearType – Microsoft’s sub-pixel rendering algorithm, which “smooths text regardless of pixel count,” which he claims is unique to Windows and Microsoft. “Doing a side by side with the new iPad in a consistently lit room, we have had many people see more detail on Surface RT than on the iPad with more resolution,” Bathiche concludes.

Touch Cover and Type Cover

When asked about the Touch Cover (the 3mm thick cover that magnetically clips to the bottom of the Surface tablet), the Surface team had a lot of good things to say about it. One engineer says she types at 86 words per minute on the Touch Cover, which is quite impressive – though, in another comment, the team confirms that the Touch Cover doesn’t have any key travel, so the long-term ergonomics might be a bit iffy.

Steven Bathiche chimed in to say that the Type Cover (a thicker, mechanical keyboard that doubles up as a protective cover) is “one of the best keyboards I have ever used (desktop or other). It has a super awesome snappy key mechanism that feels great (has a strong hysteresis curve).”

While the kickstand obviously makes the Surface awesome for table-top typing, a few members of the Surface team also chimed in to say that lap-top typing is viable as well. We’re not entirely sure how this works, but in the words of one of the engineers: “There are so many ways it folds and adjusts to your typing needs. You will be pleasantly surprised.”

Tegra 3 and other hardware

Unfortunately no one asked about the Surface RT’s use of the Tegra 3 (T30) ARM SoC. We’re still at a loss as to why Microsoft chose Tegra over a dual or quad-core design from Qualcomm, considering how close the two companies have grown over the years.

Rounding out the hardware of the Surface RT tablet, in case you’re wondering, are two 720p LifeCams (front and rear), fancy MIMO 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, 2GB of RAM, and the usual bunch of sensors (but no GPS, as we already mentioned).

Surface Pro

Finally, a lot of Redditors asked about the Surface Pro – but alas, the Microsofties refused to say anything, other than that it’s due in “approximately 3 months,” and that it will be “priced competitively with comparable ultrabooks.” In other words, it will probably start around $999 (£620 converting to our money) for the 64GB version. The Surface Pro will be a beast of a tablet, packing a 1920 x 1080 ClearType display and an Ivy Bridge Core i5 processor, and weighing in at 900 grams.

For more info on the Surface, check out our price analysis piece, and our spec comparison with the iPad.