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Microsoft’s Surface Tablet Takes On Apple’s iPad

Dan Breckwoldt via Shutterstock

Well, one more mystery solved.

Microsoft has just told reporters exactly where in L.A. they are supposed to head for today’s event: Hollywood’s Milk Studios. That said, Redmond reminds folks that it’s an invite-only event — gate crashers will be forced to grab a star map and head out for la-la land.

To recap, there are a few things we know that Microsoft hasn’t said, namely that not only is it a tablet event, but Microsoft is doing its own tablet. The move could help Microsoft catch up to the iPad, but it also risks alienating Microsoft’s longtime PC partners.

That said, Microsoft has been chasing the tablet dream for more than a decade, so it’s understandable that it wants back in the game.

For more, check back here closer to the 3:30 pm PT start time for the event.

In the meantime, here’s one more Tegra-sized tidbit to keep you sated until then: Expect at least some of the devices shown off later Monday to be powered by Nvidia chips.

4:00 pm: OK. We’re seated and ready to go. Not sure if this is a sign of thoughtfulness or a sign we are going to be here a while, but there are outlets at the seat.

It’s a swank loft-y type setting here at the Milk Studios, a photography and design space.

4:04 pm: Still waiting for things to get going.

4:05 pm: Trivia time.

For those who want to know a bit more about Milk Studios where the event is, it’s a film/fashion/photography spot with outposts in L.A. and N.Y. The N.Y. location was home to Airtime’s recent debut. No doubt Microsoft’s hoping for a better response.

4:07 pm: The music is shifting from background-sounding stuff to intro-sounding stuff. That’s tech-press-nerd for it’s really almost time.

4:11 pm: Steve Ballmer takes the stage.

“Windows is the heart and soul of Microsoft,” Ballmer said. From PCs to phones to servers, it’s the most flexible software ever created, he adds.

Windows powers over a billion PCs and far exceeded Microsoft’s wildest expectations, Ballmer says.

“With Windows 8 we’ve re-imagined the Windows product. We re-imagined windows from the chipset to the user experience to power the next generation of PCs,” Ballmer said.

4:13 pm: Windows 8 is focused on the idea that people want to create content from anywhere without compromising the productivity that PCs are known for, Ballmer said.

4:15 pm: “Today we want to add another bit of excitement” to that Windows 8 story.

At our foundation, Bill Gates and Paul Allen made a bet — a bet on software.

That said, it was always clear that Microsoft would have to push hardware, in some cases in places even the hardware industry wouldn’t see, Ballmer said.

Cue video on the role of hardware at Microsoft. 3200 hardware patents. They’ve made mice, keyboards, etc.

Something tells me that the PC makers aren’t going to take this nearly as well as they did Microsoft getting into the mouse market.

“We believe that any intersection between human and machine can be made better when all aspects of the experience — hardware and software — are considered and working together.

Ballmer recounts how Canadian customs quarantined Microsoft’s first mice at the border thinking they were actually alive.

More recently, of course, has been Microsoft’s hardware work with the Xbox, including Kinect.

4:19 pm: “We see that combination working also today in our PC ecosystem. We believe in the strength of that ecosystem.”

Those partnerships are essential to the re-imagination of Windows. Ballmer is calling out the five chipmakers that Microsoft is working with on Windows 8 plus all the major PC makers.

“They will deliver more PCs to market in the year 2013 than in any previous year,” Ballmer said, citing 375 million Windows PC unit forecast from IDC.

(Ballmer is cushioning for the we’re-doing-our-own-hardware blow.)

4:20 pm: Yep. “However…”

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

There’s a whole new family of computing devices from Microsoft, Ballmer said, cuing another video.

This is the new Microsoft Surface, Ballmer said, holding up a small, sleek Windows 8 tablet.

“They want to work and they want to play,” Ballmer said. “Surface fulfills that dream.

4:22 pm: To learn more about Surface, Ballmer intros Windows chief Steven Sinofsky.

4:23 pm: “Surface is a stage for Windows,” Sinofsky said.

9.3 millimeters thick, just enough for a full-size USB port for connecting peripherals and charging.

Full magnesium “VaporMg” case.

676 grams (that’s 1.49 pounds).

There’s a 10.6-inch widescreen display custom designed for Surface.

4:25 pm: “Surface works great for entertainment,” Sinofsky said, showing a new Netflix application that will be ready at Windows 8 launch.

Dual MIMO (multiple-in, multiple-out) Wi-Fi antennas should mean the best Wi-Fi coverage of any tablet, Sinofsky said.

It has its own built-in stand, along with Gorilla Glass 2.0. There’s also a 3-millimeter thin cover with a magnetic connector made of “fine Northwest polar-tec.”

Even with the cover it is less than half an inch.

Oh yeah, and that cover is a full-multi-touch keyboard and modern trackpad.

Sinofsky says its twice as efficient as typing on glass.

Sinofsky shows another Surface connected using external HDMI connection to a display, in this case showing the crowd.

Other features: Device has dual-array microphones built-in, tilted camera.

In addition to the surface we are releasing for Windows RT (which runs on Nvidia — as we told you), the company is also working on an Intel-based model.

Windows OEM head Mike Angiulo shows off another member of the family: Surface for Windows 8 Pro. “It shares the same design principles,” says Angiulo.

It is a bit thicker, clearly. Angiulo says it is less than 2 pounds and 14 millimeters.

4:33 pm: The Intel-based Surface uses the same cover. Still less than 17 millimeters with the keyboard cover, Angiulo said, adding that the Intel model has specifications that rival the top-of-the-line Ultrabooks.

To cool it, Microsoft is using something called “peripheral venting” to allow hot air to escape.

Surface for Windows 8 Pro — the Intel model — supports pen input.

4:36 pm: Microsoft has posted a couple more details on its Web site.

4:36 pm: Separate digitizers ensure that when there is a pen close to the screen, it doesn’t recognize the hand as touch input.

“That’s one of the cool things on Surface for Windows 8 Pro.”

This tablet (again, the Intel-based one), Angiulo said, can handle basically everything that a desktop can do, copying a gigabyte of pictures in 5 seconds, with USB 3.0 and USB Super Speed support.

It can plug into a big monitor with DisplayPort, supporting greater resolution than the HDMI port.

There’s also a Surface Type cover with actual keys instead of multitouch. Keys have 1.5 millimeter travel (that’s how far down the keys go).

4:41 pm: That’s the full product lineup, Sinofsky says: Nvidia-based Surface for Windows RT, Intel-based Surface for Windows 8 Pro and the various keyboard covers.

Up now is Panos Panay, who Sinofsky notes led the Surface effort.

The two remaining questions, it would seem, is when will they go on sale and how much. Initially, Microsoft says Surface will be sold in its retail stores and via Microsoft’s online stores.

The goal, Panay said, was for the hardware to fade into the background. He also stresses the company’s efforts to make sure everything was just so.

“We always strike for perfection on every sub-component,” he said.

There are over 200 custom parts, Panay said, starting with the hinges that are designed to “sound like a high-end car door.”

“We really wanted to get the sound right,” he said. “It makes it yours.”

Now more on VaporMg, the technology used for the casing.

4:46 pm: It starts with an ingot of magnesium, melted to a molten state and is molded down to less than the thickness of a credit card.

That was necessary for things like the kick stand.

“Every micron matters within Microsoft Surface,” Panay said.

If you added a piece of tape to the design, he said, it would bulge out. That’s how tight he says things are packed.

In all, VaporMG is a 252-step process.

“When you put it in your hands, it feels elegant,” he said. “When you put it in your hands you are going to want to hold it.”

Now Panay is talking about the cases, starting with a blue multitouch keyboard one.

The Surface tablet turns blue, matching his case.

The magnets both align and bond the case to the device.

“You can’t miss,” Panay insists. “This spine feels like a book.”

Panay says that he has fallen in love with his multitouch cover, so much so that he never takes it off.

When you fold the keyboard case back, the tablet knows the case is off and assumes it is not present, thanks to an accelerometer.

Smart cover (Edit: Oops, I should have said Touch Cover) is pressure sensitive, knowing that touch typists are always resting a bit on home keys — something you can’t typically do on a touchscreen because a small amount of pressure is recorded as a touch.

4:54 pm: Sinofsky is back to talk availability and pricing.

Surface for Windows RT will be available at 32 gigabytes and 64GB and priced similar to ARM-based tablets.

Surface for Windows 8 PRO will be similar to pricing of Ultrabooks.

Availability for the Windows RT version of Surface will be at the time Windows 8 hits the market.

The Windows 8 Pro model will be three months later.

Microsoft has a video of Surface in action, if you want to see it for yourselves.

Ballmer wraps up. “The Surface is a PC. The Surface is a tablet. And the Surface is something new.”

Reporters now get some hands-on time.

Lights drop, Ballmer exits.

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