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Magnesium chassis, vapour deposition coating, cutaway edges, ClearType HD display; the design credentials and the specs for Microsoft’s new tablet are impressive and in the flesh this is a delightful piece of hardware that looks good – and is practical too.
It’s thin, it’s light, it’s comfortable to hold, it runs Windows RT as excellently as you’d expect, it makes you want to touch it but it’s also designed so you can snap the magnetically attached cover into place – in no way similar to any competitor idea…
However, you won’t be able to get the Surface tablet until Windows 8 ships – and we can’t get its big brother, the Intel Core i5 Surface for Windows 8 Pro, for another three months after that.
The design of the Surface for Windows RT (and the similar Surface for Windows 8 Pro that we didn’t see in as much detail) is understated.
The front is sleek black glass, precision bonded to the magnesium alloy chassis (“we squeezed all the air out,” as Microsoft hardware expert Stevie Battiche told TechRadar), with only a Windows logo visible – the word Microsoft doesn’t show up on the case anywhere.
Turn it on and the 10.6″ screen fills most of the Surface’s front display, but the four edges have half an inch of bezel so you can hold it comfortably.
The Windows logo isn’t just for show; it’s a touch button that gives you the Start screen when you tap on it, plus the whole bezel is touch-aware so you can swipe across it to bring up the App bar or the switching pane (depending on which way round it is).
The Surface is light and comfortable to hold; the edges are sloped to give you a comfortable grip (although the edge with the cover connector isn’t quite as ergonomic until you connect the cover).
The magnesium alloy chassis is covered with a soft coating that feels durable and expensive (that’s the vapour deposition bit; it’s chemically bonded rather than just painted on).
If you don’t want to hold it, there’s a built-in stand that’s like a large hinge running across the entire back of the Surface, with another Windows logo in a slightly matte finish.
The hinge is usually held in place by an array of magnets so it doesn’t fall out if you shake the Surface around; on the left there’s a little cutout in the edge of the hinge to make it easier to flip out.
If you’ve seen Apple’s SmartCover on the new iPad 3, then this method of connection won’t be a surprise – it’s another move that shows Microsoft is intending to go toe-to-toe with the Cupertino brand in the tablet arena.
The Surface tablet also balances well on the hinge, which has two long rubber feet to stabilise it.
With the Touch Cover on, we were able to balance the Surface on a lap for typing like a notebook without it falling forward or tipping over backwards; compare this to the Asus Transformer Prime which always wants to fall backwards, and you’ll appreciate this weighting.
Microsoft has included the fewest ports it could get away with; the bottom edge is filled with the magnetic keyboard connector, the top has the power button and the sides have two speakers, dual microphones, microSD, one USB 2.0 port (USB 3.0 for the Surface Pro) and Micro HDMI (on the surface Pro that’s mini DisplayPort), plus a magnetic power connector.
The magnesium alloy chassis and the precision design give the Surface RT a sturdy feel. Lift it by the corners and twist and there’s no flexing at all; we tried the same thing with the frame of a chassis that hadn’t been assembled and even without the glass and back it barely moved.
The Microsoft team showing off the tablets weren’t cradling them protectively; at one point Battiche tossed a tablet to a colleague. Even without the cover, the Surface should stand up to some punishment.