Microsoft Surface Tablet Out for $499

The Microsoft Surface tablet picture has abruptly come into focus. Tuesday morning this Redmond giant filled in the blanks on the new tablet's pricing, availability and specs.

Starting today at 9 a.m. PT, consumers can preorder Microsoft's upstart 10.6-inch tablet at Surface.com, with prices starting at $499 for the 32GB model and $699 for the 64GB model. Both tablets are Wi-Fi only.

The Windows RT (Microsoft's ARM-friendly version of Windows 8, which ships Oct. 26) tablet, which offers a built-in kickstand, does not ship with the 3mm thin Touch Cover keypad. That'll run you $119. The Touch Cover, which features real keys, costs $129. You can save $20 if you buy the $599 Surface/Touch Cover bundle (the $699 edition comes with the Touch Cover).

We also now know a lot more about what's inside Surface's Titanium shell and Vapor Magnesium (VaporMG) skeleton.

Along with a Nvidia Tegra 3 CPU (which may be running at 1.5 GHz), Microsoft has stuffed an impressive 2 GB of RAM inside the Surface. It also features an 802.11N Mimo Wi-Fi radio, Bluetooth 4.0, an accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, dual microphones, stereo speakers, an HD-out port, a full-sized USB 2.0 port and a micro SD-slot. There are two 720p cameras (no 1080p); one on the front and one on the back.

It also comes pre-loaded with Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 RT Preview edition, which Microsoft execs say has been tweaked to accommodate the touch-screen interface.

Like many of the mid-sized tablets entering the market today, the Surface is a Wi-Fi-only device. Even so, it's sort of the odd man out when compared to 9.7- and 8.9-inch LTE devices from Apple and Amazon, respectively. Microsoft's Windows 8 lead Steven Sinofsky said he's not concerned about the Surface's lack of a cellular feature, adding "it could be an option down the road. Maybe, maybe not."

The device will ship Oct. 26, and also be available at roughly 65 Microsoft stores and holiday pop-up locations around the country. Microsoft is devoting nearly 50% of its store floor space to the iPad rival. Surface will also go on sale in eight international locations, including China, Hong Kong, United Kingdom, Germany, France and Australia.

Below the Surface

What consumers will see when they go shopping for the Surface is a product that is subtly different than the one Microsoft showed off during the summer. That's because the company had not quite finished developing the Surface, which probably explains why reporters got so little time with the product.

Mashable got a little closer to some of the finished devices this week, as Microsoft proudly explained the development process (even taking us behind the scenes at its top-secret development labs) and some of the key hardware highlights that it believes set it apart from the tablet competition.

We got to very briefly hold the device. It weighs 1.5 pounds, but does not feel heavier than the 1.46-pound iPad. Microsoft's Sinofsky and Panos Panay, General Manager for Microsoft's Surface program, said that this is because Microsoft engineered the "inertia" (the feeling you get when someone, say, drops the Surface into your hand) to be different, essentially spreading the weight out over a larger area and as evenly as possibly.

We also got a chance, in Microsoft's secret labs, to attach and detach the Touch Cover, which, thanks to powerful -- albeit tiny — magnets, snaps sharply into place with a resounding snap. The hold looks to be quite strong, too. At one point, Sinofsky merrily dangled the tablet, holding it only by the magnetically attached cover.

We typed a bit on the tablet's cover, too. It's smart enough to not react when I rested my hands on the slightly raised, pressure-sensitive urethane keyboard, but reacted well to touch typing. The cover even includes a track pad area, which also responded well to taps and gestures.

What is it?

Though Surface is clearly a tablet device, Sinofsky pointed out that the process of developing Windows 8 (on which Surface's Windows RT operating system is based) started in the summer of 2009, when there was no Apple iPad as a reference point (though it remains unclear if Microsoft began working on its tablet at that time).

Sinofsky also seemed, at times, almost unwilling to truly define the Surface as a tablet: "I've used a lot of tablets and this is not a tablet, but this is the best tablet I've ever used. And I've used a lot of laptops and notebooks, but this is not a laptop or notebook, but it's the best laptop or notebook I've ever used."

Sinofsky did also, of course, describe the Surface as a touch-first tablet device, but also emphasized its utility and productivity. In fact, the desire to make the Surface a truly productive tablet drove many of Microsoft's design decisions.

It is, at 10.6 inches for instance, larger than both the iPad and many of the 10.1 tablets on the market today. And 9.7 inches and even 10.1 inches weren't large enough to accommodate the multi-tasking and the larger, more comfortable Touch Cover typing experience Sinofsky and Panay desired, so they settled on the larger 10.6-inch, 1366×768 display.

Of course, a larger screen means more power consumption and the need for a bigger battery. Sinofsky explained that "you're in this loop" of ever increasing screen size, more battery to support it and, naturally, more weight.

This reality forced Microsoft to come up with its own magnesium chassis, highly compressed touch-stack for the screen, and a host of other patents and innovations to hit 1.5 pounds with all-day battery life, while not turning the Surface into a heavy, bulky device.

From what we saw, Microsoft may have succeeded. However the true test starts today as consumers place their orders and then, 10 days from now, when customers get their hands on the new Surface tablet. Can it stand tall among the iPads, Kindle Fires and Google Nexuses of the world? Only time -- and some critical reviews -- will tell.

Are you getting ready to buy Microsoft's tablet? Let us know in the comments.

By Erin B 10/17/2012 01:42:00