Right on schedule, Microsoft launched its Surface tablets that have been designed to compete head-to-head with the iPad. The company hosted an all-day walk-through for journalists this past week, opened its site for pre-orders and will begin shipping the 10.6-inch tablets on Oct. 26.
While Microsoft Surface has one-upped Apple's iPad in terms of display size, and it offers twice the built-in memory for the same entry-level price of $500, that's only part of the story. Can Surface win on hardware alone by appealing to loyal PC users?
Microsoft says it planned Surface as an extension of the PC as opposed to Google and Apple, which built tablets as an extension of their smartphone products. Last June, Microsoft touted the tablet's kickstand and new magnetic cover featuring a built-in keyboard that could indeed transform its tablet into a workable and portable PC.
However, the cover is not included in the $500 Surface model. A working-key cover will cost an additional $130. (The flat pressable-key cover is priced at $100.) Hardcover cases with integrated real-key keyboards are available for the iPad for about $100. To have an upright typeable device will cost at least $600 either way you go.
What about specs? Tablets are prized for their portability and their ability to provide entertainment. Microsoft chose the larger-sized screen because it offered a 16:9 aspect ratio, dimensions that suit today's HD movies. However, bigger means heavier in this case. The Surface weighs 1.5 pounds, compared to the iPad at 1.44 pounds.
Microsoft contends that its 1,366-by-768 display has a better picture quality than iPad's Retina display. During the presentation, a Microsoft engineer explained that the perceived image sharpness between the 148-pixel-per-inch Surface and 264-ppi iPad becomes nearly indistinguishable the further you hold the device away from your face and the older you are. Vision deterioration aside, he showed images of a white circle taken from each device and the Surface image was a bit crisper.
Microsoft said it chose the lower resolution display to save battery life, but has not yet released a figure, and recent reports indicate Surface may have a shorter battery life than iPad. The $500 Surface -- at 32GB -- has twice the internal memory as the same-priced iPad and a full-sized USB port, so users could plug in external devices like thumb-drives, something you can't do with an iPad.
But here's the catch: Surface runs on a mobile operating system, not on a PC system, which seemed to contradict its strategy to position Surface as an extension of the PC rather than the smartphone. (Microsoft has recently launched a series of new Windows phones that use Windows RT, the same operating system built into Surface.)
At the presentation, a journalist asked whether consumers would be confused when they buy a tablet with Windows RT and realize that it can't run all their old apps. Microsoft's head of Windows, Steven Sinofsky said consumers would be comparing the Surface to the iPad rather than a notebook and would not expect it to run their old software.
Beyond Microsoft's mixed message, Surface is bound to run into problems with its lack of apps, one of the most enticing benefits of iPad ownership. At more than 700,000 in the App Store, "there's an app for that" is more than a slogan, it's become a fact. Microsoft plans to have 2,000 apps in the Windows Store for the Oct. 26 launch and grow its offerings to 100,000 in three months.
And finally, the success of Surface may come down to price. Surface is not the first tablet to try to beat iPad with hardware. Predecessors such as Motorola's Xoom and Samsung Galaxy Tab have done little to erode iPad's share of the market. Competing against iPad on features alone is a long shot. It was not until Amazon last year launched its Kindle Fire at $200 that consumers took notice.
But even the low end of the tablet market is in jeopardy. Invitations last week were sent to the media for an Apple event on Tuesday, Oct. 23, when the company is expected to launch a 7-inch iPad Mini for around $250. Anthony Scarsella, founder of online electronics trade-in service Gazelle, said that since Mini rumors began in earnest on Sept. 16, iPad trade-ins have skyrocketed by 80 percent. The average trade-in price for an original 16GB iPad in good condition is $130.
If you're in the market for a tablet, you might also consider resale value. According to Scarsella, Apple devices, including iPads, hold their value better than any other products. And that's a good thing in a world where we're continuously tempted by new products.
Ogden-based TopTenREVIEWS.com guides consumers by comparing products in the world of technology, including electronics, software and Web services. Have a question for TopTenREVIEWS? Email Leslie Meredith at email@example.com.