Jeff Gelles: Microsoft enters tablet arena with solid offering

Posted: November 23, 2012

Samsung's constellation of Galaxy tablets. Google's Nexus, Amazon's Kindle Fire HD, and Barnes & Noble's Nook HD tablets - all now in two sizes. An army of Androids and other tablets, even a supersize BlackBerry. And, of course, four generations of iPads - plus the new iPad Mini - all in less than three years.

If your head spins from all the choices in a market niche that barely existed when President Obama took office, you have company. Since Apple dazzled the world in April 2010 with the iPad after fizzling two decades earlier with the Newton, the touchscreen tablet has led a revolution in personal computing.

Is it any wonder that Microsoft, a name nearly synonymous with the personal computer itself, has finally entered the fray?

Microsoft's first entrant in the Tablet Wars - actually, its first-ever branded computer - is the Surface with Windows RT. Early next year, the company plans to unveil the RT's cousin, a Surface with Windows 8 Pro.

Much has been made about the RT tablet's limitations - chiefly its ability to run only newly developed app versions of Windows programs. For all who need full Windows compatibility, the next Surface launch will be the one that matters.

But as anybody who has embraced a smartphone or tablet knows, running Excel spreadsheets, penning Power Points, or analyzing Access data isn't really the point. So it makes sense to focus on what the Surface can do rather than what it can't.

The bottom line after a weeklong test? The Surface would easily wow anyone who had never seen an iPad - admittedly, a small slice of the tech-literate - and should even impress a few Apple fans. And Microsoft's efforts to reimagine the tablet format earns it the right to be taken seriously in this crowded niche. Here are just a few reasons why:

Hybrid format. The basic $499 Surface is an obvious iPad challenger, albeit more than an inch longer and a half-inch narrower to match its HD-style 16:9 aspect ratio. (Bucking a trend, Apple has so far stuck with 4:3, the old TV standard, for the iPad, though the latest iPhone has HD dimensions.)

For $120 more, you can click on a colorful, magnetically attached Touch Cover - a flat QWERTY keyboard that many will find preferable to a virtual keyboard. But the Surface's most-impressive feature may be a drab, black option: a $130 Type Cover. Weighing less than a half- pound and just a fraction of an ounce more than the Touch Cover, the Type offers a genuine keyboard feel. With the Surface's elegant, built-in stand and its extra length allowing a wider keyboard, the Surface effectively doubles as a two-pound laptop.

Windows 8 apps. At heart, Windows RT is a tablet-optimized version of Windows 8 - software Microsoft designed to bridge the gaps among smartphones, tablets, and bigger computers. Both versions share Windows 8's most visible features: apps-based computing and Live Tiles.

Apple and Android each now claim to offer an almost incomprehensible number of apps - hundreds of thousands for work, play, learning, navigating, record-keeping, moviemaking. Almost any purpose you can imagine, and plenty you haven't.

Microsoft, to be clear, is way behind - so far that it declines to offer a number to compare.

Still, the Store isn't exactly empty. A quick browse shows about 1,500 game apps, 1,300 entertainment apps, 1,600 education apps - all told, close to 10,000 in a variety of categories.

Microsoft's line is that more are added all the time and that your favorites are probably available. But specialized apps may be tough to find - unless and until Windows 8 catches on and the market catches up. More than a score of Apple apps use SEPTA transit data, for example. Search "SEPTA" in Microsoft's Store and you'll come up empty-handed.

Are there drawbacks to the Surface? Absolutely. One I found frustrating is that while its Mail app happily fetches my Gmail, it doesn't support old-fashioned POP3 e-mail, which Internet providers such as Comcast still rely on. But the Store offers a $4 app as an alternative.

Another frustration: Microsoft says there is currently no way to shop for apps without a Windows RT or Windows 8 device that can access the Store. If it wants to build a market, an open-door policy couldn't hurt.

But if the medium is the message, Microsoft has delivered a clear one. The PC isn't really dead. It's just being reinvented.


Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

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