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Microsoft designed the Surface tablet to be a PC in tablet form.

Used with permission from Microsoft

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How Microsoft Surface Tablets Work

In 2000, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates took the stage at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas, Nev. A theater filled with computer industry experts watched as Gates made some big declarations. Among them, he proclaimed the era of the browser had come to an end. He also said that server-based computing -- what we now think of as cloud computing -- was a dead-end. And he impressed the crowd by unveiling a prototype model of a tablet PC [source: Arar].

It turns out that Gates was a little off target with his announcements. Web browsers and cloud-based computing have become intrinsic parts of our computing experience. We've got browsers on computers, smartphones, tablets, e-readers and televisions. And as for the tablet PC -- the public wasn't interested.

The story changed a decade later. In January of 2010, Steve Jobs announced the iPad, Apple's tablet device. Jobs succeeded where Gates had failed -- he energized not only the industry experts, but the general consumer. Suddenly, tablets had become a big story.

But what about the company that introduced its first PC-based tablet to great acclaim back in 2000? Microsoft had no answer to the iPad. Other companies launched tablet devices -- some running a version of Windows with Microsoft's support -- to try and compete with the Apple juggernaut. It wasn't until 2012 that Microsoft introduced updated tablets. The new line of devices took its name from a previous Microsoft product: The Surface.

What powers the Surface? What sets it apart from other tablets? And can Microsoft make up for lost time and carve out a space in the tablet market?

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A Computer in Tablet Form

At the Microsoft event for the Surface, the representatives often referred to the device as a PC rather than as a tablet. This is a fundamentally different approach than what Apple took with the iPad. Steve Jobs called the iPad a "post-PC device that needs to be easier to use than a PC" [source: Rosoff]. But when you look at how the Surface works, you can see the distinctions between PC and tablet aren't always clear.

Like a PC, the Surface has a central processing unit (CPU). It's the CPU's job to execute operations on data. This is how computers run programs -- the programs require the CPU to take information and perform some sort of operation on it and then present the result.

The Surface also has memory like a PC. Memory is where a computer stores data until it's needed for an operation. A computer's speed depends partly on the power of the processor and partly on how much memory the computer has at its disposal. With more memory, the computer can hold more data in temporary storage. This removes the need for the CPU to pull data from a hard drive, which can be a slower process. The Surface has solid state memory, which is like a PC's hard drive. This is where the Surface stores applications and files.

Another similarity between the Surface and a PC is the motherboard. The motherboard is a special type of circuit board. It allows the various electronic components within the Surface to connect to each other through dedicated pathways. This is what lets the CPU pull information from memory or hard drive space. It also creates the path for the graphics processor to send information to the display. It's sort of like the nervous system for the device.

The Surface's touch-screen interface sets it apart from an average computer. It uses a capacitive screen, meaning that the computer detects when there is a change in the electrical potential across the screen. When you touch the screen, your finger interrupts a weak electric field. Circuits at the edges of the screen detect the decrease in electrical charge across the screen. The circuits identify the location of your finger and register it as a touch, mapping it to a command.

Most tablets share these qualities. Does that mean all tablets are PCs? They're definitely all computer devices. Whether or not they qualify as a full PC depends more upon your personal definition of what makes a personal computer.

A Surface Comparison

Microsoft had another product called Surface -- it was a tabletop touch-screen computer display. Designed to be an interactive tool for retail stores and other industry applications, this version of the Surface didn't hit the general consumer market.

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Specs on the Surface

While Microsoft shared many details about the Surface tablets at its June 2012 event, the company avoided answering several questions. For example, Microsoft executives didn't give specifics about the type of processors or memory the tablets will use. The company also remained mute about the type of graphics processor the Surface would have. As of this writing, those details will become clear a little later in 2012 when the products officially hit store shelves.

Here's what we do know:

There will be two main categories of Surface tablets -- one for casual consumers and another for professionals who want a tablet for productivity applications. Each category has two options for on-board hard-drive space. The consumer model will come in 32- and 64-gigabyte configurations while the professional model will be available in 64- and 128-gigabyte versions.

The consumer model Microsoft showed off was 0.37 inches (9.3 millimeters) thin and weighed 1.5 pounds (676 grams). The professional model was a little thicker and heavier at 0.53 inches (13.5 millimeters) and 2 pounds (903 grams).

The consumer model will run on Windows RT for its operating system (OS). This is an offshoot of the Windows 8 OS for computers. Microsoft designed Windows RT to run on mobile devices, which tend to have tight restrictions on processor speed and battery life compared to desktop and laptop computers. The Windows RT OS works on advanced RISC machine (ARM)-based central processor units (CPUs). An ARM CPU consumes less power than a comparable x86-based processor. The consumer model will also have a microSD slot, a USB 2.0 port and a micro HD video port.

The professional model will pack a bigger processor punch. It will have an Intel Core Ivy Bridge processor and will use Windows 8 Pro as its OS. This version of the Surface will also have a microSDXC card slot, a USB 3.0 port and a mini DisplayPort for video output.

Both models will have a display measuring 10.6 inches along the diagonal (about 27 centimeters). Both also have a kickstand that can snap into place on the back of the tablet or be pulled out to support it on a flat surface. Both categories have antennas to connect to WiFi networks. And both have dual array microphones and dual speakers.

You can get two different types of keyboards in a variety of colors. They attach to the Surface with magnets.

Used with permission from Microsoft

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Surface Peripherals

Both versions of the Surface have a spot along the case where a cover can snap into place using magnets. The cover acts as a screen protector, although the Surface has Corning's scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass. Microsoft added an extra bonus with the cover: When open, it can also serve as a keyboard.

There are two flavors of keyboard -- Touch Cover and Type Cover. The Touch Cover keyboards are flat with pressure-sensitive keys. The Type Cover keyboard has physical, raised keys that click when you type on them. Both connect physically to the Surface with magnets and use Bluetooth to communicate with the device.

At the unveiling event, Microsoft representatives said that aesthetic design was an important consideration in the Surface's construction. That might explain why the company will offer different color covers when the Surface hits stores later in 2012.

The Windows 8 Pro model of the Surface will have another input device option: a stylus. The stylus will also attach to the Surface with a magnet. You can use the stylus to draw and write within various applications on the tablet. There's also a feature called Palm Block that detects when the stylus is near the screen. Whenever the Surface detects the stylus, it modifies how the capacitive screen works. It will only respond to the touch of the stylus. That way, the Surface won't start scrolling, zooming or otherwise activating commands as your hands move on the screen while you try to write or draw.

Because both versions of the Surface have a USB port -- 2.0 in the consumer version and 3.0 in the Windows 8 Pro version -- you'll be able to attach other peripherals to the tablet easily. This could include anything from additional speakers and microphones to a printer. You could also use the tablet to charge other devices over USB if you wanted to.

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The Journey to the Surface

For the Surface to become a reality, many elements had to align within Microsoft. The company had a rocky history with tablet computers. Despite the enthusiastic response Bill Gates had at the 2000 Comdex event, the 2002 launch of the tablet PC didn't inspire consumers to come out in droves and adopt a new form factor. And though other manufacturers built tablets that relied on various versions of the Windows operating system, none of them did particularly well in the market.

But the company maintained an interest in developing innovative hardware, particularly around touch-screen interfaces. In 2007 at the All Things Digital conference, Steve Ballmer introduced the Surface table-top PC. It could detect multiple touches and even recognize specific devices placed on top of it. The secret was in the camera system inside the table -- it could track and identify objects on the Surface's surface.

In 2009, an internal Microsoft video leaked out to the Web at large. It showed off a two-screen tablet device called the Courier. Featuring what looked to be a customized user interface, the Courier allowed users to view content on one screen while creating content on another. Flicking between the screens let users integrate the two, moving notes to one page or the other. The Web buzzed about the possibilities of this tablet.

In 2010, Apple launched the iPad unopposed -- there was no Courier to be seen. Microsoft representatives refrained from commenting about the Courier, instead pointing out how Microsoft worked with hardware manufacturers like HP to bring Windows to tablets that way. By April 2010, news broke that Microsoft had canceled the Courier project [source: Johnson]. The team behind the Courier had approached tablet design much in the same way as Apple -- it was a device that complemented PCs but wasn't an evolution of or replacement for a computer.

Microsoft's goal was to create a tablet that supported its flagship products -- Windows and the Office suite of applications. And the company designed Windows 8 with touch-screen interfaces in mind. Microsoft optimized Windows 8's Metro mode for touch-screen displays. It seemed like only a matter of time before Microsoft incorporated these features into a tablet of its own.

Whether the Surface succeeds in the market remains to be seen. Microsoft is betting that there's a market for a tablet designed to support productivity software. Do people want a tablet that can act as a replacement for a laptop? And will they be willing to pay the price? Only time -- and the market -- will tell.

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Author's Note

As soon as I saw the user interface for Windows 8 I began to anticipate a Microsoft tablet device. It was obvious that Windows 8 would enable the company to move into the market. I thought it was possible that Microsoft would step back and let other companies produce the hardware. But the company had tried that with earlier versions of Windows and those tablets didn't entice consumers. Part of that may have been because earlier versions of Windows weren't ideal candidates for a touch-screen device. But while Microsoft's announcement in June 2012 was out of the blue, it still wasn't a surprise.

Sources

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