For a few years now, RPS has been nervously eyeing tablets from afar, not entirely sure what to do about them. Well, I say nervously - actually, John spends most of his time doing unmentionably intimate things with his beloved Asus Transformer Prime. Microsoft last night turned up with something that might just end our dilemma. It could introduce brand new ones at the same time, though.
Surface/Surface Pro is a suspiciously iPad-shaped Microsoft tablet which runs Windows 8. Watching Twitter last night was hilarious, as the assorted games and tech journos I inexplicably clutter up my feed with poured scorn upon scorn onto first the concept of a Windows Tablet and then the 10.6" reality of it. Then Microsoft revealed a keyboard built into the Surface's protective cover and the vast majority changed their tune from "pfft" into desperately trying to devise how to talk Microsoft PRs into sending them one for keepsies.
Before we get all knicker-twisted here, let's bear in mind a) that there are two superficially similar variants of Surface which boast fundamental differences underneath their 9.3mm and 13.5mm skins respectively. The thinner of those is based around an ARM CPU/NVIDIA Tegra graphics system on a chip, which puts it essentially on a par with the iPads and Transformers of this world. Yes, yes, the keyboard case is very nice, but for the sake of argument let's consider that a traditional tablet that might have some nice ARM-based games but doesn't really encroach on PC territory. It does run Windows 8, but Windows 8 RT, the cut-down, walled-garden version designed for SoC devices. Even if you could somehow install, say, Steam or Diablo III on it, they wouldn't actually run unless they were recompiled for non-x86 CPUs. Essentially, this entry-level Surface will be stuck with mobile apps.
Then there's the other one, which is 4mm fatter than Surface and iPad but otherwise looks very similar to the ARM Surface. It's toting an Intel Core i5, Ivy Bridge-based CPU. That means integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics (same as in my laptop, which can just about cope with the likes of Skyrim and DXHR on lowest settings). That means support for all manner of existent x86 applications. Its USB ports mean mice, gamepads, headsets and the like are good to go. That means, well, it's a PC running Windows. Windows 8, specifically - and what appears to be a full version of it.
The easiest way to think about this is that the Surface Pro - as this Intel-based model is known - is basically an ultrabook with a detachable keyboard. Big whoop, we can get loads of fixed-keyboard ultrabooks already, though perhaps not with quite so nice (1920x1080) screens (and don't go 'pfft, the iPad is higher res', because all that 'you can't see the pixels!' stuff is just marketing rot rather than anything remotely relevant to everyday use). Touchscreens are all jolly nice for mobile use, but it's hardly a seachange for PCs, is it?
Where this becomes very interesting for you and I and that guy with the nose over there is if Surface Pro is a success. If so, PC game devs will be encouraged to include touch-screen controls into the games they're making anyway. They won't actually have to make different versions. Their PC game will work on Surface Pro, and their Surface Pro games will work on PC. Because Surface Pro is a PC. A PC with a touchscreen. That's probably part of what's informed Skulls of the Shoguns' controversial decision to go Windows 8-only, and at a guess we'll be hearing more about its Surface support before too long.
And if Surface Pro and its touchscreen are an appealing place for PC devs to go, that means they might wind up in the Windows 8 app store, Microsoft's attempt to wall up the garden of Windows applications and games. That worries me enormously. Choice of store, freedom of modding, support for older versions of Windows - those can go out the window, so to speak. We'll see, but it's certainly not where I want PC gaming to go.
I do rather want a Surface Pro, though. It's an ultra-light, relatively high-performance, just about games-capable Windows laptop with a detachable, super lighweight keyboard (though I don't know how comfortable that soft-looking thing will be to type on for long stretches) and a touchscreen. I fear it will be enormously expensive, however - I'd guess at around £800 for the Surface Pro and £400 for the ARM-based (and thus not really a PC, or of interest to me) Surface.
It might even be more, given ultrabooks tend to land around £1000, but if Microsoft want to get a big foothold on the tablet market they're going to need to compromise. £800 for a sexy tablet PC is okay, but of course you can't upgrade the thing and those integrated graphics are going to get left behind by games pretty sharpish. Unless the device is a huge success, and we see more games being made specifically for Intel HD 4000 (and its predecessors/successors), but that means PC gaming becomes more like the years-long tech homogeneity of console gaming cycles, and I don't think we want that in our back yards.
Surface Pro is as frightening as it is exciting, because while it's a hugely covetable device (from where I'm standing at least) if it takes off Microsoft have the power to hinder what we most love about PCs and PC gaming - freedom, variety, choice, no-one calling the shots. Of course, it won't kill off traditional PCs no matter how well it does, because you can't really beat the pure power, practicality and versatility of a full-size system for work, productivity and play, but it could cut in the market and moreover affect game development priorities. I do fear that.
Fascinating times, though. This is the convergence point of PCs and tablets - the power of the former, the portability and ease of the latter. This is presuming Microsoft gets it right, of course. I've been far from impressed by Windows 8's messy, cubey, playschooly Metro interface, and I wouldn't put it past them to include every obstacle they can to installing whatever we like on Surface Pro. I (we) will be watching carefully, as it could well be something RPS should cover as part of its mandate to follow the twists, turns, stasis and wild changes of PC gaming.
There's no release date or price as yet, but here's the bulk of the specs to mull over for now.
Surface Pro ('the good one')
OS: Windows 8 Pro (aka, Windows on Intel)
Display: 10.6-inch HD Display: 16:9, 1920x1080.
Chip: Intel Core i5 "Ivy Bridge."
Weight: 903 g
Slots: microSDXC, USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort Video
Battery: 42 watt-hour
Configs: 32GB, 64GB, 128GB
Surface ('basically an iPad')
OS: Windows RT (aka, Windows on ARM)
Display: 10.6-inch HD Display.
Chip: Nvidia Tegra.
Weight: 676 g
Ports: microSD, USB 2.0, Micro HD Video
Battery: 31.5 watt-hour
Configs: 32GB, 64GB