It marks the start of the tech giant’s latest attempt to take on the goliaths of Apple and Google, and to reclaim a share of the operating system market it once dominated while also taking a bite out of the burgeoning tablet market.
Compared to how Microsoft has been doing things for the past decade or so, Surface and Windows 8 represent a radical change for Bill Gates’ company. Could the new hardware and operating system be enough to unseat Apple and Google from their thrones, or is Microsoft simply going down swinging?
Here’s a look at how the new offerings measure up, and whether they’re likely to be of any concern for Microsoft’s rivals.
The latest version of Windows looks almost nothing like the version you’re probably running now. In fact, the new interface has more in common with the version of Windows found on the latest Windows smartphones.
The familiar Windows desktop, with its four-colour ‘Start’ button in the corner, has been (kind of) replaced with a new, contemporary-looking grid of ‘live tiles’ which dynamically update with information about your emails, calendar appointments and friends’ social network site status updates, to name but a few of the areas covered.
The presentation has clearly been designed with touchscreen displays in mind, as the tiles can be be tapped and swiped from side to side. But you can still use a traditional keyboard and mouse to navigate the tiles, which are customisable.
When you tap or click on one of these tiles, the ‘app’ will open and fill the whole screen – unless it’s a program written for older an version of Windows – in which case it’ll open in an environment which looks a lot more like older versions of Windows.
These two environments are known as Metro (the live tiles) and Desktop (the more traditional Windows style) and you can switch between the two. But there’s still no ‘Start’ button on the Desktop environment, so you’ll still have to switch to Metro to launch apps – which may take some getting used to.
This is a big overhaul for Windows, but Microsoft says Windows 8 is faster, more fluid and more secure than its predecessors.
Until the end of January 2013, Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows XP SP3 customers can download an upgrade to Windows 8 Pro for just £24.99, which is an incredibly low price considering that Windows 7 launched for more than £100.
If you upgrade from Windows 7, you’ll have the option to move all your files, settings and software across with a couple of clicks. If you’re running anything older than Windows 7, however, you’ll need to manually reinstall everything after upgrading.
If you recently bought a new PC (after June 2 this year) there’s also an offer to upgrade for £14.99, details here.
All told, there are four versions of Windows 8. There’s the standard version, Windows 8 Pro, Windows 8 Enterprise (for businesses) and Windows RT for tablets, which won’t run programs like Photoshop or iTunes.
And speaking of tablets…
Microsoft’s new £399 tablet computer, Surface, is its attempt to take on the 100-million selling iPad, which has so boosted the fortunes of Apple.
Surface is a touchscreen device boasting a 10.6 inch HD display, a tough ‘VaporMg’ casing with a clever collapsible kick-stand for upright use, front and rear cameras and, unlike Apple devices, ports for SD cards, HDMI output and USB connectivity.
Like the iPad, Surface has a magnetically attachable screen cover – but unlike Apple’s SmartCover which is just a piece of leather, the Touch Cover has a built-in, pressure sensitive keyboard which is just 3.25mm thick.
It’ll cost you £99.99 extra on top of the price of the tablet, but could be very useful if you plan on using Surface for word processing or other programs where you’ll be doing a lot of typing.
On the subject of programs, the currently available version of Surface runs Windows RT – the mobile version of Windows 8 – which means you’ll only be able to runs apps built for it.
Out of the box you’ll get the Office 2013 RT Preview, which includes Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote. You’ll be able to download apps, games, music and video using the Windows Store app.
There is a more powerful version on the way which will run Windows 8 Pro (more on that here) but it’ll be more expensive, thicker and heavier.
Can it beat the iPad?
At £399 for the 32GB version (without a Touch Cover), Microsoft aren’t under-cutting Apple on price as that’s what you’d pay for a new, 16GB wifi only iPad 4.
You get a bigger screen with Surface, but at a lower resolution than the iPad. Surface will likely have more RAM than the iPad at 2GB, but there are no 3G or 4G versions of the Surface.
As you can only run Windows Store apps on Surface RT, there will be a gulf between what’s available on Microsoft’s new tablet and what you can get from Apple’s App Store, which has been around longer and built up an unrivalled library.
But Surface has USB connectivity, expandable storage with its SD card port and HDMI output – all features absent from the iPad, despite requests from its fans.
For some, the ability to use programs like Word and Excel on a tablet (with the optional cover/keyboard: Co-board? Key-vor?) could give Surface the edge over the iPad – but you still won’t be able to use programs built for Windows such as Photoshop or iTunes, at least until the heavier-duty Surface comes along.
One thing’s for sure, Microsoft is going in a bold new direction in its attempts to take on Apple. Only time will tell if it pays off.
Please note: Any rates or deals mentioned in this article were available at the time of writing.