For months, I’ve been trying to figure out why Microsoft was so gung-ho about Windows 8. I remember someone telling me previously that they thought Windows 8 was like a beauty pageant contestant who was pretty on the outside, but not easy to talk with.

Then at the product launch for Windows 8 and Microsoft Surface, Steven Sinofsky, president of Windows and Windows Live at Microsoft Corp., called Surface the perfect stage for Windows 8. It clicked—when the two are used together, they shine.

Surface, Microsoft’s new tablet, is lightweight and durable. How durable? At the launch, Panos Panay, the general manager of the Surface team, dropped the device from a standing position onto the stage. Panay said his team had dropped it 72 different ways—and that it always stayed intact.

While I’m not keen on trying this myself, it’s still good to know that it was built to withstand the inevitable drop.

What is Surface?

You might remember that Microsoft had already branded an earlier product Surface. That Surface cost more than $8,000 and was an LED table of sorts—users would gather round, share content or manipulate objects through touch. This product is now called PixelSense and the name Surface was repurposed.

There are two versions of the tablet: Surface RT and Surface Pro. Surface RT was released on Oct. 26, and is the version I purchased and am using for this review. The Surface Pro is scheduled to be released in early 2013. Microsoft hasn’t officially said what the RT actually stands for so we’ll have to use our imagination: real time, run time, remarkable tablet … your guess is as good as mine.

Surface RT runs an operating system called Windows RT, a scaled-down version of Windows 8. It runs on an ARM processor, which is the same as smartphone technology.

That being said, it’s more capable than a smartphone because it runs Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 RT Preview (Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote), has a USB 2.0 port, and comes with either 32 or 64 gigabytes of storage capacity. It has a 10.6-inch display with a 1366 x 768 resolution. It’s light—it weighs in at 1.5 pounds and has a 31.5 watt-hour battery that will last around 8 hours based on your activity. Note, however, that the Surface RT will only run applications designed for Windows 8, which are available for download from the Microsoft online store. For businesses, this means legacy software needed on a day-to-day basis will not run on Surface RT. Pricing for Surface RT starts from $499 with the 32 gigabytes of storage.

Surface Pro will run Windows 8 Pro, support USB 3.0 and HDMI interfaces, and offer 64 or 128 gigabytes of storage space, which can be expanded with a MicroSDXC card. The Pro model is based on an Intel Core i5, so it will run conventional applications capable of running on Windows 8, as well as the new style applications. Microsoft states that the display resolution for the Surface Pro will be high-definition, with a 10.6-inch display. Thickness for the Surface Pro is 0.53 inches, compared with the RT’s 0.37 inches, and will weigh under 2 pounds.

This Pro version tablet may be more comparable to an ultrabook than a consumer tablet and because of the ability to run conventional applications, may be the practical choice for firms. Surface Pro hasn’t been released yet so no announcement about price or final details has been released.

Getting around

Anyone with a smartphone, Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy or other device will be familiar with finger swiping. This technique is also used with Surface. Swipe from one side to another to switch between open windows. Click the Windows key to toggle between the last and current window. Place two or more fingers on the screen and then move your fingers close together to shrink the display; drag your fingers outward to enlarge the icons and return to normal view.

Position your finger on the far right corner and swipe to the left to display charms (icons that help you control settings), such as Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings that will help you configure your Surface and applications. Alternately, simultaneously press the Windows key and the “i” key to expand the Settings pane. Click on an application tile and drag downward to display the taskbar where you can unpin, uninstall or change the tile size between large and small.

There are elements to the Surface that are nothing short of genius. It’s as if the engineers at Microsoft compiled a list of what was good and bad about comparable devices and incorporated them into the Surface.

For instance, one of the first things everyone does when they purchase an iPad is buy a case and possibly a keyboard. This is unnecessary with the Surface if you purchase the option for a Type Cover, which is a snap-on keyboard and protective cover that enhances working with the tablet. Type Cover is available in five colors: black, white, magenta, cyan and red.

Easy keyboard

With it you get a keyboard that is light, easy to use and provides flat, pressure-sensitive keys that will accommodate adult-sized hands. It’s unsettling how easy it is to attach the keyboard. Just place the device near where the keyboard should connect and it automatically snaps into place.

Another noteworthy feature is the kickstand, which folds out of the back of the Surface and props the device up. This is useful if you are reviewing a document or want to sit and watch a movie. When you push the kickstand in, it disappears into the back of the Surface.

Being able to run Office 2013 is also a big selling point for Surface. Most likely you won’t want to create many documents from scratch on the device; however, having the ability to open, view, and edit a Word, Excel, PowerPoint or OneNote file provides an undeniable advantage that is available, even on the Surface RT tablet. Office 2013 on the Surface looks the same, or at least very similar, to what you would expect on the desktop version.

Surface has two built-in cameras. The front LifeCam is useful for live chats, while the rear facing LifeCam angles to 22 degrees. This allows you to extend the kickstand, put the Surface down and then film an entire room at your next event.

If you have a Windows Live account, you can synchronize your data as well as often used files, such as templates, so they are always available. You can also have more than one account use the same device, which is extremely useful for families sharing the tablet.

Needs improvement

Setup of the Surface RT is fairly easy, but there were some things that I did not find intuitive. For instance, the charms were not appearing when I swiped my finger from right to left and I would not have known that the keyboard combination to activate them is “Windows + i” had someone not posted the information online. There is no user manual, and because the device was just released, there isn’t much technical expertise currently available in the user community.

Fingerprints and smudges already cover my screen and I can’t run applications not purchased from the Windows store on the Surface RT device. For that I’ll need to wait and purchase the Surface Pro.

There is currently no 3G or 4G wireless service available with Surface. Instead, you have to wait until you can connect to Wi-Fi or use the workaround of connecting to the Internet through a smartphone hot spot. Hopefully that will become available soon or at minimum with the Surface Pro.

But having the kickstand, cover, the ability to use Microsoft Office, dual video cameras and an amazing keyboard make this a compelling device. While many business users may opt to wait for Surface Pro, the Surface RT is a strong entry for Microsoft into a new and profitable market. I’ve seen the future and I like it.