With just a few days notice, Microsoft called journalists to an impromptu press conference in Hollywood last night to reveal their latest plan for pushing Windows 8. Turns out that they're developing their own brand range of tablets, using their existing name for touch sensitive screens, Surface . That it came as more or less a surprise (barring a lot of speculation over the last two days) is a feat almost as impressive as the announcement itself.
There'll be two tablets initially. The Surface is an ARM-based Win RT model which will compete with existing Android tablets and the iPad. The second device, Surface Pro, is more interesting from our point of view since it will have an Intel Core processor on board and therefore be compatible with some PC games.
The significance, of course, is that Microsoft is going to be making their own brand of PCs for the first time ever. But what does that mean?
Microsoft haven't released much in the way of specs for each tablet yet, barring the list reproduced below, and there's no sign of pricing – which will obviously be critical. It did show off a couple of rather funky looking takes on the iPad smart case, with keyboards built into the lid.
It's worth pointing out that Microsoft isn't the first to announce a Windows 8 tablet with Core processor inside – ASUS, Acer and Lenovo have all been demoing similar devices for the best part of six months now.
From a PC gaming perspective, obviously even the highest specced tablet isn't going to run much beyond old games in low resolution well, since Intel's graphics aren't up to scratch. But it is a genuine alternative to an Ultrabook, say, as a second machine with some lightweight gaming ability. Plus, this launch isn't really the important one – two or three generations down the line and CPU/GPU hybrids are going to be much more impressive than they are now.
Judging by the reaction of those at the event, the Surface duo look like they should be a success for Microsoft. The sceptic in me, never far away, can't help as seeing it confirm some of our worst fears about Windows 8. Now Microsoft have a vested interest in tablet manufacture, they can't afford to make another Zune – it signifies them becoming that bit more heavily committed to competing in the tablet space, and potentially that bit less interested in investing in desktop apps and games.
I have no problem with the tablet per se – my ASUS Transformer Prime is the best gadget I've ever bought, and is much the same thing. But at the same time I'm looking at the MacBook Pro with Retina screen in front of me which I'm currently reviewing for another publication. I can't help thinking that while Microsoft is playing catchup in consumer toys, Apple is outflanking it on the serious work and graphics side too. Diablo III on that thing looks amazing and runs really smoothly – because at that resolution you simply don't need anti-aliasing any more.
What do you think – is Surface a handy second device for lightweight gaming and compatibility with your desktop PC, or is it a harbinger of the end times which leaves us praying that the mythical Valve box will turn out to be real?