Microsoft has officially entered the tablet market, launching a pair of own-brand devices based around the upcoming Windows 8 and Windows RT operating systems.

Unveiled at a Hollywood press event late last night, the move is a major shift for Microsoft: excluding its Xbox and Xbox 360 consoles and a popular side-line in keyboards, mice and gaming controllers, the company has eschewed the hardware market in favour of making obscene profits on software. That's always been the case for Microsoft: back when it sold QDOS, rebadged as MS-DOS, to IBM, Microsoft made sure to negotiate the right to sell the fledgling operating system to other manufacturers - a deal which set Microsoft on the road to becoming one of the biggest companies of the modern age.

Under the leadership of Steve Ballmer now, Microsoft is clearly taking a different tack. Having seen the phenomenal success of Apple's iPad tablet - a device on which the fruit-themed company controls both the hardware and software - Microsoft wants a slice of the pie, and is hoping its Surface project will provide just that.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of Microsoft's announcement, some clarification: Surface was once Microsoft Research's project to combine projectors with infra-red sensors to create a touch-sensitive table. The hardware work would later be farmed out to Samsung, who took the concept and reimagined it as a touch-screen liquid-crystal display on legs while retaining the central concept of an integrated multi-touch user interface with RFID connectivity.

This Microsoft Surface is not that Microsoft Surface: the multi-touch table effort has since been rebranded PixelSense, while the Surface trademark is being co-opted for use in Microsoft's new tablet computing venture.

Microsoft's plan for this Surface brand is to launch a pair of tablets, externally similar but differentiated under the hood in both hardware and software. The first device, Surface for Windows RT, packs an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor and a copy of Microsoft's Windows RT operating system; the second, Surface for Windows 8 Pro, swaps the ARM-based Tegra chip for an Intel x86 version and drops Windows RT for the full-fat Windows 8 Pro.

Both models feature a clever metal casing constructed using a mechanism called VaporMG. Magnesium alloy-based, the system allows the casing to be as thin as 0.65mm in places while retaining its strength. The case also includes a kickstand in the rear, used to prop the device up when used on a table - and it's in this latter mode that a clever invention comes to the fore: the Touch Cover.

Borrowing heavily from Apple's magnet-lined Smart Cover, the Touch Cover is designed to provide protection for the 10.6" multi-touch display when not in use - but also doubles as a text-entry device. With the kickstand engaged and the cover laid out in front of the tablet, the 3mm Touch Cover provides a trackpad-style area along with a full QWERTY keyboard. For those who prefer tactile feedback, a Type Cover is to be made available as an optional upgrade. Thicker at 5mm, the Type Cover adds moving keys to the Touch Cover's Sinclair ZX81-style touch-sensitive surface. Additionally, the Surface for Windows 8 Pro model includes a stylus with palm-insensitive pen input support.

The extra features - and significantly larger battery - of the Windows 8 Pro Surface model mean an increase in size: while both editions have a 10.6" display, the Surface for Windows 8 Pro measures 13.5mm thick to the Surface for Windows RT's 9.3mm and weighs 903g to 676g. The storage capacity of the Windows RT model is to max out at 64GB, while the Windows 8 Pro version will hit 128GB.

UK pricing and availability on the Surface tablets has yet to be confirmed.

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