Under the Surface 

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The first thing people will probably notice about Microsoft's line of Surface tablets is the price, which is cheaper than the iPad 3 at $499 for the 32GB model. Keep in mind that's $499 for an unproven piece of hardware, using an unproven operating system that lacks iPad's retina display, battery life, and, most importantly, all those tens of thousands of apps currently available in the iTunes store. Also keep in mind that $500 can buy you a pretty good laptop/ultrabook these days, including an extra battery if that's your rationale for going tablet.

My principal disappointment has to do with the fact that all the demo models showed the Surface connected to a protective cover that doubles as a keyboard, but it turns out the cover is extra — $100 if you get it with purchase, or $120 to $130 extra if you buy after the fact. That's about $30 more than a similar keyboard/cover combo for the iPad.

Considering that a keyboard is a must-have for the Surface (it will come with scaled down versions of Office programs to attract productivity and enterprise users), you're looking at $599 out of the box — just $20 less than the 32GB iPad 3.

Keep in mind that's also the price of the Windows RT version, which is itself a scaled down version of Windows 8 that's been optimized for tablets and phones. The price for the Windows 8 Pro tablet has not been released yet, but will come with a full version of Windows 8 and start out with 64GB of memory.

Despite the tablet's luxury price, economists at Morgan Stanley are predicting that the Surface will sell about three million units by the end of 2012 and nine million in 2013, cutting into tablet sales by Apple, Samsung and other players.

More competition in the tablet market can only be a good thing, although my heart bleeds for all the software developers that are going to be up to their eyeballs in different developer kits and system specs, and will forced to release the same apps and software for two different aspect ratios, dozens of different resolutions and a variety of different programming languages.

There are a lot of other details that are slowing coming together for Microsoft, and so far I've liked what I've seen. If you're a Hotmail user, you probably noticed the upgrade to the "Outlook" mail service (www.outlook.com) in August, Microsoft's belated attempt to rival Gmail. I have to say they've done a pretty good job — it's clean looking, all of the buttons your need are easier to find and it integrates incredibly well with the new calendar and my Windows 8 Consumer Preview interface. They even went into my Facebook account (I use the two services together) and put birthdays for everyone I know on the calendar (a feature I could turn off by checking a box).

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