Microsoft joins the tablet market with Surface.

Photo: Reuters

Without the ability to run desktop applications, why would I want Microsoft's Surface RT over an Apple or Android tablet?

The Windows 8 circus rolled into town today, with new desktops, notebooks and tablets unleashed. Hardware partners such as Acer, Asus, Dell and Toshiba are all coming to the party, offering touchscreen computers to make the most of the new Modern UI touch-friendly interface.

Why would I want to spend $559 on an ARM-based Windows tablet which can't actually run Windows applications? 

Plenty has already been written about Windows 8 and the new touch-friendly Modern UI. I can see its appeal for play, if not for work, but Windows 8 is certainly going to present a steep learning curve for some. What's of more interest today is the official unveiling of Microsoft's own Surface tablets -- a strategy which is likely to cause tension with the hardware partners who are also selling tablets running Windows 8.

Microsoft is offering two tablet models; the Surface RT and Surface Pro. The AU$559 Surface RT is already available for order. Before you hand over your cash you need to appreciate that it can't run standard Windows desktop applications. The Surface RT only runs the tile-based Modern UI interface (pictured above) and tablet-style apps which are designed to work with it. In that way the Surface RT is like an iPad or Android tablet, as opposed to a desktop computer running Windows, Mac OS or Linux.

Meanwhile the more expensive Surface Pro will let you sweep aside the Modern UI interface and access the traditional Windows 8 desktop for when you want to run a desktop application. This is more like the previous Windows tablets, except you've got the advantage of falling back to Modern UI for the times when a tablet-style interface better suits your needs.

We don't have exact pricing and availability on the Intel-based Surface Pro, but don't expect to see it before Christmas. You can however already buy third-party Windows 8 tablets which offer both Modern UI and the traditional desktop -- such as the slick $899 Acer W510 notebook with its removable keyboard which I got my hands on last week.

So here's the question -- why would I want to spend $559 on an ARM-based Windows tablet which can't actually run Windows applications? If I don't care about legacy desktop applications then, for the same price as the Surface RT or considerably less, I could buy an Apple or Android tablet with access to broader app stores and wider ecosystems of accessories.

UPDATE: For some people Surface RT's killer feature will be pre-installed touch-friendly versions of Office 2013 apps such as Outlook, Word, Excel, Powerpoint and OneNote. Originally I didn't mention this as a key advantage, as Apple and Android users have Office alternatives at their disposal. But native versions of these Microsoft apps, along with USB and micro-SD slots for moving files around, could certainly meet some people's needs better than an iOS and Android gadget. Students come to mind.

It really depends on which features of these applications you rely on and whether you're satisfied with the Modern UI versions as opposed to the full desktop versions. If you're an Apple or Android user it's possible you're already using the iCloud and Google office-like ecosystems, but if you're coming into the tablet space from a Windows perspective then Office on the Surface RT might be right for you. You obviously need to weigh this up against the mobile apps and services you're missing out on by opting for Windows RT rather than iOS or Android. 

I'm not saying the Surface RT is junk, I'm just saying that Microsoft will have a tough time convincing us we need something like this when there are such impressive Apple and Android alternatives. To me the Surface Pro makes more sense, because then you've got the best of both worlds -- just like I would jump at an iPad which also let me run Mac OS.

The Surface Pro will probably set you back at least $1000, making it more of a competitor to Ultrabooks than to tablets. I can see why Microsoft wants to get the Surface into the low-end market to compete with Apple and Android, but I just don't see why anyone would want unless they're deliberately shunning both Apple and Android. Such Microsoft fanboys are out there -- sorry Sheeds, no disrespect mate -- but I couldn't see your average punter ignoring both the iPad and its Android counterparts in favour of the fledgling Surface RT.

Do you have your eye on the Surface RT? What's the appeal over Apple or Android?

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